Being a good neighbour, people pleasing, and puns in the Fediverse

Alternative title: Neil overthinking things.

I’ve been pondering over something for a couple of days now. It has come up before - once - a few months back, but the situation resolved itself, so I took no further action.

In short (and this blog post is definitely not short), what - if anything - should I do about my puns?


Honestly, I don’t know. I’m torn.

But I like puns (so I want to continue posting my own and boosting others’), and I want to be a good neighbour, so I am content to do something.

I think that that will be using the hashtag “#pun”.

Puns, and their visibility

the usually humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound

(Random Internet dictionary.)

I like to post puns on social media (which, now, means mostly “the fediverse”, as my Twitter time is close to, but not quite, zero).

Terrible puns.

Excruciatingly bad, often nerdy, puns.

One or two lines, maybe four or five times a day if I’m in a punning mood or maybe none.

I’m not secretive about this. There’s no bait-and-switch. It’s right there, in my bio:

Puns. Terrible puns.

I don’t just post puns. I also post a mix of legal-y, Internet-y, Linux-y, tech-y stuff, with no particular priority.

It seems that some people want to follow me (goodness knows why), and would like the ability to see my non-pun content but not see my puns, depending on their mood.

In other words, can I give them control over visibility of my puns.

Bearing in mind that sarcasm does not translate well online, I treat the (occasional, but multiple) “for goodness’ sake Neil, what do we need to do to shut you up” public messages I get in response to my quips as the digital equivalent of a groan. Which is fine. They are puns. Bad puns, verging on the criminal in some cases.

But twice - and it is only twice, so I am wondering if I am getting this out of all proportion - I’ve had sincere and polite messages asking me to do something about things I post.

One - a follower - messaged me about my puns, asking if I’d hashtag or CW them.

The other - not a follower - said that I I posted about either sex work or something sex-positive and they did not wish to see anything about sex. I cannot remember exactly what they wanted, but they provided a temporary solution by blocking me.

So, the problem: what, if anything, do I do?

Why do I care? Do I care?

I’m still wrestling with this one.

Being a good neighbour

For all my dislike of approaching online regulation / law as an issue of regulating “places” and “meetings” rather than looking at data transfers over networks and the role (or not) of servers, I’m a fan of (good, well considered) netiquette.

Of behaving in a neighbourly way.

(Bad - intentionally or ignorantly - netiquette is discriminatory and exclusionary, and of that I am no fan.)

Were I on a server which prohibited puns, I would reconsider my choice of host: their server, their rules. But while I was there, I’d be unlikely to push against their rules, as there may well be all number of good reasons why other users of that server chose a server which prohibited puns.

But I am not - I am on my own server, which does not prohibit puns.

I don’t think this is strictly about rules anyway. It’s about being a good neighbour, which is perhaps not quite the same thing.

And listening to what others have to say, at least when what they have to say is reasonable, is part of that.

Is this a reasonable request? I’m not sure…


Some people desire reach. The ability for their post to be received, and ideally read, by as many people as possible.

I like to have interesting conversations, fun chats, and share a laugh. That requires like-minded people, not masses of people.

If my posting of puns means that some people choose to no longer follow me, or to mute me, or to block me (and it is possible that either or both of the last two might be useful if someone wants to avoid seeing others’ reposts of my puns), they can do so, and I don’t begrudge them that.

It would be a lonely place if everyone did that, but - for now, at least - that’s not a likely scenario.

Losing one reader, or a handful of readers, who block me, is a price I am willing to pay, but it doesn’t feel very neighbourly.

Is asking for CWs/hashtags for puns reasonable?

Severity of impact / proportionality of remedy

To me - massively subjective - a few puns is not hurtful, hateful, or harmful. At most, I’d have thought that it’s a bit annoying.

And, yes, I expect we’d all like to be free of irritations.

I’m not sure that’s a realistic, or reasonable, expectation when engaging with others.

But then I have a reasonably busy feed, because of the number of people I follow. I am unlikely to notice, or give thought to, two or three posts a day which don’t amuse me.

If someone followed fewer people, and so had a slower feed, my puns may have a disproportionate presence.

And it has bothered someone enough to ask me about it (although whether they knew I’d end up thinking about it this much, I’ve no idea), so perhaps I should take their feelings into account.

The availability of reader-controlled tools

There are also tools available to readers - followers and non-followers alike - to take matters into their own hands. These may vary between ActivityPub implementations, but for Mastodon, these tools include:

So options, but none which allow them specifically to block only my puns.

“Warts and all”?

Does interacting with someone online mean accepting them as they are, or not at all?

I don’t think so.

I have no problem calling out - politely, but firmly - someone who posts content which I find (for example) transphobic. That’s what the “block” button is for, IMHO. I will continue to do this. Not just because I don’t want to see this kind of thing (but I don’t), but because I don’t think transphobes should get the air of publicity or engagement because others might see it.

But we’re not talking about transphobic, or otherwise hurtful/harmful/hateful content. Conflation of horrible content with puns, such that it is reasonable to call out everything or nothing, is a false dichotomy.

