Image of Artist Marcia X DJing at an event.

Photo courtesy of Artist Marcia X.

Blackness in the Fediverse: A Conversation with Marcia X

Mastodon, roughly summarized, is a decentralized, server-to-server microblogging platform that is built on an association of independent networks known as the fediverse. As Twitter continues to spectacularly flatline under Elon Musk’s leadership, Mastodon has pushed itself to the fore as not just a viable alternative to traditional social media, but as an overall improvement of the experience, especially in terms of user control over privacy and content. But does this improvement carry over to the experience of Black fediverse users?

“[W]hen I graduated from art school, we were told that a social media presence was important to network and to be able to advertise our work,” says Artist Marcia X, Puerto Rican-Peruvian American multidisciplinary artist and writer from Chicago, and one of the earliest moderators for PlayVicious, the first dedicated instance for Black and POC Mastodon users. They are also the creator of the #Fediblock hashtag, a tool that allows users and administrators to track bad actors across a digital space that has no centralized form of blocking. 

While Mastodon and other fediverse services may hold promising alternatives to the algorithmic Musk-Meta hellscape we’ve been herded into, the structural oppressions of antiblackness, misogynoir, mestizaje and queerphobia are able to thrive in all corners of the internet. “Stalkers and hate from some users made it incredibly difficult to find joy in the space,” says Marcia. “It affects your relationships offline, too. It was that way on Tumblr, Twitter, and it’s this way in the fediverse, too. I think the fediverse has more people of color on there, but I don’t think the domination of white voices has ceased in any way. We volunteered to be voices but at a great cost.”

Ra’il I'Nasah Kiam: What was the culture of PlayVicious, during its heyday? Most instances on Mastodon have a specific focus or a shared ethos among its users. What type of experience did you and your co-moderators curate, and how did y’all manage such a dynamic space? Because these kinds of digital communities don’t just accidentally come together, it takes an active shepherding. 

Marcia X: It really just felt like a couple friends being cheeky in the lunchroom and then suddenly all the other cheeky kids wanted to join in on the fun, the more the merrier. 

We were a group of people who had undeniable chemistry, that’s it. Our formula worked as peers trying to maintain the safety of the instance for other users, and then in general with various subject matters. We were a diverse mix of people of color from different parts of the world, that collectively worked with empathy and also were laser-focused regarding bigotry and didn’t suffer fools. We are smart, creative people. Artists, musicians, writers, and creatives with the capacity of being ridiculously goofy or having a hard conversation about intracommunal issues on feminism and globalization, or whatever we wanted to talk about. 

I think PV created a space for people to totally be themselves and forgo any pressure to be one-dimensional on social media; that authenticity is infectious. Our mod team created the blueprint for how an instance should be run, I’ll stand to that. Some other instances may disagree with me, but tough. We had an account that was announcements for PV and the local timeline about what we were doing as a mod team, hadn’t really seen that from other instances—it was mostly the admin’s personal account that would do that. 

We were a team and communicated together through the account. We made sure to chat regularly about issues that arise on the timeline and make sure people were being held accountable or had a space to ask questions about things they were unsure of. 

We had some basic rules, but fundamentally it was to be yourself and don’t be a bigot. And we held people up to this simple standard. Digital shepherding—very much so. And it was tough with the wolves circling around us, but the [fediverse] timeline now still remembers PV, and often the changes that were made were too little, too late, in terms of support. It is what it is in that regard, but our impact is legacy there.

Ra’il: Okay, so you joined PV as a user first, then you became a moderator. What prompted that process, and how did being a Mastodon mod compare to being just a Mastodon user? Was one experience easier to navigate than the other?

Marcia: It was just a natural, organic flow from user to mod. I can remember when Ro [the founder of PlayVicious] made me mod, “you should have been one a long time ago anyways,” or something like this. I cared a lot about PV, so it made sense to me, too, to become a mod and learn how to be more effective in helping the instance stay safe.

At the time I had no technical understanding of maintaining an instance, but I did know who to look out for and was constantly researching and poking around to see who we should avoid. Becoming a mod made it easier for me to do preemptive blocks because Ro trusted my judgment and I always delivered. At least at PV I could curate and care for myself and others, whereas on Instagram I am constantly dealing with spam and it never stops. Despite not being a technical user of the software, it’s easier to navigate the fediverse if you’re a mod because you have control in ways that you don’t on other platforms where your safety concerns are up to the whims of a faceless company.

I don’t code . . . so I was constantly asking questions about the code in order to address social dynamics; in other words, what tools do we have to keep PV users safe? For example, I talk about the failures of blocking in Ecosystems of Abuse, and how a lack of communication and understanding of the code we use in the fediverse creates really hostile environments for users.

