It’s 9am on a Tuesday, early morning by cybre.space’s standards. Few have logged on to the microblogging social network, and it shows: A follower feed filled with more than 31 users updates at a snail’s pace. It’s much slower than one would expect on Twitter. But then again, cybre.space isn’t Twitter. It runs off a decentralized social media software called Mastodon, and is part of a much larger network of Mastodon communities.
Over on Twitter, users post jokes about President Donald Trump, this time of a fast food feast he prepared for the Clemson Tigers football team amid the ongoing government shutdown. But the words “Trump” and “shutdown” only appear once each on cybre.space’s “local timeline,” which shows posts on the site and any other connected “instances,” or Mastodon communities. It’s even more barren on this reporter’s home timeline: No one is talking about hamberders.
Posting works differently on cybre.space than Twitter. It’s much more like living in a queer house, one that prefers to talk about political theory over current events. Some users chat about democratic socialism and queer identity, while others talk about games, music, fandom, or their difficulties navigating trans healthcare. One user posts a message that reads “re: hrt” with a few lines about their hormone replacement regimen hidden underneath, accessible only via the “show more” content warning (CW) button next to it. Another boosts a post praising Tallahassee by the Mountain Goats, calling it a “visceral experience.”
Cybre.space has just over 2,000 users. Over on Mastodon’s flagship community, Mastodon.social, there are over 300,000 users. But despite the larger userbase, discussions are even less political. On the community’s local timeline, one user troubleshoots installing a Linux distribution. Another shares a news story about a man who tried to turn his home into a restaurant. A third links to an article about Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford. Here, Trump is not the sun; tech, gaming, and the occasional NSFW post largely prevail. It’s as if the outside world doesn’t exist.
Visiting Mastodon feels like strolling through the first “apolitical” social network. There’s no urgency to talk about the Trump administration’s policies or break down ongoing political events—but while that may seem like a pleasant reprieve, it’s actually an indication that all is not well on Mastodon.
Mastodon has long been hailed as a friendly and inclusive safe haven, one by and for people who want the far-right out of social media. But instead of losing the far-right, the platform has lost all politics entirely. That’s a problem for its queer userbase, who cannot be apolitical by nature. Being queer isn’t a hobby; it’s a political identity. And so while Mastodon seems fine on the surface, there is a much larger schism at play across the social media project regarding who should run it: its community, or its creator.
It’s impossible to understand Mastodon without considering its architect and understanding its structure. Eugen “Gargron” Rochko, a 25-year-old German programmer of Russian and Jewish heritage, began working on Mastodon while studying computer science at the German public university Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (or “University of Jena” in English). Rochko had experience with decentralized social networks as a teenager, and by 2010 he had already decided Twitter’s corporate-driven structure just wasn’t the proper way to handle online messaging. But it wasn’t until early 2016 that he decided to sit down and look at GNU social, a decentralized social network software and precursor of sorts to Mastodon.
Originally, Rochko considered making an app for GNU social, but he ultimately decided to start from scratch and create a custom implementation of GNU social’s protocol. This became Mastodon.
Simply put, Mastodon is a microblogging software where users can communicate with one another through character-limited messages, called “toots.” The project, which released to the public in October 2016, supports embeds for images, GIFs, and videos, and there’s even a “boost” system similar to Twitter’s retweets. But Mastodon’s biggest feature by far is its “fediverse.” Instead of throwing every account into a gigantic melting pot on one main website, Mastodon users can splinter off into dozens upon dozens of miniature Mastodon instances, which are servers governed by their own rules and with their own communities. These create one large federation, and while each of these instances—like Cybre.space—runs off of Mastodon’s software, they simultaneously exist separately from one another and as part of a larger whole. Instance users can interact with one another or blacklist other instances.
Mastodon is a free and open-source software that functions entirely on community contributions via GitHub. Over Discord, Rochko described Mastodon’s development flow: Features, changes, or fixes are submitted as pull requests on GitHub. A contributor codes the feature for Mastodon within the pull request. The pull request must pass through tests for review. But even if a pull request passes those tests, “only the owner of the project can decide” whether a pull request is merged, as Rochko puts it—although he has given that ability to “three or four more people than me” for redundancy’s sake (“in case I get hit by a bus,” as he says).
