It Went Viral

It Went Viral

This article was published as an issue of my newsletter Ready for Rain

It should be no surprise to Ready for Rain subscribers that I share much of my life online. This tendency goes back to at least 2003, when I started blogging, and has continued since then.

Over the last decade, sharing photos and videos was fun, but not exciting. A few followers here, a few likes there. Instagram and other services helped me keep up with friends and share tidbits of my life.

That all changed in December of 2023 when I started sharing videos of the ​Solstice Wall project​ in 1-minute videos, mostly as ​Instagram Reels​. To my surprise (and delight) the project went viral and changed my online experience, albeit temporarily.

Between December and March, over 15,000 people followed ​my account​. One day saw over 2,000 new follows.

Who are they? Where did they come from? I have no idea. 🤷🏻‍♂️ The algorithm works in strange ways. My account is now full of strangers with high expectations.

The Most Viewed Post

In the middle of the project, I summarized the progress in a brief video titled “​Let’s Review​“. This post has been the most popular by far. Some interesting stats

1.5 million plays? Nearly 19k likes? This is not normal for me. A stat for ​the video​ still boggles my mind:

9,500 Hours? Of a 1-minute video? ​Watch the video​.

The Comments

This influx of people led to sometimes hilarious discussions in the comments of a few posts. It gave me a front-row seat to how people use Instagram.

Many people were focused on the solstice idea and the sundial aspect of the project.

I appreciate snark and unvarnished opinions from internet randos.

Apparently, people don’t like using the “follow” button. Instead, they talk to the algorithm or request someone else to act on their behalf. So weird.

Why did it work?

A few theories… First, I wasn’t selling or promoting anything. I think people are distrustful when money is involved. Second, it was a story to follow. Once people saw the big idea, they were motivated to see it through and share it with friends. Third, it appealed to the Instagram Reels algorithm which showed the videos to a LOT of people I could not reach otherwise. Lastly, it was visually compelling.

This experience taught me that people love following a project from start to finish and it’s important to show them the expected outcome early in the process.

What now?

For all the effort, fun, and excitement, the online attention from this project had virtually zero impact on my offline life. As expected, I’m not earning income from it and no one has contacted me. It was a blip that came and went.

I feel a little awkward about the future of my account. The vast majority of my current followers arrived during the Solstice Wall project, and from here, they are bound to be disappointed. As I’ve said many times lately: I hope they like gardening!

A recent post about ​digging holes​ prompted over 100 people to unfollow me in one day. Over 1,800 have unfollowed my account in the last 90 days. I don’t blame them. Going from the Solstice Wall to hole-digging content is quite the leap.

What Matters

Social media is ephemeral. Ideas, projects, and memes come and go. Most of it is disposable and offers only a few seconds of entertainment. However, amidst the noise, there are real people and real connections. I hope the Solstice Wall project served as an introduction to me, a real person who does a lot more than art installations. I dig holes and catch crabs and obsess over plants. If a few new people feel a connection and stick around for all of me, that will feel like a win.

I continue to share videos of ​things I’m building​. If you feel a connection, I’d love to share with you.

Dear Friend: Let’s Talk About Mastodon

Dear Friend: Let’s Talk About Mastodon

I set out to write a letter to friends who know Twitter and are Mastodon-curious. As I worked on it, I thought: What if the letter could serve as a starting point for anyone explaining Mastodon?

That’s why I’ve dedicated the post below to the public domain and shared it as a Google Doc ?. Feel free to duplicate the doc, edit it, and share it, without my permission. No attribution is necessary, but if you’d like, my name is Lee LeFever and my Mastodon account is here: sanjuans.life/@lee

  • Please use the hashtag #MastodonLetter when sharing.
  • This letter also exists in the form of a thread on Mastodon.

Dear friend,

You’ve heard me talk about Mastodon recently. I probably said things like “People who are done with Twitter are using Mastodon” and “It’s like Twitter, but different”. If you are skeptical, I understand. At first blush, it sounds like another social media start-up trying to make a billion dollars by selling advertising and personal data.

I can assure you, dear friend, that Mastodon is different and this letter is my attempt to explain why and how. The big idea is that tech companies, advertisers, or billionaires are not required for us to use social media. In fact, once you understand Mastodon, you’ll see that they get in the way.

