Being Kind on Social Media

Content Wrapping on Mastodon, and a guide to being a better member of society.

Being Kind on Social Media
By Oceancetaceen Alice Chodura — Own work, CC BY 3.0

I’m going to cut straight to the punch-line. Why be kind to people? Because it’s nice to be kind. Because being kind improves the likelihood of open dialogue, builds networks of trust and mutual respect, and helps ensure a longer-lasting and far more satisfying world.

When the social media network known as Twitter started to implode in late 2022, after Elon Musk purchased it with the full support of his long-time friend Jack Dorsey, people flocked en masse to a different social platform: Mastodon.

Mastodon Is More Exciting Than Twitter
Mastodon offers a wild, untapped, landscape of incredible potential.

But, when they arrived, they found a culture that surprised them. On Twitter, it was commonplace to see people engaging in “Twitter wars” consisting of flurries of ill-spirited tweets. Frightening content was pushed by both the code algorithm behind Twitter, and by indoctrinated users alike. A culture of meanness and passive violence was simply endemic.

The new #TwitterRefugees found themselves, suddenly, in a place where that sort of behavior wasn’t the norm — and frequently wasn’t tolerated. See, the main Mastodon servers all share built-in tools to discourage this sort of behavior. They also share a culture of mutual aid and compassionate care.

Myths About Mastodon
If you’re new to the federated social network, this is for you.

Surprisingly, a lot of people from Twitter started to rebel against the idea that they needed to learn to be considerate and kind. They had been trained by long use of a toxic social network to participate in a culture of violence. Many had become invested with the belief that they could say or do anything they wanted, with any tone they wished, and not face any social repercussion from their community… because their whole community engaged in the very same behavior!

The biggest fight emerged over something relatively innocuous. A safety feature built into Mastodon called “Content Warning.” Ostensibly a way to post things that might be intense, disturbing, or just plain repetitive, this feature has long helped the community on Mastodon maintain the mental and emotional health of its membership. Many people quickly pointed out that “Warning” was too strong a term. Really, CW had come to stand for “Content Wrapper” — a headline of sorts, like with a newspaper, that lets people get a quick snapshot idea of what the main post is going to include. Some people even use them to tell jokes! Put the joke as the headline, with the punchline hidden beneath a “read more” button! But this was just “known” knowledge within the existent community, not something that people just joining would necessarily understand.

Two arriving groups found themselves in a weird alliance against this feature. Free speech advocates who have always hated having to be kind to anyone else, and… people of color?

It soon emerged that some people had been telling new black people on Mastodon to use content wrappers for any of their content that featured intense material — including simple descriptions of hardships faced during their everyday lives. Needless to say: That completely perverts the point of the content wrapper feature, and rightly made a lot of people very annoyed. After all, anger is there as a signpost to show us that something is wrong.

Others seemed to take this as a sign that the whole idea of taking care of other people’s mental wellbeing was silly, pointless, and even “aggressive.”

I saw one user post that “a walled garden of your own creation is still a walled garden.” Pithy, I’ll admit, but rather unexceptional, and certainly a case of missing the point.

Nobody needs to go through life surrounded by other people shouting at them all the time.

Especially online, it’s vital that we have good mutual tools, and a good culture of mutual respect, to ensure that the community is safe. There are very serious issues that I keep up to date with in the world. These range from politics, to cyber issues, to social issues, to economic issues, to climate disaster issues… the list goes on. But when we interact with those topics should be up to the individual.

How should Content Wrappers be used on Mastodon?

If the CW feature (I just use the term “content wrapper” these days, to highlight its true usage) is used, it has to be voluntary. There are other tools you can use to enforce your own safe space, like temporarily muting someone, blocking someone, or even blocking an entire server. These are easy-to-implement options that are built right into Mastodon.

  • Use the CW to protect others from multiple posts about the same subject (“rants”), to make “dad jokes”, to hide hot-topic political takes, as a “spoiler” feature when you’re posting about the TV series you’re watching, and to hide graphic or intense information that you’re worried might harm someone who comes across your post.
  • Do not, ever, go and post a comment on someone else’s post telling them that they should use the CW feature for their content. Even if you’re right, even if they might actually appreciate the tip, the use of the CW feature should be their choice to make. Sure, spread the word about the CW feature and how great it is. Proselytize for mental health safety! But do it in your own posts, or by boosting the posts others have made.

What to do if the CW feature on Mastodon isn’t enough

You can take control of what you see and experience on Mastodon in a far more controlled way than you could on Twitter. You have five options available to you: four that protect yourself, and one that helps protect the community.

In this example, you can see the moderation options you have available. Mute, block, report, and block the entire offending domain.
  1. Mute: This temporarily removes the person’s posts from your feed. Maybe it’s a big sports day, and you hate sports, so you don’t want to see your friend’s live-tooting about their favorite team. You can mute for different periods: from hours to indefinitely.
  2. Block: this does just what it says. That person cannot view your profile and posts any more (from that profile, at any rate). You cut off all contact with that person.
  3. Block domain: if you’re feeling skeeved out by a domain (maybe they all post too much nsfw content… or maybe it’s an alt-right server), you can block the whole server in one go. Nobody from that server can interact with you or your posts and you won’t see their content.
  4. Report: use this! If you see content from an alt-right, extremist, or unsafe server, you should absolutely report it right away. Servers choose who they “federate” with (who they allow to connect with them). If server admins understand which accounts aren’t safe, and which servers aren’t safe, they can block them altogether. Admins talk to one another, and pretty soon all the popular servers will end up blocking the problematic ones. If your whole server is problematic, check the note after #5.
  5. Move to a different server: maybe you accidentally joined a server filled with people who are mean and hateful. Or maybe most of the people are delightful, but you’ve realized you want to be on a server that restricts nsfw posts. Or, maybe you just want to have a different group of people inhabiting your local feed. In that case, you can easily switch to a better server, no problem.

Note on #FediBlock: If you find that your whole server, or the admins of your server, are problematic or simply not responding to your concerns about safety and security, you should do two things.

  1. First, move to a different server, it’s easy!
  2. Second, as soon as you are on your new server, post using the #FediBlock hashtag. Make sure your post is public.
  • It’s common to use the CW feature to name the post something descriptive, like “Reporting abusive server” and then post your content in the main field of the CW.
  • Make sure to add the #FediBlock hashtag to the main field of your post, not the CW header, otherwise it won’t get seen. By doing this, admins can figure out which servers aren’t cool, and can block them.

Final thoughts

No place on the Internet is inherently safe. Beyond the privacy and security issues, there’s a constant barrage of information streaming in at us at all times. But we shouldn’t let this deter us from building good connections with other human beings.

Nor should we let our desire to only see nice things that we agree with cloud us to the very real struggles that others face!

The key is balancing your own mental wellbeing with your responsibility to be a good member of the global community.

Protect your space, try to inform people about tools they can use to make the world better, but make sure to not step over the line of imposing your views by demanding that everyone behaves just like you want them to. If you don’t like them, just block them, it’s that simple.

Stay safe, have fun, and make good friends! That’s what the Internet is really for.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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