Explorations in math and programming
David Lowry-Duda

I've been on Mastodon for just over 6 weeks now, inspired by obvious events approximately two months ago. Specifically, I've been on the math-friendly server Mathstodon, which includes latex rendering.

In short: I like it.

Right now, Mathstodon is a kind place. The general culture is kind and inviting. I'm reminded a bit of young StackExchange sites, which are often so happy to come into existence that it seems like every new post is treasured.

Given the similarities to twitter, it is natural to compare and contrast. Twitter is not kind. Outrage evidently boosts engagement and snark generates retweets and likes. On Mathstodon, moderators maintain civility. I don't pay much attention to other Mastodon servers — they have different moderators and possibly different cultures.

But it's also true that Mastodon (and Mathstodon) are growing rapidly, and I don't know any social media sites that managed to maintain a positive culture while growing larger. Math.StackExchange1 1 Which I've helped moderate for a decade and which is dear to me. used to be much friendlier than it is now, but I think it's impossible to bring that positivity back.2 2 I have thought much about this. See my other posts Challenges facing cohesion at MSE, Ghosts of forums past, and Splitting MSE into NoviceMathSE is a bad idea for more.

Is the Mastodon system of having separate instances with separate cultures the answer? I don't know. Conceivably if Mathstodon starts to feel bad, I could pick and and move elsewhere — or of course run my own. Time will tell.

The Algorithm

I wasn't sure if I would like or not like the lack of the algorithm, the mysterious ordering system. But to my surprise, I miss essentially nothing about twitters algorithm.

Maintaining a reasonable signal-to-noise ratio on social media is a struggle. A deep problem I've faced on twitter is that I like to read things written by people who write about Hard Problems for a living. To ensure they get sufficient audience on twitter, it's necessary to post and repost the same essay/story (possibly with lightly different titles or formats). If any of these gets sufficient following, then it will bubble up to the feed.

This is too noisy for me.

The Mastodon system is closer to an interleaved set of RSS feeds.3 3 The ActivityPub protocol that Mastodon implements is sort of like a souped up RSS/Atom protocol that allows more rapid updates. Everything is strictly in the order that they're made. I love RSS, so perhaps it is no surprise that I like this system.

And the system allows unimaginatively-named "lists", which are feeds containing various specific accounts.

At least at the moment, this has a great signal-to-noise ratio.

Lack of Trending

The notable exception is the lack of trending information. Mastodon does not have an answer to trending local content.

Concretely, I thought about this when the Boston MBTA screeched to a halt (as it has a recent tendency to do) a bit before Christmas. If I had opened twitter, I might have been able to find the source of the disruption — not because I follow any MBTA accounts, but because this type of kerfluffle would cause enough activity that it would have populated the feed.

But I don't have twitter on my devices, and I don't currently see myself reinstalling twitter. In principle, the various MBTA twitter posts could have appeared on Mastodon as well — but I wouldn't see them. I suppose I could look for the tag #MBTA, or maybe #Boston? These aren't sufficient yet.

One can debate the merits of having twitter be the de facto place for random civic and political organizations to post news, but this is common. And this is another place where Mastodon is currently lacking.

Leave a comment

Info on how to comment

To make a comment, please send an email using the button below. Your email address won't be shared (unless you include it in the body of your comment). If you don't want your real name to be used next to your comment, please specify the name you would like to use. If you want your name to link to a particular url, include that as well.

bold, italics, and plain text are allowed in comments. A reasonable subset of markdown is supported, including lists, links, and fenced code blocks. In addition, math can be formatted using $(inline math)$ or $$(your display equation)$$.

Please use plaintext email when commenting. See Plaintext Email and Comments on this site for more. Note also that comments are expected to be open, considerate, and respectful.

Comment via email

Comments (2)
  1. 2023-01-01 mrita

    What is your name on mastodon?

  2. 2023-01-02 DLD