A few days ago, I wrote about the precarious state of social media and internet services and how creatives and freelancers might consider revamping their email newsletters in order to maintain contact with readers and fans. That same day, Warren Ellis sent out some similar thoughts in his own email newsletter. And now Heidi MacDonald at ComicsBeat has written about both of those pieces!
I’m just old enough that email newsletters made my career possible. And I’m starting to think that they’re going to save us indie creators and freelancers all over again in the coming years.
Back in 2002, when I was taking my feature film Robot Stories around to film festivals, I’d pass around a notebook and collect email addresses from every audience I spoke to. By the end of our festival run, we had no real budget for publicity for our theatrical run, but we had a few thousand email addresses. And that was better than gold. I sent out email newsletters every week, asking our amazing supporters to get their friends in whatever city we were visiting next to come see, come see! And they did!
As the years passed, I sent out fewer and fewer newsletters and spent more and more time on social media. Social media was easier, and let’s be honest — it was more fun. At first it seemed like we were all just goofing around on Twitter, telling ourselves it was good publicity but mostly just cracking jokes. But Twitter proved its enormous value when I started doing Kickstarters. Without Twitter, we’d have been hard pressed to drum up the kind of support we did for Code Monkey Save World, The Princess Who Saved Herself, ABC Disgusting, and Kickstarter Secrets.
In the wake of multiple reports of Twitter failing to curb harassment, I’ve been hungry to find a decent social network alternative. So last month, like thousands of others, I dove back into the new social network Mastodon to see if it might fit the bill. So how’s it gone so far?
Overall, I dig Mastodon! The default interface is pretty reminiscent of Tweetdeck, which is familiar enough. The community vibe is great — as is often the case with a new social network, folks are cheery and happy to be poking around, willing to be a bit more goofy and earnest than they sometimes are on Twitter. The biggest usability knock against Mastodon right now is its system of servers or “instances,” which takes a little effort to wrap your head around. So let’s get that out of the way first…
Mastodon is actually a set of software tools rather than a centralized social network. So different people can run their own “instance” of Mastodon the same way folks can install and run their own WordPress blogs. You can generally follow anyone on Mastodon regardless of what instance you or they have registered with. But when you join Mastodon, you’re actually joining a single instance of Mastodon, which is administered by the folks who set it up.
You need to put a little thought into choosing your instance. The administers of each instance set their own rules, so if you want a Nazi-free environment, make sure to read the terms of the instance to make sure of its policies. And it’s worth considering the fact that if the administrators of your instance get bored or overwhelmed and abandon the service, that instance might get deleted and your posts and contacts could vanish. (I’ve found tools that let you export your follow/block/mute lists, but not your posts. I’ll update if I discover a way to do this.)
If you just want to use Mastodon as a Twitter alternative, now all you need to do is follow a bunch of people and start posting. The posts of people you follow will end up in your “Home” column and their posts and follows to you will show up in your “Notifications” column. But Mastodon also gives you a “Local Timeline,” which shows all the posts of everyone in your instance, even if you’re not following them directly. And it gives you a “Federated Timeline,” which shows you all the posts of everyone that people in your instance follow. In practice, the “Local Timeline” is pretty cool for small instances, like comicspace.masto.host, which only has 257 users right now. But the Federated timeline can be overwhelming, particularly for big instances like mastodon.social, which has 116,000 users.
My advice? If the “Local” and “Federated” timelines confuse or bother you? Ignore ’em! Otherwise, poke into ’em from time to time to find new users to follow or conversations to join.
The next question you’ll probably have is whether you need to join multiple instances. Many of us comics people initially joined mastodon.social — you can find me there at mastodon.social/@gregpak. But then folks started the comicspace.masto.host instance, which is moderated by @ladyvader99 and Ken Lowery. I joined that instance as well and I like popping in there to see what’s going on. But I do most of posting from my mastodon.social account, where I have the most followers. I don’t love the fact that you can’t register a single username with some central Mastodon authority and use it globally across all instances — that would make the whole experience much simpler than having multiple usernames and logins. (This one issue may be what keeps Mastodon from ever getting the kind of mass influx of users that could make it a real Twitter killer. For now, I’m not letting it bother me too much — I’m just using the service in a way that makes sense for me and enjoying it.)
Onward to bullet points!
WHAT I WANT FROM A SOCIAL NETWORK AND HOW MASTODON STACKS UP
1. Strong, enforced anti-harassment and anti-Nazi policies
The instances I’ve joined at Mastodon have such policies, which is fantastic. But it’s worth noting that each instance is run by private administrators who may or may not have the long-term time or ability to enforce their policies. Harassers can be very effective at dog-piling and overwhelming when they put their mind to it. But at least administrators can declare their policies and have the tools to enforce them. And if a bunch of harassers are coming from a specific instance, administrators can block that entire instance. For what it’s worth, right now the vibe at the instances I’m part of is great.
2. Twitter-like layout with a timeline of many short posts rather than a Facebook-like timeline of longer, blog-like posts.
Mastodon delivers here. The posts can be up to 500 characters, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming at all. Mostly seeing quick, short posts.
3. Strictly chronological timeline — most recent posts appearing first.
Yes! Thank you!
4. Decent interface, usability.
It’s fine, particularly if you’ve ever used Tweetdeck before. If you want a more Twitter-like interface, you can log into halcyon.social with your Mastodon username and you’ll get a very familiar layout. For iOS, I’m using Tootdon, which is fine.
