Linking is one of the core activities of the web, and the origin of its name. I link to things when I want to talk about them, and this is very standard. If you want to link to any of my published posts you don't need to ask me first: I've already indicated that's fine by putting something out here for everyone to read.

I recently read a blog post by a Mastodon server admin that has me confused how this norm interacts with Mastodon:

On Saturday evening I published a post explaining a couple of things about Mastodon's history of dealing with toxic nodes on the network. ... I realised that some people had cross-posted my Mastodon post into Twitter. Someone else had posted a screenshot of it on Twitter. Nobody thought to ask if I wanted that.

I'm pretty confused. The post (citation redacted) is linked from their public profile, has its own public URL, isn't limited to followers or otherwise behind a permissions wall, and shows up in search results: it feels like "stuff someone put on the public web" to me, and a place where I'd expect normal web norms to apply? While I don't like the culture of sharing things by screenshot, in part because it's easy to accidentally bypass privacy settings that way, part of what the poster is objecting to is people sharing a link on Twitter. And that seems like something I would have expected to be completely fine to do without asking first?

It's also not clear to me whether the norm the author advocates applies to boosting a post on Mastodon. On one hand I'd think it wouldn't, because I haven't seen anyone saying "ask before boosting!" and the "boost" button doesn't have a consent flow. But on the other boosting is just makes a new post on your timeline that links back to the original post: when someone does this manually with a Twitter client or blog editor is that socially different from doing it automatically with the Mastodon UI? Especially since the author's original post was configured not to automatically federate (citation redacted) and the ~1.3k people boosting it removed that restriction allowing it to propagate to nearly everyone's federated timeline.

I realize this is a tricky situation for long-time Mastodon users, with lots of people coming in who don't know the local culture. As one of them I'd like to follow the existing norms for the space. It's not clear to me, however, what the norms around linking actually are, and if it's literally "always ask before linking" that's so far from the broader internet culture that it's going to be a hard norm to preserve.

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9 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:22 PM

Thanks for the post - I've signed up for mastodon because it's being discussed, not because I actually want to use it.  I don't really get it, and I suppose that makes me part of the problem.  I hadn't realized that it wasn't intended (by most) to be a competitor/replacement for Twitter and/or a general competitor to other popular social media.  I'm still not sure what it IS intended for, or why that admin thinks it could be anything else without active encouragement/enforcement of the norms they're seeking.

Without federation, I'd expect a bunch of differently-focused groups and servers to show up, which happen to use Mastodon as their server, but are more socially-enforced topic and norm enforcing.  I can imagine if LW were getting started today, they'd consider Mastodon as a possible platform.  This includes some amount of moderation, warnings to users, and banning.  See for some thinking on the topic, and tons of related posts about community development in the middle-early days of the rationalist online world.

WITH federation as the primary feature, and the perception from outside that servers are all equivalent, this capability is lost, and it's assumed to be a least-common-denominator network, with everyone having equal voice and capability, regardless of quality or intent.  Easy sign-up and open federation means no censorship or control.  And THIS implies no enforcement of rules or goodwill.  

I don't know if that admin is an outlier, or if that's a common attitude, but I'm kind of shocked that anyone wouldn't see this coming.  There have been MANY cases similar to Eternal September, as accidentally-small ungated groups (because there were invisible gates that nobody thought about) became public and popular, and discovered just how important gates are.  Or more commonly, got overwhelmed, died (to many core users - nothing ever actually dies.  Usenet is arguably bigger than it was in 1993, but it's dead for the communities that made it great), and were replaced by different things, with different (visible and invisible) gates.

Relatedly, remember to appreciate the LW team and admins, who've MULTIPLE TIMES noticed changes in norms and user composition, and adjusted things to accommodate and keep the community alive and great.   This has mostly been encouragement, features, and discussion, rather than pruning, banning, and curation, but both are in the toolkit.  I don't think "mastodon" is cohesive enough to do anything like that.  There may be some mastodon servers with a vision and the willingness to enact it, but I haven't heard of them.

