Saw this sentence yesterday: “What in gods name is happening to this hellsite”

I think you know which site they mean.

Some Twitter users to refer to it as “hellsite.” Can you imagine somebody referring to your product as hellsite, even ironically? But it’s not entirely unfair. Over the years, Twitter has earned a reputation for fostering contention.

It’s partly structural — by design. Like many advertising-supported web products, Twitter has evolved mechanisms to keep you engaged. Over time, Twitter’s designers introduced features to increase activity and reduce friction. This isn’t always desirable in a system for hosting discussions.

Lately, I’ve been exploring Mastodon, an alternative social communication network. To avoid some of Twitter’s more inflammatory features, Mastodon’s designers made different structural choices. Three are worth calling out:

  • No open text search
  • No quote toots (toots are to Mastodon as tweets are to Twitter)
  • The content warning field

Like Google, Twitter lets you type text into a search box to look for any string that’s appeared publicly in the system. This could be a username, a tag, or any text at all. Like Google, Twitter also has powerful search operators to let you look for stuff in the system.

Mastodon also has search, but it’s limited by design. For one thing, you can only look for user names, tags, and URLs. You can’t search for any text string that appears in the system. You’re less likely to hunt down topics to argue about if you can’t search for them.

No quote toots

Twitter allows you to re-tweet things other people have posted. But it also allows you to quote-tweet posts in the system. This means you can share the tweet with your followers with your thoughts appended, which somebody can use to dunk on the original poster.

Mastodon doesn’t provide the means to do this. You can “boost” a toot (the equivalent of re-tweeting,) but you can’t add your take when doing so. The intent here is to reduce snarkiness and one-upmanship.

Content warnings

Twitter lets you post any text up to 280 characters, which can include tags, URLs, and @-mentions to other users. You can also append media such as images and videos.

Mastodon also has similar features — and toots raise the limit to 500 characters. But they go one better: There’s an optional “content warning” feature that allows you to write a short teaser text that explains what the toot is about. When you post using this feature, users see the teaser and a button to expand the whole toot.

The intent is to allow users to choose whether to view potentially offending or contentious material. Coupled with mindful etiquette, disciplined use of this feature should lower the temperature in the system.

I’ve only actively used Mastodon for a week or so. It seems to have a more civil tone that Twitter. It might be because there are currently fewer people there. (And most are early adopters.) But it might also be due to intentional design decisions such as these.

Again, these aren’t UI or content choices. They’re structural — i.e., information architecture. And they define the character of discussions in the system, much as Twitter’s structural choices influence the tone there — which is a big part of why some people call it a hellsite.

This post has more details on Mastodon’s “antiviral” design. It’s worth your attention.

Twitter alternative: how Mastodon is designed to be “antiviral”