Kara Swisher interviewed Matt Mullenweg on Recode Decode! It’s extremely sad how excited I was to see this in my podcast feed (and that I’m already writing about it before the post has actually gone up on Recode, itself.)
Also, I had no idea his and WordPress’ company, Automattic owned Longreads and Atavist. Hilariously, I also found out his old blog themes are now available in the WordPress theme directory. Unfortunately, I had to wait a whole darned week for a “lightly-edited transcript” [local backup] of this episode, but frankly, I’m just glad they decided it was worth transcribing at all, considering WordPress’ out-of-the-excitable-for-dabblers status. I mean… it was probably a bit cruel to place Mullenweg’s episode in direct followup to Kara Swisher’s interview with Mark Zuckerberg the previous week, which — for obvious and entirely-justified reasons — will surely be the most-listened-to Recode Decode episode by far in its recent history, at least.
“I’ve been doing WordPress for 15 years and I’d like to do it the rest of my life.”
Yiokes! Ya know? You’re damned right, “oof.”
“I think every tech company should have an editorial team.”
Out of signficant and nearly-unbearably heavy bias, I must agree wholeheartedly with this statement — and Mullenweg’s requisite elaboration — and I must leave you with the expression of one final wish: that Zuckerberg had been interviewed post-Matt, instead, and Kara Swisher would’ve brought this up with him.
Software reviews (especially of mobile browsers,) may seem a bit tedious, but tech publications are frustratingly hesitant to express any substantial favor, these days. Mobile browsers have been our primary vehicle to The Web for years now, which means we should expect the best experience possible, so I committed to spending one week with Microsoft Edge in my iPhone 8’s #1 browser seat to see how it compares with the lot of currently available web browsers on iOS: Safari, Firefox, Chrome, Brave, and Opera Mini.
After using Safari since the last time it was the best choice (which was uh… quite a while ago,) the speed of my initial surfing on Edge was very impressive and immediately evident along with the foreign contrast of its stubbornly on-brand UI design which is matched impressively well with its Windows 10 kin. It feels just a bit more open and less intrusive than Safari or Chrome, and its custom buttons and menus are a refreshing change if you’ve grown tired of iOS’ look, though they’re still pretty ugly. Scrolling through webpages feels quicker, but it’s not quite as smooth as Safari, and neither especially are its responses to swiping gestures.
Microsoft emphasized bringing “familiar” features “like your Favorites, Reading List, New Tab Page and Reading View” on the go, and while these are indeed familiar, they are not particularly welcome. Edge was a good idea and undeniably the best browser with which to use a touchscreen on Windows 10, but it now feels unsturdy and broken compared with updated desktop alternatives, so there’s very little incentive right now to use Edge for iOS for its #1 feature, alone, but I did try it out for the sake of thoroughness. While signing in to my Microsoft account from within the app’s main ellipses menu was quicker than you’d expect, there currently doesn’t appear to be a way to stay signed in because the app’s been kicking me off at seemingly random intervals of time with no notice or indication that it’s done so.
In terms of speed, I decided to take advantage of the fastest internet connection I’ve ever tested to screen capture two browser comparison videos. In the first, I simply navigated to and fully rendered the same single, fairly complex sample webpage in each of the six available browsers on iOS successively. (I hope you enjoy the YouTube rights-free soundtrack I added.) In the second, I navigated to a more complex webpage and briefly scrolled through its animation with each before navigating to the same front-page story on The New York Times. If anything, these captures prove that modern web browsers are simply too fast for loading time to be a meaningful benchmark anymore, but I should note that Edge seemed noticeably more efficient than the others when I was reading news on a poor 3G connection.
The ultimate issue with using Microsoft Edge is the same with using any browser aside from Safari on iOS: there’s no way to change system-wide which one clicking a link will open. Some old Twitter clients will still let you specify, but one or two sources may as well be none. If you open links from email newsletters as I do dozens of times a day, there’s no intuitive way to maintain use of any other browser. That said, Edge’s cross-platform preference syncing and elegantly simplified interface may make it a good choice for more senior users, and its one-touch “Close All Tabs” button!!! is a simple delight which should be standard everywhere.
As it stands — unless you’re using too old of an iPhone for this comparison to be relevant anyway — you could simply do what I did for this review and simply keep every one of these six apps in a folder should any one take your particular web surfing fancy. I, myself, have already returned Safari back to its old spot in the interest of simplicity.
