The Media’s Fake Tech Incompetence

Some thoughts on why journalists pretend Mastodon is impenetrable.

Aaron Ross Powell
3 min readFeb 17, 2023

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Very nearly every article about Mastodon in a mainstream journalistic publication takes pains to tell you that using it is nightmarishly complicated, the social media equivalent of emacs.

The takeaway from all these explainers and think pieces, if you’re a regular reader of the commentariat, is that Mastodon isn’t for you, but is instead the exclusive domain of computer science PhDs and 14 year old phone phreaks. And from that we should all conclude that Mastodon — and the Fediverse, and the open web in general — can never be a viable alternative to proprietary and closed social media platforms, at least not at any kind of scale. Better to just stick it out at Twitter, or switch to some other centralized service.

The common response, from those of us happily using Mastodon without having computer science PhDs or ever having broken into a telephone switching computer, is that it’s no more difficult than signing up for email, and everyone has and uses email.

That’s true, of course, and will become even more true when bigger players, such as Mozilla, set up their own Mastodon servers, giving a trustworthy, robust, and easy onramp to the distributed network.

What interests me more than rebuttals to the “It’s not for you” narrative, however, is that it seems pretty obvious that a lot, if not most, of the journalists writing about how hard of a time they had wrapping their heads around Mastodon are, well, fibbing.

Granted, some of them are young enough to have grown up in an era when the internet was overwhelmingly accessed via closed systems and propriety apps, and your entrance into the open web came from clicking a link those apps showed you, reading the page, and retreating back into the safety of the walled garden when you were done.

But anyone hailing from childhood and teenage years of Gen X or elder Millennials, has experience of the internet before the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and the App Store. This was back when the way you used the web was to use the web: fire up a browser, look at a blank tab, and figure out which server to surf to. Or even before that, when the web wasn’t really a thing and…

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Aaron Ross Powell

Host of the ReImagining Liberty podcast. Writer and political ethicist. Former think tank scholar.