Homecoming for Mastodon now does the opposite

February 16, 2023
By Jeff Johnson of Underpass App Company

Following people who have accounts on other Mastodon instances can be overly difficult, which is why I created my Safari extension Homecoming for Mastodon to open Mastodon pages from other instances in your own instance with one click. Lately, however, I've been experiencing the opposite problem: while reading posts in my own Mastodon instance, I want to open a post in the original instance where the poster's account resides. I'll explain my motivation in a moment, but first I want to announce the good news: Homecoming for Mastodon version 2, now available for iOS and macOS in App Store, adds this feature!

Here's how Homecoming for Mastodon works in version 2. As before, when you're viewing a Mastodon page in another instance, clicking the extension icon in Safari's toolbar opens that page in your own instance. On the other hand, when you're viewing a Mastodon page in your own instance, clicking the extension icon in Safari's toolbar opens that page in the original instance. Simple, I hope! The behavior of the extension depends on which Mastodon instance you're viewing in Safari, your own instance or another instance.

Returning to motivation, why would you want to open a Mastodon page in its original instance when you're already reading it in your instance? The answer is that a Mastodon instance is a kind of island. It can only show you the data stored locally. Unlike a centralized network such as Twitter or Facebook, Mastodon is decentralized and distributed: no individual instance has a copy of all the data encompassing the federation of Mastodon, only a subset of the data. Every Mastodon instance has gaps in its data, blind spots. An instance stores all of the posts of its local accounts, and it downloads new posts of anyone followed by its local accounts, as notified by the ActivityPub protocol, but your instance doesn't download old posts from other instances. This is why when you view someone else's account profile in your instance, you might not see their older posts (unless someone else on your own instance was already following that account).

The data gaps are especially problematic on smaller Mastodon instances with fewer accounts, because on a smaller instance it's less likely that another account on your instance was already following someone you're interested in. Yesterday I was talking to Dave Mark about how it's nearly impossible to get an accurate count of statistics such as likes and boosts on Mastodon. Looking at one of Dave's posts on my instance, I see 0 boosts and likes.

0 boosts, 0 likes

Whereas viewing the same post on Dave's instance, it has 2 boosts and 8 likes.

2 boosts, 8 likes

These data gaps are an inevitable consequence of Mastodon's design. If you're on one of the largest instances with the most local accounts, such as mastodon.social, you might not notice as many data gaps, because more accounts and more follows means more data has been stored locally. If you're on a smaller instance, though, you'll definitely notice the gaps. Don't believe anyone who tells you that it doesn't matter which Mastodon instance you choose, because in many ways that's untrue.

The "final straw" for me, that inspired me to add this new feature to Homecoming for Mastodon, was my inability to read conversational threads in my instance. In my timeline I would see a reply from someone I follow, but when I tried to see the original post it was replying to… there was nothing! I kept seeing detached, ghostly replies to apparently nonexistent posts. The appearance was deceiving, because I was able to see the original post when I opened the reply in the instance of author instead of my own instance.

The Mastodon web interface does actually have a way to open a page in its original instance, but the control is inconveniently hidden inside a contextual menu.

Open original page

I've put the control in Safari's toolbar for one click access.

Safari toolbar

If this new feature sounds useful to you, then run don't walk your fingers to the App Store and get Homecoming for Mastodon now.