What I’ve Learned About Mastodon This Month

I am writing this in November 2022, during the great Flight From the Birdsite; I haven’t fled (yet) but decided it was wise to claim my own handle somewhere on Mastodon, one of the proposed alternatives (find me at @davidalexlamb@universeodon.com). My nature as a scholar led me to collect and organize a lot of links I found this month concerning my potential new social media home.

One of the first thing to understand about Mastodon before you even begin to start trying to use it is that it is “federated,” meaning there are a lot of different ‘instances’ (that is, what most people call ‘servers’) instead of one massive central one. This has a lot of implications for your experience. Content moderation practice, and kicking out problematic users, is entirely up to the local system administrators and their content moderation team (if they have one). So when someone talks about their experiences with the service, bear in mind that your mileage may vary depending on the instance you chose. For example:

  • You can follow people on other instances, but your choice does matter because of the Local timeline, which is just the people on your own instance. Some smaller instances cater to particular communities, so Local might be worth following in its entirety. For example, wandering.shop aims at the speculative fiction community (and hosts several writers I follow); universeodon.com wants to attract people ‘who view the universe through wonder.’
  • Your choice of instance needn’t be permanent; you can migrate. There are a lot of small instances in the fediverse.
  • Many instances purge media attachments after some time, which could be as short as a week. So don’t look at Mastodon as an archive. Archive.Org may be trying to set up something for this purpose, but that isn’t clear as of this writing. Your local instance may preserve local media longer than it preserves that from other instances.
  • Your instance could choose to block everything from some other instance it considers problematic – such as being a source of too many abusive posts. Or vice versa. This means you could lose access to people you’ve been following, through no fault of either of you (other than a forced “guilt by association” ruling for picking your particular instance).

Before you start, you should consider what Twitter user @rahaeli, one of the founding members of the LiveJournal Trust and Safety team (who knows more about the Internet than all but a small fraction of us) considers a bare minimum for signing up for a new service. She doesn’t currently think Mastodon meets these minimum standards, though that could depend on the instance you’re considering.

The first things to look at are a FAQ and five guides on joining and using Mastodon. There are also several things I discovered by reading other posts, which might be worth pointing out even if you’ve read the guides:

  • Mastodon is designed to resist posts going viral.
  • You can use debirdify to transport your follow and block lists from the birdsite via a CSV file.
  • Since you’re not flooded with ads, you can afford to follow more people and more hashtags than on some other social networks.
  • There are several mechanisms for dealing with unwanted content. Some things work differently from what you might be used to. For example, you can mute someone for minutes, hours, or days, instead of permanently (at least, from the web browser interface).
  • For accessibility reasons, to be kind to people who use screenreaders:
    • Put hashtags at the ends of posts instead of in the middle, so the reader doesn’t pronounce “hashtag” every time. I violated this rule on my introductory post, because I wanted to fit a lot into the 500 character limit, but I am trying to do better now.
    • Use ALT text for all your images. There is a bot that will remind you if you follow it: @PleaseCaption@botsin.space.
    • Use CamelCase for hashtags (that is, capitalize each word in a multi-word tag).
  • Sometimes people use the Content Warning (CW) mechanism as a Content Wrapper, to hide looong posts or those the writer expects have a limited audience.
  • Direct Messages on Mastodon aren’t private, and mentioning someone adds them to the conversation.

There is controversy about Content Warnings, in that some people from marginalized communities want to be able to express their experiences without having to hide them behind a CW, and others from the same communities want people to use CWs so they can choose when to deal with what is a constant issue in their lives. I have no insight into how to resolve this. Complicating this issue is that some un-marginalized people police CWs to protect their own fragility, which seems to me constitutes harassment. If somebody posts to a hashtag you follow with content you don’t like, you can mute or block them.

Running Your Own Instance

If you’re a techie, it might appear to be relatively easy to set up and run an instance. It may or may not be easy to set up (my tech skills have declined over the years, so it’s harder for me to judge), but it’s not easy to run, for socio-legal reasons rather than technical ones.

Most of the issues boil down to one thing: Content moderation, which is a lot more fraught than Some People think. You absolutely need to read Twitter user @rahaeli’s journal entry about legal liability for social media sites. A Mastodon mod with 5 years’ experience posted a guide to running a Mastodon instance that talks about some of the same issues. It’s not at all clear what fraction of instance admins are aware of all of this, but for several years Mastodon has had proposed workflow for DMCA takedowns, which is only one of many issues you need to be aware of.