Today a growing number of journalists, leaders, celebrities, and millions of others are choosing to use Mastodon because it functions like Twitter, but without the baggage. This is a choice you may be considering, too. Do want to use social media that’s owned and managed by a company, or by communities of people like you?

Let’s pretend that you’re with me and asking questions…

Running a Mastodon Community Server

Other Questions

What is Mastodon again?

For now, let’s just say that it’s like Twitter. You create a free account, follow people, and read their posts in chronological order. They follow you and see your posts, etc. It’s a useful way to connect with others and learn what’s happening in the world.

How is Mastodon different from Twitter?

Think about it like this: Twitter is singular: one company, one community, one owner, one set of rules, one bottom line. Mastodon is plural: Multiple communities, each with its own members, moderators, and rules. 

I’m confused about that. Multiple communities?

It can be confusing at first. I was confused, too. The key thing to understand is that all the Mastodon communities are independent and self-supporting, but work together because they use the same software. The plumbing of Mastodon makes it possible for all those communities to operate together. After you get going, it starts to feel like one big community. 

But I like Twitter. Why move?

Twitter has been fun and useful to many. If you’re happy there, that’s great. Many people are finding that Twitter has changed recently. It’s now a private company owned by a billionaire who is making changes a lot of people do not like. Mastodon has become a viable alternative because it creates the same kinds of connections without a business model or bottom line.

I’m suspicious. How does Mastodon make money to support itself?

It’s not a company like Twitter or Facebook. Mastodon is software anyone can use to create and manage their own online community. The Mastodon software is open source and maintained by a non-profit and volunteers around the world. Most Mastodon communities are self-supporting.

So, how do I use Mastodon?

It’s like Twitter. Once you have an account, you can log into Mastodon on the web and via apps. You’ll use a website or app to post updates and connect with others.

Where do I sign up for an account?

What we call “Mastodon” is really a collection of thousands of communities using the same software. As such, there is no single place to sign up. You’ll need to pick a community (or “server”) that is your home community. See Mastodon’s list of servers to get started.

Wait. I need to find a home community before I can participate?

Yes. Remember: Mastodon doesn’t have a single owner or sign-up page. When you join, you’ll have things like a username, password, profile pic, etc. That information needs to be stored and managed somewhere. Your home community provides the place and ensures you can connect with other people on Mastodon.

How do I choose my home community?

There are communities of all shapes and sizes. Each one has its own name, members, rules, and culture. You’ll need to pick a community, but there is no lock-in. You can migrate your account to a new community at any time.

Two things to consider:

  1. The name of your home community is visible to others. This means your Mastodon username can be an expression of your identity, values, or preferences. You can ask: what community reflects me? If you’re into free speech or classical music, there is a community for you. If you care about mountain biking or gardening, those communities are available. If you don’t care, there are a lot of large, general-purpose communities.
  2. Communities on Mastodon are managed independently and you may find a variety of rules and policies across communities. Before joining, look at the community rules and how the community is moderated. If you want a free-for-all with no rules, for example, you can find it.

If I join a home community that’s focused on Pink Floyd, will I only interact with Pink Floyd fans? 

No, not exclusively. Your home community is one part of a much bigger picture. Once you have a home community username, you’ll have an all-access pass to follow anyone on Mastodon, across 1000s of communities. 

Will I be locked into my home community? What if I don’t like the moderators or rules?

No. You can always move your account to another community. This is a big reason Mastodon is different from Twitter. If you leave or get kicked out of Twitter, you lose access to the one big community. With Mastodon, you have a choice of communities and can find what works best for you. 

What if I get kicked out of my Mastodon community? 

A bit of self-reflection may be in order. Then, you can find a community that accepts your form of participation. You’ll still be able to use Mastodon and follow people, but your experience may be different because disruptive communities and individuals can be blocked by other communities. Your version of Mastodon, in this case, may be of the free-for-all variety. 

OK, so I have my home community and then the people I choose to follow. How does that work?

Twitter provides a single feed of posts. Mastodon provides at least two feeds:

  1. Everyone you choose to follow across Mastodon communities (Home Feed)
  2. Everyone who joined your home community (Local Feed)

Why would I want a local feed from my home community?

Let’s imagine that your home community is @flyfishing.wow, which promotes itself as a hub for fishers. Your local, (built-in) feed of posts is likely to focus on fly fishing because that’s who joined the community. This operates separately from the feed of people you choose to follow across Mastodon.

