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Mastodon WTF timeline

Sun 23 Apr 2017 by mskala Tags used: , , ,

In the last few days I've been fortunate to witness an interesting chapter in the Internet's history, and I'm trying to compile a timeline of what has happened while the memories are still reasonably fresh. This is incomplete and a work in progress; I'll be updating it, and not necessarily in chronological order, as I dig up other things worth including. Some of my TODO markers may remain. But here goes.

Times and dates are in Japanese time for reasons that will become apparent. I am @mattskala@mstdn.io (English-language account) and @mattskala@mstdn.jp (Japanese-language) and those are the preferred places to discuss this stuff.

Background: the Culture War

There was a war on Twitter in the mid-2010s between factions that could be called "Red/Right/GamerGate/MRA" and "Blue/Left/aGG/SJW." What it was about was complicated, not well understood by most participants, and far beyond the scope of these notes. My even mentioning those names for the two sides will offend some people and will likely open me to accusations that I'm on the wrong side. I hope to keep that stuff out of here; what's important is that there were two sides, you all know what I'm talking about if you were involved in it at all, if you weren't then you maybe don't need to know, and it was a really big deal to the people involved. It may be another 20 years before it's possible to see clearly enough to map out what really happened. You can get some idea of what was going on, and in particular why I'm calling the sides "Red" and "Blue," from Scott Alexander's article on the subject - though its scope is mostly US society and filter bubbles in general, rather than the way the Culture War unfolded on the Net.

It also became tied into political issues off of the Net, especially in the USA, but that's even further away from the topic of the present posting. And I'm well aware that the issues involved had been simmering for decades before the mid-2010s. I wrote about the relevant issues in the 1990s myself, and I saw the whole thing rehearsed on Livejournal in the 2000s, but this isn't the time and place for going into that history either.

The war was almost exclusively an English-language phenomenon, and largely though not exclusively relevant to the USA in particular. It passed unnoticed in communities not using the English language, such as, for instance, Japan - where Twitter was also hugely popular.

And Twitter allied itself with the Blue side in the war, making the Red side progressively more and more unwelcome on the system. Some of this alliance was expressed overtly, for instance by creating an "advisory board" to guide Twitter culture and staffing it with some of the most hateful of Blue leaders. Other actions were done covertly, such as by "shadowbanning" persons identified as Red by AI systems to prevent them from being able to communicate with each other through Twitter while maintaining plausible deniability that the system was taking a side. This stuff created a steady stream of Red refugees who still wanted to use a system like Twitter but didn't want to or could not use Twitter in particular. But there were also many on the Blue side angry that the Red side still had not been completely annihilated and they considered themselves refugees from a space rendered unsafe by the ongoing presence of the Red side. Both kinds of people wanted to go somewhere other than Twitter.

Twitter's ongoing efforts to monetize users with advertising and privacy invasion were also making everybody more and more uncomfortable, and the notable lack of financial success of these efforts was making it look like Twitter would soon go out of business and be unable to serve even the users who were happy to remain.

In the relatively dim past there had been a protocol called OStatus, which was designed to be able to provide something similar in nature to Twitter but through a "federation" of independent servers called "instances" instead of being sponsored by a single commercial entity. The only implementation of this protocol big enough to be worth mentioning was GNU Social. A few people left Twitter, started GNU Social instances, and built their own network. These people, as far as I can tell, included a few who were strongly Red and some, probably the majority, sick of war entirely but maybe leaning pale Blue. Different instances specialized in different directions and they managed to more or less coexist because each instance was free to choose whom it would "federate" with.

In the Fall of 2016 someone built a new implementation of OStatus called Mastodon, which was notable for presenting a user interface very similar to an earlier, and well-liked, version of the Twitter user interface. So with Mastodon, someone could use the OStatus federated network (then primarily populated by GNU Social and its users) and have it look a lot like Twitter.

The mastodon.social instance run by the main developer of the software, and many of the other first-established instances, are registered in France. Early surveys of the users indicated that French people were the majority. Nonetheless, English quickly became the main language used for talking on the network, even by the French.

Around March 2017 I started hearing about Mastodon in a significant way from my contacts on Twitter, who I'd like to emphasize include both Red and Blue (making me unusual among Twitter users) as well as a lot of Japanese people who are outside that classification. There also started to be media coverage of Mastodon at this time. The coverage, all from Blue-aligned media, largely presented Mastodon as a cool new alternative to Twitter that would be free of "harassment," which is a Blue code word for the mere existence of the Red side. GNU Social by this point was already falling out of focus; the entire network and protocol had started to be referred to as "Mastodon," with the majority of new users coming into all OStatus systems coming in through Mastodon instances in particular. There was also a strong emphasis on the one instance mastodon.social in particular (run by the developer of the Mastodon software, who goes by the alias "Gargron.") Not all reports were clear on the possibility of there being other instances beyond mastodon.social, or other software in the federation beyond Mastodon.