So far I’m happy with Mastodon. The total lack of ‘promoted tweets’ and ads is refreshing, and the lack of Quote Tweet means I see a lot less expression of outrage over stuff I’d rather not see. Like most Twitter migrants, my collection of followers has collapsed, but I have plenty of friends to follow; my tolerance for volume is relatively low because I really, really want to read (or at least skim) every post. For example, I am currently following #WritingCommununity, which I couldn’t cope with on Twitter.

Lessons About Lovecraft

Last February I took a Writing The Other course on character arcs; I was ill at the time, and couldn’t deal with a live session, so in June I was slowly working through the videos amidst all the other pressures in my life for the previous three and a half months. Stant Litore put together a fascinating series that combined lessons from two of his books, Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget, and Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget, and unified the two by focusing on how elements of the world you build put pressures on your characters that influence the choices they make.

I reached the point in the Sunday morning lecture where Litore went on a slight tangent to talk about a short story by Jorge Borges that was at once an homage to and critique of H.P. Lovecraft, a very influential “father” of the cosmic horror genre. Almost all of Borges’ 4-page story hit the reader with classic Lovecraftian elements: a strange house, the viewpoint character fearfully but compulsively exploring it, finding furniture that wouldn’t suit a humanoid body, his growing fear as the strangeness increases, the terror when he hears sounds of the owner returning. In the last line, though, the protagonist chose to face the strangeness without closing his eyes. Litore’s telling was gripping, and made a strong point about the power of focusing on character choices in our writing.

But to me, it was equally powerful in understanding Lovecraft himself, which was probably part of Borges’ intent. A key element of cosmic horror is strangeness the mind cannot comprehend; Lovecraft’s characters usually die or go mad when exposed to creatures beyond time and space. People used to celebrate his contributions to the genre, but these days my writer acquaintances are more likely to recommend August Derleth or more modern writers for a specific reason: Lovecraft was intensely racist.

The lesson I took from this was that both his powerful stories and his racism stemmed from intense xenophobia, fear of the other. Cosmic strangeness for him led to horror because people significantly different from him were frightening. Borges pointed out that horror need not be the only reaction to the unfamiliar.

People sometimes use their writing to explore their own issues, their own traumas, their own fears. We can hope that the exercise might lead us to write powerful stories, but also to personal growth and perhaps even closure. Lovecraft managed the first, but utterly failed at the second.

Let’s all try to do better.

Autistic Pride Day 2022

Today, June 18, is Autistic Pride Day, when those of us who identify as autistic celebrate our neurodiversity. This plus a recent conversation about ‘labels’ caused me to reflect on several things about autism that I feel like sharing.

First, there are aspects of my autism that I genuinely celebrate and think others should, too. Hyperfocus (except for the extreme versions) can give high productivity but also a kind of “high” similar to being in flow state. Attention to detail (while not especially intense in my case) leads to increased effectiveness in some kinds of activities. Lack of interest in (and limited understanding of) social dominance games means I have no inclination to play office politics. Literal-mindedness can be a source of conscious humour when I am aware of it in the moment, and leads me to default to taking people at their word (often a good thing, sometimes a bad, but on balance something I am content with).

Second, I used the phrase “identify as autistic.” I had the bureaucratic advantage of a diagnosis, which is one piece of the leverage one might need to get workplace accommodations. But the difficulty of gaining access to formal diagnoses (especially as an adult) means that many people know they are autistic but can’t get formal blessing. Self-diagnosis needs to be taken seriously.

Third, there are caveats to that. The psychiatrist who has been helping me navigate my workplace accommodations, among other things, happened to mention that a large fraction of the population now say they are autistic. I’ve heard many people say “autism is a spectrum, and we’re all on it.” For me the issues with that are:

  • It’s not really a spectrum, it’s a collection of different aspects of personality and ability, of neurodiversity.
  • People experience their autism in their own way. If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.
  • If you have a few elements of the classic cluster of visible behaviours, it makes sense to say you’re autistic, but there is a vast difference between symptoms society accepts, those it considers quirky, and those it disparages as ‘disorder.’
  • I am certain I have met people who are using ‘autism’ as an excuse for bad social behaviour.

Fourth, I do consider some ‘symptoms,’ but by no means all, as impairments. Inability to speak (which happens to me occasionally) is an impairment. It becomes a disability when society generally won’t accommodate it (I’m a fan of the social model of disability). Plenty of nonverbal autistics can communicate just fine with assistive technologies, and can be as articulate as anyone once they learn to sign or type. Society needs to learn to make accessibility a core human right.

