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Innovation

Mastodon isn't Twitter but it's glorious

The wild world of Mastodon is open source, completely distributed, and at the mercy (and budgetary restrictions) of individual server administrators. But it's engaging and a lot of fun.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer on
Mastodon feed in four columns

The Mastadon 4.0 Web UX

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Every time I go on vacation, the tech industry boils. In April, when I was off to the Bahamas, Elon Musk announced his offer to buy Twitter, setting off a firestorm of speculation about the end times of that platform. Similarly, I went to Mexico for a week of relaxation only days after Musk's takeover this month, and sure enough, everything imploded.

Also: Stop using Twitter to log in to other sites

I guess I need to be prepared when I go on vacation. Fortunately, they do not run out of alcoholic beverages on the Riviera Maya.

The migration to other platforms has begun – and while my colleague Ed Bott is correct that there is no direct replacement for Twitter, the sheer volume of users that have been moving to Mastodon, the distributed open source social networking platform, created by a 29-year-old German software developer Eugen Rochko is awe-inspiring.

In the last week, Mastodon servers have seen more than 640,000 users added to the network, with over 130,000 in a single day, bringing the number of active users to over 1.6 million. While this is only a tiny fraction of Twitter's estimated 450 million, the sustained growth is undeniable, and there is no indication that this will slow anytime soon.

So what is Mastodon?

We should start with the fact that Mastodon is an open source software platform -- anyone can stand a server up, and run a community in a completely isolated environment, if they want to, much like running a wiki or an intranet discussion board. Only when you connect it to the Fediverse, (good resources and info here) a loosely associated network of services that includes individual Mastodon communities, does it become part of that federation. 

Also: Ditching Twitter? How to get started with Mastodon

There are approximately 4000 of these Fediverse-connected Mastodon instances, some with as many as 170,000 users, such as the original mastodon.social server where I have put my shingle up, and those with just a few thousand. These include servers such as journa.host, which has established itself for homing accounts specifically for journalists. Similarly, newsie.social and MastodonMedia.XYZ are also for media professionals. 

Individuals also run some for their singular use. There are, of course, any number of independent servers that smaller groups run, as well as those servers not connected to the Fediverse, such as counter.social, which exist separately due to differences in management philosophy and overall user sentiment and ideologies. As to be expected, these servers also include the usual batch of undesirables you will find on any social network, so it's not uncommon for server block lists to be published and shared across the Fediverse, such as this one that was recently updated by newsie.social. 

Even though Fediverse servers are loosely connected via a communications protocol, it acts as a single network. Thus it is possible to look up and follow other Mastodon users on the Fediverse even if they reside on different servers. So, for example, I follow many journalists on mastodon.social and newsie.social even though my account, @jperlow@journa.host is on a different server. However, I can see the "local" feed of my server without having to follow all those people, as well as the "federated" feed across the Fediverse.

What's it like to use?

The user experience on Mastodon is similar to that of Twitter in the sense there is a scrolling feed of microblog posts from individual accounts that you follow, but it is also quite different. 

For starters, no "algorithm" determines post visibility based on overall popularity or other criterion set by the Fediverse network or an individual instance operator. Amplification exists by virtue of "boosts", which are relatively analogous to a retweet, except that they cannot be "quoted" with commentary, they are simply reposted. 

Also: The persona illusion: Do you actually exist on social media?

Posts (formerly referred to as "toots") can also be "liked," but all this does is tell the author that you liked it; there is no public acknowledgment of a like in the main feed. So if you truly like something and want it to be amplified, use the reblog/boost, and do it often.

Unique to Mastodon is the Content Warning or the "CW" for short. If you choose to add one to your post, your full message is hidden under a preview version limited to just revealing the topic. Users can then click to reveal your entire post.  

jennifer-taub-jentaub-mstdn-social-mastodon

A Content Warning, or CW, on a Mastodon server.

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

When should you use a CW? That depends on the poster, their community, and the overall sentiment of the server membership. I do not use them, so your mileage may vary. Eugen Rochko, the creator of Mastodon, feels there is no accepted practice for knowing when they should be used:

Having been here since 2016, I can tell you there is definitely no such thing as a consensus on usage of content warnings on the fediverse. It's a decentralized network that doesn't belong to any one party, so by definition there is no single culture on it. Different corners have different expectations and customs. For my part, I've always seen them as something at the discretion of the author. As the reader, you have a plethora of tools to disengage from unwanted content on Mastodon—with even better filters coming in 4.0—and harassment is not one of them. People who are arriving now have as much right to be here and bring their own culture as the ones who came before them.

