The Great Desolation: Thoughts on Mastodon and BlueSky
I always had maintained a strained relationship with ’the social network
formerly known as Twitter,’ i.e. ‘X.’ On the one hand, I had
a semi-curated newsfeed, on the other hand, I started seeing the allure
of more and more posturing. When conference deadlines rolled around,
I was not always looking forward to the many posts of the form ‘So
grateful that my lab has
$INSANE_NUMBER_OF_PAPERS accepted at
$AWESOME_CONFERENCE. Nevertheless, until recently, ‘X’ still provided
a lot of value to me, but the recent changes in management, accompanied
by a general increase in instability, made me look for alternatives.1
I am particularly interested in services that aim to provide a federated network, since the silo or ‘walled garden’ mentality of the early 2000s opposes the fundamental principles of the internet, viz. that protocols should be interoperable to ensure participation by the largest number of people.2
Since Threads is not available to European users yet, I can only offer some sparse insights into two services, Mastodon and BlueSky, which occupy very different points in the landscape of social networks.
Mastodon is the foremost platform for decentralised
social networks. Anyone can run a service—an instance—and
communicate with others. I created my usual handle
an instance called Mathstodon.xyz, which offers
a save haven to everyone interested in mathematics. I am now known as
but the great thing is that I could switch instances if I need to.3
While my interactions on Mastodon have been pleasant so far, it all
feels a little bit smaller than ‘X.’ Maybe that is a good thing for the
being—theoretically—able to run my own server any case; way back
when, I ran an elgg instance for a couple of
friends, but it took never off. However, the overall process of
following people from other instances still feels clunky to me; I guess
that is an inevitable drawback of federation.
Thanks to David, I got an
invite to this network. BlueSky aims to forge its own path by pitching
the AT Protocol, yet another standard to allow
federation, but wholly incompatible with Mastodon’s
I cannot say that I really delved into the technical details of that
protocol, but what I dig about it is that you get to create your own
verified handles by either using
DNS TXT records or a web server with
.well-known route. That speaks to the inner nerd of me, so of course
I had to fiddle with this, and I am now
on that platform:
% dig -t TXT _atproto.pseudomanifold.topology.rocks ; <<>> DiG 9.18.18 <<>> -t TXT _atproto.pseudomanifold.topology.rocks ;; global options: +cmd ;; Got answer: ;; ->>HEADER<<- opcode: QUERY, status: NOERROR, id: 48713 ;; flags: qr rd ra; QUERY: 1, ANSWER: 1, AUTHORITY: 0, ADDITIONAL: 1 ;; OPT PSEUDOSECTION: ; EDNS: version: 0, flags:; udp: 512 ;; QUESTION SECTION: ;_atproto.pseudomanifold.topology.rocks. IN TXT ;; ANSWER SECTION: _atproto.pseudomanifold.topology.rocks. 10 IN TXT "did=did:plc:iyzbg5xvdcdtquruxwofbczn"
As far as I understand, the handle ‘belongs’ to me, and I could take it with me to another BlueSky instance, provided there are any in the future. That is very neat but also fully captures my interaction with the network so far; like Mastodon, it feels slower and empty. Maybe I missed out on the original exodus?
I am not enthralled by any of these options, including X. Having to choose between whimsical admins and empty timelines is a choice between Scylla and Charybdis. As X is starting to slowly wind down, at least when it comes to academic content, I am not sure what—if anything—will replace it. If I had my say, I would love to have a multi-protocol app, like the venerable Miranda NG that spanned different protocols. That way, I could post and read from a single source, without having to juggle multiple apps.
I am glad that we developed e-mail well before these social networks; otherwise, I would have to visit 5 different websites to communicate with people. If the future is decentralised, I hope it will make it easy for people to participate.
(Feel free to follow me via
@Pseudomanifold@mathstodon.xyz on Mastodon or
@Pseudomanifold.topology.rocks on BlueSky; I would love to have more
activity in my timeline)
I still maintain my presence on X for the time being. ↩︎
I also admit to having doubts about my content being ‘owned’ by someone else, but the ephemeral nature of services like X makes that worry somewhat moot. ↩︎
Although in practice, some things like transferring followers and so on might not work out because of the decentralised nature. There are also, as far as I can tell, no safeguards against rogue admins, meaning that one still has to trust the admins. Since this is essentially the same problem as with other services, I do not see it as a large drawback. ↩︎