Draft! Work in Progress! Feedback welcome!
Join the discussion on beehaw.org, blahaj.zone, tooters.org, and infosec.exchange
Current plan is to a publish the final (haha) version on We Distribute later this week - before the end of Pride month!
"way back, at the beginning of mastodon’s rise to what it is now, queer activists, be they just a stranger with a keyboard, new to the social media site, weighing in on a topic on the public timeline, or me, someone actively attempting to be the middle between the most vocal voices, and tangible, meaningful change through gargron’s code, and github focused writing and activity, people were queer. they were marginalized, to some extent. people who weren’t comfortable with the status quo, so we changed it."
– hoodieaidakitten, Mastodon’s Complicated Relationship with Queer Activism, July 2018
“I cannot count the number of people who I’ve seen and followed…on Mastodon and then come and realize more things about their gender identity, their sexual orientation, their different community markers.”
David Wolfpaw, founder of the tech.lgbt Mastodon community, quoted in Can Mastodon be a Twitter Refuge for Marginalized Groups, November 2022
Even though it's Pride month, you wouldn't know it from a quick look at the pages showing the most popular posts on most large Mastodon instances.1 As with most social networks, other topics draw a lot more attention than queer issues, and the loudest voices are cis and straight. If you look a little more closely, though, there's actually a heck of a of queerness happening on Mastodon – and it's part of a rich history.
Ever since Mastodon started in 2016, queer, trans and non-binary people have helped build it and the interconnected web of decentralized social networks known as the "fediverse." Today there are dozens or even hundreds of LGBTQ-focused instances, and even many of the instances that aren't specifically for the community are welcoming. Which is good!
People telling the Mastodon origin story usually acknowledges the queer influence. Carl Miller's Who commands the internet? (from 2018) quotes Mastodon's BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Live) Eugen Rochko on the early growth:
“Queer people joined”, said Eugen, “and Furries. It comes in waves.”
Still, very few people I talk to know realize how extensive queer contributions have been – and how much tension there's been around them . Mastodon: a partial history has a lot of quotes and links to first-person experiences, but they're scattered throughout it – and it ends in late 2022. So to celebrate Pride, I figured I'd collect some of the highlights in a single post, and then highlight a few of many areas where the impact continues today.
First, though, I want to highlight a point that Dr. Johnathan Flowers discusses in The Whiteness of Mastodon. Mastodon – and the broader fediverse – have a long history of hostility to marginalized people, especially people of color. Many Mastodonians use the very positive contributions of queer people I'll be discussing here as a shield against critiques or discussions of the platforms racism. Please don't do that!
And even though it's a bit of a downer in an otherwise celebratory post, it's also important to recognize that Mastodon's hostility to marginalized people also applies to many queer, trans, and non-binary people as well. The names of the people who have made the key contributions have been largely erased. The stories I talk about here are rarely told and when they are it's rarely from a queer perspective. As Sasha Costanza-Chock says in Design, power, and justice:
"[P]eople are often marginalized from the stories we hear about the creation of new tools. Social movements are often hotbeds of innovation, but their contributions aren't always recognized.”
Not only that, Mastodon and the fediverse have gotten big enough that there's money floating around ... and most of it's going to cis straight people. And of course all of these impacts are worse on queer, trans, and non-binary people who are also marginlized in other ways – Black and Indigenous people of color, disabled people, sex workers, and others largely excluded from Mastodon's power structure.
This is something that really needs to change going forward. And it's also something to keep in mind when thinking about the history of Mastodon and the fediverse, because it highlights how challenging the environment was for the people making these amazing contributions!
Mastodon's early days
“When everyone joined there wasn’t per-post privacy or CWs or anything that people associate with Mastodon today. The new wave of queer users came up with, designed, pushed for, and implemented those features.”
– Shel Raphen, former Mastodon volunteer coordinator, project manager, and community manager, in Ana Valens’ Mastodon is crumbling — and many blame its creator (2019)
Rapid queer-led community innovation discusses Mastodon's first major growth spurt culminating in the breakthrough month of April 2017. Here's how I summarized it:
Mastodon in early 2017 was hella queer, and the queer volunteers who helped create Mastodon made an incredible amount of progress in the first half of the year
In Mourning Mastodon, Allie Hart links links to github artifacts for the implementation of locked accounts, private toots (as posts were called at the time recently), blocking, muting, and reporting from the time. Conent warnings (CWs) and instance blocking, a powerful technique helping admins and sites protec themselves from bad actors, was also driven by queer and trans people. As I said when discussing this in an April 2017 presentation on Transforming Tech with Diversity-Friendly Software, on open-source projects people can implement the functionality they want and need.