Since graduating in 2016, Rochko has given Mastodon his full attention. Today, he works on Mastodon full-time with support from over 900 patrons on Patreon (at the moment, he receives over $4,400 per month in total, or over $50,000 per year). But he’s far from the only person making Mastodon a reality, and many of its users take umbrage both with what features Rochko implements and how he credits the project’s contributors.
Mastodon’s former project manager, Maloki, founded a separative community that criticizes Rochko’s “Benevolent Dictator For Life” (BDFL) model for negatively impacting “already vulnerable and marginalized people.” Many queer critics feel Rochko implements features into Mastodon that make it easier for users to discover—and by extension, harass—people of color, queer posters, women, trans folks, and other marginalized groups.
Decentralized social networking isn’t a new idea, nor is the “fediverse” as a concept. But the Mastodon project quickly became popular with queer and left-wing users after Trump’s election in November 2016. Most of Mastodon’s early users shared a common background: Some were furries, others worked in tech, some even developed video games. Many identified as queer and trans. As one Mastodon user said on Nov. 23, 2016: “Holy shit everyone Mastodon is basically gay furry-adjacent Twitter without risk of racist eggs, get here immediately and help us en-culture.”
After Trump’s election, Rochko paraded Mastodon as a Nazi-free alternative to Twitter, pointing out that Mastodon.social, which is personally administered by Rochko, bans Nazis. To this day, Mastodon is the progressive Twitter alternative, one repeatedly praised everywhere from Motherboard to Wired.
But Mastodon’s politics are more complicated than merely banning Nazis. White, queer, middle-class tech workers migrating to Mastodon treated it as an escape from the outside world. CWs effectively hid politics from plain sight, and to this day, the occasional Trump conversation is concealed and tagged under the warning “uspol.” This turned Mastodon into an apolitical space, one where users debate queer theory but try to keep the outside world’s happenings out.
Mastodon’s apolitical approach reflected larger problems at play on the platform. One early Mastodon adopter named “voz” left the platform in February 2017 after feeling increased alienation from Mastodon’s predominantly white userbase. Voz, who is a brown queer trans woman, considered Mastodon “a very white space” that gradually mirrored real-life versions of gentrification: White users made the service “more and more hostile to the Black and Brown users” that were among Mastodon’s initial adopters.
“Whiteness insists on hiding itself, and a veneer of respectability given by ‘banning (overt) Nazis’ is really just a kind of fig leaf for the more mundane white supremacy at work there,” voz said via Keybase.
part of why Im not as active on Mastodon anymore even tho I think its a more ethical funding model is cuz its full of fragile white gentle porcelain dolls earning $150k/year in tech calling me ableist for making them uncomfortable by talking about politics under a content warning
— SHEL SHEL SHEL SHEL SHEL SHEL SHEL SHEL SHEL SHEL (@workingdog_) December 14, 2018
Some people of color blamed Rochko, arguing he doesn’t properly moderate Mastodon.social to protect people of color from abuse. Others came to believe Mastodon’s hyperfixation on avoiding politics fundamentally hurt users of color, eventually driving them away.
“What sort of culture thinks talking about politics needs to be behind a content warning? Is me talking about the intersections of my life and society in need of a CW because it’s political? What the hell?” writer and performer Creatrix Tiara asked in April 2017.
The process and the politics
Mastodon’s community and its development cannot be separated from one another: Whoever controls development also steers how its users interact with one another. For example, more privacy and anti-harassment features mean better protection for marginalized users. But these requests don’t always align with Rochko’s vision for Mastodon.
Mastodon’s development process is pretty standard in the free open-source software community, but Mastodon isn’t a standard open-source project, and its queer users have long fought with Rochko over how credit is given out for features. Hoodie Aida Krisstina, who uses fae/faer pronouns, helped push for Mastodon’s content warning system in November 2016 by opening an issue on GitHub after the feature was “born from the community consciousness,” as fae said.
