In praise of the internet's house parties
Mastodon, Buzzfeed, Taylor Swift, cooking blogs, socialites and "pronatalists"
I really want to like Mastodon
I feel the way about Mastodon that I do about hardcore couponing and chess. Like: This is probably a worthwhile thing. But: I might be too incurious or lazy to grasp it.
Mastodon, you’ve surely heard, is a leading contender to replace Twitter when that four-alarm fire inevitably collapses into a $44-billion pile of cinder, transphobia and empty desks. In preparation, more than a million people have tested the Mastodon waters … and then, in many cases, beat a fast retreat to the hell home that is Muskland.
Mastodon is, admittedly, not easy to join or navigate. It’s so difficult, in fact, that news outlets are publishing entire explainers on simple platform functions like how to DM. At the risk of oversimplifying, however, let’s say Mastodon consists of some 9,000 loosely confederated, semi-siloed communities that each have their own theme, culture and customs.
You pick a home base when you sign up; you can follow users from other home bases later. Then you get three increasingly broad feeds … and almost none of the familiar incentives that Twitter gave you for chasing attention.
Mastodon won’t let you search the text of “toots,”’ for instance, or suggest popular users or posts to you. (One wonders why chirp or post or publish wasn’t considered the optimal term.) You can’t see how many “boosts” a “toot” gets. You can’t quote-tweet (quote-toot?) others’ posts. Mastodon denotes replies with a vague “+1” … whether there are two responses or two thousand. And getting more replies or boosts or likes does not surface your toot to a wider audience.
In other words, (a) there’s no unifying, communal Mastodon experience; (b) amassing followers, RTs or replies doesn’t come with any perks; and (c) the platform won’t really help you find followers (or followees) — you do all that search and discovery work.
This is, as others have noted, both baffling and tedious to the Twitter diaspora. But it’s also deliberate. And really smart! The best explanation I’ve read on the core difference between Twitter and Mastodon comes from the librarian and long-time user Hugh Rundle, who wrote that Mastodon is a series of small house parties and Twitter is a crazy, crowded club. Twitter may be more fun, but it’s also more pressure: “To chase likes and retweets/boosts. To promote [yourself]. To perform.”
This is why I really want to like Mastodon, even if I don’t “get” it yet. At first glance, at least, Mastodon seems to solve a lot of the growing qualms I’ve had about Twitter. At some point in the last couple years, I — like a generation of “heavy tweeters” — transitioned from someone who lived on the app to someone who tweets not at all. In my case, I just grew exhausted and anxious with the pressure of fulfilling some undefined role for some unknown/often unkind audience. Did tweets with low RTs make me look irrelevant? Did I have to show up because everybody was there?
On Mastodon, I’m looking for a party that’s a little more chill. Even if I don’t know the dress code yet. (Plz send me server recs — I’m looking to move! I’m @email@example.com for the moment.)
If you read anything this weekend
“Billionaires Like Elon Musk Want to Save Civilization by Having Tons of Genetically Superior Kids,’” by Julia Black in Insider. Have said it before, will say it again: My main gut-level indicator of a story’s interestingness is how many times I interrupt whatever Jason’s doing to tell him about it. This was like a 10-interruption story. HISTORIC interruption levels. It was definitely my introduction to the “pronatalist” movement — a bunch of wildly deranged and very wealthy Silicon Valley narcissists attempting to repopulate earth in their image (?!).
“The Age of Social Media is Ending,” by Ian Bogost in The Atlantic. Around 2009, social networking (connecting with a circle of personal contacts) became social media (widely publishing, broadcasting, “generating content”). The pendulum might be swinging the other way, which is why I’m a Mastodon optimist.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Buzzfeed,” by Mia Sato in The Verge. Buzzfeed is down to 30 editorial staff and losing eyeballs by the month … which may say less about Buzzfeed than it does the long, slow death of early 2010s-style online media.
“The Woks of Life Is Shaping Chinese Home Cooking in America. And It’s Only Getting Started,” by Kat Chow in Bon Appétit. Love my dear friend Kat’s profile of the family behind the blockbuster cooking blog “Woks of Life,” who are now go-to authorities on Chinese food … and perhaps one of the internet’s most likeable families of influencers.
“How Molly Jong-Fast Tweeted Her Way to Liberal Media Stardom,” by Michael M. Grynbaum in the New York Times. We all love an Upper East Side socialite, I just … didn’t know Molly Jong-Fast was one! The writer/podcaster/unrivaled queen of Resistance Twitter apparently also throws Momufuku-catered parties with Joyce Carol Oates and Kathy Griffin.
👉 ICYMI: The most-clicked link from our last newsletter was this expletive-laden essay on Twitter and Elon Musk.
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Tired of seeing the same books on TikTok over and over? Reading Under the Radar brings you weekly recommendations for the best books you’ve never heard of, like a modern-day treasure hunt, a memoir of a girl who lives in total darkness, or a dark academia revenge thriller.
Weird corporate Twitter does TikTok. Meetings are the new movies. Meet the group monetizing AI porn and the libraries getting into streaming. What we lose when we lose Twitter. How political campaigns know so much about you. Inside one of the clearnet’s last black holes (cw: child abuse).
Ticketmaster v. T Swift fans. Elon Musk v. himself. The disturbing history of Black androids and the rise of blind dating apps. Everything on Amazon is an ad now. Everything everywhere else is a game. (See also: last week’s newsletter on the Duolinguists cheating for vague, pointless online fame). PewDiePie dethroned. Roku City admired. The VCs of Gen Z profiled. Last and also least, second only to pronatalists: the most “wtf” thing I’ve seen in a while.
That’s it for this week! Until the next one. Warmest virtual regards.