Mastodon and Commercial Speech

December 9, 2022

Why I’ve been liking Mastodon.

I’ve been wondering why Mastodon feels right.

It can be slow and clunky. I’ve seen a few outages but can’t recall witnessing one with Twitter. I don’t have many followers, don’t personally know anyone I’ve chosen to follow, and I don’t see nearly as much in my stream. But I participate when I want to, I post things without overthinking them, and I like it.

At first I thought the draw was a smaller and more manageable world. I’m an outgoing introvert that warms to a handful of people and avoids crowds, looking for meaningful engagement more than attention. I’m purely following my interest again and enjoying the tiny stream of posts I’m growing. But that isn’t what makes Mastodon feel right.

Some of the appeal is that Mastodon is organized more like the real world, where we each have a local community (individual Mastodon server) and can show up in broader ones (via federation).

In every place I’ve lived, there seem to be people that live mainly in the physical neighborhood: the chatty neighbors, the gardeners, the kids shooting around the block on wheeled devices, the everyday, all-weather walkers. There are also those—usually younger—for whom the neighborhood is more of an occasional Instagram backdrop. Mastodon’s obviously an online-only affair, but it’s organized into individual communities that collectively form a larger one. You can see what people on your local server are posting just as easily as you can view the firehose of federated posts or scroll your home feed of posts from those you’ve chosen to follow. Every user can choose where they live and move to a different neighbhorhood whenever they want. Like my physical neighbors, they can spend their time in whatever scope of community they prefer. This contributes to my positive feelings about Mastodon, but it’s more than that.

Most of what I see on Mastodon is personal: people sharing things, trying to land jokes, having brief conversations. Refreshingly absent is self-promotion, posturing, and snarky quote tweets. People will always have things to promote and egos to feed, but I think the platform has a critical underlying role.

And I’m touchy about online platforms.

Internet-wise, I’m unapologetically transient. I made a Facebook account back when it required an educational email address, but deleted it many years ago. I’ve never had an Instagram or TikTok account. My long-dormant Flickr account is finally gone. Behind the scenes I’ve replaced Dropbox1 and Google Apps with file syncing and email services that prioritize privacy. I deleted my Twitter account recently and only wandered into Mastodon later when I was looking into microblogging. I reviewed just about every one of my Amazon purchases at one point, complete with photos, and wrote a decent number of Yelp reviews—all of which I deleted.

My only regret in all that was not saving a contemplative review of a “deluxe” staple remover, which was one of my best and most absurd.

I’ve always had a general unease about these services, a low-level nagging that something is wrong. Most others don’t seem to share this reluctance or anxiety, and here I am thinking about it again.

The problem with expression on for-profit platforms is that it’s ultimately commercial speech.

You can think of it as personal speech, just exchanging thoughts and messages that are yours, but in every case—as we’ve heard repeatedly—you’re the product. You’re feeding the content machine that sells ads or subscriptions or products that benefit someone else who’s inclined to get more out of you. More attention, more engagement, more effort creating content to win positive reinforcement. It always felt that way to me; a pressure to write more reviews, grow an audience, achieve some level of prestige. I don’t have a problem with any of these things, I have a problem feeding the content machine to help sell ads or support the company’s goals.

Maybe you don’t have a problem with this. The benefit outweighs whatever issues you may see or ignore. I have a choice to support Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, and for me it’s an easy choice. It’s also easy for me to get behind Tim Cook and products that (mostly) represent careful design and support personal health and privacy rather than exploit personal information for profit. Obviously these people don’t need my money or attention, I just want to be deliberate about where I spend my finite amount of resources and time.

I’d rather support someone that’s generously running a Mastodon server for strangers than a massive company looking to monitize human interaction and profit from nudges to peoples’ behavior.

I’d rather my words be personal. Mine. For your consideration, disregard, enjoyment, or whatever they mean to you. But never to exploit your attention, or persuade you that you need someone else’s product or service that I’m not personally eager to tell you about. Certainly never to pull your attention into a platform that will use it for profit.

There’s a place for promotion and commercial speech, but not in my personal interactions. That personal space is not for sale.

Mastodon is a place organized by developers and volunteers for personal speech. That’s important.

Footnotes

  1. Dropbox doesn’t mine personal information like Google, it just added way too many upsell attempts to what was once the perfect syncing product.