The saga of Twitter, Inc. has been rejuvenated in 2017 by Tump’s antics, corporate drama, and an amalgam of user and non-user disquiet with its decisions, though its financial viability has been in prominent industry conversation for half a decade. Since its pre-2010 outset, many ‘a’ feature has accumulated on its original, still-iconic skeletal software, and — though the net is undoubtedly positive — a few have gone. Last Thursday, the company revised in bravado its poultrian default profile picture and its system of replies to exclude @s on all of Twitter’s proprietary services, drastically changing two of its visual mainstays, and prodding a particularly lucent cacophony. Turn your ear, and you’ll hear many familiar terms in the chants: limits, chains, strings, harassment, feedback, gamergate, nazis, etc. Of course, these conversations are important, but they’ve gotten awfully stale. As the old, undying buzz has gone on in the past few weeks, however, the most careful listeners have begun intercepting a new one: Mastodon.
It’s the open source brainchild of Eugen Rochko — known colloquially as Gargron — and he has had one hell of a week. In between the night of our first emails and our conversation, his flagship mastadon.social instance had doubled in users. Less than two hours after we said our goodbyes, his name was on The Verge’s front page. Yet despite the urgency of it all, he graciously lent me his time just after breakfast on Tuesday to discuss himself and the story behind the project, while the most significant day of his life was building around him.
Despite the urgency of it all, he graciously lent me his time just after breakfast on Tuesday to discuss himself and the story behind the project, while the most significant day of his life was building around him.
“I’m perfectly fine with being called Eugene by Americans.”
(Though the ink on his compsci diploma is no doubt still fresh, he’s clearly prepared for the American press.)
What’s the story behind the project? Do you remember the specific moment when you decided to do this?
Many years ago, I had a friend that was really into federated networks when they were a new thing. That was when identi.ca was first created — at the very beginning of my developer knowledge and career.
A good portion of the stories written so far on his platform have framed it as an alternative to Twitter, which early Masto adopters refer to as “Hellbird,” or “the bird website.” Eugen isn’t afraid to acknowledge his investment in the format.
I was a heavy Twitter user and I wasn’t happy with where Twitter was going, so I decided to check on how the federated stuff was doing in the meantime. I found it in a very sad state, but thought I could contribute.
So he began building his own, with Tweetdeck’s standard as his frame of reference.
I thought ‘if I’m going to do something, it needs to have realtime updates and it needs to have columns.’I started with a bare-bones prototype while still [at University] in May or April of last year. It had no user interface, only an API that I was using from the command line. And I thought ‘okay, it works. that’s great.’ Then, exams came.
Academics had to come before the project at first, but it soon supplied an ample post-graduation diversion. He focused his energy on building something more complete and eventually launched a Patreon page.
I announced it on HackerNews, and that was the first public release of the project. That’s when I got my first users who weren’t my friends, and some who were new to federated networks.
In just the 100 or so days since the announcement, Gargron has seen the first collaborative feedback of the project accumulate.
I started working on the first feature requests, shaping the project a bit differently. People were a lot more focused on privacy features than I thought they would be, although in retrospect, it makes sense. The previous [federated] project — GNU social — did not really have a focus on privacy features, or anything built in by default.
It sounds obvious, but it cannot be sufficiently emphasized how essential The Community behind an open source project is to its success. That is, the community is the project’s entire existence. The framework of incentives for the contributors in this development model will always remain infinitely more truly aligned with the interests of all parties involved. Historically, just about every single failed, abandoned, and/or fumbled open source development project succumbed or survived with its culture. (The overwhelming majority of them, just in case you haven’t heard The Word.) Though it’s completely impossible to be certain, Mastodon’s infanthood so far seems to vouch extraordinarily for its family. Rochko had given its prototype to the world, acted on its first few responses, and pushed the revisions to the development community, who hoisted their digital thumbs — and thus, the first full cycle between originator and his would-be people was a success, and the foundations had been layed for the production of a truly special piece of social networking software.
Over time, I kept working on new features, and waves of new users came when it went viral in certain circles. The first was HackerNews and Product Hunt. Aral Balkan — a Twitter user with over 30,000 followers — picked up the project, gave it a shout out, and even did a giveaway of his app. He had a lot of followers from Holland; the Mastodon timelines became mostly Dutch.
Next was Marxist Anime Twitter, of which many Extratone friends are a proud part of.
Lots of furries; lots of LGBT people. That’s when I really focused on privacy features and making sure all blocks worked because these individuals needed a safer platform than Twitter could offer.
“As you can see, the first bump is HackerNews, the second is Aral Balkan, and then anime/Marxist Twitter,” Eugen clarifies in the pause it takes me to assimilate the visual information from the above general busyness chart enough to realize just how significant this whole movement was for him.
What’s the story behind the name?
