What is Mastodon?
Ever since Elon Musk took over Twitter, there has been a substantial amount of talk about an alternative social media platform called Mastodon. For our purposes, that leaves us with two questions to answer in this article: What is Mastodon, and what role might it serve for zoos?
Before discussing Mastodon, it is important to make an obligatory reminder about privacy and security on the Internet, especially on websites. For example, everything that you post on Twitter, including private messages, is actually accessible by the owners of Twitter, though not to ordinary moderators, and your data security is really a polite fiction that depends entirely upon the scruples of whoever owns Twitter and whomever they choose to entrust with access to sensitive data. The same thing is true about Mastodon, which gives the owners and moderators of every instance as much access to the data of their users as the upper management of Twitter has over that of their users, so make sure that you trust the owners and moderators of any Mastodon instance that you join.
In any conversation about Mastodon, you will eventually hear the word “Fediverse.” The easiest way to explain the distinction between Mastodon and the Fediverse is to say that Mastodon is to Fediverse as Chevy is to highway. Mastodon is the most popular client for building a space in the Fediverse, but there are other clients that have subtle differences. All of those clients are plugging in to the same Fediverse.
A Mastodon instance connects with other instances through a process called federation, which means they share content on each others’ federated timelines and give their users the ability to follow users on other instances. While all instances eventually end up being federated with every other instance, every instance also has the option of suspending federation with any other instance, which means that those instances will no longer share content on each others’ federated timelines.
Following hashtags is the primary way that users customize their experience to their own liking, and because of this fact, the use of hashtags is exceptionally important on Mastodon. The Fediverse does not have an algorithm that attempts to predict what kind of content users might want to see. Predictive algorithms are really destructive because they induce negativity-induced behaviors such as doom-scrolling, which is being transfixed by a subject because of the pure sense of horror or fear that is caused by it. A customized experience gives users a way to choose what kind of experience they want to have. In light of the fact that following hashtags is how many users customize their experience, using correct hashtags is very important on Mastodon.
As a consequence of how the Fediverse is run, the Fediverse is really a relatively peaceful and friendly community compared with Twitter. The powers wielded by the owners and moderators of any given instance give them a tremendous degree of liberty in defining their spaces. The lack of a robotic algorithm diminishes the phenomenon of people being engaged for negative reasons. Whether you agree or disagree with how this is being done, the result has been that the Fediverse has turned out to be a much more friendly and inviting social space than the corporate social medias.
Feral.Cafe Is Born
A handful of zoos had the idea of building a zoo-owned Mastodon instance, which we have dubbed Feral.Cafe. This is literally the domain name of our instance.
One part of the mission of Feral.Cafe is to promote the artistic representation of zoosexuality and animal sexuality, which is colloquially referred to as “feral art.” We also hope to promote the more general admiration of non-human animals through wildlife or pet photography. Furthermore, we want to be a safe space for people who are zooey to meet and form a community.
Feral.Cafe is not intended for having a tremendous amount of reach. We have actually built this instance in order to create a space where we can be somewhat candid about our sexuality, and we are putting this consideration over extensive federation. Even if there are regular users on other instances that might be worth reaching out to, we are willing to sacrifice some of that reach on behalf of a degree of liberty.
However, we also want to encourage people that join our instance to consider creating alternate accounts on some of the other instances that are federated with us. We really do not want to keep zoos cloistered away in one space. We really encourage zoos to see our instance as a relatively safe gateway into the Fediverse. While neighboring instances might prefer for people who are zooey to practice greater circumspection while posting on their own instances, they will have at least been tolerant of having a clearly zoo-owned instance as their neighbor.
Keep in mind that the only NSFW content allowed on Feral.Cafe is illustrated content. This rule applies to all NSFW content, just out of fairness. Furthermore, all NSFW content must be behind content warnings and marked as sensitive. Also, our instance is only intended for otherwise vanilla feral artwork, and our instance is not an appropriate venue for “taboo-chasing.”
We also encourage zoos that have the resources and time to do so to consider building their own instances. This is not as difficult as it sounds. We are looking forward to a future where there is an entire constellation of zoo-owned and zoo-friendly instances in the Fediverse. There are many how-tos on how to set up a Mastodon, and the cost of maintaining a small instance is not extravagant.
