Mastodon 2.8.0 preview (and other things)

Some time has passed since the last Patreon update, and I've gone quiet. I have my Mastodon account from which I post regular updates, and it's super personal; I have the official Mastodon blog, from which I make big announcements to the world, I have the patron-only Discord server where development is discussed and patrons can talk to me live. And Patreon itself is somewhere inbetween those, and I neglect updating it. So here is a summary of what was, and what's to come.

First, past releases. The 2.7.0 release came out on January 20th, and with it came a fancy new profile directory, a new first-time tutorial, better moderation tools and all sorts of stuff. You can read about it in this blog post. As soon as it was out, I began working towards 2.8.0. It was a long path, but periodically, the progress of that path was released as "backports", meaning that the 2.7 version was receiving various fixes, without the work-in-progress features of 2.8. In this way, 2.7.1, 2.7.2, 2.7.3, and 2.7.4 came out, the last one on March 5th.

In January, Mastodon received a $70,000 grant from Samsung NEXT over the transparent crowdfunding platform OpenCollective--that is, OpenCollective is the entity that holds the grant, anyone can request a payout by submitting an expense receipt or an invoice, and I get to decide whether that request will be fulfilled, with all such transactions being viewable by everyone. The purpose of the grant is attracting more developers and other outside help to Mastodon. Whoever contributes to Mastodon with code or translations can get compensated for their time. My own wage, as well as mastodon.social operating costs, remain dependent on this Patreon.

Also in January, I flew to London to present Mastodon to a small conference of researchers of the EU-funded project Eunomia. Eunomia's aim is to create a toolset with which the source of a piece of news on social media can be checked, and the prototype will be built with decentralized social networks in mind. I was invited to be involved in the project as a consultant about decentralized social media and Mastodon specifically, and to help reach out for feedback and volunteers on Mastodon. Other members of this project are University of Greenwhich, University of Nicosia, University of Piraeus, ORF, and more.

In February, I spoke to Manoush Zomorodi from Mozilla's IRL Podcast about Mastodon, you can listen to the episode here.

So, with these updates out of the way, the main course: 2.8.0. I have just pushed out the first release candidate. The release candidate phase lasts about a week, which conveniently lines up with something I'll get to a bit later.

2.8.0 has six new features I consider worth mentioning. The first one is polls. Like on Patreon, like on Twitter, like on Strawpoll. You get fully native polls. There is ironically not that much to say about them compared to how much work it took to implement them.

There is a new user interface for managing who you are following and who follows you. Think "relationship manager" on Patreon, or what used to be "manage subscriptions" on YouTube. You get a list of everyone that you can filter by various criteria--like if someone moved accounts, or hasn't been active for a long time, or if you're mutuals--and you can select multiple people and use bulk actions to unfollow them or stop them from following you.

The next one was conceptualized with artists in mind: Featured hashtags on profiles. You can pick which hashtags to feature on your public profile, and they are displayed on the sidebar of your profile, allowing people to browse your toots filed under those tags.

Admission-based registrations mode is a middle ground between allowing anyone to sign up on your Mastodon server, and allowing no one. Many servers choose to close registrations, and then have people apply for accounts via an external form, or during short time windows, like the full moon. Admission-based mode is intended to integrate that sort of use case more smoothly. So people still see the normal sign up form, but the button says "Request an invite" instead, and user can not sign in until an admin or moderator approves the sign up.

Speaking of sign ups, I have once again reworked the landing page. People were complaining that it was too visually busy, and I started seeing it too. Too much going on, and highlighting the public timeline right on the landing page was fertile ground for trouble. I mean, even if you have a quick moderation team, someone being able to spam even for 10 seconds right to the landing page would not be a good look for the server and Mastodon as a whole. Now the page is a lot simpler: There is a sign up form, a login form, crucial information about the server, and links to explore the server. Importantly, the layout of the page stays the same even with different admin options, so that adds consistency if you are switching between tabs looking at different servers and want to skim the important details.

The landing page now reports the MAU (Monthly Active Users) of the server next to the number of registered users. It is more important than showing how many toots are stored on the server, and it's kind of more important than even the total number of registered users, in a way. Notably, Mastodon tracks activity numbers with weekly granularity. But since most other sites report their metrics using MAU, it made comparisons more difficult, since you cannot get the MAU by simply adding up all the public weekly numbers (that would not account for overlaps). The MAU displayed on the new landing page is actually accurate, because it sums the weekly statistics while accounting for overlaps.

Speaking of design changes, the profiles in the web UI now look closer to their public counterparts, which on one hand use space a bit more efficiently, and on the other, do not obfuscate the header image. Another complaint about the old design was that the "follow" button was just an icon which frankly blended into the background quite a bit. The new design uses a prominent, blue, text-based button instead. Also, while I hope you will never have to encounter this, if you are blocked, the new profile design will tell you that.

The last newsworthy feature is that you will now be able to connect your Mastodon profile to your Keybase identity, should you wish to do so. Keybase is an identity verification service, allowing people to confirm cryptographically that a person on Keybase owns a particular Twitter or GitHub profile. In April, Keybase launches a new system that will expand verifications to other social networks, and Mastodon will be one of them.

Admittedly, adding code to interact with any kind of proprietary, centralized service is something I generally tend to avoid. When I was approached about this by Keybase, they have been patrons for a couple of months, and I eventually refunded all of their pledges before making the call to avoid a conflict of interest. In the end, there were quite a few people asking for this feature; Keybase is a somewhat large platform, so the integration would likely create some good publicity for Mastodon; I was able to shape their side of the API in such a way that it would not require any Keybase-specific actions on the part of Mastodon server owners; and I was able to write the code so that it could easily be removed or swapped out for a different identity proof provider, so I decided in favour of it.

The way it's going to work is that you'll be able to click "Add Mastodon profile" from Keybase, enter your server, it will send you there, where you will see a confirmation dialog. Once you click it, your Mastodon profile will show your Keybase username, and your Keybase profile will show your Mastodon username. On Keybase's side, the functionality is supposed to go live on April 8th, so that lines up somewhat with when our release candidate phase will be over and 2.8.0 will come out proper.

There is a bunch of other, smaller stuff in 2.8.0, which you can read in the changelog for the first release candidate. Of course, once it is released fully, there will be an official blog post, with screenshots and whatnot. The release candidate is live on mastodon.social already.

Thank you all for your support, it means a lot to me.

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