Letting People In When You Don't Want To Let Anyone Down

This post is an about the odd social compact between mods and members on volunteer-driven social media. And hopefully how not to fuck it up. It could apply in lots of places but today I'm thinking about Mastodon servers, of which I'm a mod of one. It doesn't reflect the ethos of the server I'm on, it doesn't even reflect my approach to modding, as you can't do that too personally, if you want to keep your marbles.‌‌‌‌

Apart from my own exercise of writing, it would be cool if someone who finds mods and admins in the Fediverse to be oddly entrenched or change-resistant right now reads this and thinks "Ok, I still want the changes I want but I get it at least".

A Good Landing

If you can walk away from a landing, it's a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it's an outstanding landing. - Chuck Yeager

The first week of November 22 saw record sign-ups to Mastodon servers all over the world. With notable exceptions, you can assume this meant some principled hobbyists rapidly going from "oh cool" to "oh fuck". There were a lot of plates to keep spinning. Stop your server from falling over, make sure people understood the rules, suddenly you have to think about bans a lot more and you have to do it while an extra few thousand people are running around the site going "What the fuck is this nonsense?"

Some folks closed applications, some went to approval-only if they hadn't already. People battened down various hatches, managed to get funds from somewhere, or not. In general though, the whole thing has to be called a good landing if you ask me. The thing is still going. I know it hasn't always seemed that way to new community members, there are pain points, and from an outside perspective it can seem like the people running the place are turtling down. There's no welcome mat and there's a shortage of decent maps showing how to get around the place.

As it stands though, the airplane is not ready to take off again tomorrow, and your friendly neighbourhood server admins and mods are probably doing organisational work when they'd rather be doing something more fun and interesting to talk about. Luckily, as far as many of the "waves"of sign-ups go, the start of November was the most drastic event so there's breathing space, it should be fine. ‌‌

Volunteering for Values

Mastodon wouldn't be where it is if was simply "Twitter but Open Source". There are ethics underpinning the software design. There's a covenant that certain servers sign up to be listed on the official site.

No ads. No tracking. Software isn't running for the week to try and guess your sexual preferences. Virality is very subdued, the UI isn't going to start telling you about the post that's blowing up as soon as you open the page. There's some modest respect paid to discoverability im the Explore section but it's fairly barebones and doesn't compare favourably to the software that knows how or if you're going to vote next time. There are design decisions made for the prevention of abuse.

Rule 1 of the Mastodon Server Covenant

Active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia‌‌Users must have the confidence that they are joining a safe space, free from white supremacy, anti-semitism and transphobia of other platforms.

That's the baseline level of behaviour of how to run things. Not every server has to do it, but it's considered part of what it takes to be a representative Mastodon server.

On top of that, individual mods and admins add their server rules, a layer representing local values. These may be subtle enough relative to the above, and typically involve spelling out ways you might get kicked off this server in particular.

All this together can be considered to constitute the pillars of a safe space built from software and active moderation. Not every community member is going to take things that seriously, some will. Some will have been taught that if they don't take these things seriously, they will eventually have a bad time. Moderators and admins will have an efficacy for their community based on taking these things seriously.

When you become a mod under such circumstances, you're telling people "All this together is what I will do for you, this is important to me and I care about it, as I care about your online safety. I will stick to this unless there's a damn good reason not to." This is The Deal. It may shift but right now it's the thing that you think about when you think "Is this something I can stand over, and sacrifice time to?" And for members, and indeed, donors, it's the thing you trust mods to do. ‌‌


I was a mod in another community which, for editorial purposes, was eaten by a history dragon and erased from time, and only I have memories of it. This place had it's share of ups and downs and bin fires and moments where multiple members went "fuck this" and noped out and they were well within their rights and it was always a work in progress. Communities are always a work in progress, same as people. Moderation teams are possibly the biggest example of a work in progress in the whole soup. You learn shit the hard way, and sometimes the embarassing way. And you're a volunteer, with your own shit happening. Sanity dictates that this thing isn't always on the first five fingers of your responsibilities. Sometimes you come back from completing that big dirty bastard of a project in work, or your friend's wedding in Spain or something really difficult, and everything is still standing, but there's scorch marks on the walls. Some people you liked left, the regulars are unhappy, your fellow mods are trying to write some new shit to ensure that the thing won't happen again and you think "fuck, maybe if I'd been here" and you feel guilty. Guilty because someone was annoyed on a website which is an odd thing to explain to your partner when they're worried they've offended you somehow cus you're broody as bejaysus but look, if it was self-preservation we were good at we wouldn't be here. You wouldn't do it if you didn't care, and caring leaves you open to taking damage.

What's a big help is there's an ever-growing body of mod knowledge online. It's roots are in the pre-www days and you can learn from other people's experience even if you don't see the immediate similarities between the Heartbeat wiki and your herpatology mailing list.

The common thing is damage limitation. And really the full-time job of a mod, 99% of the instances where they switch from shitposter to bouncer, are about limiting damage. If you can't do it trust dies, the atmosphere sours, and the community you're half/quarter/not-at-all-embarassed to have sank this much time into can collapse. Your instincts develop and you DM other mods to say "did you see that new username" and they saw it too and you check for messages from that new profile again before you go asleep. The biggest pricks always like to pick the times their bullshit has a chance of staying up.

