zombies

The Brand Comes Around

Mastodon is our nice little safe haven away from the rest of the world. No one wants to see it packed with ad content, so we’ve all put things like “no commercial stuff!” in our site descriptions and patted ourselves on the backs.

When companies discover Mastodon and come calling, none of that is going to help one bit.

I’ve worked with marketing departments before, and I promise you that lots of major corporations are preparing strategies. And from their perspective, why not? We’re an active network of several hundred thousand engaged, happy users who aren’t currently being advertised to. That’s a ripe target? All those news stories that drive new users our direction – Free Radical has grown by 49% since last week – call to them like a siren song. And when the first major corporation lands here and sets a precedent, I think we’ll be immediately deluged by copycats.

Frankly, I don’t think this is inherently bad. Everyone likes at least one organization, whether it be the ACLU or the NRA, the Green Party or the Republicans, FreeBSD or Microsoft. Some companies have famously helpful support accounts on Twitter. Others have genuinely interesting news feeds. I would personally like to selectively follow a few such accounts here on Mastodon if they were available.

Today, we have approximately zero tools to deal with this likely influx. The current thinking is that we’ll block unwanted corporate accounts as they come online, but that’s playing whack-a-mole as thousands of instance admins scramble to keep up with the flood. That’s not scalable or sustainable. We need a better way.

I propose that we add a new site setting on instances: “are accounts on this instance personal or controlled by an organization?” Personal instances would be what we have right now, and would include servers like pawoo.net which are run by corporations but where the accounts are owned by individual users. Corporate instances would be those set up by organizations for the purposes of hosting “role” accounts like marketing@, support@, news@, and so on. Adjacent to that setting would be another: “this instance interacts with corporate instances: normally, by silencing them, or by blocking them”. Both of these settings should be exposed in the site information API so that sites like the Mastodon instances list could help guide users toward instances with policies they like. User accounts would have their own “normal / silence / block” settings that could be more restrictive than their instance’s policy.

This has a few implications:

  • It’s expected that admins would react to corporate instances that don’t mark themselves as such by blocking them. We’d need to be on the ball and establish this as standard behavior quickly: we want it widely known that the penalty for lying is being effectively banned from Mastodon. Users could report instances and urge their admins to block them.
  • Corporate accounts could be easily identifiable, perhaps by displaying their usernames differently.
  • Instances could set their own standards. Perhaps a single-user instance could allow everything as normal so they can unfettered access to all of Mastodon. Larger instances could silence corporate instances so that their users can still follow and interact with those accounts, but advertising and company messages wouldn’t clutter the federated timeline. Others could easily block corporate accounts.
  • Users could still ultimately decide that they don’t want to see corporate content even if their instance would otherwise allow it.

I think this would be a good approach for all parties. Corporations could join Mastodon as welcome members, as long as they abide by the rules. Instances who want to remain ad-free could easily decide to do so, while others could allow some or all commercial traffic.

Companies will be coming to our playground. Do we accept this and start planning for it so that gracefully manage the transition, or do we sit back and hope it never happens so that we’re woefully unprepared when it does? I think we have to start talking about this now.