Experiments with Mastodon


The other Mastodon

For the past couple of months I’ve been experimenting with Mastodon, the social media service, not the metal band, although they are pretty good too – click on ‘play’ above and enjoy while you read this. For the non-technical, Mastodon looks and works kind of like Twitter, but without the Nazis, so it certainly doesn’t feel like Twitter. For the technical, it is an open-source federated micro-blogging social network, part of the fediverse.

To unpack that, open-source means that the Mastodon software is made freely available, anyone can read and contribute to it, and anyone can set up their own Mastodon server, or instance as they are known. That’s a very good thing. It removes the predatory capitalism of commercial social media companies which use extremely sophisticated psychological tricks to keep you addicted and get you to disclose as much personal information as possible to sell you adverts.

Federated means that Mastodon is decentralised, it’s not ‘one thing’, one server, with one owner; there are thousands of servers that run Mastodon, and everyone, no matter which Mastodon instance they have joined, can talk to everyone else (with some limitations – it is possible for instance administrators to completely block other instances, but this only tends to be used for instances that post illegal content). Each Mastodon instance has it’s own administrator, moderation team, and code of conduct, so there’s no faceless central point of control and authority haphazardly applying arcane rules.

So that’s what it is, but what’s it like? The TL;DR version – it’s good! I like it, and I think it has a lot of potential.

Having been built from the ground up to be open, free, and distributed, the culture and ethos is very different, better, more courteous, than what you get on Twitter and Facebook. A lot of lessons have been learned, and this shows in features such as the easy way you can control who sees something you post on Mastodon, a Toot, and the content warning feature which lets you mask out a post until people click on the content warning description. Even just having this features makes you think about the issue and whether or not something you are about to post could inadvertently cause someone distress. Trolls and unpleasant people do still exist on Mastodon of course, but there is something about the design and the culture which I think nudges people towards behaving better, and the bad behaviour I have seen on Mastodon has been of a vastly lower order of magnitude than you get on Twitter these days.

It’s not perfect of course, nothing is. To an extent, it feels like a Twitter refuge at the moment, and it needs to be more than that. If you use Mastodon on a desktop browser it looks a lot like TweetDeck with a four column layout, and mobile apps (I’ve been using Amaroq) look a lot like Twitter clones too. To be successful it needs to be more than the anti-Twitter; it needs a strong, positive identity of its own, and I’m not sure it quite has that yet. That said, I joined Twitter early when people flocked to it because it wasn’t Facebook, so if that’s what it takes to make Mastodon take off, so be it. The other thing it needs is network effect, people. There are around 2 million Mastodon users at the moment, a drop in the ocean, and when I first joined I found only three people I actually knew in meat-space. In comparison, Facebook has over 2 billion active users, and there are 330 million on Twitter.

As Mastodon is still relatively new (launched in 2016), there are still common features and functionality missing that you might expect to find. A particular grievance of mine is an easy way to search and embed animated GIFs, though I have been informed by some of my friends that this is a great relief to them. I’m trying hard not to be wounded by this. And I would love it if there was a better way to backup your account and switch between instances more freely. At present you can only export and import the list of people you follow, block or mute, and while you can export your content you can’t import it back into another instance.

This has all been very much my personal experience, and as it’s been almost entirely positive I’ll be sticking with it. In fact, Mastodon is now largely the only social space in which I actively engage. Looking at a bigger picture I would love to experiment with a cohort of students to use Mastodon for educational purposes in place of Twitter or Facebook to see what their experience is.

Now to throw some resources at you! This Lifehacker article goes into more detail than I have about what Mastodon is and how to get started. Some suggested instances to join are: Mastodon.social which is the flagship instance, run by the lead developer; Scholar.social which is good for general academically inclined people; and Humanities.one which looks good if your interest is specifically in the humanities. If you’re emigrating from Twitter you can use the Bridge tool to find anyone you follow on Twitter who has also jumped to Mastodon. This Github doc has a great curated list of apps and tools. Finally, to help find interesting accounts to follow, you can use this list of Awesome Mastodon accounts on Github, and the Trunk Wiki which groups accounts by topic. No category for learning technologists though. I may do something to address that.

And of course you should totally join Mastodon and follow me @sonya@scholar.social – or read my public profile here: https://scholar.social/@sonya.

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