It’s not particularly interesting. I’m a progressive metal fan, and I listen to Mastodon sometimes. They have a really cool name that refers to a really cool animal. It’s a fluffy elephant! What’s not to love? It’s also the inspiration for Mastodon’s mascot, which was penned by Rochko’s YouTuber friend Dopatwo after he realized how urgently he required an error page.
What does “federated” mean to you?
The biggest problem with this term is that it’s new for lots of people. People who’ve come across federated networks in the past instantly understand what it means and how it works, and people who are new to the concept have a lot of trouble before it clicks. But when Twitter first started, people didn’t understand what ‘retweeting’ meant, so it’s not a unique problem domain. I don’t know where it comes from — maybe BitTorrent — but people seem to think that when something is ‘decentralized,’ everybody gets the same thing; that it’s all synchronized one to one. In actuality, ‘federated’ means that people in different instances can talk to each other, but the content is different depending on the users there, what they do, and who they follow.
Though instances are infrastructurally independent, they ship with the ability to communicate with one another.
What if Twitter comes to you in the near future with a job offer?
[Rochko laughs.] If it was any other company, I would think about it. A job is a stable source of income, and — depending on the company — could involve doing something important, but I have zero faith in Twitter.
Does this mean that I finally get to live out my serif Twitter dream?
Yes, I suppose on your own instance, you could change the stylesheet…
So if I set up my own instance and started charging for its use, I’d be in the clear, legally?
Yes, that’s okay. The code is licensed under AGPL version three, which I picked because other projects in the same space are using it. The difference between AGPL and GPL is that [the former] forces you to contribute back to the appstream code repository if you make any breaking changes.
For example, Eugen explained that WhatsApp originally used XMPP for its chat protocol, which meant that Facebook and Google Talk users could connect to it, too. However, the company progressively locked down the platform over time, leaving virtually nothing visible that was unique to XMPP in its current iteration.
“To prevent somebody taking Mastodon code, placing it behind locks, and stripping out the federation part to make Twitter II, I’m using this license.The thing to remember about free software is that ‘free’ means freedom of the user, not that it’s zero cost. It’s perfectly fine to charge for free software because developers need to live, too.”
I’ve seen a lot of multilingual ‘tooting’ these past few weeks. Can we expect an in-app translate function like Twitter’s on Mastodon?
I don’t think I could put in a ‘translate this toot’ button because APIs from Google and Bing are quite expensive at scale. I’m not 100% promising this, but I can probably put something in where people can select which language they post in, and then just filter the timelines. That would at least solve the problem of being confronted with lots of French posts, without knowing any French.
The only complaint about Twitter I remember that hasn’t already been addressed here is the capability of editable ‘toots.’ Is that a possibility?
That won’t happen. There’s actually a good reason why they don’t do that. It’s simply because you could make a toot about one thing, have people favorite it and share it, link it from other places, and then suddenly, it says ‘Heil Hitler,’ or something.
It’s a bit preposterous to continue the conversation as if Twitter and Mastodon are interchangeable entities. They exist in separate ideological and mechanical spheres, and will both continue to do so for a very long time. That said, the fundamental user interface design and current cross-community user saturation do warrant comparisons between their functions. More likely than not, you’ll create a Mastodon account because a link found you on Twitter, use it because you prefer its type of ecosystem, and you’ll stay after realizing that nearly all of your age-old qualms have been addressed, if not already rectified. While FOSS and Federated may seem at times like jejune ideologies, their advantages are especially tangible in this context. Should you find yourself needing to complain about something, you’ll find an audience. Perhaps it’ll be your command line.
It’s nothing but negligent to describe Mastodon as an “alternative” or “clone,” and it’s beginning to feel exponentially more ignorant too: Mastodon has great potential to be Twitter’s vastly-superior heir.
It’s leaner, quicker-to-change, much more flexible & democratized, and less corrupt. Though I didn’t ask its creator what he intended to gain from all his effort, I think his commitment itself denotes a preoccupation with progress. Those of you who’ve been let down by the tools you’ve been given to control your words’ exposure will find startling competence in your ability to determine per-toot privacy, or reserve your raucous photos and terrible memes from followers who are not necessarily complicit consumers. Naturally, it’s also much less dependable, though a single instance outage will never leave you truly, completely silent. And the support will come.
It’s been a privilege to be observer and participant in the first lightening of a new online community. In the moment, we enjoy our lavender haze — when the spaces are filling primarily with users who are sincerely interested enough in discourse to have sought it out. Sarah Jeong’s account of her Twitter exile is a good, long read if you’re craving more specifics, and Eugen’s Medium turned Official Mastodon Blog offer more complete analysis of federation and its place in the industry, straight from the source. Apparently, he’s just as articulate with words as he is with code, and if I’d haveta hazard a guess, I’d bet it’s not the last we’ll hear from him.