I mentioned in my Blog Resolutions 2021 post that I have become somewhat dissatisfied with the whole Twitter experience. I don’t see a lot of blog traffic coming from there and I don’t get any real reader interaction at all. What I do see on Twitter is a lot of posturing and baiting. All I really want to do is announce when I post something and to address readers’ questions and feedback. Instead, more often than not, I get distracted reading others’ posts and the subsequent commentary, and pursuing pointless arguments with people who are not at all interested in hearing another point of view. This is why I started seeking other channels of communication and focusing on quality instead of quantity.
At the recommendation of a (real-life) friend, I created a Mastodon account to see what life is like on a federated social-media platform. It’s been a month, and so far, I love it! I still don’t receive a lot of feedback, but I also don’t have a huge following yet. The interactions I have had so far, though, have been much more meaningful. There is some real potential here, but perhaps I should start with a short explanation of what Mastodon is.
What is Mastodon?
In short, Mastodon is a microblogging software package that works much like Twitter. It allows you to publicly post short messages called Toots (as opposed to Tweets). Toots are limited to 500 characters and can include links and media. Unlike Twitter, Mastodon is not a private, centralized service, but is Open Source software, which means anyone can download and install it on a host. This is called an “instance” in Mastodon vernacular. While instances can operate in a stand-alone fashion, they are intended to be interconnected via the Internet, so that everyone has access to the same content across the federated platform.
The default Web interface is divided into several semi-customizable columns, so you can keep an eye on different streams of Toots called “timelines”. The “Home” timeline shows your own Toots and the Toots of those you follow. There are also columns for “Local” and “Federated” timelines that allow you to see Toots from those two scopes as well, and all timelines are filterable. Finally, there is a Notifications column that displays your Toots that have been favourited or boosted (comparable to the like and retweet functions in Twitter), as well as mentions and other information. There are also several mobile apps from which to choose, the most popular being Tootle (not sure if that is pronounced toot-ul or toot-lee).
Its also worth mentioning that Mastodon is a member of what is called the Fediverse, a collection of software platforms that communicate on a common set of protocols, such that content can be shared (to some extent) on any of the member platforms. Peertube, for example, is a federated video-sharing platform similar to YouTube. There are also multiple microblogging platforms available, so if Mastodon isn’t to your liking, it is potentially possible to reach a Mastodon audience from a different service in the Fediverse.
Your Instance Matters!
The instance you join matters — a lot! I cannot emphasize this enough. Those who say otherwise, in my opinion, do not fully grasp the concept of federation. Instances are typically themed, though some are regional. You want to sign up on an instance that includes a large(ish) number of other people who are interested in discussing the same things you are. This makes the Local timeline far more valuable. For example, as a blogger, I joined an instance for writers, so that I could converse with and learn from other writers. Trying to make good use of Mastodon by reading only the Federated timeline and all of its random posts does not seem to me to be a viable strategy. On the flip side, if the instance is reasonably small and you can be adequately engaged on the Local timeline, there is less need to follow others on the same instance and your Home timeline can remain streamlined.
It is also important to review the rules before signing up, as each instance has its own. The general understanding is that as long as you don’t break the rules of your instance, you won’t be kicked off or put in “jail” (if Mastodon even has such a function). Given what we have seen during the 2020 U.S. election season, this arrangement should have obvious benefits in terms of political free-speech over monolithic services that have the absolute power to censor any user who violates “community standards”. This is because the Mastodon user belongs to a community of peers who share the same values. The responsibility for filtering content is left with the user, and it is possible to block both individual accounts and entire instances.
There is no single, consolidated directory of instances, but there are many lists available online to help find the right instance for you. Mastodon.social is the “flagship” instance that was created by the developers of the platform and is probably still the largest with almost 540K registered users (~12.3% of the Mastodon population); however, that instance is no longer accepting new users.
The Big Picture
If you think Mastodon is small, then I you’d be correct. There is a bot that periodically sends out a graph showing the current usage and the latest one (assuming it is accurate) shows a total of ~4.4M users and ~1,270 active instances. Compared to the reported daily Twitter usage for January of approximately 190M users, Mastodon is tiny, a mere 2.3% by comparison.
But again, what good is reach if your audience is numb to your message? Tweet overload is undoubtedly a thing. The social media scroll is a productivity killer and rarely does much for motivation. Why not join a community of people with common interests who are willing to interface with you and who will actually see your messages?
So, to be blunt, bigger isn’t always better. We humans are limited in capacity and don’t scale well. It is healthier by far to thrive in a “rightsized” pond than to merely survive in an “upsized” ocean.
The End of Twitter?
While Mastodon and the Fediverse in general appear to be a step in the right direction in solving many of the Internet’s privacy and free-speech problems, the concept is relatively new and slow to spread. The masses demand a platform that is ‘easy’ and ‘safe’ to use, and are drawn to those that are trusted by their friends, churches, and schools, by the stores where they shop, and even by their dentists and hairdressers. It’s not called “mass appeal” for nothing. And they are seemingly content with following the mainstream news outlets and their favorite celebrities, and may not be all that interested in meaningful conversations with complete strangers. And that’s ok, but it also means that Twitter and the other Big Tech platforms will continue to have a major presence in the social media marketplace. Personally, as much as I’d love to kick Twitter to the curb for (if for no other reason than) it’s lopsided censorship policies that favor only certain political ideaologies, I do see some value in keeping a token presence there, and I have established a few online relationships that I would admittedly miss if I were to leave. But, if my experience continues to go as well as it has in the past month, I will likely drop Twitter as my primary form of communication in favor of Mastodon.