In a Dreamwidth post from July, fae sharply criticized Rochko, arguing queer users initially “begged” him for feature changes to support the community that ultimately turned Mastodon into what it is today.
“Evidently sometimes what [Rochko] does is take the pull request, close it, use that code as a starting point, then later commit it himself,” Krisstina said in an email. “This, tied with how [Rochko] credits others (read: he doesn’t, except for GitHub commit history), means that there is very little evidence, and virtually no recognition for the folx that actually made a feature happen. It’s not unrealistic to state that without the pull request, and without my GitHub issue, there would never have been content warnings.”
Rochko admits that contributors weren’t originally acknowledged in release notes. However, he argues there are an enormous number of feature requests and bug reports, and that he is “a little more ambivalent” toward crediting users for making feature requests, as GitHub automatically records their requests, and “they’re asking somebody else to put in the work […] and everybody’s got ideas.”
Granted, Rochko thinks it would be “fair” to credit users who come up with a thorough design as part of a feature request, although he claims he hasn’t “seen any feature requests that actually designed a system.”
“Pull requests take higher precedence because people actually put in the work to contribute,” Rochko said. “Also translators, I would say, are a step below that, as translators who submit translations for various languages. So they put in the work of actually writing code and submitting it […] and I agree that those people should be credited.”
Queer users seem to view the issue differently.
Shel Raphen served as a developer for Mastodon from January to spring 2017 and worked as a “de facto” volunteer coordinator, project manager, and community manager for Mastodon during its boom in April 2017 (or “Eternal April,” as Raphen calls it). Raphen, who uses ze/hir and they/them pronouns, first joined Mastodon in the “November wave” that hit the project after the U.S. 2016 presidential election, one month after Mastodon was officially announced. They became interested in Mastodon thanks to the decentralized fediverse’s potential to protect marginalized users.
“When everyone joined there wasn’t per-post privacy or CWs or anything that people associate with Mastodon today,” Raphen said over Twitter DM. “The new wave of queer users came up with, designed, pushed for, and implemented those features.”
Because Mastodon relies on the BDFL system, ongoing conflict with Rochko can quickly become messy. In one case, Raphen said that they designed a welcome modal in April 2017 that Rochko “hated” and harshly criticized, calling it “stupid.” Raphen confronted Rochko over the modal, telling him that he has to “thank people and appreciate their work” on the project.
After Rochko introduced his own alternate welcome modal, Raphen claims community pressure led Rochko to add Raphen’s design—without crediting Raphen in the project’s release notes.
“I went in and edited the release notes myself and added myself, since I had that privilege, and Eugen got pissed and removed all my privileges and basically booted me from the project,” Raphen said.
When asked to comment on the incident, Rochko stressed that he should ultimately have the right to edit and tweak the onboarding modal as need be.
“I wanted to change some stuff around and they were very upset when I just touched anything and that’s not how it should work,” Rochko said. “If I have some feedback about how this onboarding modal should work, I should be able to change it without causing a drama.”
Raphen’s treatment was a breaking point for Mastodon’s queer community, and its users began openly criticizing Rochko’s control over Mastodon. Two weeks later, Mastodon user and GitHub contributor Allie Hart wrote a post-mortem called “Mourning Mastodon” and a follow-up post, “Mourning What Now?!?!”—both of which Raphen considers “Important Historic Documents” for Mastodon’s history.
In “Mourning Mastodon,” Hart argues its initial leftist, furry, queer, and disabled base was the “most vocal and most frequent of Mastodon’s unpaid contributors,” designing Mastodon’s features from November 2016 to April 2017. After Graham Linehan and Dan Harmon temporarily moved to Mastodon.social and an April 2017 Motherboard story sparked media attention in the project, a new base arrived at the site, one that gave the project’s queer community less leverage in demanding changes from Rochko, Hart argues.
