Why I love Mastodon: Or a Brief History of My Life on the Internet

I entered the fediverse in December 2022, and I’m celebrating my first anniversary with this post. I don’t want to repeat what others who came in the Nov ‘22 wave have said about how different fedi is from corporate social media, how nice the ambience is, how engagement with posts are so real that even with very few followers it doesn’t feel like shouting into the void. There is a sense of community that makes you feel like you belong. I was a lurker on Facebook and Twitter, and barely found inspiration to post on Instagram, but on Mastodon I post and boost almost daily and I engage a lot more with others users for I feel like I’m back to Myspace. So this post is more about my experience with social media since the early 2000s, and how Mastodon has made me enjoy the internet again and rekindled my love for blogging.

If you are reading this in the fediverse, please boost so my blog can federate with your instance. Do follow me for insight into the life of a Ugandan artist. I write humor, about my travels, and anecdotes on my work and behind-the-scenes stuff. If you have a spare dollar, support me to make great films via patreon or on ko-fi. Some are in but send me an email to access all, for free.

I think my first great experience with social media was with Myspace (It still exists! My profile is still there!) where I made real connections with strangers across the oceans. I made friends with two people and we talked for many years. We followed each other’s lives, celebrating the jobs we got, the marriages that almost happened, or that happened. Eventually, we drifted apart. Then, last year, I got an email; “Hey, Remember me?” Yes, one of two friends I made in Myspace. Their cousin was visiting Uganda and they thought it would be nice for me to meet up with this cousin. This was almost fifteen years after we meet online, and we never met in person all this time for an ocean separates us. And yet, well, this sort of illustrates the connection we made.

I don’t remember making such connections with Facebook or Twitter. Oh, perhaps Facebook, in the beginning, I met someone who I almost got married to, and we haven’t spoken since we broke up. But it doesn’t count because we had a mutual friend in real life. On Mastodon, I know, its too early to tell, but I’ve some good conversations with random strangers, the same vibes I got when I was on MySpace. I’ve even ended up on a video call with one person and we talked of starting a movie club with another person. Hmmm….

Read a New Year themed story: A love story about a homemade birthday cake

Two things make this possible. First, there is no pressure to go viral, or to engage only with posts that have gained a lot of traction. Some people on twitter would not engage with posts that have few likes or retweets, because it was not cool, and such people would be laughed at. The algorithm told them that post was not worth their time. But with Mastodon, that is not a thing! Secondly, mastodon puts you in the company of people with a similar world view. No, not an echo chamber. More like birds of a feather flocking together. This is especially so for those in small servers with good moderation, meaning that the people who end up seeing your posts are not some jerks.

Recently, I blogged about the pains of remembering people’s faces, mostly because I have this thing about eye-contact, and I got a whole bunch of people talking to me about their own experiences, either with forgetting faces, or with eye-contact, and I felt good. I was not alone. This does not make it an echo chamber. It just creates a feeling of a village where like-minded people have gathered (or yes, in that thread some people did suggest we should create such a village!). Here is a link to that thread.

Everyone is nice here. Everyone is kind. Or rather, most of those that I’ve encountered are kind and nice. The last year has also been one of the hardest I’ve had to endure in recent times, since I hit rock bottom financially, due to a delayed payment from a client. I made a cry out on the mutual aid hashtag, and I did not really think anyone would help me. Though I did not get all the money I needed, someone sent me $50, which is about half of my rent, and it helped me a whole great deal! After I stabilize, I’ll sure payback by helping someone in need, because that is the kind of atmosphere I encounter in the fediverse, one of humans flocking together.