Happy Autisic Pride Day!

Review: Born a Crime (Trevor Noah)

Born a Crime is Trevor Noah’s story about growing up in South Africa under apartheid, when his birth as the son of a black Xhosa mother and white Swiss-German father was a crime. It is the most powerful biographical story I have ever read, a truly mind-expanding experience as he conveys a life and a country enormously different from anything I’ve known. But it’s not just his story; it’s also the tale of Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, the woman who chose to bear him under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, and how her character and her choices shaped his life. I can’t find it in myself to try to summarize any of the story itself; you should experience it in Noah’s own words, in the way he chose to tell it.

5/5 stars

Evaluating Teaching

Every two years, Queen’s evaluates each tenure-track professsor’s “merit,” defined by evaluations of their teaching, research, and service work. This affects salary increases – more in early years than in later one, because of an “abatement” (what some might call a “clawback”) that reduces merit pay for more experienced professors. When I first arrived in 1984, a senior (“full”) professor explained that tenure-track faculty were generally hired at a lower-than-average salary, and merit pay (funded by the difference in salary between retiring professors and junior ones) made up the difference as time progressed. So one naturally has to ask: how are each of these components evaluated?

It turns out that evaluating teaching is problematic. A very significant element at many institutions is student evaluations, and students have biases like anyone else. There is quite a bit of compelling research that shows that female-presenting instructors score lower on student evaluations than male-presenting ones, even when the only indication that an instructor is female is a video where they introduce themselves. There is also evidence (based on fewer studies at this point) that non-white instructors face a similar bias.

There is also the “Dr. Fox effect,” named after an initial experiment in the 1970’s about student reactions to “engaging / enthusuastic” lecturers versus “informative” ones; they evaluate the first kind higher. Many years later, there have been more studies that show students value informativeness less than what some instructors disparage as “entertainment:” personality, charisma, fluency, non-verbal behaviour, and physical appearance.

The fundamental issue is: what is a fair way to evaluate teaching effectiveness? Some have suggested that having experienced teachers sit in on lectures would be better, but the excessively heavy workloads at universities make it difficult for people to make time to do so; an hour at a time, several times during the term, for all instructors being evaluated, might at first seem like a small commitment, but it is not. You’d need to observe 2-3 lectures in case one just happened to be a bad day. In my School at Queen’s you’d need to do this for each of about 30 professors, depending on how many have teaching reductions or are on sabbatical, which adds up to 90 hours over a term. This is more than two full weeks of work at a pace that is humane (which, generally, academic workloads are not). It sometimes happens when the instructor is up for tenure or promotion, or when they are looking for recommendations for a new job (if, for example, they were denied tenure and haven’t given up on academia yet).

However, that’s a means of evaluating instruction, based on conduct of lectures, not a criterion, a measure of effectiveness. There are so many more issues, hard to measure, that are equally if not more important. How clearly are the course objectives laid out? How well do assessment tasks measure student mastery of the material? How well to lectures and other resources prepare students for the assessment tasks? And more fundamentally, how much and how well do students learn?

The last, which might seem best for measuring teaching effectiveness, is not as simple as looking at grades. You at least need to measure what students were capable of before they class started, which is very difficult in any field where (a) the course introduces fundamentally new material in which many students would have no background, while (b) a nontrivial number of students have extensive self-taught experience. This turns out to be fairly common in some subsets of Computing, especially those with a significant practical component such as programming or other technology.

Besides, there are at least four different philosophies of what grades are for (which might be the subject of some future essay), only one of which is “how much students improved.” Grades are also strongly affected by student attitudes; engineering students in particular so overworked that they are often forced to compromise how much effort they can put into some courses; all that matters is passing, (“five-O and go”) because becoming an engineer requires getting a degree and getting the “iron ring” at the end. Grades aren’t irrelevant, but they are less important.

Department heads do know about these problems, so, as a result, there’s a tendency for teachers to get 10/10 on teaching merit – aside from award-winners who sometimes (but not always) get 12/10 in the year they get the award, and teachers students complain about vocally, who might get 7/10.

I do not have a solution, nor, I think, do most universities.

Here are the sources I consulted while writing this essay:

  • Dr. Fox effect, Wikipedia article, accessed 2022-04-03. A more complete explanation of the effect, although with fewer citations than Wikipedia editors are happy with.
  • Exploring Bias in Student Evaluations: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity, K. Chavez and K.M.W. Mitchell. Cambridge University Press. A research paper with a small experiment, whose value to me was in the review of previous work in the field.