"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. 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."
hoodieaidakitten has a similar perspective in Mastodon’s Complicated Relationship with Queer Activism
"things changed, because more and more people comfortable with the status quo followed. we queer activists rapidly became the subset that originally came, the marginalized. the minority."
Things came to a head in The Battle of the Welcome Modal. Many new arrivals (including me) found Mastodon confusing in April 2017. As Valens describes Mastodon is crumbling — and many blame its creator, Shel Raphen – who was doing an outstanding job of project management in a very difficult situation – designed a welcome modal to help with onboarding. Rochko harshly criticized the design and made significant changes that Raphen "broke the pedagogy and curriculum built into the design of the onboarding modals," which had been reviewed and approved by various other contributors.
Valens describes the incident as "A breaking point for the queer community" and that's how I remember it too. On the other hand, flawed as it was, the welcome model was also successful, although not as much so as it would have been otherwise: it did in fact reduce a lot of confusion for new users. Unfortunately, progress stalled on onboarding after the Battle of the Welcome Modal, and it remains a problem today.2
Of course, queer people didn't go away. Creatrix Tiara's Mastodon 101: A Queer-Friendly Social Network You’re Gonna Like a Lot on Autostraddle later that year brought more queer users, and the number of LGBTQ+-focused instances continued to increase.
And innovation didn't go away either. The trans-led Glitch-soc fork (variant) of Mastodon continued to take the lead in introducing tools to protect users by implementing "local-only posts" in June 2017, an innovation that has since been adopted by other forks like Hometown and most other fediverse software (although still not by mainline Mastodon, so it's not available on most large instances).3. Glitch-soc also was the first to implement user‐defined profile metadata, collapsible statuses, user controlled layout, and images inside CWs,. Today, Glitch-soc is the most widely-deployed Mastodon fork, and is used by hundreds of Mastodon instances.
Ongoing contributions – often without credit
As a trans woman on the internet, my work with Mastodon has always been about more than just social media—it's been about keeping people alive.
– Margaret KIBI, Fringe Mastodev – Part II
Queer, trans, and non-binary people continue to make major contributions – often without being credited or acknowledged. A few examples:
- Artist Marcia X created the #FediBlock hashtag for admins and users to share information about instances spreading harassment and hate, and long-time Mastodonian Ginger immediately helped by spreading it to faer networks and normalizing its use. In 2022, this hashtag remains an extremely valuable resource. However, various "fediblock" sites and accounts have popped up over the years without any credit – or compensation – to the original creators.
- In May/June 2018, the initial implemention of trending hashtags – with no ability for site admins to turn the feature off – led to a firestorm of criticism from people who saw it as clashing with Rochko's claim that Mastodon had "a focus on user experience and anti-abuse tools." As maloki said, "You can't have anti-abuse tools by actively creating tools that are very likely to be used for abuse, without consulting people who know and understand anti-abuse." Cassian’s I left Mastodon yesterday and hoodieaidakitten's Mastodon’s Complicated Relationship with Queer Activism have some additional discussion. The feature was eventually removed, and an improved implementation was released in 2019.
- August 2018's Battle of Wil Wheaton highlighted the strength of Mastodon's LGBTQ+ community in responding to the arrival of a celebrity who had caused a lot of harm to trans people. workingdog_'s Twitter thread provides important context ommitted from most mainstream narratives. Wheaton left the platform as a result, and Rochko posted that he was unhappy with how the situation was resolved. As Nolan Lawson discusses in Mastodon and the challenges of abuse in a federated system, the Battle of Wil Wheaton certainly highlighted the need for improvement in Mastodon's moderation tools. Five years later, though, the moderation tools haven't improved significantly.
- Solstice School is a free, online, interdisciplinary conference for the Fediverse, now in its fourth year, hosted by Scholar Social. Past topics include spiders, frugal computing, Afro-Indigenous phenomenology, and data (im)permanence; this year's topics look just as interesting. As far as I can tell, though, none of the articles about academics exploring Mastodon or the fediverse have ever mentioned it.
- Volunteer moderators are the lifeblood of the fediverse – and a lot of them are queer, trans, and non-binary. Moderation is much more challenging in a decentralized environment, and Mastodon's moderation functionality is much weaker than is typically found on forums or Facebook, but thanks to the huge amount of effort by (and I cannot stress this enough) unpaid volunteers, some Mastodon sites are so well-moderated that people describe it as a significantly better environment than Twitter. On the other hand, moderators can also be the targets of abuse; in Can Mastodon be a Twitter Refuge for Marginalized Groups, Marcia X describes the harassment campaign— including stalkers, bots, and denial of service attacks – that targeted playvicious.social, leading to the instance shutting down because “our safety was starting to become a real risk and also our mental health for that matter.”
The fediverse is a lot bigger than just Mastodon!