“The recent influx of users to the platform has brought with it new contributors and an expanded revenue stream that has rendered the original nearly obsolete,” Hart wrote in April 2017. “Queer users could leave en masse without harming the project’s survivability, which means that the reciprocity of their relationship has been terminated—queer users still depend on the project, but the project no longer depends on its queer users.”
Granted, Mastodon’s queer community isn’t perfect, and some of the same criticisms leveled against the Mastodon project could be made against the white queer community found on the service from the very beginning. For instance, Hart claims Mastodon’s white queer community would simultaneously demand a bigger voice in development while driving queer people of color off the site. The gentrifiers were now being gentrified, so to speak.
While speaking with the Daily Dot, Rochko called Mastodon “the child of my imagination,” arguing he “created it the way that I wanted to do it” and that he “did things the way I wanted them to work.” For the record, he doesn’t consider BDFL a harsh description of the Mastodon project, but rather a programming term to describe its governance. He also believes it’s more efficient than rule by committee.
“When you separate the decision making between different people that can come and go, you sort of have a tragedy of the commons where nobody is fully responsible for it and people have disagreements over all sorts of things, and you add the bureaucracy of [a] voting system, etc,” he explained. “Often times you’ll get requests from the community that are directly mutually exclusive to each other, and you have to make a choice, like, which direction will you go or how do you make a compromise.”
Rochko describes Mastodon’s users as separated between two “camps”: those who prefer discoverability, and those who discourage it. It’s more accurate to say Mastodon is increasingly forced to choose between its marginalized, queer userbase and white, well-off, and male tech workers who support Rochko’s BDFL vision.
Raphen believes Mastodon is “getting better, slowly” thanks in part to new queer users challenging its “fragile” privileged queer users. But even then, the platform’s remaining queer community has grown increasingly upset with Rochko’s leadership. After Rochko unexpectedly introduced “trends” tracking for words, phrases, and hashtags in summer 2018, marginalized users who feared harassment from the feature criticized its unexpected implementation. Rochko replied with a toot, arguing he “built Mastodon the way I wanted” and that those who disliked the project should not “give me shit about your failed expectations.”
“There’s the door, there’s the code, there’s the alternatives,” he tooted on June 2.
A June essay from Mastodon user Cassian, titled “I left Mastodon yesterday,” argues Mastodon’s problems start with Rochko’s approach to development. Cassian claims users are rarely acknowledged for their contributions unless they are programmers, and Rochko controls the original instance and gets to decide which features make it into the Mastodon project.
Combine this with Rochko’s perspective as a white male programmer, and his decisions will constantly come from a privileged point-of-view that clashes with Mastodon’s marginalized userbase.
“Like it or not, he is in charge of the main branch of a huge community project and he promises various advantages over Twitter to attract members,” Cassian writes. “The users of his software have needs that he refuses to address […] but he wants to remain the sole decision-maker and have complete control. He has a right to do that, but it is unhealthy for the project overall.”
Again, Rochko thinks Mastodon users are split between two sides: those who believe the project should help users find one another, and those who prefer to stay hidden from others. But Mastodon’s internal community conflicts can better be described through a queer lens—that is, between privileged users and marginalized ones, and their diametrically opposed philosophies for what Mastodon should be.
“He’s a programmer. Not a leader,” Raphen said. “He’s an amazingly talented programmer. But that’s not enough to lead the project. He takes all the credit for making Mastodon what it is when it was extremely a group effort, not just the programming (the only labor he sees as legit).”
Raphen and Rochko’s beliefs are at Mastodon’s core, and yet they are fundamentally in conflict with each other. One wants a community-driven government system to protect vulnerable users. The other believes only a BDFL can efficiently maintain Mastodon and promote its decentralized, open-source fediverse structure. Both are hopeful for Mastodon’s future, and yet, they represent diverging paths that Mastodon can take.
Meanwhile, Mastodon’s users can’t even agree on how Mastodon should function, let alone whom it should serve. Figuring out an answer will decide Mastodon’s future—and whether its marginalized userbase has a place to call home.
Update 5:30am CT, Jan. 19: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the name of the university where Rochko studied. It is the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, or University of Jena.