I’m brand new to Mastodon. Many of us are. This might suggest that we shouldn’t have opinions. But I think the opposite is true. If Mastodon is truly a decentralized platform, if it’s truly designed to support distinctive communities and their distinctive needs, then we, as a community of humanists, should decide how we’re going to use it. We should start doing it now, before it gets away from us.
Deciding how we want to use it—what Mastodon will mean to us—means not putting too much stock in the “norms” and “rules” that other communities have established on the site. That is not to say we should be bulls in the porcelain shop (or as Shawna Ross tooted, we “don’t want to go all Kool-Aid man”), or that we should be disrespectful to other, more established communities and their needs and concerns. As always, we should approach our work, our tools, and our public engagements with humility. But it’s legitimate for us to use the technology to meet our needs and concerns, needs and concerns that have for too long gone unmet by Twitter, needs and concerns that may not be the same as other, older Mastodon communities.
In that spirit, here are a few early thoughts on how I think we should use Mastodon to build a supportive, inclusive, interesting, and useful thing for the humanities community.
First, you should join a server (e.g. hcommons.social) where a lot of other humanists can be found, and spend most of your time in your “local” or “community” timeline/tab. It is all well and good to follow people from other servers, and you should keep up with friends and happenings in those other places. But if you’re on the right server, your main source of serendipity, delight, information, and community will come from that local timeline. If your server’s local timeline is not delivering those things, find another server.
Second, and relatedly, you should mostly avoid the “the fediverse” (i.e. the feed of posts aggregated from across Mastodon’s servers found in the “federated” or “all” tab in your app). It seems to me that in time this aggregated feed will just reproduce Twitter, in all its disorienting chaos and vitriol. It probably won’t be quite so bad because it won’t have an algorithm pushing ads and outrage down your throat. But there’s bound to be plenty of ugly distraction nonetheless.
Third, and this is bound to be controversial, but don’t be too fussed about content warnings (CW’s), except insofar as you think members of your local server will appreciate them. That is, I wouldn’t be too worried about sticking to the “norms” or “best practices” that other, earlier communities on Mastodon have established. I appreciate that these norms are in place because Mastodon has been a refuge for marginalized BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other communities—and I think we want to be a refuge for members of those communities too. But we shouldn’t simply adopt the practices of the early adopters because they say we should. We should decide the ways in which we want to use the tools Mastodon gives us to support our aims, including, but not limited to, our aims of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, for example, I think it’s totally fine to use the CW feature to truncate and expand a long toot. One of the distinctive features of the humanities community is its tolerance for difference. Another is its longwindedness. It’s OK to use the tool to support both things!
Fourth, let’s start blogging again. One of the great things about early #DH Twitter was that we were all still blogging. Twitter became a place where we could let a wider audience know that we blogged something and then support a discussion around that something that was more freeflowing than the blog’s own comments thread could support. Let’s bring that practice back! One easy step would be to stop posting long, narrative threads (i.e. tweets “1/27”) to social media. Instead just post a title, a one sentence description, a link to your post with a #blogpost hashtag, and an invitation to discuss. If we could use Mastodon to reinvigorate the culture of humanities blogging, that would be an amazing success.
Fifth, keep politics to a minimum. It’s not that we should never talk about politics, but reworking takes that one can get elsewhere in the media (cable news, the op-ed pages, Twitter, etc.) isn’t going to make this a nicer place to be. If you’re going to get political, clearly tie it to your research, teaching, public humanities practice, or something else that connects you to the community that your local server is intended for. Otherwise, set up another account on another, more clearly political server, and post there.
Those are just some early thoughts. I’ll probably follow up in the next week or so with some more. In the meantime, I’d love to hear yours.