Mastodon 2.9 and other news

On June 14th I released Mastodon 2.9 with a new default web interface and a much improved light theme.

The new interface has a single central column and as such resembles other sites more closely and is perceived as less overwhelming by new users. The old interface is now behind an "Enable advanced web interface" setting in appearance preferences, but it's still what I prefer personally so there's no risk of it going away.

The light theme looks a lot more official now because while previously it was just inverting dark theme colors I've gone over the UI and made sure the elements use a consistent design language. And branding elements like the Mastodon logo now dynamically adjust their colors to remain readable on both dark and light backgrounds.

On June 22th I released the patch v2.9.1 with a new moderation API that would on one hand allow admins and moderators to do their job from their phones, and on the other would allow developers to create more sophisticated moderation tools in response to various spam waves.

At the same time, the patch finally unlocked audio uploading in Mastodon. It's still not quite where I want it to be feature-wise as the UI side of things displays audio exactly the same as video, but I realized that was good enough for the time being given how long people have been asking for audio files to be allowed.

The patch also contains an important improvement to the domain blocking system, to automatically treat subdomains the same as blocked higher-level domains. There are also a bunch of fixes for various bugs, and a small v2.9.2 patch with more fixes a day later.

The next goal is moving towards Mastodon 3.0. Mind you, not because 2.9 is supposed to roll over into 3.0 (although intuitively it feels like it should happen). Technically the next release would be 2.10 if not for some breaking changes that I have been waiting for an opportunity to introduce: On one hand there are a few API endpoints that have been deprecated in favour of better ones and it would be nice to get rid of them; on the other hand, OStatus (the ancient protocol Mastodon originally used) has overstayed its welcome in the code (Mastodon switched to primarily using ActivityPub mid-2017) and now that most of the network uses ActivityPub it's time for it to go. From an end-user perspective neither of these things is as exciting as a "3.0" sounds, but that's semantic versioning for you.

However, there are exciting things that will be part of it. I've devised an improvement for cross-server communication that in my estimations should double the performance during peak activity by using a HTTP connection pool to re-use established connections to commonly accessed servers which saves on DNS resolve and TCP/SSL handshake time.

I'm also working on some minimalistic spam detection mechanisms to raise the barrier-to-entry for spammers on the fediverse by at least a little bit. Spam is an arms race and specialized tools with a faster release cycle, such as anything developed to use the moderation API, will have long-term advantage over any "basic set" included in Mastodon code, but it's still worth raising the bar a bit. My approach is detecting repeating and unsolicited messages and sandboxing the sender while making sure human mods are notified so false positives can be rectified.

Talking with more academics due to my participation in a European research project made me realize the potential of Mastodon for educational purposes, like schools and universities, where students could learn to use social media in a controlled and private environment, so I've also started work on an more locked-down mode for Mastodon as an option.

That's not a new feature request, but I had my reservations about the idea (when applied on a wide scale) before: Mastodon's strength is decentralization, and being able to just start your own server whenever is a huge part of it. If you needed approval from all other servers before your new server could interact with them, that would make decentralization impractical and make people congregate around just a few mega-nodes. However, if the feature was used for educational purposes only, there would be no problems.

There are a couple other things on the roadmap but since I haven't started work on them yet I'd prefer to avoid hyping them up.

In non-development news, Mastodon has a new communications director! Eleanor will be taking care of the project's e-mail, social media accounts, official blog, and other communication channels, which I've been doing until now.

The project's sponsors page is all up-to-date (if something's wrong with your entry, or you want to change your name or link or avatar, let me know!) Big thanks to everyone who makes this project possible.

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