Why The Fuck Would We Want To Attract More People

Every signup is a risk. A chance that your unpaid emotional labour this week is going to be five hours instead of five minutes. You half-hope that pricks will be monumental pricks so you can drop the banhammer without feeling guilty. I should stress that most people are adults and can work within the confines of a community or decide that they don't wish to do so and cast their line of conversation elsewhere. It's the troll in the dungeon scenario that's always in the back of your mind though - someone who's here to fuck up your buzz.

That's a large part of why you don't see people putting out ads for whatever online community they're doing. Most of the ones who do spend money promoting it are just grifters with a webinar or some shit. Word of mouth keeps things at a managable trickle. Which is what you want unless you're on some kind of mission. When you have this cadence for new signups, it's easy for people to acclimatise because nearly everyone is established and can be copied.

Would You Like to Pretend to Kill a Dragon Though

I'm in many ways a late blooming nerd. There was a failed attempt to get some a serious attempt at Warhammer 40K going when I was in secondary school. A friend had some comics which piqued my curiosity but the tits in spandex thing was a bit mortifying, he did show me Preacher though, that registered and I started reading it in college. In my 30s I played my first game of Dungeons and Dragons and it became a thing that makes me happy. For a lot of people it's a viral hobby and you tell your mates about it down the pub and you're not trying to convert them as much as laughing at how you didn't see this one coming and bringing them in on the joke. Then you find people who are already on the hook and waiting for their first game. They've been playing CRPGs, they've been on those Youtubes looking at people talking like what they think a humanoid with a dragon's face would talk like.  They play a game or seven and soon they're spreading this hobby gospel. They might become a dungeon master and make homework for themselves.

There's two key points in this that relate to moderation and growth. The first is that the thing you're supporting is something that's good for you somehow. Good for you like herbal tea or good for you like exorcising demons. Or fighting monsters. The second is that the ideal new member is already fairly sure they're into this, they were just waiting for the opportunity, or the final push. With Mastodon servers that latter one has been really interesting - there's no prophet-follower shit going on, it's all followers. People who want to go to a particular place where there's a certain code of behaviour. Reading the rules before you apply is probably the single greatest piece of UX in Mastodon, certainly from a mod perspective. They combine that layer with what they've read about this stuff, they check the box, and they're in on The Deal. Mods and members enter into it as equals. Mods are members. They're not going to let somebody else talk all the shite, where's the fun in that.

Peace is Low-Entropy

Communities are evolving things and membership will change over time, and the buzz can change too, even from week to week. That's generally grand once the rules of engagement don't change, nobody is going to become alienated and wonder what's happened to the place all of a sudden. Rules can be refined and extended but in general, you don't remove safety features. Relative comfort is a product of such things. Even still people will wander off for various reasons, they'll change their habits, they'll find something similar but more their speed, they might even get a pain in their face with members who aren't breaking rules, but they find them hard going. There's no point panicking over any of that. If the thing is still the thing and someone goes off it, that's up to them.

However, while things are always changing to the extent that you have a rotating cast, a well-run community will settle into an equilibrium of conduct and behaviour. Over times there are less and less rule changes, and members learn more by taking their cues from each other, and sometimes giving each other the odd kick under the table, than they do from being pontificated to by mods.

People keep landing in time after time becuase they know what to expect. Not necessarily the same faces, but the same craic. To use the analogy of a pub, they know they can have a pint and natter on in peace, and there isn't some bore at the end of the bar who can't wait to tell you how politicial correctness has gone too far. There isn't a table of lads who might hop on ya for the laugh. At the same time it's a magic pub where people teleport in from all over the world, cus that's more fun and they're still sound.

Change the Rules, Change the Crowd

It's a perfectly normal thing to walk into a place and see what's missing, from your own perspective. And it's grand to talk about it, and to say that if things could be this way instead, we'd have these new advantages. Just becuase people are used to a thing doesn't mean it's actually optimal, it might just be what they're used to. New blood, new ideas, a chance to evaluate and see if people still like things as they are. Healthy discourse. Sure you'd be fucked without the discourse, like.

Fundamental changes can be considered. They can however introduce fundamental differences between community members, mods and admins, in various combinations. For some it will constitute going back on The Deal. Their response will be "Ok, you do what you want, but this isn't for me. There's things this will leave me open to that I don't want to be part of." That can range from bordeom to fear for one's online safety.

There have been conversations about changes to how Mastodon works, where those changes make a difference to how safe people are online. For example, importing the quote tweet feature that Twitter has. There's loads of discussion of this and while it's all very lively, and it might happen, there's an uncomfortable truth which doesn't get brought up as much as it should: if it comes in people will leave because they fear for their safety and mental wellbeing. We can talk all day long about the value of such features as it played out on other sites, but it's essentially a utilitarian argument. If a new feature means something good to ten people, is it worth losing that one person who stops logging in. When they're a vulnerable person who has lost a social outlet if it happens? I don't think anyone I've been disagreeing with wants that to happen. Arguments are made that the new version of this feature will be configurable and people can simply go into their account settings and opt out. I really don't like the idea of making people work to keep things how they like it.

