The Media's Fake Tech Incompetence

Some thoughts on why journalists pretend Mastodon is impenetrable.

Very nearly every article about Mastodon in a mainstream journalistic publication takes pains to tell you that using it is nightmarishly complicated, the social media equivalent of emacs.

The takeaway from all these explainers and think pieces, if you’re a regular reader of the commentariat, is that Mastodon isn’t for you, but is instead the exclusive domain of computer science PhDs and 14 year old phone phreaks. And from that we should all conclude that Mastodon—and the Fediverse, and the open web in general—can never be a viable alternative to proprietary and closed social media platforms, at least not at any kind of scale. Better to just stick it out at Twitter, or switch to some other centralized service.

The common response, from those of us happily using Mastodon without having computer science PhDs or ever having broken into a telephone switching computer, is that it’s no more difficult than signing up for email, and everyone has and uses email.

That’s true, of course, and will become even more true when bigger players, such as Mozilla, set up their own Mastodon servers, giving a trustworthy, robust, and easy onramp to the distributed network.

What interests me more than rebuttals to the “It’s not for you” narrative, however, is that it seems pretty obvious that a lot, if not most, of the journalists writing about how hard of a time they had wrapping their heads around Mastodon are, well, fibbing.

Granted, some of them are young enough to have grown up in an era when the internet was overwhelmingly accessed via closed systems and propriety apps, and your entrance into the open web came from clicking a link those apps showed you, reading the page, and retreating back into the safety of the walled garden when you were done.

But anyone hailing from childhood and teenage years of Gen X or elder Millennials, has experience of the internet before the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and the App Store. This was back when the way you used the web was to use the web: fire up a browser, look at a blank tab, and figure out which server to surf to. Or even before that, when the web wasn’t really a thing and instead you had to figure out the phone number of your local BBS, dial in, and hope your parents didn’t pick up the extension.

The point isn’t that everyone was online in the 1990s, of course. Far more people use the internet today than did back then. Instead, the point is that the people who did decide to use networked computers 20 or 30 years ago were able to figure it out easily enough that they created the critical mass to incentivize the market entrants and investments that led to our contemporary, privatized and VC funded ecosystem.

In fact, many of those journalists telling you they can’t figure out how to pick a server got their start as bloggers, and they got their start as bloggers by choosing between Blogger, Wordpress, Typepad, or Movable Type, and then choosing whether to go with the centralized version, or another managed host, or to FTP a bunch of PHP files into their own virtual server. Then they posted, and learned HTML to do it, and dealt with pingbacks and trackbacks.

All of this is far more complex, with far more ways to go wrong, than picking a Mastodon server and creating a login. And even the non-bloggers were out there figuring out how Friendster and MySpace worked, or how to tweak the look of their Livejournals, or stumbling through the early UX of Twitter.

To acknowledge that all those platforms took off and achieved mainstream success, while also claiming that Mastodon is too difficult to ever achieve similar success, is simply disingenuous. It seems motivated less by actual technological opacity, and more by a cultural affinity for existing platforms, and a myopic—and historically forgetful—sense that the internet can only work when it’s a handful of VC funded mega platforms occasionally talking to each other.

In other words, don’t buy the handwringing about Mastodon’s impossibly difficult onboarding and interface. The open web is too valuable to let misleading people turn you away.

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