Why Mastodon Search Seems So Unclear 🔎

Explaining the cultural dynamics that have led Mastodon to have a search engine that barely works by traditional standards.

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To me, the technical parts of how Mastodon works are interesting, but in many ways they’re sort of secondary to what really makes the network tick.

And that is the community. If you were to compare Mastodon or other federated services to early Twitter, for example, you would find a similar mix of unique culture already curated by the community, one that, without them, would devalue the community.

You can’t simply take the people from an old network, even one as dominant as Twitter, and just transfer them over to a new place and expect the same result. Mastodon, from a distance, seems like a close clone of Twitter built around free-and-open-source principles, but when you look closer, you see interesting details that the prior network did not have, details that, while seeming small and subtle, have a significant effect on the overall experience.

One of those things is search.

Explaining Mastodon Culture

Magnifying Glass

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Why Mastodon’s search is not as good, and may never be as good, as Twitter’s … by design

If you’re new to Mastodon, one of the most interesting thing you’ve probably noticed about it is that the search seems to work against the user to some degree.

This can feel a bit backwards. In many ways, search is a solved problem. Google has been around for a quarter-century now, and there have been a lot of innovations since then. Sure, not every search engine is great, but for the most part, most searches are able to find things when you type in basic terms.

Not Mastodon. The search is limited to just four things:

  • #Hashtags
  • Usernames
  • User URLs
  • Post URLs

This means that things you might have taken for granted, such as diving into trending topics or using a social network as a way to keep up with the news, have intentionally been limited.

A lot of this comes down to Mastodon’s roots as a community for those outside the margins, who did not feel welcome on mainstream social networks. Because it spent its first half-decade as a tool for those who were looking specifically for an alternative to the more toxic elements of Twitter, that led to some important decisions around its ultimate design.

And it’s not always been a smooth road. A 2019 piece on Mastodon in The Daily Dot paints a community that has been just as informed by trans and queer users as it has the decisions of the network’s primary developer, Eugen Rochko. People from marginalized communities helped to encourage controls that allowed the network to emphasize community, not reach.

And it’s likely for that reason that search has not evolved from this starting point. Simply put, its community did not want it.

This is not a debate that is happening in a bubble. Some of its biggest discussion points are actually emerging in real time. Earlier this week, a search tool called Fedsearch emerged as a way to easily search between different networks, and within hours of its release, the whole thing blew up, with the search functionality being taken offline and replaced with an apology, that reads as such:

Due to extreme backlash from the Mastodon community we decided to end the project, it is obviously not wanted by server admins.

While our intention was to provide the end-user with a global search to find information and friends, the concerns of its usage by trolls has been far greater amongst the community.

See for a discussion on the subject.

This is despite the fact that a number of users actually want a more traditional search tool. But the old-school users felt otherwise.

I ended up writing a Twitter thread about the state of affairs that gained a bit of attention, but I think the thing to take away from this from a search perspective is that what seems like a modest difference in functionality actually plays a significant role in how the network functions for the average user.

Twitter, in many ways, is like a library, where nearly everything on the network is visible and accessible at all times. You’re encouraged to search, because that’s what everyone else is doing, too. (Verified users get put on more prominent shelves, though I hear they want to make every shelf prominent.)

A Mastodon instance, by comparison, is like hanging out in someone’s home. And, although popular 16-bit role-playing games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger have taught us otherwise, the first thing you do when visiting a stranger’s home is not digging through the owner’s trash to see what you can find.

Mastodon is a network that favors the idea that the end user has a say in their visibility on the network. If they want to be found by random people, they’ll use a hashtag, end of story.

If you want to understand the cultural parameters here a little better, I recommend this blog post from Hugh Rundle.

Tips & Tricks


(Jan Baborák/Unsplash)

The power of the hashtag

So, with all of that said, I guess it’s important to emphasize the outsize value of hashtags on Mastodon, which seems even bigger than it does on other networks like Twitter or Instagram. Perhaps even Slack or Discord!

The hashtag becomes the primary way to find people talking about similar topics, and it means that finding new people often requires users to think more broadly in their interests than they might otherwise.

In fact, I would recommend for those looking to find a new server to hang out on, that they start somewhere very broad and open, use hashtags to get a feel for the type of content they like, then using those to decide on a server. Sorta like high school, where eventually you find your clique.

It can also be a way to highlight things you hope to talk about on your account. For example, I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to talk about one of my favorite operating systems, GeoWorks, so I put a call out asking GeoWorks enthusiasts to show themselves. If you’re into something obscure, don’t be afraid to use a hashtag to communicate it out.

Links & Stuff

» Be careful what you wish for. As conversation-friendly celebrities like Stephen Fry put their imprint on the Fediverse, they are likely to overload the network’s servers, writes Aral Balkan. (Maybe we’ll expect celebs to run their own instances?)

» Want to understand just how quickly the Fediverse is growing? The bot Mastodon Users has been tracking this growth since 2018, and currently it has user growth at more than 90,000 new users per day. (A week ago, it was a third of that.)

» Just need the TL;DR on this place? I recommend this Medium post from Tracy Hall, which explains some of Mastodon’s basics in simple terms.

One Killer Take

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If there’s one takeaway you begin taking from all of this, if you’re a new Mastodon user, it’s this, as so eloquently put by Mike McHargue: Mastodon was designed as a reaction to Twitter, and it works differently as a result.

And so concludes the third issue of How To Mastodon, a pop-up newsletter hiding inside of MidRange. Follow me on Mastodon for more insights and tips, along with all the other weird stuff I’m interested in. See you next week!

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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