Mastodon iOS apps are getting good

Mastodon is a relatively new social media service, but I’ve grown to like it quite a bit. Of course, any new service these days will need good apps if it’s going to get anywhere. Thankfully, the iOS apps are getting pretty good.

If you need a primer on Mastodon, how it works, or why I think it’s important, I maintain a Dropmark collection of Mastodon guides, links, tips, and tools. If you want my elevator pitch: Mastodon is a social network run by and for its users. “Community-owned and ad-free,” says the landing page.

You can post all the typical stuff publicly or keep it private to your followers. There is no advertising or tracking, and none of the insidious, destructive incentives that come with it. There is also no central company to ruin things, and it has a growing, open API that welcomes apps and even other services.

Speaking of apps, let’s get to them.

Mast for iPhone

Mast launched just last week and has the best design in my opinion. It supports all the big features I can think of, including Direct Messages and Content Warnings to hide spoilers and sensitive posts. It also has an impressive amount of customization such as long-press gestures, themes, always displaying all sensitive content, and lots of other good stuff.

One caveat though: Mast can be a little buggy at times, though its developer has been quick with bug fixes and responses. Also, an iPad version just entered beta testing.

Toot for iPad and iPhone

I helped test Toot in beta for a while before it too launched last week. Toot also supports all the main features I can think of and takes a more whimsical approach to its interface. There are subtle and less subtle animations in various places. Toot also has a unique wheel on the right of the tab bar for switching between accounts and instances—basically, different communities of Mastodon users.

Tootdon for iPad and iPhone

Probably the most traditional in terms of interface, Tootdon is also a full-featured Mastodon app with a unique approach. Its UI is in the ballpark of Twitterrific and it has a good amount of customizability. But Tootdon is also good for exploring a little bit of what’s going on across the “fediverse”—other instances, hashtags, and users you might not otherwise see in your normal feed and searches.

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of other iOS apps for Mastodon available, but I haven’t tried them all. At the least, I think it’s great to see a service embrace an open API and a community starting to mature around it.

A hope for an iCloud announcement next week

As you might have noticed, iCloud has been having a number of hiccups lately. Apps like Tweetbot and Bear (a client of mine) have had to alert users because it’s affecting sync.

I could be stretching, but I hope that these multiple hiccups this close to a major event next week means that iCloud will finally get some attention. It’s a solid bet that new iPads and maybe even new Macs appear next week. But iCloud is long overdue for things like storage upgrades, some performance improvements, and surely some additions for industries Apple is trying to compete in, like education.

One can hope.

It’s time to give Watch apps another chance

I’ve had my Series 4 for all of 48 hours, but I am happy and a little surprised to say: Watch apps finally feel usable. The new power and speed in Series 4 feels like a huge leap forward, which is important because I’m trying to cut down on how often I keep my iPhone directly on me.

I’ve owned a Series 0, 2, and now this 4 (space gray aluminum, 44mm, cellular but it isn’t hooked up for now). If it matters, I also upgraded this year from an iPhone X to a XS Max. Since the original Watch, the sentiment about Watch apps has generally been “if it takes longer than a second or two to launch and let me do the thing, I’ll just reach for my phone.” Third-party apps have generally performed poorly on the Watch, causing many people to give up trying and even some companies to scrap their apps entirely.

This Series 4 feels like a breath of fresh air. Third-party apps like Streaks, Carrot Weather, Bear, Things, Drafts, Day One, and Fantastical both launch and are immediately useful for me. I often use Siri on my Watch for a handful of tasks, but it too has always felt sluggish. Now, Siri is instantaneous.

A lot of friction has been removed from the Watch apps experience. Over the weekend, I’ve really liked using my Watch to create and complete tasks, check the Carrot Weather app, save thoughts and article ideas for later, and send messages, all with pleasantly fast feedback and performance.

To be clear, not all apps perform well. But I suspect that is a function of their need of an update or simple poor design, rather than a problem with the Series 4 or watchOS 5.

Developers: if the Watch hasn’t had the performance you want in the past, you might want to check out Series 4. For everyone else: if you gave up or just never tried Watch apps, I definitely recommend giving them a look on a Series 4.

Google is losing users’ trust – Slate

Matthew Green at Slate, after Google changed a default Chrome feature to automatically log users into the browser if they log into any Google service. This means all browsing history now gets sent to Google, and at rollout there wasn’t even a way to shut it off:

This pattern of behavior by tech companies is so routine that we take it for granted. Let’s call it “pulling a Facebook” in honor of the many times that Facebook has “accidentally” relaxed the privacy settings for user profile data, and then—following a bout of bad press coverage—apologized and quietly reversed course. A key feature of these episodes is that management rarely takes the blame: It’s usually laid at the feet of some anonymous engineer moving fast and breaking things.

