2019-09-26 Groups on Mastodon

Today I discovered that @datatitian has implemented an alpha version of groups for Mastodon. What’s a group? A group is a bunch of people wanting to talk about a thing, the group topic. It’s like a mailing list. Like joining a forum. As you might have noticed, Mastodon doesn’t offer that. You can follow accounts, and depending on your client, you can follow hashtags, and that’s it. You cannot express your interest in a thing unless you do it by following a bunch of people or by following a hashtag.

Both of these methods have drawbacks!

Trunk lists accounts on various topics. But we have a “quality” problem: people rarely post on the topics they’re listed under unless they’re maniacs. People have multiple interests, they have moods, they are political animals. That’s why I think that Trunk can only ever be a stop-gap measure.

The alternative would seem to be hashtags. Tag your posts by topic, follow hashtags, and bingo, right? Wrong! The problem is that hashtags don’t spread all over the fediverse. That’s a problem because “following hashtags” isn’t actually about following. It’s “searching for a hashtag” and searches are local only. A search only searches the database on your instance. That means, somebody on your server must have interacted with a toot before it gets added to your instance’s database: somebody on your server must be following the author, or must have favourited the toot, or something like that.

Search doesn’t federate. Search only searches your instance. This might not make a big difference if you’re on a large instance. A large instance means that there are many active users interacting with a lot of toots. Your search for a hashtag will produce results. If your fellow users are all biased one way or another, however, then the search result will be similarly biased. If your instance is small, then the number of toots you can find is very limited.

That’s where groups come in. For the longest time, @rf was the only group I knew. It is an account that simply boosts a toot if you mention it. The intent is to boost Russian toots. Thus, Russian speakers who really want to meet other Russian speakers can follow the account and they’ll see a ton of Russian toots boosted. Perfect!

The only drawback as far as I was concerned was that somebody had built this for Russian speakers and not for every single topic under the sun! This is where @datatitian comes in. He wrote a special kind of server which magically creates any account you search for. So, you can search for @test@gup.pe and it will be listed whether it exists or not. And if you follow it, it behaves exactly like the Russian booster bot I mentioned above:

Instant group!

I also see some drawbacks, of course:

For the moment, however, I’m happy to experiment. Although... I guess I never missed groups. The question I have most of all is: what are groups for?

Something like that? I guess if you never find enough people talking about a topic as you search for hashtags, you might want to subscribe to groups instead, hoping for a larger reach?

Now, you might have thought: why don’t people use lists? The problem is that lists only allow you to group accounts. You might put the accounts of family members in a list, for example. Then you could look at the toots in the list and you’d find all the stuff your family is doing. But you can’t put Emacs, D&D or Photography in a list. You can only put accounts in a list, not topics. So, if you had a list of people who only ever wrote on a particular topic, then it would work. But chances are that you don’t and that it won’t. Lists are only useful if accounts have something in common across all their toots. That is, it must be a property of the authors, not the toots: family, friends, work, shitposters, interesting people, jokers, hipsters, Germans, Americans...

Lists are not useful for topics because the topic is a property of the toot, not the author.

That’s also why Trunk is not a good solution: we’re putting accounts into lists but when you follow them all, you’ll find that the topics of their toots vary widely. Trunk is simply a tool to help you get started. It’s a way to find people from all over the fediverse that have at least some chance of being interested in the same topics that you are. But it’s a weak tie.

Groups, on the other hand, are a property of the toot. A single toot mentions the group like a hashtag. But unlike a hashtag, the toot gets sent to all the people following the group as it gets boosted. (Or, one day, spread via other means, perhaps?)

Groups. ❤

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Comments

As for the lack of moderation, I’d say it can always be added later. For example, we could add ownership according to who was first to mention (”use”) a group, who was first to follow (”join”) a group, who mentioned it the most in the last 8w, etc. Owners could send direct messages to the group account in order to control it: block accounts, ignore hashtags, ignore certain terms, etc. The group would act like a chat bot.

It might even log the last commands received and report them when contacted by others. We could create something like ChanServ on IRC: commands to set and change access permissions, commands to change the bio, to indicate that the group moved away to some other account, and so on.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-09-26 10:52 UTC


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