The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Mastodon

by Henry Farrell on May 5, 2023

Erin Kissane wrote a great essay on the differences between Mastodon and Bluesky (two very different decentralized social networks/Twitter alternatives). Read it! I too joined Bluesky a few days ago (no – I don’t have any invites), and I’ve some of the same impressions as she did, but not being a real tech person, I want to talk more about the social differences between the two social media networks

Erin has a lot to say about the clunkiness of Mastodon’s user interface and underlying dynamics, and how clean and easy Bluesky is, in comparison. She’s right, and this is important. But she also highlights Mastodon’s cultural homogeneity. Mastodon is a great place to be, if you are a left-leaning tech policy obsessive, and want to hang out with other left-leaning tech policy obsessives (we all made the jump from Twitter pretty quickly – the costs of sticking around were high, and the transaction costs of figuring out Mastodon’s system and interface were probably less of an issue than they would have been for most non-geeks). But it is not so great for some other people.

I hate it that I can’t in good conscience encourage Black friends to get on Mastodon, because I know they’re going to be continuously chided by white people if they mention race or criticize anything at all about Mastodon itself. I hate that “a difficult sign-up process keeps out lazy people with bad culture” is a thing in so many Mastodon conversations. (Fun fact, if you hold this idea up to your ear, you can hear them say “sheeple.”)

The way that I would put it is that Mastodon (or at least the bit of Mastodon that I’m familiar with) has the strengths and weaknesses of strong community. Those with the community ethos and identity fit right in, and find it not only welcoming but downright comforting. If you don’t fit in though, all that Gemeinschaftery is a whole other story. Strong communities tend to be really parochial, far more homogenous than they like to acknowledge (minor internal differences loom larger than they ought, because the internal discourse is organized around them) highly sensitive to outside criticism, and wary or hostile towards people who don’t look right.

Bluesky doesn’t look to me to be about community in the same sense. Right now, it’s very giddy. A few days ago, it was butt-pictures. Lots of butt-pictures. Then it was sexualized images of Alf (the alien-pig puppet from the old TV show). Today, who knows? It’s mostly left-leaning – conservatives and right libertarians are sticking with Twitter – but relatively hostile to Deep Serious Discussion.

If Mastodon is all Protestant Ethic – serious people concerned with the state of their souls, and everyone else’s too, Bluesky is a lot more like what Weber described in his far less well known paper on the Protestant Sects. One of the big focuses of that paper is America’s happy conjunction between religious organization and commercial self-interest. The way you drum up business in early 20th century America is by joining a church, whose members can vouch for you with the bank, send customers to you and so on. Religious community becomes a means for displaying your wares.

On Bluesky, there’s a lot of the ‘let’s everyone focus obsessively on the topic of the day’ energy that Twitter used to have. Much of this froth seems to me to be ostentatious displays of shitposting virtuosity in pursuit of immediate self-interest. There are a few famous people (AOC, Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright), and a lot of early adopters milling around, trying to get these famous people’s attention and capture their own chunk of the social graph in a network that might take off and go big.

It’s a new manifestation of that traditional American style of business in which sincere-sounding expressions of mutuality and glad-handing cover efforts to probe for temporary alignments of self interest. What feeling of community there is, is the kind of temporary community that you make up as you go along, among people who you don’t particularly know, but know you might want to impress. At its worst, it’s a trade convention for obsessive artists of self image, where the butt pictures are calling cards. Everybody is (in some cases quite literally) exposing themselves to everyone else.

NB: while I may sound above-it-all when I write that, I’m part of this dynamic too, in a backhanded way. Academic conferences aren’t so different, and Edgar Wright following me on social media would be one of the very few things that might possibly make me seem impressive to my sarcastic Cornetto Trilogy obsessed fourteen year old son. At least for a day or so (he’s fourteen, and I’m his dad).

What I’d like in my ideal social media service is something different from both – somewhere a little closer to the middle of the indifference curve between community and self-exposure. It seems to me that one of the big tradeoffs of social media networks is between community and discovery. Community is great up to a point – you want to hang out with people like you. But it also has a tendency to get insufferably narrow minded over time: the same people, rehearsing the same old arguments, and vigorously pushing to exclude outsiders who might disrupt the status quo. Exposure to different people with different viewpoints is fantastic – but all exposure all the time gets you jaded very quickly.

So what I want is moderately cohesive communities, with enough weak ties between them that ideas, arguments, memes can be generated by people very different to you, and spread to you, and that you can spread back. That itself is going to have its difficulties – the idyllic notion of communities happily engaged in mutual discovery and happy broader comity does not reflect the actual networked behavior of actual human beings. We (at least, some of us – or maybe in this context ‘we’ just means ‘me’) want discovery and the spread of new ideas. But discovery and context collapse are two sides of the same coin – it is more or less practicably impossible to have the one without the other. The result is that even intermediary networks that are good at balancing community and discovery are going to have their dystopian moments, where an idea or claim spreads outside its home community, getting people with other values angry, either because they misunderstand it, or understand it all too well.