We are way, way past time to start holding these companies and their lame, ‘anonymous engineer’ management scapegoat accountable for their awful approach to our privacy.

On finally understanding The Matrix sequels – Just Write

To quote this YouTube essayist I just found:

Opinions need refreshing every now and then. There are some movies whose reputations are so seemingly universally agreed upon, good or bad, that we stop questioning them. We take it as a given. But the great thing about art is that, while it stays the same, you don’t. And when you look back at something you thought you knew, it feels like waking up to a new reality. When all you ever knew was the illusion.

With that, grab a beverage and give this a look.

⌚️ watchOS 5 Tip: Fire, Water faces work on other series, can be cycled

I’m not sure where I got this idea, but I thought the fire and water faces Apple uses to promote the latest Watch Series 4 upgrade were exclusive to that series. But I have a Series 2 and they’re available.

I found a few neat extras about them too:

  • Fire and water are combined into a single face aptly named “Fire & Water.” This makes it easy to force press the face, then scroll the Digital Crown to switch between elements on the fly
  • You can tap each element to rotate between a couple different versions of that effect
  • This face has a third option that combines the two. Tap the face to randomly rotate all versions of fire and water effects
  • By default this face doesn’t display complications, but you can add three: top left, top right, and across the bottom

My productivity cadence

Every time I have to switch to my Mac to do something (like an app or service that still doesn’t have proper iOS support), I remember how comfortable and familiar it is.

Every time I get back to my iPad, where I do most of my work and play these days, I remember how much more fun and interesting it is to me.

It’s a strange cadence, but oddly satisfying, in a way. Like periodically rediscovering a favorite food dish.

The case for trying Mastodon, a decentralized social network

I’m fed up with Twitter. Over the years the company has deliberately made its products worse in multiple, significant ways. It has also gone out of its way to ensure that racist, dangerous, and violent people have a platform with which to actively ruin society. Most recently, it came to light that CEO Jack Dorsey personally overruled staff to keep Alex Jones—an unhinged, violent conspiracy theorist—and restore Richard Spencer—a literal fucking Nazi.

I think Twitter as a concept can be a useful tool for society. But I worry that Twitter the company is hopelessly lost, and I’m done with it.

Like many other people recently, I jumped ship to Mastodon, an alternative, bite-sized social network with an odd name and some great new ideas. I’ve spent time learning about Mastodon’s mission and open-source, decentralized design, and I’m starting to think that this should be the way forward for social networks in general.

Here are various reasons why, ranging from large fundamental concepts and design decisions, to the smaller details that make a big difference.

The Basics

Mastodon is a simple, familiar social network, quite Twitter-like in daily use. You can post short messages, follow and mention other users, share links, photos, and videos, and add a short profile.

A key differentiator, which I’ll explore in a bit, is that Mastodon is decentralized, working conceptually in many ways like email. There is no single company that needs funding or can get shut down.

This is where Mastodon gets pretty interesting, powerful, and liberating.

Apps Are Welcome

Mastodon has an evolving API that welcomes apps. Remember what that was like? Anyone can create Mastodon clients and tools to interact with the service and data in myriad ways.

You can check my collection of Mastodon links for some interesting stuff, like this tool for finding an instance to join based on various criteria, or this visualization of all Mastodon instances. More on instances in a bit.

Chronological Timeline

It’s a little thing that makes a big difference. Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram added algorithmic timelines because it’s great for manipulative engagement and advertising practices.

Mastodon doesn’t play that game. Your timeline is an actual timeline, one post after the other in the order they were published.

But hey, as far as I know, developers are free to build a client with an algorithmic timeline if they think users might actually prefer it.

Mastodon is Built for People, Not Investors or Nazis

Mastodon is open source. There are no investors, no board, no advertisers—and none of their insidious incentives.

The simple fact is, in an advertising environment like that of Twitter (and Facebook, and Google), controversy is good for business. Which means Nazis, harassment, and trolls are good for business.

It’s why, even if Jack Dorsey claims to not be a white supremacist (for the record: I think he is), his actions of deliberately keeping around people like Alex Jones, David Duke, and Richard Spencer make him and others in management willfully complicit.

I want no part of that.

Mastodon doesn’t have to answer to some board of directors that want to see more more more revenue and monthly active users and #engagement and hey follow all these people who said ‘the’ once in their lives.

It can just be a societal tool, free to build useful features by and for us.