At that time I thought I could see the train wreck coming, because I knew enough to know that the Red side was already strongly entrenched in the pre-Mastodon GNU Social network, and I thought I foresaw that as Blue users showed up thinking they owned the place, the federation would dissolve into fighting the same war that had devastated English-language Twitter, and so it would never be a successful Twitter replacement. I was wrong about this; what actually turned out to be the big divisive issue was something much more entertaining.

But I, personally, had more or less come to terms with what I saw as the inevitable loss of the English-language Twitter community. The seeds for that were sown as soon as Twitter the company took a side in the war, years ago. All my close friends from English-language Twitter I can keep in touch with in other ways anyway - I'm not going to lose them when the site finally does go out of service. But I would miss my Japanese friends from Twitter. It is not the custom among Japanese users to use real names on the Net, at all. I corresponded with one woman in Sendai for years, and she travelled from there to Tokyo (a distance of 365 kilometres) to meet me in person, before she would so much as tell me her full name, and that's not nearly as weird in Japan as it sounds to me (or probably to you) as a member of the English-speaking Net culture. It's just not the done thing to maintain personal ties across more than one Web site. So if I lost Twitter, then I'd lose all contact with a number of my friends and I'd be unhappy about that.

Therefore, for a long time I've been keeping my eyes open for a Twitter alternative that, as my primary selection criterion, needs to be the place where my Japanese friends choose to go when they leave Twitter. In the second week of April 2017 it started to sound like Mastodon might be that place; I was hearing mentions of it from multiple independent Japanese sources on Twitter, and by the end of the week I decided to try it myself. I wasn't the only one.

The Japanese invasion

I don't want to spend too many words on this, but some context is absolutely necessary at this point. In the Japanese language there are two terms ロリコン and 児童ポルノ. If you like ロリコン then you're a nerd, but that's not a big deal. It is legal and popular and sold in bookstores everywhere. I cannot emphasize enough that ロリコン is not only legal but really acceptable in Japan. It's merely nerdy. On the other hand, if you like 児童ポルノ then you're an evil sicko monster, and 児童ポルノ is highly illegal. It's also unpopular, as a matter of statistics; the number of people who actually are interested in 児童ポルノ is vanishingly small as a fraction of the Japanese population. Japanese see these as two completely and obviously distinct things.

Both terms can be translated into English as "child pornography."

In English-speaking cultures, the idea that these two Japanese terms describe fundamentally different concepts and are not just two different names for one thing, is an alien idea. And the one thing called "child pornography" in English is something absolutely beyond the pale. If you like it in any form then you're an evil sicko monster and even attempting to assert that there could be two different kinds with an important difference between them, makes you suspect. (I was being accused of "pedophilia apologism" almost as soon as I arrived on Mastodon and started talking about this stuff there.)

Partly for that reason and partly to emphasize my own point about the relativeness of the concepts, I'm not going to say right here what the difference between ロリコン and 児童ポルノ actually is, though it should be no mystery to anyone who thinks rationally about what kind of distinction could possibly exist. (EDIT: If you're interested, this is a subject I cover in some detail in my more recent piece on the imagination gap, and other writings linked from there.) I'm also not interested in arguing with Japanese speakers, especially those for whom it's not a native language, about the precisely correct translation of these words; I really need a concise way to express the distinction, and the fact that a distinction does exist in Japanese mainstream opinion is not really open to debate.

The idea that ロリコン is bad in the same way 児童ポルノ is bad, or even that there could be a meaningful category including both ロリコン and 児童ポルノ as if they were somehow comparable, is incomprehensible from the mainstream Japanese point of view. The Japanese see the inability to perceive a difference as confirmation of their existing prejudice that all foreigners are stupid and dangerously insane. The English speakers similarly don't comprehend the Japanese point of view and see the attempt to draw a distinction as confirmation of their existing prejudice that all Japanese are evil and dangerously perverse.

With that in mind: ロリコン and the people who post it are, obviously, banned on Twitter. There's a Web site in Japan called Pixiv, where people post homemade artworks including a significant minority of ロリコン. Posting 児童ポルノ would, obviously, be banned on Pixiv, but the subject seldom comes up; very few Pixiv users would dare try. The Pixiv users would like to be able to post their works, including ロリコン, on Twitter, but they can't do so safely because Twitter is run by stupid and dangerously insane foreigners who don't comprehend that there's an important difference between ロリコン and 児童ポルノ. Japanese Net users would really, really like to have a thing that would be analogous to Twitter, but run on Japanese principles.

