Of Mastodons and Musicals (a third week with Mastodon)
CW: Doubts, cancer, grief, community, Twitter.
I've been on Mastodon for 3 weeks now, and this week I was starting to feel at loose ends with it all. I have the list of close to 400 DH folks (please add yourself using the link at the top if you haven't!) I'm following nearly 900 people across a range of fields and hobbies that interest me; my home feed is active, and the sub-lists I follow more closely are slow but not empty. But more than a handful of times, I've dropped into Twitter after seeing a notification, and found resources I was glad to see, and conversations going on that I was sad to be missing. What was I losing by trying to focus on cultivating a place for people to come to in Mastodon? Was what I was doing even close to enough? How much self-delusion was involved in the premise that most, or even many, people would actually move? Even when people created accounts, it was feeling like it was an empty placeholder -- maybe with a profile photo and blurb. And how could I criticize that, when it's what I did between April and October? But in the meantime, what was I missing out on? If the people I wanted to be in touch with were actually active on Twitter, what was I doing off somewhere else?
That's what was on my mind on Thursday morning when I caught a flight to the Seattle area to help a handful of younger graduates of my high school pull together a production of the musical that the Spanish / French / Russian / Theater / Musical Theater / Dance / International Choir teacher, Dr. Valerie Navarro, had written about her cancer journey as she faces a terminal ovarian cancer diagnosis. I did theater throughout my whole childhood and adolescence, but stopped after high school. My 48 hours back where I grew up reminded me of the parallels between putting on a theater production and what I've been seeing here as people spin up Mastodon servers for their communities. A group of friends or acquaintances, perhaps with some self-asserted credentials ("I'm an amazing singer!") or maybe just enthusiasm, come together in a short period of time, work through a set of logistical and technical challenges, develop and refine some workflows, and become a team, navigating surprises and challenges along the way. And then the product of that work becomes visible to a community who -- hopefully -- appreciates it. It can be all-consuming work in the moment; for those two days, as I stepped in to assist the crew lead, I didn't think about much of anything else than the things that needed to come together for the musical, despite the growing piles of notifications on Twitter a people said their goodbyes, and the notification bleeps of new follows on Mastodon.
<img src="/assets/images/lifting_you_up_poster.jpg" alt="The poster for the musical Lifting You Up, with a sun, a river, and an oak tree and the text 'A musical about the cancer journey, empowering theatergoers to recognize and celebrate the joys of now whatever lies ahead.'"></a>
The performance of the musical was a hit; we had to bring in more chairs for an audience that kept arriving. Old teachers, a few old classmates, friends' parents. At least seating scales -- up to a point -- more seamlessly than a Mastodon server.
My job for the show itself was recording the production, drawing on my college years doing videography, before a hormonal-birth-control-induced mental breakdown led to me locking it away in a corner of my brain and walking away to focus on academics -- of the Slavic linguistics and digital humanities variety, a path that ultimately led to the job I have today and the work I do now. But it's something I still know how to do, and could do better than anyone else on that team. Not unlike, I suppose, more than a few people who've rolled up their sleeves to try to run servers.
High school or community theater shows end, though, after at most a handful of shows. I can show up to pull off a one-night-only production with a few people in a borrowed church community room. Doing this day in and day out -- for weeks, months, years -- is a different story altogether. You don't want me running stage crew on the North American touring production of Hamilton; you don't want me running a community server.
I'm writing this on a Saturday afternoon flight home, to post later. I've been following more server admins this week, which has been interesting and illuminating about the technical challenges. And I have some thoughts on moderation, after giving a talk this week on digital humanities directories and failure. But I can't string together those thoughts today.
In emotionally intense situations, I can be calm and efficient or a complete mess. This weirded out friends' parents when I was a child; what was wrong with me, that I wouldn't cry when they thought I should? For most of the last two days, I have held it together to take care of what needed to be done; during the sad songs in the musical, I breathed slowly and counted the buttons on my camera, or silently named the shapes on the control dial. If I cried my hands would shake and that would shake the camera and that's not what was needed in that moment.
Today I said goodbye to Valerie, knowing it was the last time. She and her husband, Dr. Daniel Erickson-- another of my high school teachers-- were the first adults I met who were something like how I could imagine myself as an adult. With them, I didn't feel like a freak. The posters for different Russian cases hanging on Daniel's classroom walls inspired me to do that language once I ran out of Spanish to take, a decision that was an inflection point for so much of my life since, from my career to my marriage.
And then the goodbyes on Twitter have come at the same time. DH Twitter has been such an important community for me online; first in the early days, and returning to it enthusiastically four years ago with my job at Stanford. I've learned a lot, I've found project collaborators and made friends. It's another place where I've felt at home, where I could share things I loved, where -- once again -- I didn't feel like a freak. A shout-out by Andromeda Yelton in a long thread of thank-yous was enough to push me over the edge, waiting to board the plane. The 3M Aura is a great heavy-duty K95 mask, but it's awful for crying in.
As Steven Ramsay said at an impromptu Zoom gathering the day Stéfan Sinclair died (I heard that news on Twitter, and organized the gathering via Twitter, and the exodus feels like watching a space where those things happen getting destroyed), a field is "a group of people in conversation with each other. It’s not an abstraction; we’re not citations, we’re people." Twitter was the infrastructure that made possible those conversations for me. Without Twitter, and with more people cutting back on travel, I can't help but wonder how many of those goodbyes are also permanent, or at least long-term. I hope not, and with the latest influx to Mastodon I want to believe that's not wishful thinking. The next step is to figure out ways to make it a welcoming place for the newcomers, and to support the technical teams who are, metaphorically, in it for the whole North American tour of Hamilton and then some.