On Mastodon's UX Issues (and how to fix them, maybe)

A frame from the movie this is just a clickbait thumbnail don't worry about it

Though I'm not super active over there, I have been hanging out on meow.social for a while, observing the general happenings.

At least in my feeds, I've noticed a kind of elitist sentiment floating around that Mastodon is already user-friendly enough and that all the people who find it too complex to learn or annoying to use are simply stupid or lazy or something. This is definitely true in some sense – I think most people are indeed "lazy" in that they don't want to put lots of time and effort into learning to use software – but it also feels like a wildly optimistic description of the current state of the platform.

And maybe there is a genuine disconnect; if you're already happily using the site, maybe it is difficult to grasp how it feels like from the perspective of someone only used to centralized social media. But I feel like there's a lot in Mastodon's user experience that could be improved, and that small problems may have larger implications that are worth remarking on even if the core issue is already something everyone is familiar with. Here come some hot takes:

Migrating Accounts is Not Convenient

Federation, in all of its simplicity, means that "Mastodon" is a network connecting users across independently run instances instead of a centralized service operated by a single (corporate) entity. In the age of Elon Musk buying and ruining Twitter, it's a pretty compelling pitch: the only people in control of your experience are the administrators of your instance of choice, and if you're not happy with what they do, simply move elsewhere.

Of course, "simply move elsewhere" requires some elaboration – it is a pretty central feature the benefits of federation hinge on. You see, in spite of Musk's constant efforts, Twitter still exists and more or less works, at least whenever it's not down due to technical issues. But individual Mastodon instances, being unsurprisingly less resilient to challenges all social media platforms face, are shut down all the time, and users can be forced to migrate for other reasons as well, like instances blocking each other and cutting people off from their followers and followeds. Mastodon's promise is not "more stability" – it's "less stability, but you can work around it".

So is moving accounts between Mastodon instances convenient and seamless? Well, not really. It's not as bad as it could be, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Followers are retained when moving to a new account on another instance, but nearly everything else (including posts) is just lost; it's not quite the equivalent of starting from scratch, but it's not that far from it, either. As a result, account migration is not something you would want to do unless you absolutely have to – you don't "simply" move elsewhere.

And while it is an annoying limitation on its own, the inconvenience of moving accounts also leads to a larger issue:

The Signup Process Just Sucks

Making a Twitter or Facebook account is so easy, even your boomer parents can do it. Corporate social media has many reasons to invest in making account creation as easy and quick as possible; I wouldn't be surprised if it was something they spent a lot of time improving and iterating.

In contrast, here's the journey I think a lot of potential Mastodon users have gone through, with many probably quitting on steps 2 and 3:

  1. Hear of Mastodon.
  2. Spend some time on understanding how it differs from centralized social media platforms.
  3. Learn that you need to pick an instance; spend a lot of time looking through various instances, probably having no prior familiarity with any of them.
  4. Pick an instance and notice that it's invite–only.
  5. give up

This is where the migration process comes in: given that it's so annoying to do, you really want to commit to an instance to avoid having to move your account. But how can you make that decision when you don't even know what instances there are and how they differ from each other? And what should you do when it turns out that a cool instance requires an invite? (If you want to know how my Mastodon journey went: I just got a meow.social invite from an acquaintance and decided to trust them that it was a pretty good place to hang out. It was not an informed decision!)

I'm not going to pull my punches here. I think all of this is straightforwardly terrible design, vastly and vastly more effort than what corporate social media makes new users go through, and probably the largest single factor preventing more people from using Mastodon. A social media site shouldn't force you to make complex and semi-permanent decisions when signing up, especially if the options are this difficult to evaluate. Just don't do it!

Luckily, there are a lot of ways the signup process could be improved. Making account migration seamless would eliminate the analysis paralysis almost completely – just create an account on any instance and move whenever you discover a better one. No need to make tough decisions at this point.