Pixiv's user population is about 20 million, nearly all of whom are Japanese. Twitter's population is about 320 million, worldwide and centred on the USA; but Twitter is the most popular social networking site in Japan, and Japan is the only country in the world where Twitter is the most popular social networking site. (EDIT: That was true at the time I wrote it in 2017, but the linked page now (Feb 2019) shows more recent statistics according to which Twitter has fallen to second place in Japan, behind Facebook, and is not number one anywhere. The 2017 chart is still on the linked page if you scroll down, and at this link, although I don't know how long that URL will be stable.) In Twitter's own homeland, it is a bit player far behind Facebook. The entire population of Japan is about 127 million souls, which means that Pixiv covers a large fraction of all the active Net users in Japan, and Twitter likely does too.

Around Wednesday, April 12 (this was before I was involved, I'm looking at old stats to determine it): a university student, @nullkal, creates the mstdn.jp instance, intending to support a Japanese audience. It's quite slow and flaky at first. On Thursday it starts growing extremely rapidly, eventually hitting 42k users, which makes it the second largest instance on the network and barely smaller than mastodon.social, the largest. At that point @nullkal closes registrations (he'd done so briefly a couple of times before), pending a move off of his home computer and onto a hosted server. I myself got my first Mastodon account on mstdn.jp, early Friday morning a little before the closure.

Thursday, April 13: in news not directly related to Mastodon but which may offer some sort of insight into how things are in Japan, the Tokyo High Court rejects appeals from both sides of a lower-court case regarding the work of conceptual artist Megumi "Rokudenashiko" Igarashi, who is thus still guilty of obscenity for something she presented as a work of art that consisted of e-mailing files of scanned 3D point-mesh data of her own vulva to people on the Net. But not guilty for certain other things she also claimed were art works, that were judged to depict vulvas in general rather than any specific real woman's in particular. She is fined 400000 yen, equivalent to about US$3600.

Circa Friday the 14th: English-speaking users, especially on mastodon.social, start becoming horrified by what is varyingly described as a flood of Japanese-language postings; an organized invasion by Japanese Internet trolls; a flood of "anime" (significant because "anime avatars" used by white people had been considered an emblem of the Red side in the Twitter Culture War); and a flood of "child pornography." Thoughtful discussion and unhinged hysteria ensue, simultaneously. The fact of Twitter's having been huge in Japan was not generally known in the English-speaking world at the time, which helps support the sheer incomprehension of where all these people could possibly have come from. There's speculation that maybe Mastodon had received some kind of mainstream media coverage that attracted a lot of Japanese attention, or had attracted attention on some popular Japanese Web site other than Twitter, though neither appears to have really been the case - such coverage happened later, as an effect, not a cause, of the sudden influx of Japanese users.

On the night of Friday the 14th: Pixiv (presumably a small group of their employees tasked to do this as an experiment) creates a Mastodon instance (pawoo.net) and it immediately starts growing on roughly the same curve as mstdn.jp. Early on the morning of the 15th, it passes mastodon.xyz to become the third most populous instance on the entire network. Much traffic on and from this instance consists of the amateur artists who populate Pixiv itself sharing their artwork especially including that which they're not allowed to post on Twitter, namely ロリコン.

Midnight, start of Saturday the 15th: mastodon.xyz announces that it is blocking pawoo.net (i.e. refusing to exchange message traffic) "due to a lot of pedopornographic accounts there, without any action from the administrator." The unbelievable idea that ロリコン is really acceptable to Pixiv and Japan generally, and is not a form of extreme misbehaviour by a fringe of trolls, has not sunk in on the English-language side. Shortly after that, snabeltann.no (a small Norwegian instance) blocks pawoo.net; I'm chatting with the admin at the time and he's quite regretful about the situation, but feels that given Norwegian law on child pornography, he has no other choice. Many other instances seem to be making similar decisions around this time.

Early in the morning of Saturday the 15th: @nullkal starts over with mstdn.jp on a more capable computer, knocking his user database back to zero. I re-create my account there, and create one on mstdn.io so as to have a strong link to the English-language federation should it separate from the Japanese-language instances over the ロリコン issue or for any other reason. The instance immediately starts growing rapidly again, passing mastodon.xyz and then pawoo.net to become third largest by late morning, and then passing mastodon.cloud to become second largest in the early afternoon.

Saturday the 15th, afternoon: Gargron the Mastodon developer and admin of mastodon.social creates a Github issue to discuss technological aspects of the ロリコン issue, mostly focused on the potential legal exposure for server admins whose servers may end up caching, and thus "possessing," material that is illegal to possess in their local jurisdiction. In postings there and on the Mastodon network, both in English and Japanese, the administrators of pawoo.net declare that they will not ban from their own servers material that is legal in Japan, but they will attempt to enforce a rule that "mature images" must be hidden by NSFW tags, and they will cooperate with other technical workers in attempts to keep "mature images" out of caches where they might create liability for third parties.

I think that the word choice of the Pixiv admins calling this stuff "mature images" in their English-language communications is telling: Japanese people think what the English speakers are freaking out over is the possibility that children might see the images. They're "mature" images that ought to be for consenting adults only, is the objection to ロリコン that comes closest to making any kind of sense from a Japanese point of view. The idea that even consenting adults ought not to be allowed to see such images isn't on the Japanese radar, and would seem to be wacky moonbat nonsense, even though it is so obvious, and so obviously sensible, as to be unspoken on the English side.