Read about: The Magic Song

In retrospect, my first experiences with socialising on the internet had whiffs of the comic. I got my first taste of the surfing sometime in 1999, or perhaps it was 2000? An internet cafe opened up in my town, Tororo, a small sleepy town three hours East of Uganda’s capital city, and I grabbed all my savings to buy an hour of surf-time. They barely had customers, so when people around heard I had bought time, word spread in the street and the time it took for the dial-up thing to go online was enough for a small crowd to gather and see what the internet was all about. I was thus squeezed in a chair beside the internet cafe guy, and a lot of people were packed behind us, waiting to see ‘the internet’. The cafe attendant did all the clicking and keyboarding, and I sat beside him, enthralled, eye glued on the monitory, telling him what kind of site I wanted to visit, trying to ignore the oohs and aahs of the spectators. As we would wait for the first page to load, he said ‘people waste a lot of time on the internet because they don’t know what they want,’ and I very excitedly told him, ‘I know what I want. A publisher.’ We visited some sites, which I think were self-publishing sites. I eventually fell for a scam called The Writer’s Bureau, which claimed to teach you how to write. It was a waste of money.

Shortly after this, I saw an article in a daily newspaper (The Monitor) encouraging people to join a writers group, I think it was called International Creative Writers Group. It was basically an email group, and it was my first true experience of online interactions. I did not have email then. The first internet cafe had closed, and a new one (called FOCUS, an abbreviation of something) had opened an email service which for the town. To receive or send emails, you used their address. So I sent an email to this writers group, and once a week I checked in to see if anything had come up. Sometimes, the lady who worked the computer would run into me in the streets and say, ‘Oh Dilman, you have an email’ and I’d drop whatever I was doing and run over to check it out. I know she would sometimes take a bodaboda to an office somewhere to tell someone they had got an email, just like a postman. She was smart. She read all emails and knew which one was meant for who. But I wonder if she messed up sometime and gave people emails that was not meant for them. This being an email group, she would get quiet a whole lot of stuff for me. I printed them out and read them all avidly, then I would think of a reply and take it to this lady to send to the group.

I found a sense of belonging in that email group. Living in a small town in Uganda, there were no way to bond with people who saw the arts as a career, no peers to motivate me to keep writing. The group had a lot of writers from Kenya, some of whom became very famous, like Binyavanga Wainana. I made a suggestion to start a magazine, and the idea took root, and Kwani was born. I made connections with a few of them, notably Wanjiru Kinyanjui, who optioned my first screenplay, and as a young writer that boosted my ego by a whole lot.

There after, I learned how to use computers, opened up my own Yahoo email (or perhaps I had already learned to use computers but now internet cafes were no longer a rarity, and so I could check emails on my own?) I still had not much privacy as internet cafe attendants would read my emails. I joined a bunch of Yahoo Groups, and one saw cafe guy saw all the messages and said, “Delete them, those are spam!” (Oh, I think the guy at the first internet cafe helped me to open up the Yahoo email. I remember using it to send a short story to a magazine, and I got a form rejection letter, which this guy told me to delete because it would fill up my inbox. I did.) In Yahoo Groups, I found more online communities of African artists, notably one called moviezone, full of South Africans. I met a writer called Trevor Baudach (I hope that is how they spelled the name), and we exchanged a lot of emails and critiqued each others works, and we even talked of doing some projects together. Sadly, I can’t find this person now through searches, nor through the film community in South Africa.

A few years later, around 2005, I started my first blog, on a platform for filmmakers called scriptologist.com, which I see still exists, but the blog returns a 404 Error. That blog got quiet a few engagements. I had a footer on all my posts, ‘Tell stories, or die trying’, which I think I ripped of ‘Get rich, or die trying.’ I then set up a geocities site, which I think of as my first major presence on the internet, and I think I had that motto somewhere on that site, but I can’t find it on the little that the wayback machine saved.

That time in the early 2000s, with me discovering the internet and online socialising, is another world, and it feels like science fiction. I wonder what stories we tell in twenty or thirty years, about social media today, with all the enshittification going on and with the fediverse growing and getting better. And, oh my, is it getting better? With WordPress enabling ActivityPub, I know I can only get much, much better here after.

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Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction short films and I’m looking for your support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on patreon.com/dilstories You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. For other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here dilmandila.com/donate 

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