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Mastodon shows its stripes

There’s a new (2015) trans flag making the rounds over on Mastodon, an early ActivityPub platform.

The trans flag with a black stripe in the middle.

It was created by Raquel Willis in 2015 to raise awareness to the tremendous amount of violence black trans people face. Trans people in general have it bad, but it’s so much worse for them.

Some people on Mastodon, me included, pointed out that the black stripe replaced the white stripe. It was handled with as much tact as can be reasonably expected from people who feel like they’re being excluded. The context, I now understand, is that it’s there for black trans people to carve out space in an identity they’re made to feel excluded from.

Without context, it wasn’t clear this flag was an option for people who needed it, rather than an attempt at replacement. Yes, the former is the charitable thing to assume, but…well. My whole point here in this article is that something about the medium of short posts discourages charitable interpretations by allowing little room for context.

People reacted to these expressed worries about the misunderstood intent of the flag the way people do when strangers criticize something they like. I think this was inevitable and driven by the nature of the medium. People imported all their toxic behavior from Twitter, and so we get the same messes.

I did it too. Mea culpa.

Here’s the problem with Mastodon, and Tweet/toot-length posting in general: there is no room to build up to a point, so all you get is points. Punchy, context-free points.

“You can’t not know what the white stripe means!”

“Anyone who has a problem with the black stripe is blocked.”

“I always had my suspicions about them, and this confirms it.”

And on it goes.

There is a problem in the binary trans community of trying to exclude nonbinary people. It’s real. See: the whole ContraPoints fiasco. She didn’t mean to, but the unintended reads of her now evolved-away-from treatise on identity vs. perception (“The Aesthetic”) and some bad tweets (Never Tweet) led to a lot of binary trans people going mask off about what they think of nonbinary people. That’s the context we see the stripe change in lacking any other information.

So, lacking the context possible in a longer form medium, the gut reaction to seeing the nonbinary/gender-noncomforming representation on the trans flag replaced feels like an attack.

The nice thing about a spacious medium like a blog is I can reassure you that Raquel Willis is part of a writers’ collective for trans and nonbinary people and has said strongly pro-nonbinary things on Twitter. I have no doubt she’d have a problem with someone using her variation on the trans flag to exclude nonbinary people. I don’t think she meant to do what a lot of us worried about when we first saw it.

Without that context, though…

I can see why someone would get their hackles up. I sure did, and had to walk it back when I realized this whole thing might be impossible to discuss in a medium of short posts. And, you know, racism is a huge problem, and it was imported to Mastodon along with all the other toxicity, so people are on guard. Any criticism of the flag, no matter how well-intentioned, can look a little racist. In exactly the same way that swapping out our stripe, and that’s canon, can look a little sus.

It would be nice if people on both ends of it made charitable assumptions, but we’ve all dealt with enough people being exactly what we think they are that it feels dangerous to do otherwise. So it’s two groups within a group assuming the worst because they feel like they have to.

This whole situation on top of all the others made me doubt that Mastodon is going to end up much better than Twitter. I can’t decide if the toxicity that puts people on edge is endemic to the medium or if it’s just spilling over from Twitter refugees treating it like Twitter.

Anyway, black trans lives matter.

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What ActivityPub means for musicians

The gist for people not extremely online: ActivityPub is the latest in a series of protocols aimed at letting different technologies speak with each other. It’s like HTTPS, which brought this post from my web server to the program you’re reading this in. Below that is TCP/IP, and different protocols at the ISP level like DNS and BGP.

Yeah, it’s a lot of acronyms. It’s enough to know that ActivityPub is a protocol that typically runs on HTTP, and it’s gaining steam where previous protocols in the same category like XMPP and OStatus got little traction outside tech circles.

For musicians, this means you will soon have options beyond Facebook and Twitter. Independent developers are hard at work on tools that handle events like Facebook, music like Soundcloud, short posts like Twitter, and things you probably never thought of. They all speak the same protocol.

Right now, it looks like what you do now but…distributed. It’s nice because there are enough people on the ActivityPub network to be seen, but not so many that you fall below the noise floor if you aren’t relentless.

There’s a typical pattern in technology.

  • Someone makes a technology that does the thing people already do, but different.
  • Early adopters rush in because hey, new thing!
  • Everyone else struggles to understand it. They usually compare it to earlier, failed efforts to replace the current thing. They’re right 99% of the time.
  • The tools people use for the old thing turn user-hostile and try to keep people from leaving as the new thing takes over. Twitter got an early start by killing off its developer ecosystem. They know how this goes.
  • Thousands of posts appear on the new thing in the theme of “I’m glad I made an account and kept a presence here early!”

Most people who already find adequate success on Twitter and Facebook will struggle to justify the time and effort, but it’s coming. ActivityPub is happening.

Right now there are a few main platforms that run on it. For example: Mastodon, Pleroma, PixelFed, Nextcloud. It’s tempting to assert that these will be the thing but, historically speaking, they probably won’t be. There are too many issues and splits for them to last.

The platforms that carve out new frontiers like this always end up a footnote. Ask the average internet user about Usenet, or AOL, or any of the vanguard of Web 2.0.

That sounds like I’m saying “don’t bother.” What I’m actually saying is “don’t repeat the last mistake.” Yes, go make a Mastodon account. Make one on Pixelfed. Find a Funkwhale or PeerTube instance. Write your novel on write.as. Organize an event on Get Together. You can benefit from it now, but make sure you have a way to tell people where you are once better tools sprout up in the ruins of the ActivityPub vanguard.

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ActivityPub Could Be The Future

I’ll admit, I’ve spent the last several years disillusioned with technology. All the quirky little tools people made gave way to ad-fueled companies that refused to play well with others.

This is the first time I’ve been excited for a new technology in memory.

ActivityPub is to HTTP what HTTP was to TCP/IP. TCP/IP bridged disparate systems and allowed them to communicate reliably. HTTP allowed the various services built on TCP/IP to communicate with each other reliably.

ActivityPub goes one step further and provides a way for users on those services to communicate in a way that has the appearance of directness. I can follow, for example, Blender’s videos on PeerTube from my Mastodon account. Or I can use a blog platform that speaks ActivityPub and let people follow it from other services. It’s all the best features of Twitter with the flexibility of RSS. And unlike Twitter, your Mastodon profile will probably never lose its RSS feed in a company’s pursuit of profit. The main project already funds itself through Patreon, as do most of the larger instances.

It’s still early. We could be looking at a situation like Usenet and Gopher where neither ended up being The Thing because AOL soaked up the nascent public internet, then Facebook soaked up the nascent commercial web.

Right now the popularity of Mastodon carries ActivityPub while projects like Plume (blogging), Pixelfed (image sharing), and others work toward their potential.

I have noticed a tendency for people supporting older, similar protocols to wonder why ActivityPub got so popular while their own stagnated. We could speculate. If people knew Ostatus at all, they understood it as a protocol for making Twitter clones. XMPP spoke XML in an age of JSON, and it was perceived as an instant messenger protocol.

Both focused on liberating people from commercial silos. Mastodon had some press to that effect regarding Twitter, but people on there have come to care less as its native and diverse community grows to a self-sufficient level.

Twitter and Facebook are struggling to cope with their place in a massive cultural shift and shaky transfer of generational power. As I write this, Facebook has just lost 25% of its share price on the announcement that it expects weak growth.

I think the growing ActivityPub federation has a good chance. No one interacts with my tweets anymore. Meanwhile, I get response on Mastodon that reminds me of the early days of Twitter, before they betrayed their developer community and hired a legion of people to cut ad deals.