Some ancient history: I joined mastodon.social back in 2016 because a bunch of my extremely gay, trans, marginalized, communist, and anarchist buddies were on it. Some members of that group stayed there, others moved to Discord, and others (such as myself) returned to the battlegrounds of Twitter, to spread fear and wreak havoc.
While I kept my .social account periodically active and dipped my toes back in on and off the Fediverse over the course of the past six years, my partner Leif adopted it as his platform of choice, often sharing the choicest cuts and dramas of the week/month with me.
A few days ago, as a bunch of people I know where signing up for Mastodon again, I decided to log back in, and was pretty excited about the level of enthusiasm and activity. After a couple of days looking at my old and sad .social account, I decided it was time to open up a new account on a new instance. In a fit of morbid curiosity, I opened up my Digital Ocean panel and took a look at the "1-click" Mastodon server setup they have there, just to see...
Before I even knew what was happening, silvan.cloud was created:
Running my own Mastodon instance has been — with the exception of one rather sad and stressful morning, see the second point below — very fun. Six days later, below are some of my earliest observations:
Some technical specs:
I'm running Mastodon v4 on a Ubuntu 20.04 2GB RAM / 50GB Disk VPS ("droplet") on Digital Ocean, which I think will be sufficient for a 1-person instance over the long term (Mastodon is hefty!) For object storage, because media storage ends up becoming a big drain on mastodon instances, I have it hooked up to a DO "Space" which gives me access to an initial 250 GB of object storage for 5 CAD a month. Unless something goes very wrong that should be more than enough.
Digital Ocean is definitely not the cheapest setup, but it’s the service my website + blogs run on and I’ve had really good experiences with their customer service in the past when I've had issues, so I'm happy to go this route.
Targeted and organized harassment:
The services which use the ActivityPub protocol operate on a blocklist setup to federate with each other. To run my own instance securely, the very first thing I did after creating silvan.cloud, and before even posting for the first time, was block those servers which are known hubs of bad actors online. As of writing, this is the blocklist (in .csv form) currently used by silvan.cloud, but I expect it to keep changing with time.
Within 8-10 hours of creating the server, I began to receive over the course of a morning and afternoon a wave of transphobic, queer bashing, and racist harassment organized on several servers that I did have blocked. It seems some groups, to find targets, are using tools to check to see who is blocking them. Thankfully, the situation did not last longer than a day. I was able to block a few select IP addresses and a few more servers (included in the blocklist shared) and I haven't seen any harassment since.
Furthermore, the #fediblock hashtag and the account Guinan@TenForward are really essential to follow here, to stay abreast of these kinds of things. I did think about switching to a whitelist-only setup, but that sounded like far more work than actually necessary at this time. Online harassment is an issue no matter the social network — my Twitter account has something like 40 000 accounts blocked, and I still see nonsense on a periodic basis.
Addendum: I haven’t used it yet, but I was recommended the third party tool debirdify to export a Twitter block list to integrate into Mastodon.
Moderation across the network Mastodon servers live on is done on a volunteer basis. Instance administrators and users of the instances themselves become moderators, with the ability to set the tone and establish the rules (no hate speech, no harassment, etc.) followed on a specific instance.
I knew that wherever I went on Mastodon after leaving .social, moderation would be the ethical question leading me forward. I'm a community moderator in a few different groups, so I know what a timesink it is. It is also an enormous effort of emotional labour. As is the case with many such things, on those Mastodon instances that do take moderation seriously, moderation is both better than a lot of outsiders claim, and perhaps a little worse than what a lot of insiders claims.
The question of moderation — and server/instance health and longevity — ended up being a considerable factor in deciding to solo-instance, since the ability to block instances (see previous point) can be done on an account basis.
There are a currently a couple million users on the fediverse. This is actually more than the number of active users on Twitter when I signed up my very first account back in 2007.
Mastodon has no algorithm, my timeline and federated feeds are only shown in reverse-chronological order, and I’m a heavy filter user to get rid of noise. My posts on Twitter and my posts on silvan.cloud today get very similar numbers of likes, shares, click-throughs (as far as I can measure them, since I don't use Google Analytics on my blog), and responses. Plus, links shared to my blog or other ressources are naturally suppressed by Twitter’s algorithm, since Twitter has a vested interest in keeping you in their walled garden. When I share a link to my blog on Twitter on a good day, 10-11 users of my 2 385 followers might click through. I shared a link to my blog on silvan.cloud a couple days ago, and it was easily double that, and I only had 70 followers a couple days ago.
Running my own instance has been really smooth, so far
In the days since I created silvan.cloud, Mastodon had a major version update. With my partner Leif's help to handle some of the particularities of my setup, upgrading my instance was straightforward, painless and resulted in no downtime. So far, the actual technical side of running my instance has not been a source of stress, which is cool. I've also been able to change some settings (for example, I can post 1000 characters instead of the Mastodon standard 500 characters) and edit some parts of the UI.
This post is getting long enough, so I'll stop here. (I'm also hoping to translate this post into French shortly, but I'm a bit slammed at work so we'll see how quickly I manage it.) If you have any questions about Mastodon or about running your instance, don't hesitate to drop me a line. I'm happy to chat.