But Does Social Media Scale?

Andy Bell wrote about how much he’s enjoying being on Mastodon. I can relate to the feeling of just wanting a place to chat with friends, but feeling like you have to be somewhere you hate being, viz. Twitter. This is also why I’ve enjoyed being on Mastodon for the past four years. My timeline moved relatively slowly. I wasn’t posting much, except to chat with my friends. Mostly I just enjoyed keeping up with what my friends were up to.

But something has been bugging me for a long time. Mastodon did some things differently than Twitter. In theory these different features were meant to keep it from becoming the cesspool that Twitter eventually became. But I found myself wondering if part of the reason why the fediverse seemed so good[1] was just because it was smaller.

It seemed to me like a fundamental challenge — perhaps even a problem — with any online social network is that they all, by and large, stick everyone in the same space. One of the things I hated about Twitter was that random people would suddenly show up in my replies to talk to me about shit I didn’t want to talk to them about; so-called “reply guys”. And I wasn’t even that popular on Twitter. Or I’d see my friends jumping into the mentions of people they didn’t know just to set them straight. It’s like being at a party and overhearing a conversation in which you’re not participating, then running over to say, “Erm, well, actually…” A person who makes a habit of doing this at parties would be a real annoyance, and Twitter basically supercharged this behavior.

For all of Mastodon’s features — or lack of features — that are intended to prevent abuse, it still enables this behavior. And I’ve long wondered, if Mastodon becomes popular enough, will we start to this problem here, too. Is it really possible to put this many people in a room together — so to speak — overhearing one another’s conversations, without having it start to turn into Twitter, with all of its performative tweeting and dunking? I dunno…

Andy writes about the TTRG (time to reply guy). The lower the TTRG, the less pleasant it is to be on a social network. The more likely you are to self censor because you just don’t want to deal with whatever fallout comes from some stranger wanting to give you there opinion.

There doesn’t seem to be much of that going on, on Mastodon yet. I hope there won’t be, but as the user base grows, the probability of reply guys grows with it.

For myself, I am already struggling not to just jump into people’s mentions. For a while I had developed a good habit of only replying to people if we were mutuals or if they were asking for responses. But as I’ve started following more people and my timeline is full of more boosts, I’m starting to fall back into old habits. As the pace picks up, I have to remind myself of my rules about replying. And when I forget, I usually regret it.

I don’t know if I think social networks can scale like this. I’m not even sure these are real social networks at this size. When the number of people you interact with way exceeds Dunbar’s number, are you dealing with meaningful social relationships?

I think most of the best experiences I’ve had online have been on services like IRC and Discord. One thing they both have in common is they don’t throw everyone into the same space.

I’m still hopeful that the Fediverse succeeds, and that ActivityPub-based social networks replace corporate silos. I still hope that whatever issues people have with Mastodon, that it results in the development of new ways to connect to the Fediverse, not an exodus and a return to some corporate-controlled social network. But if this happens, I’m not sure if I think it will be nicer than Twitter was.

Well, maybe a little bit nicer.

Because at least we can just defederate from the nazis.


  1. It actually had plenty of its own problems, particularly for people of color, but at the time, I was ignorant of that because the (white) corner I inhabited was relatively peaceful. ↩︎