I’m fed up with Twitter. Over the years the company has deliberately made its products worse in multiple, significant ways. It has also gone out of its way to ensure that racist, dangerous, and violent people have a platform with which to spew their hate. Most recently, it came to light that CEO Jack Dorsey personally overruled staff to keep Alex Jones—an unhinged, violent conspiracy theorist—and restore Richard Spencer—a literal fucking Nazi.
I think Twitter as a concept can be a useful tool for society. But I worry that Twitter the company is hopelessly lost, and I’m done with it.
Like many other people recently, I jumped ship to Mastodon, an alternative, bite-sized social network with an odd name and some great new ideas. I’ve spent time learning about Mastodon’s mission and open-source, decentralized design, and I’m starting to think that this should be the way forward for social networks in general.
Here are various reasons why, ranging from large fundamental concepts and design decisions, to the smaller details that make a big difference.
Mastodon is a simple, familiar social network, quite Twitter-like in daily use. You can post short messages, follow and mention other users, share links, photos, and videos, and add a short profile.
A key differentiator, which I’ll explore in a bit, is that Mastodon is decentralized, working conceptually in many ways like email. There is no single company that needs funding or can get shut down.
This is where Mastodon gets pretty interesting, powerful, and liberating.
Apps Are Welcome
Mastodon has an evolving API that welcomes apps. Remember what that was like? Anyone can create Mastodon clients and tools to interact with the service and data in myriad ways.
You can check my collection of Mastodon links for some interesting stuff, like this tool for finding an instance to join based on various criteria, or this visualization of all Mastodon instances. More on instances in a bit.
It’s a little thing that makes a big difference. Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram added algorithmic timelines because it’s great for manipulative engagement and advertising practices.
Mastodon doesn’t play that game. Your timeline is an actual timeline, one post after the other in the order they were published.
But hey, as far as I know, developers are free to build a client with an algorithmic timeline if they think users might actually prefer it.
Mastodon is Built for People, Not Investors or Nazis
Mastodon is open source. There are no investors, no board, no advertisers—and none of their insidious incentives.
The simple fact is, in an advertising environment like that of Twitter (and Facebook, and Google), controversy is good for business. Which means Nazis, harassment, and trolls are good for business.
It’s why, even if Jack Dorsey claims to not be a white supremacist (for the record: I think he is), his actions of deliberately keeping around people like Alex Jones, David Duke, and Richard Spencer make him and others in management willfully complicit.
I want no part of that.
Mastodon doesn’t have to answer to some board of directors that want to see more more more revenue and monthly active users and #engagement and hey follow all these people who said ‘the’ once in their lives.
It can just be a societal tool, free to build useful features by and for us.
The Decentralized Advantage
Mastodon is decentralized, functioning a bit like email in some ways. Anyone can create a Mastodon instance—sort of like an email server—then choose to allow others to create a Mastodon account on that instance. Don’t worry, though, there are already plenty of instances that are easy to join. Here’s an easy tool for finding one.
In general, all Mastodon users can follow, mention, mute, and block all other users, regardless of instance. Instance admins can block other instances, and so can we in our account settings. This comes in handy when, say, a bunch of Nazis or a troll army spins up an instance (which they probably have to, since most other instances kick them off pretty quickly). Instead of having to block every individual jerk that wanders into your mentions, you or your admin can head ‘em off at the pass with a single click. I have already seen it happen, and it’s great.
Instances can have their own rules and CoC, such as prohibiting abuse (a common rule), advertising, or NSFW content. Some instances allow NSFW stuff as long as members use the Content Warning option to hide the content behind a hidden block.
Yes, Mastodon and all apps I’ve tried have an official ‘Content Warning’ option. I quite like it.
Instances and Multiple Timelines
Some of the largest instances are open to everyone, as long as you follow their generally welcoming CoC. But many instances cater to various topics or communities, such as technology, LGBT, or photography. This is useful in a few ways.
To be clear, I asked around and it doesn’t seem like topic-centric instances will kick anyone out for not posting about the topic X times a week or month.
The purpose of an instance catering to a topic is to help people find other like-minded folks. Think of it like attending a topical meetup or networking event—the central topic brought you all together, but many conversations will veer elsewhere. This probably makes the most difference when it comes to Mastodon’s three timelines:
- The standard Home Timeline of all the people you follow
- The Local Timeline of all the people on your instance—this is where picking a topical instance can be useful, but not necessary
- The Federated Timeline Of your instance, everyone you follow, and people they follow
Mastodon Cannot Die
Because of Mastodon’s decentralized structure and open source foundation, there is no single company that needs funding or can get shut down.
Some instances may come and go. But users can simply move their accounts and content to another instance, or spin up their own instance that still interacts with the overall fediverse of connected instances.
This aspect poses unique potential and perhaps challenges for the way Mastodon and, more specifically, its instances can manage moderation, funding, and maintenance. But those are good discussions for other blog posts.
Public and Private Posts
Something I’m very happy to see in Mastodon is the option to post privately to varying degrees:
- Unlisted– You can post to your local instance and followers, but not the public timeline
- Followers-only – Only for your followers, not the public, Local, or Federated timelines
- Direct – Direct messages that support multiple recipients
Give It a Shot
Like everything in life, Mastodon is not without its challenges and problems. But it has been fun and interesting and useful in all the ways that social networks used to be. Except this time, we have more power and fewer dangerous incentives, which gives me an optimism I haven’t felt in a while.