Ra’il: Tell me about the #Fediblock hashtag. I didn’t even realize that you, specifically, had created it when I first joined Mastodon, that’s how widespread it’s become. What led to its creation and how were you initially using it?

Marcia: That started because a guy created a account and just started sexually harassing femmes with bigger accounts, and maybe not also necessarily bigger accounts, but visible femmes, if I remember correctly. A lot of people were complaining about it, but because of the way federation is, it was kind of janky, getting the info out on just this one particular guy. You’d block him, he’d get suspended, he’d start up again, and it was rinse and repeat like three or four times. It was ridiculous. 

So, I just thought, man I wish there was a way to spotlight on this person so that anyone could, kind of, figure it out. So I said, Right: #Fediblock. I’m blocking this person. Harassers like this guy, I’m going to continue to put in this channel, so that people can follow, cause this is getting ridiculous. I shouldn’t have to see all this kind of misogynistic garbage in my mentions all the time

And I asked my friend to spread it to her channels to get the word out . . . We did, and it just took off from there.

#Fediblock became a really useful tool to put the spotlight on certain people doing certain kinds of -isms or -phobias, if you will. But then its origin story got lost. It started as a tool made by queer femmes to put the spotlight on a sexual harasser. Then people started framing it as, “this is just a tool for mods and admins to use to spotlight bad behavior,” which isn’t totally incorrect. 

One time, I made a post sharing something of mine, and I put a list of the tags that I had started. A woman came into my mentions telling me that I was misusing the tag, “don’t dump in it to advertise for yourself, if you do, you will find yourself swiftly blocked by admins across the fediverse.” And I was like, “ma’am I'm the one who made the tag!” If you had even read my post you would have seen that I talk about how I’m the one who made the tag, I know what it’s used for. So the tag itself has been used against me in personal ways, which is really frustrating. 

It's also spurred projects using that specific name, without consultation about whether or not that’s appropriate to do, whether or not I think that tag and that tool should be used in this way. I think when you don’t talk to the creator of something like this, and you start making your own side projects, it falls on me to take responsibility for the harm the other thing causes.

Ra’il: When you say “a lack of communication and understanding of the code we use in the fediverse creates really hostile environments for users,” could you expand upon that? One thing I’ve noticed since joining Mastodon is how heavily weighted it is towards users who arrive with backgrounds in coding, software engineering, etc., and how heavily this shapes the culture there. Was PV struggling with a similar dynamic? 

Marcia: For clarity, since Ro is a tech wizard, PV wasn’t really experiencing “technical” troubles constantly. He had that taken care of, we were smooth sailing. However, when the antiblackness really ramped up from other instances, we didn’t know that blocking on the fediverse (at that time) wasn’t the kind of blocking we’re used to experiencing on other platforms. 

At that time, if I blocked a user, it would block their content from being visible to me, and I was used to my content being blocked from being visible to them. This was never made clear as a user or moderator, and this is how we found out how “blocked” users were able to squat on our timelines and mine our content, and then subtoot us about what we posted on our timelines, despite being “blocked.” It wasn’t until recently I learned about authorized_fetch, which means that I can enable a mutual block, but that is an opt-in, not a default, setting. It doesn’t work across all versions of the software, so networks can get funky and broken. 

Ra’il: I know this is a big question with a lot of moving parts, but talk to me about the whiteness of the fediverse as you’ve had to experience and navigate it, as both a user and moderator. More specifically, how do whiteness and its related projects of antiblackness, colorism, and mestizaje show up in the fediverse? 

Marcia: In terms of online spaces/social media, I wouldn’t say it’s anything different to what many of us women of color experienced on Tumblr in the early 2010s and that specific pocket of the blogosphere. That is to say, a constant confrontation of white feminism and women of color not only addressing that and fighting against it, but also connecting with one another and growing our feminist politic together. There’s always going to be conflict, and the fediverse was not that different. 

What took me aback regarding the fediverse is that my networks were mostly “leftists” and self-proclaimed radical thinkers regarding race, ableism, gender, patriarchy, sexuality, et cetera, and yet what I was being exposed to was a lot of naiveté or hostility for questioning whiteness as a basis for many people’s takes or approaches to these subject matters. And if I were to question or push back on their whiteness, I was often accused of being biased myself. 

It became clear to me that there were many queer, radical leftists on the fediverse who had never taken the time to address race, whiteness, white supremacy in their politic, who hadn’t done any kind of organizing or work outside of online community spaces, and hadn’t engaged with the literature of Black and queer folks of color. I’m a teacher so my natural reaction is to provide resources, perspective, and engage, and that kind of became my role in the space. 