What if my home community goes away?

This is a risk in using Mastodon. Not all communities will be successful or supported over the long term. Thankfully, Mastodon provides a tool for downloading/exporting your data. This makes your account portable to a new community. 

Can I choose my own username?

Yes. Your username will reflect your home community and be visible to others. For example, if you join flyfishing.wow, your username will be:

  • @[YourName]@flyfishing.wow

The home page of your account would be:

  • https://flyfishing.wow/@[YourName]

Do I have to use my real name or photo?

No. All you need to join is an email address and that can be an alias if you wish. Mastodon does not require identity verification. 

I’m concerned about privacy and how my personal information is used. How does Mastodon handle that?

This depends on your home community and the people who run it. They manage the server where much of your information is stored. Unlike Twitter, most Mastodon communities have no reason to share your data and are likely to be responsible stewards of it. If this is a priority, there are Mastodon communities that are privacy-focused. 

Can I use multiple communities as my home community?

No. An account can only belong to one home community at a time. However, like Twitter, you can have multiple accounts. If you’d like, you can migrate your account to another community.

What happens when I follow people?

Their posts arrive in your Mastodon account (and app) in the “Home” feed. The posts are chronological and you can like, comment, and boost (retweet). Unlike Twitter, you can follow hashtags and see the posts with that tag.

How do I find people to follow?

This may require a bit of time and experimentation. If want to find the Mastodon accounts of people you follow on Twitter, you can use free tools like Debirdify, Movetodon, or Fedifinder.

I would consider making your Mastodon experience a fresh start and an opportunity to make new connections in addition to people you like on Twitter. Follow promiscuously for a while. Find and follow hashtags that interest you.

How will people find me?

The old-fashioned way: by posting regularly and being an authentic and interesting person. Follow a lot of people, leave comments, and boost posts. Talk about your Mastodon account on Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else you connect with others.

What can I do to feel safe on Mastodon?

Like other social media, Mastodon is what you make it. You can always unfollow anyone you want. If you see a community rule being broken, you can report the account to the admins of your home community or contact them directly. You can also mute or block any user. Feditips has a useful post on this subject

Should I use the website or an app?

Mastodon works well in a web browser. However, many people use apps on mobile devices. Mastodon has an official free app. I like the free Metatext app. See Mastodon’s list of apps.

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Running a Mastodon Community

Most Mastodon users will NOT play a role in managing a community. However, understanding the process can help the rest of Mastodon make more sense.

I get that there are 1000s of communities. Who creates them? How?

Anyone who wants to start a Mastodon community can access the open-source software and host it on a web server, much like a website. This type of hosting is likely to require knowledge of installation, updates, back-ups, etc. There are instructions online

There are also managed hosting options. In this case, you’ll pay a fee to have someone else manage the server hosting, updates, back-ups, etc. You’ll use Mastodon’s admin tools via a website. Once it’s hosted, a sign-up page will appear that people can use to join your community.

Let’s say I create a community. How will people find it?

You’ll need to register a domain name that serves as your community’s name. You can pick any domain you want, just like any other website. A lot of Mastodon communities use lesser-known domains that end in .social, .life, .world, etc. You’ll use the domain name to talk about your community and encourage people to join at that domain.

It sounds like I’ll have to spend money to do this.

There are costs in running a Mastodon community. You’ll pay for registering a domain and for using a web server. The server costs may start small (~$10/month) and rise as more people use the community. You’ll also be using your time for supporting users, moderating content, sending updates about the system, and other community management tasks.

If my community has thousands of users, will I be on the hook for that cost?

Yes. This is what makes Mastodon special. Each community supports itself. Large communities use crowdfunding and donations to cover the server and admin costs. In some cases, organizations support the community. Running a smaller community means a couple of people can volunteer. Larger communities might need on-call server admins and a staff of moderators for around-the-clock coverage. 

Let’s suppose my community grows quickly. What will I need to do on a daily basis?

It’s up to you (and other volunteers) to moderate the discussions and manage the community. This can be more difficult and time-consuming than it sounds. As the community leader, you can set the tone and enforce rules that you feel are important. If a person is disruptive, for example, you can use built-in tools to prevent their participation. Further, you can make your community private, request an application, or open it to the public.

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Other Questions

What if Mastodon is bought by a billionaire or sold to another company?