My assessment is supported by the Japanese-language side of the ongoing discussion on the network itself, where Japanese people frequently suggest (English-language commentary) that the network needs "age verification" and that that will somehow solve the problem. At this point I make it something of my own mission to inform the Japanese that that's not the English-speaking point of view, and verifying the age of users will not solve any relevant aspect of the problem that the English speakers see; while similarly informing the non-Japanese of how the Japanese do see things. I don't know if I make much headway in this effort.

I should also emphasize that much of the value of pawoo.net to Pixiv users in particular, and therefore of the entire Mastodon/GNU Social/OStatus ecosystem to Pixiv as a corporate entity, comes from the fact of ロリコン being allowed on pawoo.net. It is an important minority of the content on Pixiv as an image-sharing site, it's not going away from there, and it isn't allowed on Twitter, creating a demand for a Twitter-like thing where it would be allowed, and that is pawoo.net. Anyone on the English-speaking side who thinks there is a real possibility of somehow shaming Pixiv into banning ロリコン locally on Pixiv's own instance really is a delusional foreigner; much sooner Pixiv would just disconnect pawoo.net from the network entirely (or accept the rest of the network's decision to impose that on them from the other side) and go their own way, and this was true even on the 15th when pawoo.net alone was not yet a significant fraction of the entire network.

Around midnight at the start of Sunday the 16th: Gargron announces that he is silencing pawoo.net on mastodon.social; that is a less extreme form of blocking that prevents pawoo.net's public postings from appearing to mastodon.social users who haven't deliberately subscribed to them, but still allows users on social to make their own connections to users on pawoo. At the time "silencing" isn't available as an option for admins through the standard UI; he does it by manually intervening in the backend database, but quickly adds support to make it an available option through the UI for other administrators.

TODO needs more detail, but starting to be an issue circa the 16th: English-speaking Mastodon users, especially on Blue instances, talk very seriously about how there ought to be an "advisory board" or similar to make sure that the network remains respectful of social justice and inclusion (which notably does not include "including" the Japanese, let alone English-speaking dissidents); they circulate shared block lists attempting to exclude Red and GNU Social instances from the federation. I think, and say at the time, that this looks like an attempt to assert English-language hegemony over a system that will very soon be majority Japanese if it isn't already, as well as asserting Blue power over the pre-existing GNU Social federation and continuing the Culture War that destroyed Twitter. That's what I was afraid of when I first joined, though the rapid Japanese ascendancy offers me some hope that such efforts will simply fall into irrelevance.

Sunday the 16th, noonish: pawoo.net passes mastodon.cloud to become third largest instance. @nullkal announces that he will close signups on mstdn.jp when it reaches "about 60k users" (6万人ぐらい), though when it actually does reach that level on Monday, if he closes it at all it's not for very long (no visible effect in the ongoing growth charts).

Night of Sunday the 16th: mstdn.jp passes mastodon.social to become largest instance.


Afternoon of Monday the 17th: pawoo.net passes mastodon.social to become second largest instance, then has a spurt of very fast growth and passes mstdn.jp also to take first place. Both those two are now at about 60k users. These two instances alone now represent something like 40% of the network (network total roughly 300k users); the actual fraction of the network that is Japanese is probably larger because some of the smaller instances are Japanese too.

Monday the 17th: the terminology of "free speech" versus "safe speech" becomes popular in English-language discussions for describing the growing ideological divide on how instances ought to be run. I first encounter it in this item from Spacedragon but am not sure if that's the first (or only) place it came into use. Free speech instances are generally aligned with the Red Culture War faction (hence also with GNU Social and the older parts of the network) and safe speech instances with Blue (hence Mastodon proper). However, I think it's significant that when we had the same fight on Livejournal ten years earlier, it was the opposite way: fictional "child pornography" in the form of explicit Harry Potter fan art and therefore "free speech" was a Blue/Left/aGG/SJW thing, with the Red/Right/Gamergate/MRA side taking what we'd now call the "safe speech" position. For that reason I'm inclined to think that the link between Culture War sides and free/safe speech is more a matter of historical accident than anything naturally flowing from whatever defines these sides.

TODO more detail, most relevant circa April 18: argument between Gargron and GNU Social people about interpretation of HTML fragments in the inter-instance communications, the extent to which the protocol does or doesn't specify it, the extent to which a new implementation is bound to follow the interpretations of existing implementations, etc. Proxy for other arguments.