In addition, this would allow the project to manage a transient "default instance" where you can just hang out for a while when figuring out how this Mastodon thing works. Maybe it could even disallow posting, just letting you get started with following accounts while you're poring over instances or waiting for an invite for one you really want to join. Another option is auto-deleting accounts after some time. Whatever form you imagine this liminal instance taking, I think it would make the signup process a lot smoother, providing new users with a simple way to interact with the platform and study its features and ecosystem before moving to a more permanent home.

I do get, though, that making migration completely seamless is a big technical challenge – among other things, there's the problem of moving a lot of data across servers only connected to each other via a common protocol. But to me, it's pretty weird that it's not mentioned more often as a huge disadvantage of the platform, given how its implications trickle down to the arduous signup process. If there's one thing that would "fix Mastodon", I think it's probably this.

Other Stuff

Not having encrypted DMs is a striking flaw in the platform. Yes, Twitter DMs are not private either (in the sense that Elon Musk could probably read them if he really wanted to), but from a purely pragmatic perspective, I'm far more concerned about an admin of my Mastodon instance having the ability to do so. It's not just about trust – you can think that Twitter's CEO and developers are bad actors while also not believing that they have any particularly compelling reasons to read your DMs. As Mastodon is more of a network of peers, I think worries that ordinary internet drama could make malicious admins want to read private messages should be taken seriously. (Of course, there are other considerations as well.)

Discoverability is also bad, especially if your personal social circles are disconnected. Being on a furry-focused instance means that the local feed shows me a lot of furry stuff, and there's tech discussion everywhere, but my other interests – arthouse cinema and literature, for instance – aren't represented at all, since they don't have a lot of overlap with the furry fandom.

Hashtags are supposed to be a solution, but they don't help if you don't know what hashtags to search. Performing a lookup of #TÁR in an attempt to find conversations about one of my favorite 2022 movies resulted in... a lot of posts about the tar archive file format and the GNU utility of the same name. Where is the Lydia Tár fandom on Mastodon??? (To be fair, it may also just be that the platform's self-selection biases are so strong that there just isn't a lot of discussion of every subject in general.) Third-party solutions like fedi.directory are a pretty interesting attempt to address the issue.

Also, the stark non-granularity of the content warning system feels annoying. When the site culture promotes having content warnings for a lot of things from "eye contact" and "food" to "obscure fetish content", most users will probably have to either resign to disabling them entirely or get ready to do a lot of clicking to display posts they come across. Allowing freeform content notes in general is a very good idea (don't want to leave the categories up to a slowly changing protocol), but there probably should be some general categories, like "sexual content" and "spoilers", that you could turn on and off individually.

It's definitely not my favorite implementation of content warnings. I wish tag-based, Tumblr-style systems were more popular; they are both more powerful (allowing tags to be added when boosting/reblogging posts) and less intrusive (since muting tags is completely opt-in).

In Conclusion

Federation is, at least on some level, an ideological advantage instead of a technological one. It presents any social media built around it with serious challenges both in terms of specification and implementation, some of which will inevitably trickle down to the level of basic UX. Many aspects of Mastodon's design are very obviously just limitations of ActivityPub, the underlying protocol, not decisions anyone would think make the platform better to use.

Following the apparent failure of Mastodon to capture users fleeing from Twitter to platforms like Bluesky and Threads, I have seen a different kind of sentiment emerging among some Mastodon evangelists: that this is actually good. We don't want those users anyway; we don't want non-technical users, we don't want fans of corporate social media who just want to keep in touch with their friends on any available platform.

And, sure, the project and its users are allowed to feel this way. Make the network as exclusionary as you want; it's yours! And it is also true that there are reasons to avoid maximizing growth, like the scalability of moderation and server resources.

But will federated social media be unable emerge as a credible alternative to Twitter? Will centralized platforms always be more user-friendly? Will non-techy people and those with non-techy social circles and interests be forever doomed to using corporate social media? If yes, that would make me pretty sad.

It is, though, no inevitability. Many of the issues outlined in this essay could be fixed or mitigated, if that is what aligns with the needs and desires of the pre-existing community around Mastodon. But even if I get why it wouldn't (everyone already has an account, no point in improving the signup process), I feel like it would be a shame to let corporate social media win purely because it is better at gathering and guiding in new users.