There is no company to sell in the way that Twitter was sold. The organization that manages the Mastodon software is a non-profit. The software itself is open source and freely available.

Even if a specific Mastodon community becomes controlled by a billionaire or company, it’s only one part of a huge network of independent communities. People can just move to a new community if it goes sideways.

This sounds pretty great. Does it actually work?

Yes, it does. However, it’s important to note that Mastodon is not Twitter or Facebook. It’s a different platform with different features and values. The user experience isn’t as smooth as other platforms and it may take some getting used to. Once you get settled, using it becomes second nature. Mastodon and apps for using it are always being improved.

I like my Twitter friends and want to follow the same people on Mastodon. Is that possible?

Yes. There are free services that will help you find and follow your Twitter friends on Mastodon. See: Debirdify, Movetodon , Fedifinder.

What can I do to make Mastodon work for me?

The key is USING Mastodon. Participate, experiment, and learn. It’s a fascinating new world that’s growing and much deeper than it appears.

Identify a community that will serve as your home on Mastodon and join it. Once you have an account, you can follow anyone you want on Mastodon. View peoples’ profile info. Follow a lot of people so your feed has interesting posts. Unfollow too. Boost posts; reply to threads.

Identify a community that will serve as your home on Mastodon and join it. Once you have a username, can follow anyone you want. There is no lock-in. You can migrate your account to another community at any time.

Add your Mastodon username to your Twitter profile and post tweets about the account. Add username links to your blog, newsletter, or any other way you connect with others online.

Follow a lot of people and hashtags. Think of Mastodon as a fresh start. Follow and unfollow liberally. Leave comments, like, and boost the posts you like.

What’s it like to use Mastodon?

A lot of Mastodon’s recent growth is from people leaving Twitter and looking for a safer, friendlier, more helpful place to connect. You may find that people are nicer than you expect.

  • There are currently no ads or ad platforms. Mastodon communities are usually member-supported and don’t require advertising revenue to function.
  • If you want your community to continue, consider donating or volunteering.
  • In general, Mastodon communities do not tolerate harassment, bigotry, etc. The Mastodon Server Covenant is a guideline for community owners and includes this language for what they want to promote:

Active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Users must have the confidence that they are joining a safe space, free from white supremacy, antisemitism, and transphobia of other platforms.

It’s important to note that Mastodon is not a safe haven. Disruptive people and communities exist on Mastodon. However, Mastodon provides tools for muting and blocking individuals and entire communities.

I’ve seen Mastodon terms that I don’t understand. Can you help?

Let’s start with Twitter

  • Twitter = Bird Site
  • Tweet = Toot
  • Retweet = Boost or Reblog

Now let’s translate Mastodon:

  • Server or Instance: Community Software
  • Fediverse: Platforms and communities that work w/ Mastodon.
  • Decentralized: Independent, self-supported communities using open protocols.
  • ActivityPub: The connection (a protocol) between Mastodon and other communities and platforms.

Can you help me understand the Fediverse?

For now, know that Mastodon’s software is designed to connect seamlessly to other platforms.
You can follow someone *outside* of Mastodon and see their posts in your Mastodon feed. For example…

Mastodon is to Twitter what…

Mastodon is one (currently relevant) part of a much bigger movement known as the #fediverse.

This is helpful! Can I use it to send a letter to my friends?

Yes! I want you to use it for your own purposes. Feel free to link to this page. If you’d like a version that’s easy to copy and edit, use this Google Doc.

Please use the hashtag #MastodonLetter when sharing.

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I’ve dedicated the post above to the public domain and shared it as a Google Doc. Feel free to duplicate it, edit it, share it, etc. Add comments to the doc if you have ideas or corrections. No attribution or permission is necessary, but if you’d like, my name is Lee LeFever and my Mastodon account is here: sanjuans.life/@lee

Thanks to Boris Mann, my friends on Mastodon, Feditips, and all the people working to make Mastodon the best it can be. Learn more about Lee at LeeLeFever.com and CommonCraft.com.

Good Lives Make Bad Stories ??

Good Lives Make Bad Stories ??

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

We recently found ourselves at an event called a “silent disco” where everyone wears wireless headphones and dances silently to music only they can hear. It’s a strange and fun experience, in part because you know how silly it looks. In this case, the dance floor was divided into quadrants and when you moved to a new one, your headphones changed color and the music changed to a new genre.