The Decentralized Advantage

Mastodon is decentralized, functioning a bit like email in some ways. Anyone can create a Mastodon instance—sort of like an email server—then choose to allow others to create a Mastodon account on that instance. Don’t worry, though, there are already plenty of instances that are easy to join. Here’s an easy tool for finding one.

In general, all Mastodon users can follow, mention, mute, and block all other users, regardless of instance. Instance admins can block other instances, and so can we in our account settings. This comes in handy when, say, a bunch of Nazis or a troll army spins up an instance (which they probably have to, since most other instances kick them off pretty quickly). Instead of having to block every individual jerk that wanders into your mentions, you or your admin can head ‘em off at the pass with a single click. I have already seen it happen, and it’s great.

Instances can have their own rules and CoC, such as prohibiting abuse (a common rule), advertising, or NSFW content. Some instances allow NSFW stuff as long as members use the Content Warning option to hide the content behind a hidden block.

Yes, Mastodon and all apps I’ve tried have an official ‘Content Warning’ option. I quite like it.

Instances and Multiple Timelines

Some of the largest instances are open to everyone, as long as you follow their generally welcoming CoC. But many instances cater to various topics or communities, such as technology, LGBT, or photography. This is useful in a few ways.

To be clear, I asked around and it doesn’t seem like topic-centric instances will kick anyone out for not posting about the topic X times a week or month.

The purpose of an instance catering to a topic is to help people find other like-minded folks. Think of it like attending a topical meetup or networking event—the central topic brought you all together, but many conversations will veer elsewhere. This probably makes the most difference when it comes to Mastodon’s three timelines:

  • The standard Home Timeline of all the people you follow
  • The Local Timeline of all the people on your instance—this is where picking a topical instance can be useful, but not necessary
  • The Federated Timeline Of your instance, everyone you follow, and people they follow

Mastodon Cannot Die

Because of Mastodon’s decentralized structure and open source foundation, there is no single company that needs funding or can get shut down.

Some instances may come and go. But users can simply move their accounts and content to another instance, or spin up their own instance that still interacts with the overall fediverse of connected instances.

This aspect poses unique potential and perhaps challenges for the way Mastodon and, more specifically, its instances can manage moderation, funding, and maintenance. But those are good discussions for other blog posts.

Public and Private Posts

Something I’m very happy to see in Mastodon is the option to post privately to varying degrees:

  • Unlisted– You can post to your local instance and followers, but not the public timeline
  • Followers-only – Only for your followers, not the public, Local, or Federated timelines
  • Direct – Direct messages that support multiple recipients

Give It a Shot

Like everything in life, Mastodon is not without its challenges and problems. But it has been fun and interesting and useful in all the ways that social networks used to be. Except this time, we have more power and fewer dangerous incentives, which gives me an optimism I haven’t felt in a while.

You can learn more at JoinMastodon.org, and scroll down about halfway to find a sign up tool with a growing directory of open instances. You can find me at mastodon.cloud/@chartier.

Watch Anecdotes: People from the IL DMV and emissions offices

Watch Anecdotes: People from the IL DMV and emissions offices

I love talking to regular, non-tech/nerdy folks about how they use their tech. I think it’s a great way to get out of my industry perspective bubble.

Between checking our car’s emissions and renewing my license, I’ve spent some time in Illinois government facilities over the past two weeks. One thing I noticed was Apple Watches on a good number of employee wrists. Both people I worked with owned one, and both happened to be middle-aged women. Once we got chatty, I asked them how they like and use their Watches.

Here is a roundup of the anecdotes they shared:

  • They both really like their Apple Watches
  • Both stated early on, almost apologetically, that they were “not very technical,” and “I don’t know everything this does. I just know what I like.” Somehow we’ve made too many non-tech folks feel bad for not having PhDs in their gadgets
  • They both text fairly often
  • They make more phone calls than they expected to
  • They like the nudges to get more active
  • One had RunKeeper installed but she didn’t mention it
  • One said she likes to look at her pictures, and made a point to add an album of just the ones she wants
  • They both use some notifications to stay in touch with things but “definitely turned off a lot of them”
  • Both hope to get 4G model so they can leave their phones home sometimes. “I can do everything I want most days without it, so that would be nice”
  • On that point, one said “my girlfriend’s Watch has the red dot so you know it’s the nicer one”
  • Neither of them seemed worried about the extra fee required to use 4G on their watch. One said “oh it will be totally worth it”

I don’t have a grand thesis. But maybe this can help inform some of our thinking around the Watch’s surprising popularity and the appeal of the 4G version, especially when it comes to semi-untethering the Watch from the iPhone.