Some people post pet photos or sports posts. Would I miss them if they didn’t? Probably not. I’m not in the Fediverse for them. I wouldn’t follow an account which predominantly posted pet photos or sports posts. But would I object to them? No! It is an insight into someone’s life. It shows me a more rounded person. And I can choose whether to accept them - pets, sports, and all - and follow them, or not.

The impact on others

Doing anything - including continuing as I am, unmodified - impacts others.

(Well, almost anything. I could, I suppose, set up a separate account, which mirrors my primary account but is pun-free. But that is more effort than I wish to go to, frankly.)

CWs for a pun merely for being a pun seems like a disproportionate inconvenience to others. Either they miss out on my puns because they don’t wish to expand CWs (okay, hardly a major loss…), or they have to expand CWs manually, just to read a post which might give them a laugh, or they change their settings to expand all CWs automatically, which might expose them to things which they genuinely do not wish to see.

A hashtag inconveniences only me, so perhaps more reasonable.

Doing nothing impacts the person (who may be the voice of others) who does not wish to see them, as it puts the labour on them to do something about them, and the tools currently available do not permit that with any degree of precision.


Option 1: stop making puns

This is the option which requires both the least and the most thinking.

Puns are part of me.

So while the specific problem - stopping people from seeing puns that they do not wish to see - would be solved if I no longer posted puns, I want to post puns. I enjoy posting puns.

Not posting puns also impacts the enjoyment of others who, begrudgingly or otherwise, like them.

(Yes, this is a slippery argument: others might want to post hurtful, harmful content. They might enjoy doing so. Someone merely wanting to do something doesn’t make it a good idea. But we are not, IMHO, in the realm of hurtful, harmful, hateful posts, so this seems like a red herring.)

And, as above, there are software tools available, to me, to follows, and to non-follower viewers, to do something, however imperfect.

Option 2: use a content wrapper / warning (CW)

I am a massive fan of CWs.

Whether you’re of the “treat them as the headline” content wrapper school of thought, or a more harm-centric mindset, the tool, in the Fediverse, to describe what you are posting so that someone can see the warning without (or before) seeing the content is there, and dead easy.

How I use CWs today

I already CW some posts, including puns, but, today, I don’t CW posts merely because they are a pun. They get them because of the nature of the pun - if I make a lewd pun (a double entendre, for example, which I try to deploy sparingly), I will CW it “lewd”, as that seems to be the common behaviour.

But I CW it because it is lewd, not because it is a pun. I’d CW the same content, with the same CW, if it were a fact.

My rule-of-thumb for adding CWs is a very subjective one:

Far from perfect, but at least it is an approach, with an outward, rather than inward, focus.

Are CWs for puns a step too far?

Should I CW all posts, just in case someone does not want to see them? The outcome would be that one’s feed was, in essence, a list of headlines. Readers could expand what they wanted, or expand them all automatically, with the current tooling.

I know that I don’t want that experience, but perhaps others do? I haven’t heard anyone say that they do though - but perhaps I have not been listening hard enough?

Or perhaps CWs for puns are worthy of consideration precisely because someone has specifically mentioned them.

Option 3: tag all puns with a hashtag

I could tag all puns with a common, recurring hashtag - “#pun”, perhaps.

It requires trivial effort on my part, and readers might have to accept that it is on a “best efforts” basis anyway.

It has marginal, if any, impact on anyone other than the person who wants to filter out that hashtag. A few extra bytes of data, perhaps. It doesn’t seem to me to have the same downsides as using a CW.

And, as Shauna GM pointed out to me:

using hashtags would also help pun lovers find you

If I do something - and I am tempted to - this seems the most likely option.

Option 4: do nothing

I could “do nothing”.

That’s the easiest approach for me - technically, at least; I’ll probably worry about it, so perhaps not the easiest choice mentally.

But I’d feel like I was riding roughshod over someone’s - reasonable or otherwise - objection. And, as a people-pleaser, that won’t sit comfortably with me.

What about other people’s puns?

I like making puns, and I like reading puns, and I like sharing other people’s puns, via boosts.

I can CW or hashtag my own puns, but I cannot - as far as I know, and I’ve played around with it a bit - CW or hashtag my boosts of someone else’s puns.

Now, doing something - to my own puns - may be better than doing nothing, even if my “something” does not prevent someone from seeing puns I boost.

There is a simple option though: don’t boost other people’s puns, unless they already have a CW or hashtag (ideally, the same hashtag as I use, or else their own pun-specific hashtag; the reader may have to do something).

But the majority of puns do not get CWs or hashtags merely for being puns, and I’d rather not inhibit boosting of others puns merely for being puns, so I suspect readers will either have to accept this, or use the tools available to them.

Am I overthinking this?

Bugger me, this is a long post. Reflecting even more thought.

Part of me is very tempted to say “like it or lump it, this is who I am” - the do nothing approach.

Part of me is very tempted to use a hashtag. Is there really anything to lose, even if it means being perhaps especially neighbourly? After all, I’m not committed to doing it - or anything else - permanently.

Yes, perhaps I have overthought it.