Even though Mastodon has gotten by far the most publicity, it's only one part of the fediverse – and there are plenty of other important queer, trans, and non-binary contributers in other branches as well. Here's just a few ...
- Daniel Supernault, lead developer on Instagram alternative Pixelfed, one of the fediverse's most successful offerings, and also started the incredibly valuable FediDB and fediverse.info sites
- Kainoa, lead developer on Calckey (a fork of Misskey), which has substantial additional functionality beyond Mastodon as well as a much more vibrant user interface
- The developers of GoToSocial -- a lightweight, customizable, and safety-focused entryway into the Fediverse.
- alyaza, Gaywallet and the other moderators of beehaw.org, who are using Lemmy link-aggregation software to create a community that "cultivates a sense of real belonging to something", aspires to "be(e) a safe, friendly and diverse place", and hosts a very active LGBTQ+ community.
Not only that, according to Christine Lemmer-Webber, four of the five authors of the ActivityPub standard – which plays a central role in the fediverse allowing communication between differnet software platforms – identify as queer.
As always, it's interesting times in the fediverse. As Rochko said, it grows in waves. Millions of people created Mastodon accounts late last year in the wake of Twitter's acquisition by a transphobic, racist, techbro. Some of them liked it enough that they stayed around; quite a few of them are queer, trans, and non-binary – including George Takei, who with over 386,000 followers may well be the most-followed person in the fediverse!
We're in the middle of another wave right now, with fed-up redditors looking for alternatives in the wake of Reddit's decision to shutting down third-party apps and ham-fisted response to the protests checking out kbin (an interesting hybrid between Reddit and Twitter) and the aforementioned Lemmy – including people from big trans subreddits which are a critical source of support and knowledge for so many people.
And we're going to continue to see new waves, because as always, queer, trans, and non-binary people are under siege on other social network. Twitter's now saying "cis is a slur" and threatening to turn off blocking functionality. Facebook's parent company Meta is introducing a Twitter competitor then again Anti-Trans Hate Is Absolutely Rampant on Facebook, Transgender Facebook is content dominated by right-wing sources, and Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta’s Nudity Policies Discriminate Against Trans People (as they have for years) ... so people will keep looking for alternatives.
Speaking of Meta's Twitter competitor, it's reportedly going to be compatible with Mastodon, which is another reason it's such interesting times in the fediverse. As Anti-Meta Fedi Pact creator vantablack says in Why Block Meta?,
try being trans and on facebook, having a list of common suicide methods sent to you by a bigot, and reporting it. they'll do goddamn nothing. a real, personal, and depressingly common example
Opinions are mixed in the fediverse about how to react to Meta's potential arrival, but it's not surprising a lot of trans, queer, and non-binary people don't want them here. Of course, we're not the only ones who doesn't want Meta here; hundreds of instances have already signed the Anti-Meta Fedi Pact vantablack created just a week ago.
That said, and even though opinions also differ within queer communities as to how best to respond, it's very much in keeping with the fediverse's history that many of the initial signers of the Anti-Meta Fedi Pact are from trans-, queer-, and LGBTQIA2S+-focused instances. In FediPact is an Organized Effort to Block Meta’s ActivityPub Platform vantablack says
I will do everything I can to stop them from burning down the beautiful community we’ve spent over seven years cultivating here.
And she's clearly not the only one who sees it that way. We're here, we're queer, fuck Facebook (or whatever they're calling themselves these days) has more
So we'll see where things go for the fediverse from here. In chaos there is opportunity! discusses a positive outcome, where resistance Meta's arrival catalyzes needed changes in the fediverse. If that happens, we may well see another burst of queer-led community innovation, this time more diverse in other dimensions as well. Perhaps the marginalized people who make key contributions will also get some recognition and more access to jobs and funding. Hey, it's Pride, might as well be optimistic.
In any case, let's take a moment to appreciate how much of an impact queer, trans, and non-binary have had in creating the fediverse as it is today – and look forward to continuing to shape the future.
1 "Instances" is the term used for different sites that run Mastodon or compativle software. Danielle Navarro's Everything I know about Mastodon is a detailed introduction to Mastodon; while aimed at data scientists, it's useful for everybody.
2 Both of the latest attempts to streamline onboarding result in new queer and trans people looking checking out Mastodon signing up by default on the flagship node mastodon.social instead of any of the many thriving LGBTQ+-focused instances. It's almost like they don't want queer and trans people to find their community!
3 Margaret KIBI's Fringe Mastodev – Part III: Joining GlitchSoc, from 2018, has more. If you're thinking that mainline Mastodon's refusal to support this valuable anti-harassment functionality doesn't align with the stated values of being a platform with less harassment than Twitter ... you're not the only one. Does Mastodon really prioritize stopping harassment? has several other examples.