Sometimes – at its very best times – the old Twitter felt a little like a place that got things sort-of-right. You could find or build community, while not feeling stifled. A lot of the time it didn’t, generating its own crazy large scale dynamics that swept up vast numbers of people around stupid arguments and stupid online personas. dril is funny because it is real and painful. The old school blogosphere, of which Crooked Timber is one of the few surviving examples, sometimes got it right too. Equally, it had its own awfulness (before dril there was Fafblog). But I worry that neither of the two alternatives that we’re seeing is going to be able to recreate this even somewhat reliably. Perhaps, as they get bigger, more will be possible. We’ll see.



Luis 05.05.23 at 5:55 pm

I have nothing to add except that I haven’t thought about Fafblog in a loooong time. Fafnir! Giblets! Gonna be re-reading a few greatest hits today.


MisterMr 05.05.23 at 6:57 pm

Well, you could go one day on Mastodon and the other on Bluesky, depending if you want more “community” or “meet new people”.

A bit like hanging in two different pubs.


Neville Morley 05.05.23 at 7:22 pm

“Exposure to different people with different viewpoints is fantastic – but all exposure all the time gets you jaded very quickly.”

Which is why a combination of Lists and Tweetdeck made Twitter great for a while…


LFC 05.05.23 at 7:47 pm

This is a good piece with a clever title. From my standpoint, however, it’s unfortunate that the author is wasting some of his brilliance writing about social media networks, a topic in which I have almost no interest (not joining Mastodon or Bluesky, and never used Twitter [technically I have a Twitter account, but I never properly set it up or tweeted anything from it]).

(p.s. Also, without using a search engine I have no idea who Edgar Wright is or what the Cornetto Trilogy is, though I’m guessing it must be a series of SFF books?)


Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 05.05.23 at 7:53 pm

The key divide I see (as someone active on sadly all of these platforms) is that Mastodon fundamentally attracted people who disliked “old” Twitter for various reasons (too much arguing and negativity, too many conservatives, too much cross-group interaction, too much shitposting, etc), whereas Bluesky is really for people who liked Twitter.


Sumana Harihareswara 05.05.23 at 7:54 pm

“discovery and context collapse are two sides of the same coin”

That is a REALLY good point. Thank you for this.


PatinIowa 05.05.23 at 8:51 pm

This is probably off-topic: Remember when someone published an article (in the late 80s, I think) saying that writing students who used PCs wrote about serious topics like abortion and public policy, while students who wrote on Macs wrote about trivial topics like MacDonalds and Madonna?

I remember this because I had just read a first year student’s paper talking about how MacDonald’s beef sourcing was contributing to deforestation in Argentina as well as one reiterating for the millionth time an identical argument about abortion. I honestly forget whether it was pro-forced-birth or pro-choice; at that point I was tired of the writing either way.


Cranky Observer 05.05.23 at 8:58 pm

Operational suggestion: if you are going to try Mastodon I suggest trying the Ivory client by Tapbots (the people who created Tweetbot). There is nothing wrong with the official Mastodon app from Mastodon gGmbH however I find Ivory much easier to use and more natural, particularly coming from Twitter. You can sign up for a Mastodon server (instance) directly in Ivory if you like. It is also available for iOS, Mac, and Android.

Personal observation: I liked Twitter, particularly before 2015 but even up through October 2022, and I found it a very useful source of immediate information on local, regional, and technical topics (e.g. severe weather, water main breaks, earthquakes – all things I have to be aware of where I live and also enjoy monitoring), so in theory I should be open to a service that tries to recreate and improve that experience. But I cannot separate BlueSky from the track record of its founders, nor from the “monetization” based on the theft of my PII and social network that it will inevitably engage in to pay the bills and pay off the founders. I prefer to give a monthly donation to a couple of non-profit Mastodon instances of my choice rather than yet another free-not-free situation. YMMV


oldster 05.05.23 at 10:16 pm

“Equally, it had its own awfulness (before dril there was Fafblog).”

Wait — you are not listing dril and Fafblog as examples of awfulness, are you??

dril is awesome! And Fafblog was awesome! At least, until it succumbed to a weird sort of caustic disillusionment with Obama’s failure to magically rustle up the leftist paradise overnight. That got sad and ugly. But during the Bush years? Fafblog was hilarious! One of the crowning achievements of the golden age of blogs. (As well as being the world’s only source of Fafblog).


J-D 05.05.23 at 11:32 pm

Also, without using a search engine I have no idea who Edgar Wright is or what the Cornetto Trilogy is, though I’m guessing it must be a series of SFF books?

Without using a search engine, I knew that the Cornetto Trilogy was three mostly unrelated British films all written by and starring a British actor who has also appeared in Hollywood films and whose face and voice I could remember but whose name escaped me, although Edgar Wright seemed not to be it. On checking, I find that the Cornetto Trilogy is three mostly unrelated British films co-written and directed by Edgar Wright and co-written by and starring Simon Pegg. (The three films are Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, and I have not seen any of them.)