I think norms used to be stricter in at least some parts of the 'net, e.g. if someone had a blog read mostly by their 10 friends, it might have been relying on a form of security by obscurity and it was considered poor form to link to it in a more public context. I think there was also a period when Tumblr was considered a more private platform for posting stuff than more "official" social medias were, and linking to people's Tumblr posts was frowned upon (at least in some circles).

I think these norms have lost favor over time, but with something as amorphous as social norms it's impossible to know. I can only tell for sure that I don't see those norms very much anymore in the kinds of online circles that I frequent. Possibly there are still large subcultures that do hold onto these norms, and maybe that Mastodon admin belongs to one of those subcultures.

if someone had a blog read mostly by their 10 friends, it might have been relying on a form of security by obscurity and it was considered poor form to link to it in a more public context

That would make sense, but then why would you have a 'boost' ('retweet'/'reblog') button?

The way I understood the norm on Tumblr, signal-boosting within Tumblr was usually fine (unless the post specifically said "do not reblog" on it or something like that), but signal-boosting to other non-Tumblr communities was bad.  The idea was that Tumblr users had a shared vibe/culture/stigma that wasn't shared by the wider world, so it was important to keep things in the sin pit where normal people wouldn't encounter them and react badly.

Skimming the home invasion post it seems like the author feels similarly: Mastodon has a particular culture, created by the kind of people who'd seek it out, and they don't want to have to interact with people who haven't acclimated to that culture.

Interesting; that isn't something I knew about Tumblr. This is especially surprising given how often I see screenshots of Tumblr discussions shared on FB, like the post I responded to here.

(I really don't like share-by-screenshot culture)

AIUI it was a feature of early Tumblr culture, which lingered to various degrees in various subcommunities as the site grew more popular.  The porn ban in late 2018 also seemed to open things up a lot, even for people who weren't posting porn; I don't know why.

I feel like the linked blog post answers that:

Before November 2022 Mastodon users used to joke that you'd "gone viral" if you got more than 5 boost or likes on a post. In an average week, perhaps one or two people might follow my account. Often nobody did. My post was now getting hundreds of interactions. Thousands. 

So while the ability to boost the post an indefinite amount was technically there, in practice it wasn't used very much, and even a boosted post would still stay within a relatively small circle of users.

I once read an essay - that I now can't find - touching upon similar topics, where the author made the comparison to real-life public spaces. They were saying that yes, in principle everything you do in a public space can be witnessed by anyone, but people still have reasonable expectations about what will happen in practice. If you go out on a walk in the forest behind your house wearing a silly hat, you have the reasonable expectation that either nobody will see it or the only people who see it won't broadcast it to the whole world. (Admittedly this expectation might have slightly faded with ubiquitous phone cameras.) Or alternatively, while it's technically possible to run into your ex in any public space, you still have the reasonable expectation that you probably won't run into them in your neighboring restaurant. Or that if you go to that restaurant, none of the other patrons will call your ex to let them know that you're there.

People have these kinds of expectations of what their risk level in various public spaces is - separate from what's technically possible - mediated in part due to various social norms, and get upset if those expectations are violated.

I've only been on Mastodon a bit longer than the current Twitter immigrants, but as far as I know there's no norm against linking. But the server admins are all a bit stressed by the increased load. So I can understand why they'd be annoyed by any link that brought new users. I've been holding off on inviting new users to the instance I'm on, because the server is only just coping as it is.

It sounds like that by other people linking without consent they received unwanted attention: "I realised that some people had cross-posted my Mastodon post into Twitter. ... I struggled to understand what I was feeling, or the word to describe it. I finally realised on Monday that the word I was looking for was "traumatic". In October I would have interacted regularly with perhaps a dozen people a week on Mastodon, across about 4 or 5 different servers. Suddenly having hundreds of people asking (or not) to join those conversations without having acclimatised themselves to the social norms felt like a violation, an assault.*

I guess what I'm trying to understand is whether Mastodon has some norm of "don't bring attention to people's writing without their consent"?