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Mastodon as Reference Design

The official “Mastodon” is a bundle of reference designs – The reference Web FrontEnd (WebFE), a reference BackEnd (MastoBE), and a pair of reference mobile apps (iOS/Android) – All third-party clients, forks, clones, and Mastodon-compatible “ActivityPub” servers (including Cloudflare’s Wildebeest) are all based on the core teams approved concepts, designs, limitations and APIs.

Context: The status quo for 99% of the mainstream social networks is for its ‘users’ to access their accounts directly via the approved front doors – using official means – into dedicated spaces controlled and regulated by the social network. Most social networks remove all autonomy from their users and regularly refresh the UX regardless of the wishes of their users.

As a response to this, I’d like to see Mastodon embrace allowing people to change from the reference WebFE as easily as changing from light/dark mode. This would truly make the reference WebFE less of the default, and more of an option.

This could start with enabling theming (as supported by Glitch), or adding toggles to enable preview features such as Quote toots to A/B test, and end with allowing instance administrators to upload full FE replacements for them to tweak as suits them.

This freedom of choice is well understood by people accessing their Mastodon instance from their phones. Every month comes a new iOS client with a slightly different take on UI/UX design.

I foresee a future where features are nurtured and evolve in these third-party clients and after gaining enough traction can be bought back upstream into the reference (as an official feature).

and the Mastodon developer team should find no shame if Mastodon reaches a point where fewer and fewer people use the official WebFE and mobile apps, and see it as a badge of honour because it means the ecosystem around community development is thriving.

The official reference WebFE doesn’t really allow for any kind of customisation out of the box, and I’d like to see a future where every part of the WebFE can be tweaked to create unique instance theming allowing all features to be fully customisable – Custom Assets, Colours, Fonts, Icons, Sizes, etc – Mastodon’s reference WebFE design should become a CSS Zen garden, but in reality, I foresee this kind of unique personal and community focused environments being driven by community developed WebFEs.

As I write this there are multiple replacement community WebFEs (Perfectly compatible but unofficial clients) in development. Elk is the current best example of a user-centric replacement for the reference WebFE, and is very suitable for those coming over directly from Twitter.

Eventually, I’d imagine with similar interest that community members might work to replace the Ruby-based Mastodon Backend as well, and the Mastodon – as we know it – will slowly mirror the “ship of Theseus”, and change piece by piece while still remaining just similar enough to keep the toots rolling.

There is a long history of clients growing so large that their users shape and influence the product itself regardless of the original team’s intent.


My request to the Mastodon core developers is to enable a culture of growth and playfulness by continuing to enhance the openness of your platform, but also adding the ability for Mastodon instances to run custom enhancement modules (similar to plugins).

I’d personally love to see complex markdown standard for my instances toots, as others would like quote toots…. being able to code these features as a plugin outside of the core mastodon is a step towards innovation without having to force people to create (and maintain) forks for single features – as a playground – before they get merged into the core mastodon repo.

Categories: Mastodon

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