This also gets into the subject of which server community you should choose as your home base. You can have accounts on different servers and independent followers on them if you want. Still, most people pick a single server as their main community and follow people on other servers if needed. 

While many servers are regional or member-restricted due to profession or other criteria, some server communities are specific to subject matters, such as infosec, open source software, LGBTQ+, or even cooking, and have their own local feeds of discussion. If you decide to move your account and handle/address to a different server, along with all your followers and who you follow across the Mastadon Fediverse, that's as simple as a file import and export on the server itself through the web interface. 

Mastodon clients and the Web UX

For feature completeness, the web UX for each server is the best way to use Mastodon, especially if you use a desktop computer or a laptop. As of this writing, the main codebase was pending an upgrade to version 4.0, which includes new features such as automatic post translation and better post discovery through hashtags, among other things. 

Know that upgrading to 4.0 from 3.5.3 is at the discretion of each server operator so your experience may vary -- mastodon.social, for example, is on 4.0 release candidate because Rothko himself runs it, so it may take some time before you can get all the features implemented in your community. Some communities no longer accept direct signups due to their server load or are currently invite-only, such as mastodon.social.

Within the web UX, which has a simple layout and an "advanced" multi-column layout that resembles TweetDeck, you can interact with other users, configure your user profile, and import and export follow lists. 

As it relates to who you follow on Twitter and how it maps to Mastadon, this is currently a fluid situation, but tools exist to make the transition easier, such as debirdify, which will search your Twitter account for other accounts you follow using the API and match it with corresponding Mastodon accounts. You can then download .CSV files that you can easily import into the UX. There are also some sites hosting large lists of original verified Twitter users with large followings, such as Fedified, that you can export and follow en masse, as well as a big spreadsheet of journalists maintained by Tim Chambers, which you can download as an importable .CSV from boskee.co.uk.

There are also several Mastodon clients for smartphones and tablets, such as the official client for iOS and Android, as well as 3rd-party open source clients such as Metatext developed by Metabolist for the Open Collective (by far my favorite and most actively developed of this bunch) and also paid clients. Keep in mind that none of these have all the Web UX features, and they differ from client to client in their UX and what features work.

The Mastodonians themselves

The population of the Mastadon Fediverse is a growing and fluid one that is undergoing a great deal of change in such a short period, so naturally, this is as disruptive for the old-timers on the platform as it is for the newcomers that are setting up shop as a result of a mass Twitter exodus among certain populations, such as journalists and those who can see the writing on the wall for the "birdsite," as Twitter is frequently called. 

Also: Little blue check mark? No, what the web needs is autonomy

Many old-timers on various servers see the rapid growth of Mastodon as a good thing and have welcomed newcomers with open arms. In contrast, others see Twitter emigres as an extant threat to the culture they have cultivated for years. This includes wanting more people to use CWs for the most innocuous of subjects and a dislike for those who wish to identify themselves as verified by external sources and bringing their followers with them, as well as any potential monetization and advertising that they may have engaged in on Twitter.

Should you move to Mastodon?

So if you have a Twitter account, should you migrate over to Mastodon? I don't have an easy answer for that because it isn't a replacement for Twitter; it's something entirely different. The biggest challenge to overcome for the end-user is choosing what server they want to live on in the first place, but once you do that, the user experience is not so different that you cannot overcome the learning curve after a few hours of use. 

Rebuilding your list of people to follow is obviously a pain because this migration is still in progress and will last for months -- if not longer -- but the tools that have been provided now to accomplish this are actually easy to deal with short of an automatic process. It's unlikely we will ever get that from Mastodon.

Most importantly, you need to figure out if you want to be on something completely distributed and at the mercy (and budgetary restrictions) of individual server administrators and not a centralized (and monolithic), high-performance environment with a consistent set of policies (though does that even describe Twitter anymore?). But it is wild, fun, and certainly very engaging, and I intend to spend more time on it.

Have you moved to a Mastodon server yet? Talk Back (at @jperlow@journa.host) and let me know.

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