Exploring Mastodon

One of the new features on Mastodon for a recovering twitterer is the CW field for new posts. CW stands for Content Warning. When I’m composing a post, if I press the CW button, I have the option of putting a short phrase into a dialog. Readers will initially only see that short phrase, and need to click a button to see more.

CW stands for Content Warning, and the name suggests it can be used to hide potentially offensive material. However it’s a general purpose tool that’s handy whenever we feel a reader would benefit from only seeing a short phrase with the ability to click for more, such as a post including spoilers for a TV show. One person I saw used it to say “Course Promotion” – which I thought was a thoughtful way to reduce the impact of advertising.

Adding a CW adds friction to reading the post, as you have to click the button to see the full contents. This friction is good if you’d rather not see the content, but irritating if you do want to see the content, particularly if you’re clicking on a lot of buttons. (A reader can turn off hiding for all CWs in your settings, if you wish.)

The issue of how to use CWs has become a very emotive issue in recent weeks. Communities had formed on the Fediverse who had felt bullied on other internet locales, including Twitter, and created norms for thriving here, norms which include when to use CWs. The musk-to-tusk migration has led to a massive influx of new accounts on the Fediverse (from 0.5 to 1.6 million), with the result that many long-time Mastodonians fear that their carefully built set of norms will be swept away. Newcomers, on the other hand, argue that the context for those norms has now changed. In any case, a federated network means that there will be different sets of norms in different communities, and those communities will have to figure out how to coexist.

So as a new poster in this neighborhood, how should I react, specifically to the conundrum of when to use this CW feature?

The phrase I use to anchor my approach in matters like this is “I can’t choose whether someone is offended by my actions. I can choose whether I care.” So I don’t try to judge whether anyone ought to be upset with my decisions, that’s up to them. Instead I think about how much concern I have for their reactions, and a large part of that is a judgment on how widespread the distress would be.

Mastodon is a federated network, so I have to accept that different parts of the community will have different standards. I presume the expectations about CWs will be a feature of a particular publisher, either that of an individual writer or a publication. My publisher is Thoughtworks, as that company controls the Mastodon server I post from. So anything I post must fit in with expectations of Thoughtworks – but as an employee, that’s nothing different from what I’ve been doing for two decades, on any platform.

Fundamentally, I’m responsible for the contents of my Mastodon feed, and my readers will choose to follow me or not depending on how I use it.

One thing I read early on was to put any cross-posts from Twitter behind a CW. I did this when I started up my cross-post feed, but I also created a poll to ask my readers what they preferred. They voted overwhelmingly against the CW, so I removed it. Readers indicated they didn’t like the friction of clicking the button when they wanted to quickly glance through the feed.

Mastodon allows longer posts than Twitter, and I’ve seen even longer posts that I assume came from other Fediverse software. The longer a post is, the more useful it is to use a CW to summarize it so the reader won’t spend time reading it only to find they aren’t interested. I use Twitter mostly to publish links that I think my readers will find interesting. In this case the post itself is a CW for that linked material.

My feed is mostly about software development, so there’s an argument to use CWs for posts that are about other topics. As I expressed above, if the post is short with a link, its acting as a CW itself. But beyond that, a reason to not apply a CW is that I can give more visibility to something that I think is important for my readers to see, even if it’s not something they may want. As with software feature requests, often people will find it valuable to receive something that they never thought they wanted. Part of my role as an author is to figure out what my readers need, which isn’t the same thing as what they want.

Politics is a regular topic for disputes about CWs. Many Mastodon guides state that all political posts should be behind CWs. But if I’m following a political journalist, I would expect to see political posts, and the CW’s friction is an irritation. As a mostly-non-political poster, there’s a greater argument for me to use a CW. But I only post on a political issue when I think it’s important to highlight it to my readers, and a CW defeats that purpose.

All in all, I see CWs as another tool for me, as a writer to help my readers by helping them find material useful to them. My suggestion to other posters is to experiment, use it when you think it helps your readers, but expect your understanding to change as you learn more. We’ll also see how the people we interact with use CWs, and use our experiences as readers to guide our decisions when we post.

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