A Culture Of Respect
The Fediverse is built on a foundation of respect. The power of instances to suspend federation with another instance for any reason they choose gives every instance a direct incentive to observe a high standard of conduct. Preserving a more positive atmosphere improves the federation of an instance, thereby enriching the content that is available to the users of that instance.
Furthermore, we ought to respect the rights of those instances that choose not to federate with a zoo-owned instance and never repine upon it whatsoever. They have a right to define their spaces as we have a right to define ours. No matter how savagely we might disagree with their choices or the motives and assumptions behind their choices, we ought to respect their choices. Believing that somebody is making a dumb or ill-spirited choice is not the same as disrespecting their right to make that choice. They likewise cannot force that choice on others.
The Fediverse remains a friendly space because of respect, and a part of respect is respecting another group’s right to have beliefs or make choices that you consider to be irrational, misguided, or self-defeating. The fact that people have the right to make dumb choices can also help open their minds to making better choices that they otherwise may have resisted. That little bit of power over their own space tends to make people more open-minded, not less, because it is always easier to be open-minded in a world where things are not being forced on us. In the end, the fact that Mastodon’s technology lets people have their space as they desire it may improve their odds of being willing to federate with another zoo-owned instance in the future, even if they were less open-minded the first time.
In service to keeping their friends, one of the customs of the Fediverse is the extensive use of content warnings. Content warnings give other people a way to opt-in to see any content that might be objectionable or touchy to some. Common content warnings are “politics,” “rant,” “emotional,” and “meta,” where “meta” refers to directly talking about the Fediverse itself. Also, any discussion whatsoever about Twitter puts “bird site” in the content warning. Used cleverly, content warnings can also act as pithy headlines for what your post is about, which can actually lead to more engagement rather than less. Using content warnings extensively, which gives people a way to opt-in, will improve our federation over time, thereby making the content available to us more interesting and helping us stay in touch with our friends on other instances.
A Zooey Fediverse
We hope that Feral.Cafe will only be the first of many instances that seek to connect zoos with each other and with their allies. Some people who are zooey might prefer to take a more subtle approach than Feral.Cafe, but others might choose to take a much more direct approach. Either way, let’s all seek to grow together and have a share in each others’ worlds.
The growth of the Fediverse gives the zooey community a unique opportunity to focus on engagement with allies and tolerant neighbors, and even though these might be few at first, we can grow that number over time. Old instances collapse while new ones form all the time in the Fediverse, and with every new instance that is formed, there is a new chance for us to try making friends.
The corporate social medias are not a very good place for any minority group, and this is not restricted to people who are zooey. Transphobic extremism on the corporate social medias have translated into vicious transphobic statutes, and homophobic extremism has resulted in violent attacks on LGBTQ spaces. Racist extremism has led to some of the most violent racist demonstrations in generations. Zoos are not alone. We are not the only group of people whose situation has gotten worse in the past generation, rather than better.
Fighting with toxic people brings out the ugly in us. When we get exposed to hate, that also brings out something hateful within ourselves. It activates our worst instincts. Exposure to hate tempts us into acting in ways that make even good people wonder if perhaps we really are mentally ill or dangerous. The more we put ourselves in a social space where we are exposed to hate, the more we tend to act in ways that seem to justify that hate.
More than any group of people in the world, people who are zooey need to have a chance to focus on those that are at least open to hearing what we have to say. We need chances to persuade people that are only tolerant toward us to become dear friends. We need chances to turn dear friends into people that are truly willing to go to bat for us.
We can build the Zooey Fediverse, and if we embrace the norms of the Fediverse, which are based on respect, then changing our situation does not have to take lifetimes like many of us expect. We can visibly change our entire outlook within months. Just by getting ourselves away from a toxic environment and embracing an environment that tends to bring out the goodness and the curiosity in people, we can fundamentally transform what it feels like to be zooey faster than any of us yet believe.
Article written by Sigma Zeta (January 2023)
Find her at [email protected]
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