Around April 19/20th (I don't have accurate information because it was mostly happening on mastodon.social, where I don't have an account): People on mastodon.social suddenly start speaking Spanish, a whole lot, pushing the English speakers even further into the margins. Since registration on mastodon.social is closed at the time, it appears this is not new people, but existing users (largely from South America) who were previously using English and switched by common consensus. I also hear some complaints, but see no direct evidence, that the Spanish speakers are posting a whole lot of gay porn (photographs of adult men) without warning tags. I'd appreciate readers forwarding me (@mattskala@mstdn.io) links to items on the network describing this situation - as I write this paragraph it's a few days later, and now without any search engine support I'm having a hard time finding good documentation of it, or remembering what I read at the time.

Evening of Wednesday, April 19: the admin of mastodon.potproject.net, a personal instance with one user, modifies his software to report to other systems that he has a little over one million users. This instance appears at the top of most people's statistical reports for the next several hours, apparently containing something like 80% of the entire user population of the network, and not everyone recognizes that the number is obviously fake. Some other instance admins think this behaviour should be punished, much more harshly than I think is appropriate. But nobody can completely trust user statistics collected after this time.

Also evening of Wednesday the 19th: Dwango, the parent company of Niconico, creates the instance friends.nico. Niconico is a popular video-sharing site in Japan, similar in nature to Youtube. I don't have accurate recent user population figures for Niconico, but they claimed 41 million in a 2014 financial report and extrapolating the figures from that report would suggest they might be around 60 million today - a little less than half the entire population of Japan, and probably a majority of Japanese people who are active on the Net. After reaching about 2000 users, friends.nico grows relatively slowly and does not at this point seem on a trajectory to become a "large" instance in the tens of thousands of users range.

Friday, April 21, around noon: friends.nico passes mastodon.xyz to become fifth largest instance, still growing slowly (a few thousand users per day).

Afternoon of Friday the 21st: @nullkal announces that he has been hired by Dwango. There are no plans to merge friends.nico with mstdn.jp, and mstdn.jp is not planned to change in how it operates; but this does mean that three of the top five instances on the network, including both of the top two, are now connected with Japanese media companies.

Shortly after midnight at the start of April 22: Pixiv announces user-account integration between their image-sharing site and pawoo.net, so that if you have a Pixiv account then you can easily create a connected pawoo.net account. I'd actually thought they already had such a feature.

Shortly before midnight at the end of April 22: it is announced that 2ch.net, the notorious Japanese anonymous BBS that inspired 2chan.net, which in turn inspired the English-language 4chan, will add a feature enabling 2ch.net users to easily share items into the Mastodon network through gs.smuglo.li, a small but well-known instance of the GNU Social lineage aligned with Red-tribe politics, ロリコン, the "free speech" side of the Mastodon moderation discussion, and trolling. This instance was already banned by most Blue-aligned and "safe speech" instances on general principles. ETA: I've confirmed (April 25) that the feature really has been added in at least some parts of 2ch.net. Further edit: to clarify that this refers to 2ch.net, which is not the same as 2chan.net.

Afternoon of Sunday, April 23: friends.nico suddenly starts growing at about the same rate previously seen for mstdn.jp and pawoo.net the previous weekend. This lasts for about 24 hours, then it returns to its former growth rate. ETA: apparently what happened was one person created about 16k accounts via script to inflate their number of followers. As of midday on the 26th, the accounts remain on the system. This makes the size comparison between friends.nico and mastodon.cloud, somewhat less meaningful.

Evening of April 23rd: some people of the "pale Blue" GNU Social faction, or on Mastodon instances aligned with darker Blue, are really upset at Gargron for accepting donations to fund Mastodon development, which now amount to a full-time salary and enable him not to have any other job, without giving them a share, though their contributions to Mastodon "development" have primarily not been on the software Mastodon but rather the "community." See next item.

Circa start of April 24th: someone writes a widely-circulated English-language commentary on Medium "mourning" the claimed fact that Mastodon has ceased to be "queer." There is no mention of Japan, nor of anything or anybody outside the boundaries of the English language. The article claims that "the queer community" is "the progenitor" of the Mastodon project, though this does not appear to refer to literal construction of the technology but to something more social in nature. It is widely ridiculed.

Monday, April 24, about 5am: all-time total number of postings on mstdn.jp surpasses that of mastodon.social, bringing it to the top of the number-of-postings ranking too despite mstdn.jp being a much younger instance with a much shorter history.

Afternoon of April 24: pawoo.net announces that they are adding a local media timeline, which will show only image postings from the local instance. masto.host announces a commercial hosting service for Mastodon instances.

Morning of April 25: Gargron posts a "post-mortem" of what happened in April, notable to me primarily for what it doesn't say. He's addressing his Patreon supporters with what he thinks they want to know about, and that's fine. But the article briefly mentions Pawoo without mentioning that Pawoo is now the biggest instance in the entire "fediverse", it doesn't mention mstdn.jp at all (second-biggest instance, which together with Pawoo then formed about 40% of the Mastodon network, both user populations almost entirely Japanese). It describes a growth spurt of users from "French Twitter" apparently on mastodon.social, but doesn't mention the much larger influx of Japanese users to the network as a whole over the 15/16 weekend.

