This day’s portion Navigation Menu

Mastodon should remove follower and following counts to stop it becoming like Twitter

I wrote the obligatory “here’s how I’m finding Mastodon” post a week or so ago. Since then, I’ve discovered an academics-who-like-The-Fall subbacultcha (typical biog: Phycisist at CERN, Notebooks out!) and followed lots of interesting folk. There’s enough there for me to not even bother syndicating my blog posts to Twitter.

As many have noted, Mastodon has a good early doors Twitter vibe: a bit more interesting than, and free of fascists and grifters. If you haven’t taken the plunge, you should give Mastodon a go: there are enough familiar faces in the fediverse, and plenty of the new to discover. As for Twitter: écrasez l‘infâme.

But – and yes, there is always a “but” – part of the fun is down to the fact we’re using Mastodon in good faith. When I see something I like I’ll star it to show my appreciation, maybe reply and probably follow the author. We’re in the exciting discovery phase.

Rewind 12 years. Certain Twitter accounts begin to gain noticeably large numbers of followers. This was a natural enough process, mirroring what would have happened in the blogosphere – leading sector figures and academics attracted more followers, just as they would have gained more feed subscribers.

However, the big difference between Twitter and RSS is that you wouldn’t know how many people were subscribing to an RSS feed, unless the author somehow found out and published the number, or lots of people piped their feed through a third party service, such as Feedburner. Even if you could find out how many subscribers a blogger had, there wasn’t a quick way to compare the number with other sites.

Twitter puts follower and following numbers front and centre: the ratio is a major part of the attention economy. Knowing how many – or few – followers an account has can affect behaviour and how a platform develops, in mostly bad ways.

For a start, whether you even follow someone in the first place may be subject to two follower ratio factors. Firstly, the more people you follow, the lower your follower to following ratio, and the less important you seem. Conversely, you may to decide to follow someone based on how many followers they have.

This introduced a depressing element of marketing to Twitter. If judgements are based on simple surface signals rather than content, it won’t be long before grifters find ways to game the system. Enter services allowing you to buy followers and boost your ratio with none of the hard work of writing interesting stuff, or being very good at something. Celebrities start to sign up.

Follower counts also introduced a hierarchical, worklike structure to Twitter. The better your ratio, the less likely you’d respond to someone with a handful of followers, in the same way that senior managers ignore emails from frontline staff. Similarly, the way you respond to a tweet from someone with a high ratio may be different – more deferential and less questioning.

The fediverse is a bottom up, democratic space. Having separate instances means that Mastodon – which is software rather than a platform, after all – is less likely to become the new Twitter, even if it is a Twitter clone. It’s in these details that other, rethought services such as excel: having no follower counts keeps it real, and the grifters at bay.