A History:

Fringe Mastodev
Part I: The Beginnings

This post is the first in a series of posts chronicling my personal history of involvement with the fringe development scene on Mastodon, detailing the origins of the movement, and touching on a number of larger cultural developments and trends taking place in the Mastodon communit{y|ies} more broadly. Fringe development is my term for the development work (research; design; coding) taking place on forks and individual instances of Mastodon, without the intention of sending that work upstream, and without mainstream acknowledgment or recognition. Increasingly, as Mastodon as a project grows, I believe that it is this development work that happens on the fringes that will shape the future of the software.

Due to Mastodon's nature as a GPL‐licensed, open‐source project, TootSuite upstream has the ability to profit off of fringe development work with little in the way of compensation or acknowledgment, obscuring the origins of its features, and making the project appear as the singular creation of one enlightened organization—or developer. This could not be further from the truth. Acknowledging and recording the troubled history of the Mastodon software is essential to prevent the narratives of these other developers—frequently, marginalized actors doing important work for their communities—from being lost.

For those of you who arrived at this post from somewhere else, my name is KIBI Gô, and for the past year or so I've been one of the most prolific fringe developers of the Mastodon software. My curriculum vitae in this respect mostly consists of my work for GlitchSoc, the first successful Mastodon fork, where I was the primary, and frequently full‐time, developer for the period from roughly (8 months). Aside from GlitchSoc proper, I have been involved in such Mastodon‐adjacent projects as Ardipithecus, Laboratory, Labcoat, Snow Web Client, Ratatootille, Mastodon GO!, MonStrPub, Monstodon, ActivityPress, and SlashBang. (Most of these names will probably be unfamiliar to you, if you didn't follow me at the time I was working on them.)

This post is intended as a retrospective of the past nineteen‐plus months, starting with Mastodon's February 2017 schism, and going up through the present‐day, chronicling my time working within the Mastodon community and with the Mastodon software. For those of you who have been following along with me on this journey, it is intended to offer some clarity as to where all of these ideas and projects have gone, and what my plans are moving forward. For those of you who haven't, I'm hoping it will shed some light on Mastodon's early history and the forces and factors which have made it what it is today.

I first joined Mastodon on . I've already touched upon the climate of Mastodon in those early few months in my previous retrospective, Mourning Mastodon, and I honestly don't have much more to add. (Mourning Mastodon, and its political context, will be discussed in further detail later in this series.) Instead, I want to start with the moment when that initial cohesion met its first major stumbling block, when Mastodon stopped being singular, and when I first found myself getting involved as something more than a user.

February 2017

This story begins, as perhaps it ought, with Mastodon's most significant, controversial, and distinctive feature: the Content Warning (CW). As a technological feature, Mastodon received Content Warnings on , roughly 19–20 months ago, at time of writing. In truth, Mastodon already had Content Warnings prior to this, but they looked like so:

That is, they consisted of a plaintext description followed by ROT13‐encoded text. These were used primarily for lewds—sometimes posted straight to the public timeline—but by the end of January they were prevalent enough in‐general that Mastodon guides of that era needed to explicitly tell new users how to process them. There were concerns from the development community that the massive amounts of ROT13 on the site would drive away new users, and this was one of the driving forces between CW adoption.

To be clear on these points:

Mastodon culture moved incredibly fast in those days, and by the time rolled around, there were already a set of community practices in‐place dictating when and where they should be used. These were largely carried over from the ROT13 days, but were enforced more stringently now that adding a CW was as easy as clicking a button.

That said, the transition from ROT13 to built‐in CW wasn't entirely without turmoil. CW‐jokes—where the content warning was the setup and the body of the toot was the punchline—existed from the very first day, and were frequently used by people testing out the feature for the first time. Memes like SOME(BODY) and IT'S BEEN also took no time at all to surface, and made CWs into a core part of Mastodon culture. Even so, there was a segment of the population who thought that this was a mis‐use of the feature, that CWs should be used as trigger warnings exclusively, and that CW‐jokes were trivializing the trauma of those who depended on them for safe navigation online.


the content warning system was designed to be flexible and accommodate multiple use-case scenarios, including potentially harmful content but also spoilers for episode 47 of spongebob. there is such a thing as *overuse* imo, but not misuse per se.


it's weird that this has been such a discourse item when it has been called a spoiler system / spoilertext from the beginning iirc?? and there were accessibility concerns wrt rot13 but never anyone saying “oh you shouldn't've rot13'd that” as far as i remember. is this just an issue of branding / the fact that the toggle says “content warning”??


i thought the whole reason we switched away from calling things trigger warnings and started calling them content warnings was because it was a more flexible label and prevented this kind of discourse, smdh

CW politics was a refrain which was taken up very quickly by a number of passionate users—anyone who is on Mastodon today is likely familiar with this norm. Remember that this was just after the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, and that much of Mastodon's initial base was queer leftists from Twitter who joined in , when post‐election fervour was at its peak. It had been a rough political year for all of us, and time and space away from the steady stream of disheartening news was something many sorely needed.

However, early in February, this community standard was weaponized, as white, trans users—who, for the record, posted un‐CWed trans shit in their timeline all the time—started taking it to the mentions of people of colour whenever the subject of race came up. It was an incredibly unfair double‐standard, which effectively amounted to white people restricting the domain of public discourse to only those things which made them feel comfortable. In an attempt to demonstrate the sillyness of their position, I've created a table, reproduced below, which lists some things that these white randos may or may not have responded angrily to seeing on the Public TL:

Probably OK Probably Not OK
smdh this cis boy making my latte fml smdh this white boy making my latte fml
Trebuchet TERFs ugh trebuchet all these racist randos in my mentions
trans witches are Powerful #BlackGirlMagic

Keep in mind that CWs, as a technological feature, had only existed for about a week at this time.