Cheryl Rofer 05.06.23 at 12:26 pm

Thanks for this, Henry, and the link to Erin’s piece. It looks to me like Bluesky will become the Twitter alternative, but, as you say, it’s early days yet.

I managed to get on Bluesky just before the big arrival, and it was developers talking developer-speak to other developers. Within a day it exploded into “OMG I am so happy to be here” and butt pictures.

They say that the current population is around 50,000, and it looks like most of us are posters. On Twitter, and most social networks, it’s something like 10% who post, so when you concentrate that 10% into 90% of the population, you get a lot of people vying for attention. Since that big influx, it looks like the developers have their hands full, both with moderation and technical issues. Unlike Mastodon, where everyone is expected (and told, as Erin says) to behave nicely, a lot of people are trying to break Bluesky, and that seems to be what the developers there want. Testing to destruction is not a bad idea for any new structure.

Invitations (I’ve been given one so far and have no more to give out) seem to be metered to particular sorts of people, and my network has yet to migrate over in a big way. Some of us are there, in the nerd corner. Which is fine with me. We (national-security-international-relations-science) have existed within the larger structures and interests of Twitter, and that is what will happen on Bluesky if it is successful.

When I see a developer asking, I agitate for this group, but the science accounts currently being invited are mostly oceanographers who have photos of squids and other weird animals. Photos and art (there’s a big science art component) are important right now because Bluesky doesn’t support video. Which my network needs as we follow Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Today’s Bluesky enthusiasm is cats, but the daily enthusiasms are seeming more forced, and the giddiness seems to be subsiding. So I’ll keep doing on Bluesky what I’ve been doing on Twitter and hope that it all works out.


Icastico 05.06.23 at 3:30 pm

Based on my experience with Mastodon, I think the characterization of it as for “left-leaning tech policy obsessive(s)” is wildly inaccurate. There are entire instances of aggressively right-wing thugs, folks who ask for content warnings on anything political at all, instances dedicated to sexualized cartoon cats, and lots of folks talking D&D. The structure of it, with tags being the primary way to curate your feed makes for topic oriented communities. I do agree that there is a set of HOA-ish longtimers on Mastodon that feel the need to tone police, but as the numbers have increased, the ease of finding a community that isn’t like that is pretty easy.

FWIW it seems to be a good place for science, Art, writing, music, and photography (lots of pictures of moss).


John Q 05.06.23 at 9:35 pm

Agree with Icastico @5. My corner of Twitter (“curated”, as they say, by my policy of routinely blocking trolls and snarks) is much more dominated by left-leaning Australian policy types than my Mastodon server, which is much more mixed with lots of non-binary posters, along with a bunch of fellow migrants from Australian political Twitter. And lots of photos of apples (I don’t get moss for some reason).


Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni 05.07.23 at 4:57 pm

Oldster @9: I believe Henry means that both Fafblog and dril get a lot of their humor out of parodying the awful parts of their media. (The sentence puzzled me too, but this is the only way to make sense of it alongside HF’s oft-expressed admiration for Fafblog.)


Icastico 05.08.23 at 3:11 am

@John Q – follow the #mosstodon tag.


TM 05.08.23 at 3:43 pm

I also can’t confirm the “left-leaning tech policy obsessive(s)” characterization. The community I interact with is mostly left-leaning, but there is so little obsession and so little interaction and debate I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong. Perhaps I just chose the wrong instance? I do have to say that most prominent names (that I recognize) on Mastodon are not active. Many signed up and then never posted, and some do post very sporadically. They are still on Twitter, and as long as so many interesting people don’t decide to come over, Mastodon won’t be very attractive. I hope this changes. (Never heard of BlueSky btw…)


Sophie Jane 05.08.23 at 10:58 pm

Mastodon isn’t actually homogenous(*), it’s just that the architecture means there’s less forced mixing of communities. Which is why my Mastodon experience is mostly a mix of trans anarchists, radical librarians, and plural systems, and yours is mostly left-leaning tech policy people.

(This is doubly true of the fediverse as a whole because of the way different kinds of software are shaped by their developer and user communities, but that’s another thing.)

(*) Though it does have a persistent whiteness problem


Ingrid Robeyns 05.12.23 at 9:41 pm

Thanks for this post, Henry.
How is the geographical composition of those who are admitted/invited to Bluesky? If the original invitations went to US-residents (I do not know whether that is true, but it is possible, perhaps plausible), and invitations are vary scarce, then I wonder whether it is a US-based network? That would be a major disadvntage compared with Mastadon, in my view. What I liked (and still like) about Twitter, FB, Mastodon and our Blog, is the international reach and the potential to inform people from powerful countries how the rest of the world is doing, and have conversations/debates between people that are situated in different geopolitical contexts.

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