Mastodon and journalism: An uneasy marriage?

Note: This was originally published at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Ever since Elon Musk completed his problem-plagued $45 billion takeover of Twitter last month, there has been a steady stream of users, including a number of journalists, signing up for Mastodon, an open-source alternative to Twitter. Unlike Twitter, which is now 100-percent owned and controlled by Musk, no one controls Mastodon—or rather, everyone controls their own version of it. There are thousands of servers running the software, and each one chooses which servers it “federates” or exchanges information with. Don’t like the users who belong to a specific server? Just block them.

Unfortunately for some of the journalists who have joined the service, this mass blocking or “defederation” approach is now being applied to them. A server that caters specifically to journalists was set up recently by Adam Davidson, creator of NPR’s Planet Money podcast. At last count, the server, called, had about 1,300 users, including some prominent names in the US journalism community (Full disclosure: I have an account on Davidson’s server). Earlier this week, a Mastodon user pointed out that about 45 “instances” are blocking all content from members of (as of mid-November, that number is about 75).

Among the reasons given for blocking users from Davidson’s server are that it is allegedly populated by “click-bait/tabloid journalists” who “can be expected to collect, search through, and misinterpret anything you say with the goal to share this publicly to an as big audience as possible, enabling hate and harassment to any one as long as it gives them clicks.” Others who have blocked the server say that its members are likely to be “surveillance capitalists,” or “mainstream propagandists.”

The administrator of an academic server wrote that the server is “willing to host some extremely scumbag journalist types and we don’t need to be on their radar.” Another said that “reporters mining social media for fodder without the authors’ knowledge or consent is a plague on every other social media platform, and I think [the Mastodon universe] should nip it in the bud.” (For the record, I’m aware that what I’m doing with this article might actually fit that description as well).

One journalist who is on Mastodon noted that there is a cultural difference between the way people often behave on Twitter, and expectations on Mastodon. “I’m seeing a clear signal that this is at least in part about norms and conduct,” he said, including “a legacy insistence on sharing your articles, live-posting breaking news, etc.” from journalists more used to Twitter’s emphasis on virality. “That doesn’t fly here.” Despite attempts by Mastodon veterans to educate new users about these differences, he said, many journalists are “stomping around doing the same-old same-old.”

There are approximately 7,000 Mastodon servers at the moment, so the fact that 75 of them block one server of journalists isn’t really the end of the world. But it remains to be seen whether Mastodon overall will welcome an influx of reporters fleeing Twitter and hoping to recreate what they had there. Will Mastodon turn out to be a hospitable environment for journalists or journalism in general? Or is the way that some journalists behave on social media incompatible with the principles Mastodon is built on, or the kinds of communities who choose to use it?

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