There's a fair point I've seen made: don't let abusers and harassers on your platform and you don't need a system designed to corral them into more acceptable behaviour. That's grand but it leaves out another part of conversation - there's a low-level toxicity rife on Twitter which is often spread by people who are, on balance, the goodies. Dunking, dogpiling, all that shite. It might be great craic when it's happening to gobshites and bollockses but we all know what Twitter is like, one day you wake up and you're the gobshite and the bollocks rolled into one. By the standards of the goodies, and not the Illinois Nazis out of the Blues Brothers who we all agree can get to fuck. And even on the times where it's a baddie getting the slagging, do you want to see their horseshite in your timeline all day. These people will be kicked out good and quick on the average Mastodon server, you can report them and vigilante justice is not required.

This touches on a fundamental disconnect within the recently-expanded Mastodon community, and which makes a lot of the conversations about these things so dissatisfying. You can think of a bag of reasons to be here, of which people are brought here by one or more, I'll make some up now:

  • No interest in social media generally, but this seems nice
  • I'm interested in social media, but not commercial social media
  • I want privacy and not to be tracked and marketed at
  • I hate what commercial social media does to people, and how it makes them behave
  • Don't want to be on the same site as the worst people in the world
  • I want to feel safe somewhere
  • I'm following my audience, or potential audience, here
  • Just a horrible atmosphere on Twitter, Facebook or wherever, want to see if that can be avoided
  • I'd be on Twitter still only for the workers are being treated like shite and I'm not hanging around for it
  • For the gawk

They're all fine reasons really, but it's worth remembering when we get deep in theory that we're not all working off the same set of precepts. Some people join the thing and find it incomplete, and others find it damn near perfect. People who like things the way they are because they feel safe get accused, Holy Grail style, of having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. And every other accusation of hating freedom that's been bandied about for the past two months. That's a lot of rain on the "Yaay, we have validated non-commercial social media with inclusion and respect as a core principle" parade.

No matter what, change happens. Sometimes faster than other times, and it can be a good thing. What if the choice is between making a change that might possibly bring people who are currently fine with Twitter as it exists here, and not making that change because people who actually came here and liked the way it works will leave. Do we look after the people who are here, or fuck them up on the off-chance that five times as many people might replace them? Sorry, I have more and cooler friends now, and you're just going to toughen up. We're not a safe space any more, we're a radical space, and isn't that so much more exciting? Why can't you be more radical? Don't you want us to have big numbers? Hopefully nobody engaged in the broader conversation thinks that would be an acceptable attitude.

If mods and admins are generally people who had a problem with how Twitter worked to the extent that they hosted and ran something they thought was better, doing it as a hobby, how many of them should we expect to keep turning up, the more Mastodon turns into merely "Twitter but Open Source". Who wants to replace them and give up their time?

This is why you hear things like "it's always good to have more servers, the Fediverse supports a diversity of approaches, why not try running a server to your tastes". It can be perceived as gate-keeping, but in a lot of ways, people are saying "well, you could do that, but I don't think I'd be hanging around for it on my server". People are putting in loads of time to make things run a certain way, they're effectively promising people that it will continue to run a certain way, and if there are promise-breaking changes introduced, they're going to feel like shit. It can stop being the thing that's worth their time. Time to start that advanced screen-printing class instead. We're not paid to be here, we're doing it because we think it's worth doing. If it stops being worth doing for us, will those who like the changes run things instead? How much of their current engagements are they willing to sacrifice. Maybe loads, I dunno.

Crucially, improvements need to be a layer on top of existing systems that don't sacrifice things that people depend on.

Right now I'm seeing people sharing Gargron's post about maybe having Quote Posts cus it seems less of an issue to him now, and I think of the excitement of a kid whose ma said their mate can stay for dinner. "Ma says it's ok!". Gargron isn't all our ma though. People talk about "I think you'll find that it's very typical of open source that a benevolent dictator calls the shots and that's how all these things get made." This isn't the fucking Linux kernel though, is it? It is, quite literally, something that's never happened before. Thinking what's good enough for an open-source mp3 player is going to be good enough for the main access  point to a network of millions of people, who are sheltering from a variety of storms, is a few steps down the road towards tech-exceptionalist dogma – this is software, we just need software practices. And I'm a mod, I use the moderation tools. They're really empowering in a lot of ways but they leave something to be desired, especially when it comes to letting people know why they're being moderated and general comms around that. I'm also a dev, so I half-assume the team know these pain points better than I do, and are more keenly aware of how one-man-band mod affordances don't scale well when less folks are reading the manual. Where to find the time is the trick. Which is a long-winded way of seeing he's just a dude. If people hadn't been spinning up servers for the guts of the last decade based on extant principles, there wouldn't have been the migration we've had. It's possible that if this thing is going to last without schisms or a variety of server configs that would make a Rust player wince, he's going to need to learn how to delegate and how to broaden decision making somehow.

It's ours to lose right now. Please Christ don't make me have to start worrying about forks.