Mastodon’s latest update tackles a problem known to Twitter users: the plague of “reply guys.” A colloquial term for men who often respond to women’s posts in an overly familiar way, usually in a “mansplain,” police tone, offering unsolicited advice, or gaslighting the original poster, reply guys has been a longstanding problem on social media. Now, starting with the Mastodon app for Android, the company is experimenting with a simple reminder that pops up when someone replies to a stranger. Reminders can also include a bit of context – like if the stranger is an expert in their field, or if the post the user is responding to is old – to stop unnecessary or unhelpful commentary.
“While we are exploring many different ways to solve this issue, the idea we are currently experimenting with is simply reminding people when they are about to respond to a stranger,” Explains Mastodon founder and CEO Eugen Rochko. “We also believe that by showing a little information about the person you are talking to, we can prevent some unpleasant situations, such as explaining something to an expert in a field.”
The feature will also remind users if they reply to a post that is more than three months old, as it is no longer considered part of an active discussion. Old posts by users are often wrong, prompting responses, because someone searched for a particular topic and found a post in the search results.
Users can dismiss the warnings by tapping the “Got it” button or a smaller, less obtrusive option, “Don’t remind me again.”
The new features are launching first in the Mastodon app for Android but will come to the iOS app soon, the company says. If the experiment proves successful, Mastodon will also bring them to the web interface.
The idea that small nudges can help change user behavior is something Twitter, now called X, has used to its advantage — at least in the pre-Elon Musk era.
For example, the company will pop-up reminders asking users if they’ve read the article they’re about to retweet, or asking them to share the tweet instead of taking a screenshot. More importantly, it also added a feature that will prompt users to edit “harmful” responses – meaning abusive language, trolling, or otherwise. Twitter’s internal data found that these little nudges can work as 34% of people changed their initial response after seeing the prompt or chose not to send their response. After being prompted once, people then composed 11% fewer offensive responses in the future, the company also found. That shows that using nudges can have a higher effect.
But on the other hand, the excessive use of nudges can inhibit the conversation on the platform, which is supposed to be a place for sharing personal opinions and ideas. For that reason, there must be a balance between helpful nudges and freedom of expression.
In Mastodon’s case, framing the new feature as an “experiment” allows the company to tweak when or how often its nudges appear to users as it gathers more data. about the usefulness of nudges. Or, if the nudges are found to be unhelpful, the experiment can be terminated and a new one tried.
“Overall, we’re committed to making sure people at Mastodon have a pleasant posting experience,” added Rochko. “We hear over and over again how happy people are to come to Mastodon to talk to real people. And we want to make sure it stays that way,” he said.