As we were dancing I noticed an attractive couple arrive on the dance floor. The woman immediately turned her phone to selfie mode and started making faces into the camera. They walked from one end of the dance floor to the other, always looking at the phone and trying to find the most flattering light. More faces, more smiling. They didn’t dance at all. They just held up the camera and smiled as if they were having the time of their lives. As soon as the photography was over, their faces returned to normal and they looked bored. After about five minutes, they disappeared and never returned.

Watching from afar, I was fascinated. Whoever saw their messages that night was surely convinced that they were living the good life. They were partying at a silent disco and having a great time. Just look at those smiles and silly faces. Headphones, at a disco? Crazy! What a night!

What I witnessed that night seemed like a charade. I could be misinterpreting what happened, but it sure seemed like a show that was designed to make an impression. It was meant to create a sense of fun and exuberance mediated by social media apps. Yet, it wasn’t like that in real life. They didn’t actually experience the event or appear to have a good time outside of the world they were building through the camera’s lens.

That night, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Did they ever consider that the event was a real thing that real people experience, just for the fun of it? Did they think it was odd, having taken so many photos, to walk off the dance floor knowing that they didn’t actually dance or enjoy the disco?

Seeing this happen reminded me that so much of what we see online is curated to provoke a response. It’s meant to make an impression and garner more likes and reactions. And often, people go to great lengths to make it happen. They go to a silent disco not to dance, but to wear silly headphones on a dance floor and then leave. It seems like a vapid way to approach sharing your life online.

I am not immune to the gratifying feeling of sharing something online and having it be noticed. It feels good to see friends react to a photo I share on Instagram. If I have a response in mind when I do, I hope it’s that people find the photo interesting, funny or beautiful. I also hope it doesn’t provoke a negative response that I didn’t anticipate.

When I think about the couple at the disco, I wonder what reactions they received, but also what impressions they made. I’m sure their friends responded with, “FUN!!” and added the appropriate emojis. But I also imagine some friends being envious or wishing they were in their shoes. Was that what they wanted?

This reminds me of a tweet I saw a while back by @robinmccauly that said:

Saw a couple holding hands while jogging and it made me hopeful that one day I will meet someone who will hate them with me.

Hilarious. This perspective is so real. Every day we are bombarded with images that show people living their best lives. They are at silent discos and holding hands while jogging. They create an unrealistic or unreal sense of other peoples’ lives and that portrayal can quickly turn from interest to disillusionment or even hate. Who do those people think they are? How can they be so happy with so much suffering in the world?

Watching social media can feel like reading an unbalanced story where there’s no conflict or negative consequences. While it might be fun to imagine living in that world, it makes for terrible storytelling.

There’s a line in a song I like, called Sober to Death, that relates this feeling. It’s a dark song, by the band Car Seat Headrest, about mental health and not being around to help someone who needs it. I think the lyric is about trying to see the bright side of a life that’s not looking good. When I heard this simple line, it stuck with me.

You know that good lives make bad stories

Good lives make bad stories. It’s true. But it’s also true that good lives still have problems and conflict and heartbreak. Despite what you see on Facebook, no one’s life is all good all the time.

That’s the challenge of the storyteller. Within a good, productive life there are still lessons to be learned and trials to be endured. No matter how good or bad things may appear, there is still a complicated person who is experiencing them and that is where the story truly unfolds. Sometimes, good lives are only possible through weathering a storm.

From all this, I take inspiration. I think about that couple on the dance floor taking selfies and painting a positive and inauthentic picture of that night. They inspire me to push in the opposite direction and share the feeling of the sweat that gathered in my ears as I danced. They make me want to share all the questions I had about how the headphones are cleaned and what might lurk inside them. They make me want to admit that I was tired and ready to leave before it ended.

It also reminds me that our story, the story I’m telling here in Ready for Rain, is subject to the same dynamics. We may not hold hands while jogging, but we are generally happy people who are in the middle of trying to accomplish a goal. For that story to be engaging and real, it can’t be one sided. I may take photos of happiness and joy. I may share successes and achievements. But I will also share stories about anguish, anxiety and disappointment.

And I can guarantee this: what I share actually happened. We’re not here to take photos with fake smiles and leave. We’re here to dance and sweat and share real stories about real people because in the real world, that’s what matters.

Sachi experiencing Piper, a real dog.