April 26: the network (Mastodon only, as counted by instances.mastodon.xyz) exceeds 500k users total, and friends.nico passes mastodon.cloud to become fourth most populous instance. However, this number still includes the 16k fake users, and a subsequent garbage collection of unconfirmed accounts pushes it back into fifth place.

April 27: pawoo.net exceeds 100k users, and shortly after that its total number of postings exceeds that of mastodon.social, pushing the latter into third place on the number-of-postings ranking.

April 27: rumours circulate on the Japanese instances that mstdn.jp costs 6 million yen (about US$54000) per month to operate, which sounds high to say the least. These appear to originate in a posting on Twitter, deleted before I had the chance to see it, from someone associated with nijie.info, who I think may have been estimating what it would cost a commercial organization to build something like mstdn.jp from scratch, rather than a measurement of what the existing instance actually does cost. @nullkal's Enty crowdfunding page reports at the time 113 subscribers at 500 yen per month for a total of about US$500 per month, but also a total of 165 subscribers and 1.13 million yen per month (about US$10k). I suspect the latter is either a desired target, or a total amount actually collected over some recent time frame including one-time non-subscription donations, especially because (as of April 30) the 165/1.13million numbers have not increased even though other subscriber counts have increased. I don't read Japanese well enough to be certain.

April 28: Mastodon 1.3 is released. It has serious bugs and instances that upgrade immediately suffer problems as a result. A fix for the worst of the bugs (1.3.1) is released almost immediately. However, Mastodon 1.3 also has some changes to its privacy options which highlight the previously-existing issue that non-Mastodon software will not necessarily obey privacy instructions given by Mastodon in proprietary extensions of the protocol. Even in a purely Mastodon network, an administrator can subvert the privacy instructions. So if you write a message and you intend it to be seen only by a few specific users on other instances, that message may be federated to another server that shows it to everybody. There are also non-obvious interactions among settings: for instance, you can easily set your postings to be visible only to followers and also allow everybody in the world to follow you without needing further permission, which will not really keep anything very secret at all. Where messages will travel, who can read them, and who is "trusted" in the security sense of being allowed to have discretion over the rules, is not at all obvious to end users, and the additional warnings built into 1.3 to help inform users largely have the effect of making users more worried and confused. Given that instance admins already distrust each other, and especially Mastodon admins distrust admins of GNU Social, the increased awareness of the complicated privacy situation adds fuel to existing fires.

April 28: Kadokawa ASCII Research Laboratories sponsors a Mastodon workshop in Tokyo (Web log entry, another Web log entry). Most of the proceedings are about technical issues for large instances, and corporate involvement. There's little or no mention of the English-language side of the network and the issues being fought there.

Friday, April 29: Golden Week begins, a time of year when many Japanese go on vacation because several nearly-consecutive statutory holidays make it appealing to take off the other weekdays in between as well. People doing this probably won't be at work again until Monday, May 8.

Starting April 30: the safe speechers have a big fight, mostly among themselves but with enough free speechers involved to be blamed for it, apparently (hard for me to be certain because I have some of the principal participants blocked) over "pro-anorexia" comments, thus recapitulating another fight we had on Livejournal ten years before.

Update: end of February, 2019

In the almost two years since I first posted this, it's attracted a lot of attention. I don't propose to keep this updated as a complete history of Mastodon, but events of the last few days have made it clear that there are a few points worth noting.

First, here are the top ten instances by user count as of this writing, February 27, 2019. Some of them are the same large instances from 2017, but others are new.


The instance counter.social came online in November 2017. It has little or no contact with the rest of the network because, unlike most other Mastodon instances, it is very much on the Red side of the Culture War (would be called "far-right" by its enemies) and it doesn't really participate in federation.

In April 2018, the USA implemented laws referred to as SESTA/FOSTA, which attempted to crack down on prostitution by creating sweeping liability for operators of advertising platforms - especially online classified systems commonly used for advertising sexual services, such as Backpage. Backpage itself was "seized" and shut down by the authorities; places like Craigslist, which were also used for such advertising, made changes to their terms of service and enforcement policies in order to reduce their legal exposure. The instance switter.at, now third largest among Mastodon instances, was created to accommodate SESTA/FOSTA refugees from other online platforms. It describes itself as "an open and free community for sex workers." Although it has at least some federation with other instances (I've gotten notifications of one or two accounts from there following me on mstdn.io, so the link does exist), there doesn't seem to be much message traffic between it and the rest of the network. Users on "switter" seem primarily interested in instance-local communication.

In November 2018, Tumblr made changes to its terms of service banning all "adult content." Their published statements made it clear they were particularly concerned about "child pornography," but the ban went far beyond child pornography or any kind of pornography to cover pretty much any material that might be called "NSFW." Many users driven away from Tumblr (nearly all of them English-speaking and politically Blue) came to Mastodon, especially mastodon.social and the purpose-created instances humblr.social (now at #5 on the population ranking) and sinblr.com (which would be at #11 if my list went that far).

