Bird vs. Elephant

I don’t think it’s any surprise to anyone that social media in general has issues, and Twitter has been roundly castigated lately for its stance on third-party clients and Jack’s tone deafness in general.1 The answer for some people is Mastodon, which describes itself as “social networking, back in your hands”.

I joined Mastodon in April 2018, on mstdn.jp but didn’t do much with it until more recently. After discovering that one of my favorite podcasts, Backspace.fm, had its own instance called mstdn.guru, I joined that in May. Still, I mainly used as much to parse posts from people written in Japanese as 漢字 reading practice as to interact with podcasters and their listeners.

Then, of course, during the summer the anti-Twitter sentiment reached a peak amongst geeks when third-party clients lost capabilities such as notifications and streaming timelines. More Mastodon instances sprung up and the guys at Panic here in Portland spun up pdx.social, a request-only instance for people who live in the area. I requested membership and joined in August.

I’m not going to lie — Mastodon was a breath of fresh air at first, free from a lot of the politics and random idiots that just seem to pervade established social networks like ticks on a deer, but for me personally, that feeling didn’t last. I soon encountered some of the same conflicting cultures that ruined the fun of App.NET and basically any fledgling social network trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.

The newbies started praising Mastodon and comparing it to the aforementioned App.NET (yes — it’s similar in the way that all social networks are similar, nothing more) and congratulating themselves for not being on Twitter, while the oldbies posted more and more unwelcoming screeds about using CW (content warning) and generally not trashing the place.

I completely understand the desire to maintain a community atmosphere. I also dislike it when encouragement to do so is done in a hostile and commanding manner. I also have some issues with CW as practiced by many people on Mastodon.

Basically CW is a built-in feature of Mastodon that lets a poster flag something as CW and (depending on the reader’s web or app settings) will hide it from readers by default. Then the reader can decide if they want to go down the rabbit hole of something they may not care about or that might be upsetting to them. Obviously it’s best used with a warning about what the contents are related to, which Mastodon lets you do.

It sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t agree with the concept of being able to keep from flooding people with stuff they may really not want to see? No one! Except… it’s really becoming useless in my view.

I finally had enough when I saw a few people tootsplaining (yes, posts on Mastodon are called toots, don’t ask) to others that they should use CW for posts about food. I get it. People have eating disorders, and there’s nothing funny or trivial about that. It’s a serious problem that wrecks a lot of lives, and a lot of it (if not all) is due to body image problems based on how we judge the bodies of other people who we have no right to judge about anything. I do understand that.

My issue with it is that there is almost no topic under the sun that doesn’t cause someone grief or depression or remind them that other people can enjoy or talk about an aspect of live that alienates or hurts them. Some people can’t read a post of yours about your kids because they can’t have kids or a child of theirs died. You can’t talk about skin cancer (which I’ve had, and I find decidedly unfunny) without ruining someone’s day. There are people who those are seriously painful topics for. But are they CW worthy? That’s in the eye of the beholder. And that’s my biggest problem with CW: it’s subjective and difficult, but people who have specific topics they want CW used for think it’s objective and have no tolerance for anyone who disagrees on a given topic.

Look, I’m not going to post a content warning if I tweet about a restaurant I found or want to post a photo of some choice nigiri sushi. I’m just not, ok? We are surrounded by food on a daily basis, for better and worse, and the entire country of the United States is an advertisement for what happens when you don’t show restraint in eating. A picture of my lunch is not the problem. People have to eat food to live, people enjoy making that food as artfully and with as much variety as possible, and people do and will talk about it all the time. A tweet or toot about what’s on the grill isn’t where our food problem lies in this country.

I would have a lot more sympathy for pro-CW people if they had more understanding of the nuanced nature of the discussion in general. It is a slippery slope when you start thinking about all the topics that could possibly upset someone, especially since people choose to follow YOU on social media. It’s not like you’re signing people up and dumping your thoughts on them. They can unfollow you, mute or block you, or mute keywords.

Yes, retweets and retoots complicate this. But then you’re getting into censoring what the people you do follow read and re-tweet/toot. Is it your place to tell them what they can talk about? It’s not that simple. It’s easy to get mad at someone for stuff in their timeline you don’t like, but when someone comes to you and asks you to excise a topic you’re into, what’s your reaction?

I’m not a fan of tweetsplaining or tootsplaining. I do and will block people who mistake my accounts as request-friendly. I didn’t set up my social media accounts to find out what their interests are and write about those things.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, people are still popping in, announcing how little they use social media and how, yep, they were right, it’s still a hell stew. Congratulations, you’ve made the silly mistake of thinking you’re the only person wise enough or smart enough or impartial enough to notice that social media and the internet in general have serious problems. Consider yourself muted.

This next paragraph or two will sound annoyingly preachy, so bear with me, because I’m aiming this squarely at myself also.

Social media only improves when we quit yammering about how terrible it is, and how smart we are to notice, on the same platform that we’re whining about. I’ve done it on Twitter, and I’ve done it on Mastodon too. I’m guilty. But I’m going to quit it.

The answer isn’t to point out the glaringly obvious to people and make them hate reading your thoughts even more than they do already. It’s to either disengage, if that’s what you really believe in, or to switch topics to other things that interest you. You’ll notice I said “interest YOU” there, because it’s your timeline. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to follow you.

I think I’m mostly done with English-speaking Mastodon for awhile. Maybe it’s just my moderate skills at reading Japanese, but I don’t see the CW debates on the Japanese instances. I think Japanese are a lot better at just getting on with talking about something other than social media itself. I’ve yet to find an American capable of that.

As for Twitter, I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing lately and people can follow me or not. I’m ok with either choice.


  1. I wish techies cared as much about the general problems with twitter as they do about third-party clients, to be honest.