Updated: December 3, 2022
Late at night came a query: Are you on Mastodon? I replied: No, I am in bed. This to avoid explaining that the thought of being on one more social media network was making me feel the same joy as doing my taxes. Oh haha, said the other party, I just wanted to know what you toot as. I sat up. This was getting serious.
All week I had watched influential folks on Twitter say they were migrating to Mastodon as a protest against the former’s political choices and weak responses to online harassment. The Germany-based Mastodon network, which claims it doesn’t monetize user data, told the media that this week it had seen 18,000 new users as against a usual number of 1,000. But my first sense that I had to start rethinking my lifestyle choices was when this nocturnal messaging friend used the verb “toot” so casually. As opposed to tweeting, you understand. I am afraid of these new verbs. I watched that 30 Rock episode in which Alec Baldwin’s character acquires the “up-and-coming social network YouFace” less with giggles and more with grimaces. Social media verbs have a light-hearted quality completely at odds with the overly serious and self-righteous nature of current internet cultures. They are high-maintenance dates pretending to be low-maintenance ones. They invoke the silliness and play of the early internet much as the names of apartment buildings invoke the trees cut for real estate development. Once I was a silver oak, a rain tree, a gulmohar. Once I was a place of anonymity and role-play.
Listen, my response to Mastodon is not a well-thought out resistance to a new network. It is part of my generic thoughtless resistance to joining so you can safely ignore my opinions, don’t worry. While I have had a crush on the internet ever since we met, I have been a late joiner on almost all social media networks. Except the dating site OkCupid, whose baby shower and kindergarten years I was joyfully present for, I am an expert on the middle ages and dying wishes of numerous avatars of online sociality: Orkut, Blogger, LiveJournal, Shelfari. Some darling buds of social media networks lived out their summer’s lease and were shaken by rough winds before I could make up my mind about them: Myspace and Google Plus, for instance. It’s embarrassing to remember friends sending me YouTube links some years ago and my refusing to open them, complaining that it took too much time to load. I mean, I have continued to behave like Snapchat will go the way of Sarahah because I instinctively got that I am always going to enjoy Snapchat and TikTok secondhand but they will never, to quote the horrid viral Drake, be in my feelings.
Which category does Mastodon fall into, I have been wondering.
Another nocturnal message. This one in Malayalam. Do you have Mastodon, he asks. No, I have Pterodactyl, I reply. “Can’t be a big girl without Mastodon,” comes the reply from this sly and skilled lurker of network. I don’t want to get any bigger, I reply. “That I am not big, is my claim to bigness,” he replies, quoting the Malyalam poet Kunjunni Mash, reminding me why I love my old and strange online friends, from the time we didn’t ask each other names or IRL (in real life) details for years. Is there any irony in pointing out that this whole interaction was happening on WhatsApp, the other thing I resisted for years but now can’t live without?
Should I join Mastodon, I asked an early adopter friend. “Does it matter,” she said. “This Mastodon looks like a short-lived trend. People are still referring back to Twitter while posting on Mastodon.” Watching the hectic “shifting” activity, I agreed with her. It had given me the feeling that Mastodon is a bit like the house in the hills that every person I meet in Delhi has just built. The many declamations, the sighs of relief for the fresh air and new flowers and the shock that your Delhi neighbour whose politics you detest has also moved to the same hill.
But what do I know? My friend is a good everyday futurist so I trust her and envy her social media Oracle at Delphi skills. I have just bumbled along. Here is an example of my cluelessness from way back in April 2012. I am having breakfast with my other love-at-first-scan, the poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, at the India Coffee House in the erstwhile Allahabad. I am trying hard to be the right combination of poetic and prosaic, and failing. In my nervousness, I switch to that crutch: extremely current affairs. “Have you seen the news? Facebook has just paid 1 billion for an obscure photo-sharing app, would you believe?” Mehrotra looks at me like I am an idiot and says, “You mean Instagram?” Umm, yes, Instagram.
Should I switch to Mastodon? Should you switch to Mastodon? You know I am the wrong person to ask. Perhaps it will become that thing you can’t live without, with verbs that you must get right or feel geriatric about. Or it will be a fleeting moment, like a grown-up fidget-spinner, and leave behind a comical, ghostly vocabulary. Like life, social media networks can only be understood backwards—but they must be lived forwards.
Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.