On February 25, 2019, Twitter "updated" its Japanese-language terms of service to spell out that its ban on sexual depictions of underage persons includes drawings of fictional characters, even when no sex acts as such are depicted, and possibly even text alone in some cases; basically all forms of ロリコン are banned. That is substantially the same thing that the English-language terms of service already said. What is new is that it has been made more clear in Twitter's Japanese-language documentation. The ToS change was treated as a shock and a surprise by many Japanese-speaking users, and even many who were not involved in posting ロリコン art themselves no longer felt safe continuing to use Twitter. It is worth knowing that the Japanese-language Twitter community has a long history of feeling put-upon by arbitrary censorship. For instance, for some time it appeared to be the case that if a user identified by Twitter's automated system as Japanese posted the character "殺" (which means "kill") regardless of context, they would automatically receive an account suspension. (Only users who primarily posted in Japanese; people with English-language accounts were not able to reproduce the behaviour.) Having seen episodes like that one, it may be quite reasonable for a Japanese user who has no interest in posting underage sexual material to fear being caught up in a robot-enforced crackdown.

The Twitter terms of service change triggered another influx of Twitter users into Japanese-language Mastodon instances much in the pattern of the April 14, 2017 wave described above. Many of them came into the instance pawoo.net in particular. The user population on pawoo went from 450707 on February 24 to 498208 at the same time on February 26, an increase of over 10% and almost 50k accounts in 48 hours. As of February 27 it is still growing at a rate of a few thousand per day, which is considerably more than the baseline rate of growth before the wave hit. Note that the 48-hour increase in pawoo's population between the 24th and 26th all by itself is roughly the size of friends.nico, the current seventh largest instance. This wave of Japanese art lovers felt smaller for English-speaking Mastodon than the wave of April 14, 2017 because the network is much larger today and they were largely coming into existing Japanese-language instances partially segregated from the English part of the federation. But by raw numbers the 2019 wave is larger.

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owen - 2017-04-23 21:48
Well written. One day there might be an entire book on this topic listed under the "Internet history" section that includes this as a primary source.
Hector - 2017-04-23 22:48
Someone left a note on a node that is assumed to be censored by the one your account is hosted at: https://shitposter.club/notice/2648025
They hope it is useful.
Anonymous - 2017-04-24 03:49
Thanks for the pointer, Anonymous. I don't think shitposter.club is banned by mstdn.io; I got the notifications from that thread just fine. I didn't answer quickly just because I was asleep.
Matt - 2017-04-24 07:21
Re: message formatting and the Medium post: I understand this whole post is a work-in-progress, but I think it's important to point out that those events came out from long-standing issues that people (in some cases, former contributors to the codebase) have had with the development process.

The Medium post did cause a small blowup, but it appears to have had a positive impact w/r/t ensuring that e.g. the development process offers actionable pull-request feedback (there have been some PRs that have languished with no accept/reject/please-fix-this indications, which is an annoyance to all parties involved in software development).

That said, very little of this is externally visible unless you're in the development Discord chat, which is frustrating. A more public view is something that appears to also be on the table.
trythil - 2017-04-24 11:41
Tony H.
1) Google Translate gives "Lolicon" and "Child porn" respectively for your two Japanese terms. Certainly the former term alone is unlikely to attract any offence from English speakers, unless or until it becomes known more widely as "some kind of Japanese kiddy porn". Is it feasible to explain to a non Japanese speaking English speaker in a < 10,000 word essay if that first translation is even faintly accurate? That same English speaker would perhaps guess that it's a portmanteau of Lolita and Icon, possibly with elements of LOL tossed in, which if correct makes for a pretty nifty translation in its own right, independent of the actual issue(s).
2) Social site/system takeovers, organized or self-organizing, are not new. Notably, Google's Orkut fairly suddenly became essentially a Brazilian site. Then Google closed it down. :-(
3) The Red/Blue assignment is also roughly reversed between Canada and the USA wrt political parties/leanings. Even the Canadian flag is all red today because the Liberal government of the day (1965) didn't want that evil Conservative blue on it.
Tony H. - 2017-04-24 12:00
trythil - it's still on my to-do list to put in some more stuff about the discussions on how the software project is run, and the recent (subsequent to my first posting this here) announcement of more formalized "roles" within the project.

Tony H. - for me, Google Translate offers the option of translating ロリコン as "lolicon" or as "pedophile." As I said it's not a big mystery: the difference in the terms as I'm using them here is that ロリコン is drawings from imagination and 児童ポルノ is photos or videos of real children. However: there will be people who will tell you that ロリコン is also "non-sexual," and with all due respect to them, I think they're simply in denial. It is or at least it includes material that is very definitely sexually explicit. Not only "soft core" either, though much of it is. Both these terms are sometimes applied more vaguely, and there are other words relevant to the subject, and one person on the network wanted me to distinguish ロリコン as drawings of girls from ショタコン as drawings of boys, and so on. The point I'm trying to make, though, is very simple: Japanese see an important boundary between real and imaginary children, and Americans don't.
Matt - 2017-04-24 12:25
Tony H.
"Japanese see an important boundary between real and imaginary children, and Americans don't."

