This is a good, real-world explainer of a core philosophy behind Mastodon and the greater fediverse of connected, interoperable services, like PixelFed. I’m a big fan of this grown platform of content and social platforms, especially their underlying design and mission.
Eugen, a core developer behind Mastodon:
Decentralization is biodiversity of the digital world, the hallmark of a healthy ecosystem. A decentralized network like the fediverse allows different user interfaces, different software, different forms of government to co-exist and cooperate. And when some disaster strikes, some will be more adapted to it than others, and survive what a monoculture wouldn’t.
Last but not least, decentralization is about fixing power asymmetry. A centralized social media platform has a hierarchical structure where rules and their enforcement, as well as the development and direction of the platform, are decided by the CEO, with the users having close to no ways to disagree. You can’t walk away when the platform holds all your friends, contacts and audience. A decentralized network deliberately relinquishes control of the platform owner, by essentially not having one. For example, as the developer of Mastodon, I have only an advisory influence: I can develop new features and publish new releases, but cannot force anyone to upgrade to them if they don’t want to; I have no control over any Mastodon server except my own, no more than I have control over any other website on the internet. That means the network is not subject to my whims; it can adapt to situations faster than I can, and it can serve use cases I couldn’t have predicted.
I took some time off from running the Finer Tech Newsletter for both personal and professional reasons. But I’m back at it (check out issue 47 and issue 48), and I think I’ve figured out a schedule that should help me give you something genuinely useful on a regular basis.
Starting this coming Saturday, I want to take the newsletter bi-weekly. If you haven’t yet, be sure to subscribe now (it’s free!) so you’re on board. This weekend’s issue will have some extra tips and recommendations for those of you who are making your Annual Tech Support Trek home for the holidays.
A bi-weekly schedule should give me proper time to write and collect helpful tips for your Apple stuff and a broader variety of apps, as well as find truly interesting, non-news things to read. I’m also going to explore packing a little more into some issues, so we’ll see how that goes.
Speaking of Saturday, I’m also not married to it long term for a publishing day. I’d love to hear your thoughts on which day(s) you’d like to receive this collection of tips and good reads. You can also reach me on social media.
Finally, I still welcome your support on Patreon for running the newsletter and this site. I don’t have tiers or extra perks yet, but I’m working on those too and again welcome your thoughts.
As always, thanks for reading.
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 wrote a simple, plain-language overview of Mastodon’s mission and advantages. I also maintain a Dropmark collection of Mastodon guides, links, tips, and tools. But 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.
I’m on Mastodon at toot.cafe/@chartier. And 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.
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.
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.
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 spew their hate. 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.
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.
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.
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.
To get it out of the way, the pros and cons of Medium have been discussed thoroughly elsewhere. But in a recent newsletter, the company shared some stats about its paid membership program that I think are at least worthy of discussion.
In short, Medium’s membership program sounds kinda like Netflix. It charges readers $5/month, then divides that money between the writers of all the articles people read. For now, Medium doesn’t even take a cut off that $5; the full amount goes to writers.
Eventually, I wager Medium will have to do something like either raise that price or start taking a cut. But I applaud the company’s effort to avoid advertising.
For example, here are a few of July’s payment stats:
- 47% of authors or publications who wrote at least one story for members earned money. 9.8% of active authors earned over $100.
- $16,007.02 was the most earned by an author, and $2,260.42 was the most earned by a publication.
- $2,059.72 was the most earned for a single story.
Medium also put out a call for stories on topics they want to feature in August. I think the company is doing a good job venturing beyond its tech roots:
- Code as Art: Stories celebrating the creative side of coding.
- Losing My Religion: Perspectives on parting ways with faith, for better or for worse.
- Not Another First Time Story: Reflections on doing something unexpected for the first time (particularly off the beaten path, so no: first ex; yes: first hex).
If you write something in any of these ballparks, email email@example.com with the subject line “Partner Program Submission” and the title of your piece.
Or, anecdotally, let’s take my beloved home of Chicago. I travel in and around the city quite a bit and AirPods are everywhere. They’re on the train, in the parks, on sidewalks, in meetings, at desks, in bars, and at large, busy outdoor public events.
AirPods are also used by everyone. Kids on the train, sometimes their parents, cyclists on the lakefront, post-millennials, all genders, exasperated businesspeople in suits on phone calls, joggers, tourists, pre-millennials, startup coworking types, the young, the old, intrallennials, you name it.
I wonder if AirPods are the most visible “there’s an Apple customer” since the first iPod and its earbuds. I think it’s more significant this time around, though, since AirPods are not included with any product (yet?). AirPods are a deliberate purchase.
They are also probably outside the realm of what many owners previously paid for headphones, if they ever have. If I’m right, going from paying $0 to $159 for headphones seems like a big deal.
Like any company, Apple has had its stumbles lately. But the AirPods seem like a phenomenon on another level. I’m excited to see how Apple evolves them.
Most of you have probably used Slack long enough to get invited to at least a couple rooms. Or maybe 5. Or 12. We technically have to create a new account for each room, even if we choose to use the same email and password for each one (but please use unique passwords).
This separation of Slack rooms into islands unto themselves makes sense for Slack from a business perspective. Some rooms want or need stringent data retention and security policies, so Slack offers paid options on a per-room basis. But many other Slack rooms are just people hanging out in the spiritual descendent of an IRC chat room.
This system creates an increasingly tedious burden for users who join multiple communities. Even if you use a password manager, you still have to manually log into each room. Slack tried to ease this friction by sending authenticated emails that will automatically log you into every Slack room tied to that particular address. But this is problematic on a couple of levels.
The most important is that it’s a duct-taped solution that creates clutter and friction. Have some communities spun down, but still lumber on? Did you leave some communities which weren’t useful anymore (but not delete your account, because how do we even do that)? Too bad, Slack’s email will still automatically log you back into every one.
I get why Slack’s business model is designed this way, but I don’t expect it to change any time soon. This makes me wish more casual communities would consider Discord as an alternative. It started with a focus on the gaming community, but has since expanded its features for a broader audience. For starters, you create a single account, then use it to join multiple rooms. Adding and DMing friends is also room-agnostic. Think of it like Facebook, where you can join multiple groups with a single account, though you do have the option to customize your profile details on a per-room basis.
Discord has many of the same features as Slack, including free standard accounts, strong mobile apps, file and media sharing, separate channels, account permissions, and integrations with 3rd party services. It also adds free, low-latency voice and video channels that support multiple people.
In my experience, Discord seems to be much more popular almost everywhere outside of tech. For example, many communities and creators on Patreon, YouTube, and Kickstarter will offer access to a private Discord room.
However, Discord’s business model is focused on the individual, not rooms. Rooms are free to spin up (you can even create them from an iPhone or iPad), and you can join as many as you want. If you—the individual, not a room admin—want to score a few extra perks and support Discord, you can pay for Discord Nitro. It adds things like a higher upload size, an animated avatar, and the ability to use custom/animated emoji across all rooms (a perk that makes way more sense than manually uploading them to multiple Slack rooms).
Slack is great and possibly a better fit for some companies that must adhere to industry regulations. But I would love to see more tech communities give Discord a try.