So it’s been an exciting week on the Internet. Twitter found out that saying “yeah, so whacha gonna DO about it?” to the world’s richest man might not have been the greatest plan, and the site has been experiencing some … challenges ever since. An awful lot of people seem to be looking for somewhere else to go that fills the same role, and I keep seeing Mastodon kicked around as the Next Big Thing so I naturally did some research.
To be clear: I’m not particularly worried about the future of Twitter, and if the site inexplicably went down tomorrow I would only REALLY miss the English Word of the Day twitter account and like two or three other cool people I follow.
Plus a whole lot of Genshin Impact fan art of various levels of work safeness.
But to get back to my original point, I started looking into this Mastodon thing and it instantly snapped me back to the person I was like 30 years ago, because it’s like FidoNet all over again.
If you weren’t online 30 years ago, or maybe not even alive 30 years ago, FidoNet was this big, mostly non-commercial network of computer bulletin board systems. Like, imagine that you really liked parrots and you wanted to devote a computer and a phone line to running a program that that let people call in and talk to each other about parrots and download parrot pictures and maybe play parrot-centric games. FidoNet would let your system communicate with OTHER systems run by parrot fans, so people on your parrot site could talk to people all across the world without paying long distance bills.
OK, yeah, one more thing from the dark ages of history. It used to cost money to make phone calls – or computer modem connections – to anywhere outside of your immediate geographical area. So instead of every parrot fancier in town making multiple long-distance calls to all the different parrot fan sites, your local parrot Uber-fan would shoulder the costs of batching up all of your conversations and exchanging them with all of the other sites.
Anyway, FidoNet was how the individual systems, which were called Nodes, could communicate with each other, and the conversations about parrots, or cars, or movies, were sent around on a system called Echo Mail. The idea was that countries were split up into smaller and then larger geographic areas and messages were routed in a way that was the least cost. It would sometimes take days for your messages to reach all of the other parrot fans throughout the world, and their replies might take days to come back.
In theory, FidoNet had two social rules and one technical rule. The technical rule was that for an hour every night your system had to be closed to users and open for FidoNet communications, and the social rules were “Do not be excessively annoying, and do not be excessively annoyed”.
In practice, there were a ton of other rules and a whole mess of politics.
For example: because Echo Mail was expensive to run, systems would typically all pay money to ONE guy who would handle the process of collecting and distributing all Echo Mail from and to a particular geographical area. That guy got to pick what Echoes, or discussion topics, he would forward. Our local Echo Mail host was pretty famous for not liking certain topics (anime among them), so he simply wouldn’t host offending Echoes. Also, if it turned out that he thought you were forwarding messages to a system that wasn’t paying HIM, he would simply cut you off the network. In that case, your option was to try to find another source for Echo Mail and incur the network charges yourself.
Oh, and then he went through a messy divorce and left town, breaking Echo Mail for every system that had been paying him.
There’s a reason it used to be called “Fight-O-Net”.
Side note, because every system you used was literally Some Guy’s Computer, the person running the BBS had full access to everything on it. So if you were sending private mail to another user of the same system talking about what a tyrant the admin was, the admin was right there reading it. They could also see your passwords – this was before passwords were hashed, so they were typically just stored in plaintext – so if you used the same password on multiple sites you REALLY had to trust the admins.
So. Back to Mastodon. Where the admins can read your DMs, just like in the FidoNet days.
Every Mastodon instance is its own distinct thing and ALSO part of a larger network, like FidoNet Nodes and the FidoNet itself, and Mastodon admins are a lot like the BBS administrators of old. They have an interest in a topic, they are willing to spend money to host a system for people to talk about that topic, and their system can interface with all of the other systems.
And woo boy the drama is right there, just as strong or maybe stronger.
For example: there are a lot of legitimately awful sites on the internet, so there are some very well-intended blacklists to ensure that the users on the awful sites can’t interact with users on your site.
On the other hand, you – assuming you’re daft enough to set up your own Mastodon instance – may have your site wind up on one of these lists because, oh, you have one legitimately awful user, or maybe you have a user who just seems problematic or maybe because you yourself aren’t blocking the right sites. You can get off these blacklists, sure – just correct your behavior and grovel in the right ways, make sure you’re blocking the right sites and you’ll be back in the good graces of the community in no time. In the meantime, if you’re an individual parrot fan and not the admin, you probably have no idea why your feed just went dark.
So say you’re an admin and you have a guy that signs up to your instance at 2 AM and blasts racist nonsense to every other site he or she can find and you wake up at 8 AM to an inbox full of angry email and need to deal with the collective Karen that is the internet when it isn’t getting its way Right Now.
Or, heaven forbid, someone on your instance toots something that goes viral. Suddenly dealing with the server costs of 20,000 Boosts may put you into massive debt, because Mastodon doesn’t seem to have copied the hub and spoke model of FidoNet. Your system is responsible for sending that Boosted Toot out to every other instance that interacts with it via point-to-point connections, which are fast but oh-so-very inefficient.
From a user’s point of view, since the individual sites are largely run by hobbyists and nerds, you also run the very real risk of the Messy Divorce or maybe even the “You guys have ruined every bit of fun I once found in this, I’m pulling the plug” and suddenly all of your data poofs into the virtual ether.
So after educating myself on what the heck Mastodon was all about, I naturally went looking for drama. I confess, it was just a massive nostalgia hit at this point. It brought me right back to those late 80s/early 90s flame wars that seemed SO IMPORTANT at the time.
Honestly, this is the virtual equivalent of eating a lot of really greasy food. It may taste good in the moment, but you are going to regret it in a few hours.
Anyway, one particular complaint kept popping up over and over: To wit, there were a ton of people who had their own super nerdy, super niche space that was their haven, and they naturally wanted to make it easy for other Cool People to join this space.
And then the Cool People came, and some slightly less Cool People that they knew, and some generally entirely un-Cool People who wanted to get in on this thing that was suddenly Happening, and the original batch of Cool People suddenly feel that they’ve lost control of their space.
And man, if that don’t sound familiar.