Regarding the overlap with antiblackness and mestizaje, I could write a whole book. “People don’t get to question you” is a mantra that is set in stone amongst people there. So is protecting one's identity and privacy, and on the face of it, I don’t disagree—the caveat being that someone can have a random avi, claim to be of a certain intersection, and it is frowned upon to question that. How do we protect communities from fraudsters and abuse if we can’t ask questions when an issue comes up? Some of my Mastodon posts from the time reflect this concern: 

“Ethnicity and race are not always one in the same. [Y]ou can be white and latine and uphold white supremacy because that’s what the fuck got white people in Latin America in the first place. Who has the land there? Who has the money? The representation? It’s not people like me.”

“I can't believe I'm going to write this bc it feels like tumblr twitter all over again but ::deepbreath::Latine is not a race. Do not racialize Spanish [the language]. There are Latines that are Indigenous and don't speak a lick of Spanish. There are AfroLatines. There are white Latines. Being a white Latine doesn't erase Latinidad bc it is ethnic, it is C U L T U R A L & GEOGRAPHIC”

“And if anything, white Latine's are the face of Latinidad both in media, power, land ownership, wealth, etc etc. So don't go harping on who is Latine when you don't know what it is. The racialization of Latinidad is a massive issue within the US context, and there are a lot of complexities and issues as Latines W E need to work out. But outsiders that clearly know nothing? Mind ur business::throws a book at you::”

“From my own experience in general and my work/studies this is across the board of an issue w Hispanics/Latines in general. Hyperacialization just because of a border. It's a conflation of xenophobia and racism, when it's just xenophobia. People can use their whiteness to gain capital and access to spaces and class whilst simultaneously still be antiblack and colorist against the black folk from their nations. its the problem of latinidad. its white supremacy.”

Ra’il: Talk to me about being from Puerto Rico/the Caribbean and being on the fediverse. It seems to me that there’s a geographical bias in the fediverse, with most people from the Global North, and the majority of the Global South users appear to be white as well, or at least nonblack. How did this shape both your personal experience, and the experience of running the PV instance? 

Marcia: Definitely the case for an overrepresentation of users from the Global North, and I am hoping to see this change. There are now users from Puerto Rico that have their own instance, same for users from Mexico and Chile. I want more of this, and putting an end to English as the dominant language across the fediverse. I think that for a long time I felt quite alone in being Caribbean/Latin American, second-generation. At the time of my first account on PV, there weren’t that many other folks with similar ethnic backgrounds. 

In general, the space was very white, including white Latines. That made it easier for antiblackness and colorism to thrive, of course, but also for people to take advantage of other white folks’ ignorance on Latinidad and therefore paint the Black and Indigenous Latine folks as instigators and gatekeepers, which is always framed as something negative. It was easier for people to play a part, identity, or ethnic marker, and because the nature of the fediverse is to not ask questions, other people outside of PV didn’t. 

The whiteness also meant that other people of color in general had a spotlight kind of forced on us, which wasn’t comfortable. It made us targets, you were going to stand out in the proverbial crowd. It became difficult to protect ourselves from trolls, and it meant that I started to be on the timeline less and less because of the stress. Also, when the account got a lot of followers, I had people squatting on my timeline, screenshotting my locked posts and sharing them on other platforms. It became unmanageable. 

Ra’il: Yeah, that spotlight you’re talking about, that’s that antiblack hypervisibility. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the persistence of hypervisibility across the internet, and whether there’s any social media formation at all that could combat it, to whatever degree. We can’t code our way out of racism, but are there any tools out there currently that can make our online lives as Black folks a little bit less of a hypervisible hell?

Marcia: I don’t know. What’s great about fediverse is that the options are growing, new software is being developed, and some of these offer a lot of control over visibility, so you can choose how large you want your network to be. But really, aside from this, I don’t know if I have an answer. I have run out of faith in social media at this point and use it like I’m an ornery old man.

Ra’il: What do you think about the legacy of PlayVicious, or, more specifically, how do you want it to be remembered? 

Marcia: For one, I don’t want PV to be forgotten. #PVRecuerda!!! (only the real ones will know). I feel strong, positive emotions about PV at the end of the day. What a vibe, what a time. 

We had the most dynamic space the fediverse has seen (I stand by that still to this day). The chemistry was perfect and we had some really amazing moments there. From long, difficult conversations regarding society to just having fun with movies and food, that instance, those years there, really brought out my creativity and how I can engage and socialize with other people. 

We were targeted, we were endlessly harassed, but those things won’t shadow the positives of PV.

Artist Marcia X is a fine artist, film-maker, photographer, skater & dj from Chicago tearing it up in Barcelona.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 20, "policy: seductions and silences". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.