Americans may well not, but their courts seem to. Canada, not so much, though doubtless there'll be more on that when we see a verdict and presumably appeals on R. vs Harrisson in St. John's (the guy who imported a child sex doll from Japan).
Tony H. - 2017-04-24 15:51
The situation in Canada has been shaped by the reaction to the Sharpe case around the turn of the century, where the issue was whether text alone could qualify as "child pornography." The Supreme Court found that text could be child pornography, but that there had to be some very narrow exceptions made in order for a prohibition of it to be Constitutional. The Conservatives successfully spun that as "The Supreme Court legalized it!" and then spent years selling new laws to the public on the premise that it was necessary to close the "loophole" created by the evil Supreme Court. I'm not sure what the current state of the legislation is; it's been torn down and rewritten a couple times since then, but always with an eye to including not only visual works of the imagination, but text. There've been convictions for text alone under at least one of the iterations of the post-Sharpe law, too.

As for the USA, the situation is complicated by the patchwork of State and Federal laws. Without a doubt some people have successfully defended themselves on the grounds that works of the imagination are not "real" child pornography. But I don't think it's accurate to say that "their courts see a difference" as a blanket statement, at least not to the point of anyone being able to rely on that to stay safe from prosecution. Some courts see some difference. Some don't see enough difference. Some of the US legislation is very definitely designed for the purpose of capturing imaginary works, and some people have really been convicted on that. As I said in the Livejournal discussion a decade ago: "The current statutes, case law, and public perception all include fictional materials among materials you're not allowed to publish, both in Canada and the USA. People have been tried, convicted, and had their lives ruined for possessing fictional material, both in Canada and the USA. There is every reason to believe that that will happen again in the future. Fictional material is not exempt. "

And that's still true.
Matt - 2017-04-24 16:23
I don't use Mastodon. Thought you'd like to know some of your toots are blocked due to "rule #91". Whatever that is.
steve - 2017-06-21 10:48
Oops. Forgot to mention a screenshot is in the URL field.
steve - 2017-06-21 10:48
It's a joke, which I deliberately played along with. There is no "rule #91"; what's real is a mistake in the software's default CSS code allowing people to make "toots" appear differently from the default. This has been patched in the latest update, so it may not be visible for much longer.
Matt - 2017-06-21 10:54
Hi. You may have already noticed it, but a guy in MIT Media Lab seems to be so big a fan of you that he almost stole this insightful essay in his blog and 130-page relevant report...
Jeffery - 2017-08-20 17:50
Yeah, but I think he got his material from Matthew Scala. :-)
Matt - 2017-08-20 17:59
this is a great article. Thanks for showing some alternatives to conventional social media.
jjsn - 2018-07-04 02:18
Nobody from Hacker News today will read this comment, of course, but: I never claimed to be "impartial." All opinions and all tribal shibboleths presented as beliefs on this subject matter are NOT equally valid and I'm under no obligation to pretend they should be.
Matt - 2018-07-04 09:00
So I was looking at Mastodon and was wondering why pixiv was a sponsor. Did a quick search and found this. Certainly didn't expect to read anything like this tonight. The internet is a wild, wild place.
James - 2018-08-19 21:31
Fuckin fish hook theory all the way down jfc
J - 2018-12-03 19:33
good read, this fight is still ongoing on the small scale on twitter and elsewhere, especially after the tumblr shitstorm.
Twitter must have horrible moderation or ive been given a lot of freedom because I'm almost positive ive angered the 'anti-pedo' crusaders with my drawings and they reported them but they've yet to get removed. I was under the impression twitter acknowledges distinctions between reality and fiction as a result.
itsukarine - 2018-12-14 20:09
Appreciate the longform read on Mastadon history and its interconnection to Twitter and other platforms. Bookmarking for the future when somebody invariably asks me!
Sally - 2019-01-31 15:38
Kovats Tanas
Looks like pixiv userbase doubled "more than 40million" (according to pixiv's fanbox page) i going there for ryona works but i found lot of ... everything, also more and more user from west and from other asian countries (korea/taiwan/thailand/china mainland with vpn)

In the internet i feel this way: on youtube loli videos have lots of hatespeech in english, here in Hungary different: looks like very few people intrested in anime but nobody really care what the weebs doing, for example indavideo hu have some hentai with hungarian subtitles, but unlike english sites nobody really care here (also no fictional porn can be illegal here)

Not long ago there was an international dispute from lolicon, and ... Remain legal
Kovats Tanas - 2019-07-21 02:55

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