5. Privacy and security.
My biggest caveats about Mastodon right now involve privacy, security, and long term viability. Since the instances are run by private individuals/administrators, there’s no global control over privacy and security. Depending on your perspective, you could see this as a bonus. But I’m unclear on whether administrators have the ability to view private messages, for example, so I’m not using that feature at all. (I’ll update this later if I learn more about how private messages work.)
I also can’t find a button to delete my account. Presumably, I could delete all my individual posts. But that could take a loooong time, depending on how much I’ve been using the system. And if I’ve joined multiple instances, I’d have to repeat the process for each instance. [UPDATE: Mastodon user slipstream has notified me that you CAN delete your account — go to Settings > Security and there’s a link at the bottom of the page!] One good thing — I was worried whether deleting a post in my instance would also delete its retweets or “boosts” in other instances. But I just tested it, and deleting a post seems to delete it across instances, which is great.
6. Tons of people.
Here’s where Mastodon suffers. Lots of people signed up in April when the service got its first big wave of publicity, and a bunch more signed up last month when Twitter made a few big harrassment-related mistakes. But right now my Mastodon timeline feels pretty slow. Come play!
7. Other wing-dings like the ability to display gifs & video.
Mastodon doesn’t currently play gifs automatically, and it doesn’t have a built-in gif selector. Gifs are fun, so that’s unfortunate, but not a dealbreaker. [UPDATE: Eugen contacted me on Mastodon to let me know that gifs CAN autoplay — you just have to enable that in Preferences!]
Mastodon also doesn’t display a preview of pages you link to or playable videos. Again, it makes things a bit less fun and less likely to get clicked on or shared. But not a dealbreaker at the moment.
Mastodon doesn’t allow for quote-tweeting, which is something that I’ve gotten accustomed to using on Twitter. But I just did a quick Q&A on Mastodon and used the good 0ld fashioned manual RT method to show the questions, which is fine for now.
OKAY, SOUNDS COOL. WHO SHOULD I FOLLOW?
Glad you asked! Lots of fun comics people and writers are goofing around on Mastodon right now — here are just a few pretty active folks to get ya started! (I’ll add to this over time.)
Dean Trippe has created an incredibly moving piece of art with his short comic book story “Something Terrible,” an autobiographical work about childhood trauma and the power of superheroes. I broke down and cried while reading it the first time and HIGHLY recommend you back the project on Kickstarter today.
Hey, friends. I recently had bookplate stickers made (thanks to everyone who chimed in with design advice!) and I figured it’s time to start giving some away. So here’s the deal…
Stan Sakai, the brilliant creator of the USAGI YOJIMBO comic book series, has had a heartbreakingly difficult winter, which you can read about here. His family is currently dealing with medical bills for his wife Sharon’s cancer treatment. The Cartoon Art Professional Society is collecting donations via Paypal here.
If you donate to Stan, I will send you a signed bookplate and a sheet of Code Monkey stickers. Here’s a direct link to the Paypal donation form:
After you make your donation, just email me at vm at pakbuzz dot com with your mailing address and I’ll send you the bookplate and stickers. Please note that you can donate ANY AMOUNT and I’ll hook you up with the bookplate and stickers.
We’re working on the honor system here, so be cool, which I know you are.
Thanks so much for considering helping out Stan Sakai, and please feel free to spread the word.
An eight year old Dallas boy named Donald Maiden, Jr. was shot in the face by a stranger Tuesday night. Family friends are raising money for his medical costs. This story broke my heart and I donated. I hope you’ll consider helping out as well.
I’m honestly a little choked up here. Mrs. Stow, the 4th grade public school teacher from Hereford, Texas, whose book fund I’ve been tweeting and posting about, has made her goal! Here’s what she just posted on her DonorsChoose.org page:
Words can not really express how much this means to me and my students. When we received an email about a donation I would share it with my students. I would hear “YYEESSS” come out of their mouths. They are so excited to have these new books in our class. Many of them have a hard time believing someone who doesn’t know them would donate money so they could have books. I ALWAYS told them..it’s because you are loved and people like to help others.
You guys came through with hundreds of dollars for Mrs. Stow’s kids, and now they’ll have books, which is just about the best gift any kid can get.
UPDATE: You’ve donated more than $600! Just over $300 left to go!
UPDATE: You guys donated over $200 to Mrs. Stow’s campaign yesterday! I love you. Keep it coming!
I was inspired and moved by the amazing Kevin Church’s recent campaign to raise money for a teacher’s DonorsChoose.org effort to buy books for a class of Navajo school kids. So I figured I’d jump on the bandwagon and give it a shot!
If you donate $10 or more, email vm at pakbuzz dot com with your mailing address and I’ll send you some “Code Monkey Save World” stickers as a thank you.
Here’s an excerpt from Mrs. Stow’s appeal:
I have a group of fourth graders. They are fun, crazy, and love to be at school. I teach in a Title I school where my kiddos are from VERY unstable and low socio-economic homes. Our classroom is the only place they see books and we are in need or more books.
I’m not sure if any of you grew up in a home where you did not have a book. NOT ONE SINGLE BOOK! Please help us get these book collections for our classroom. These kids need them and they will always remember having fun books to read.
We’re all book people here, right? Few things are more important indicators of a child’s eventual success at school than having access to books. And this looks like a tremendous way to put dollars directly into a teacher’s hands so she can give her kids the books they need.