Is Mastodon The Future Of Social Media?
With tech giants like Meta and Twitter in a free fall, is the future of social media a decentralized platform no one really owns?
It’s already being called The Great Twitter Migration. It’s got its own hashtag (#twittermigration) and everything. A rather unprecedented exodus from one micro-blogging platform to another, on a scale we’ve never really seen before. A perfect storm of sorts, that includes the ongoing decay and demise of some legacy social media platforms such as Meta (Facebook and Instagram), as well as the purchase and inadvertent dismantling of Twitter by the billionaire Elon Musk.
Even for the most courageous and curious among us, change is hard. Learning new things and getting outside of our comfort zones takes a lot of energy, especially if you’re a committed introvert like yours truly. I’m also getting a little long in the tooth to keep bouncing from one platform to the next. I’m running out of moves, I think. At some point, I may just find myself homeless—from a social media standpoint.
In an emergency, if someone yells, “Come this way! I know a way out!” it’s pretty typical for almost everyone to follow the leader. It’s hard to know exactly who opened the floodgates, but for me, it was learning about this new platform called Mastodon. Only it turns out Mastodon wasn’t really all that new after all, and it’s possible it’s only a fraction of the people on social media are really going anywhere.
But sometimes, you just have to stumble around in the dark for a bit to see what’s out there. So, that’s what I did. I had mixed results.
Welcome To The Fediverse
As a portmanteau of Federation and Universe, The Fediverse is a collection of interconnected servers that are used primarily to host a micro-blogging platform. While each server (or “instance”) is entirely independent of the others, they are all able to communicate by using the same open-source software called ActivityPub.
For those old enough to remember the early days of the internet, this is basically what it was. A bunch of computer servers around the world, all using the same protocols so they could communicate with each other using simple software tools. The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to understand the technology involved to understand that it’s more or less how the internet works anyway.
If the Fediverse is the universe, the solar systems are made of smaller networks such as Pleroma (2016), Friendica (2010), and the largest and most popular one, Mastodon (2016). Each network is made up of even smaller entities called Servers or Instances. They are often categorized by region, country, language, or common interest. Some are fairly large, while others might host a few people. The server that I’m on is specifically dedicated to journalists and news hounds, and is called newsie.social.
Each server is owned and operated by a single user or collective that funds and maintains the server. Users sign up or apply to become part of a server that best suits them, and this gives them access to the entire Fediverse. For the most part, it doesn’t matter what server you sign up with. Frankly, the smaller, the better. Size is not necessarily a benefit in this environment, and can sometimes be a hindrance.
Because the entire network is based on open-source architecture and protocols, there are a variety of readers (software) you can use to navigate the network. But they all allow you to have a feed similar to Twitter, where you can post short messages, images, GIFs, and video, and read the posts of others. Whereas Twitter started with only 140 characters before expanding to 280, Mastodon allows for a 500-character limit in most instances.
Mastodon was launched in October 2016 by Eugen Rochko, a 29-year-old German engineer who is the CEO and lone employee of the nonprofit organization Mastodon gGmbH. Rochko created the company after becoming disillusioned with Twitter but realizing he wanted to continue to be able to share short messages with friends and that maybe that privilege should not be solely in the hands of a single person or corporation.
You’re probably aware of the Mastodon platform, even if you think you’ve only just heard of it. The former president of the United States has his own social media platform, “Truth Social,” which is running a Mastodon server; it’s just not federated, meaning it is an enclosed, standalone system that doesn’t talk to other networks or servers. For comparison, Truth Social has about half a million daily users.
In October, Mastodon had 4.5 million user accounts, a far cry from Twitter’s reported 400 million users. But since Elon Musk announced he was buying Twitter, and then again when he laid off half the staff, new users have jumped over 500,000 users since October 27, with over a million active daily users. This is significant in the world of social media, but still amounts to a drop in the bucket. Facebook has roughly 2 billion active daily users. Twitter has a little over 200 million. This move isn’t exactly going to change the world just yet.
But the difference is, that for a platform like Twitter, where 90% of the content on the site comes from just 10% of its users, it might not take much to change the entire dynamic. If journalists, media outlets, celebrities, and other influencers decide to jump ship, the tipping point for moving a mass of people from one platform to another could actually be rather small. Could a small group lead a massive exodus?
Healthy Communities Don’t Scale Up
When I was growing up, my family was part of an evangelical church that was so successful it kept spinning off new branches. The founders were big believers that in order to maintain any sort of spiritual health in a community, the core had to be the health and proliferation of small groups. Sunday services were not the point of the entire exercise, but merely a way to bring all the small groups together once a week for fellowship, teaching, and prayer.
Once a church got too big, they would choose some young pastor to take a small group off and start a new church. The church was called New Life, and before long, there were a dozen or more churches that had sprung from this one. They were not affiliated in any official way other than they all belonged to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a Protestant denomination.
I no longer attend church, but I’ve always agreed with the theory that communities can only scale up to a certain point, after which they become unmanageable. This is likely true of most organizations, where at the very least, they become less efficient or, in many cases, collapse under their own weight.
The potential upside for building networks of smaller, independent servers, all using an open-source protocol, is significant. Until we got sucked into being siloed for profit, that was precisely the idea behind the internet in the first place. The idea that no one person or entity should own or control the sharing of information should be fundamental to our understanding of democracy and human rights.
A Clash Of Cultures
There is a culture clash currently happening between the small enclave of users who had previously been using the Fediverse to escape what they view as the corruption of social media by corporations and society at large, and the significantly larger wave of new people looking for an escape plan from Twitter. The great Twitter migration.
The existing group views this as an invasion and is none too pleased with it. It’s seen as more of an invading horde than a welcome addition. One user described it like being on the train, having a quiet discussion with a few friends when a whole mass of football hooligans gets on board and starts loudly questioning everything.
You could almost excuse the established community for being taken aback by this sudden change in their environment, but their reaction has often been to demand that everyone comply with the existing culture and follow a list of arbitrary and subjective rules, rather than figure out a way to co-exist.
My experience with the Old Guard (OG) has not been pleasant. This is a small community that has no interest in changing and resents the newcomers. They talk about themselves as if they’re an indigenous population who has been living in paradise only to find themselves invaded by marauding colonists from an evil empire.
This reminds me of a type of fragile nerd culture that exists which is used to everyone walking on eggshells in order to appease the lowest common denominator. The overarching goal of the entire enterprise seems to be to offend no one. The terminology is taken straight from liberal arts college campuses. Lots of talk of consent, triggering, and inclusion. But rather than being about protecting the rights of individuals from the state, it’s all about protecting the feelings of individuals from the larger community.
If you’re not overly fond of ultra-sensitive people who find fault in all but the most politically correct usage of all terms, you’re going to struggle here. I’ve seen complaints about calling the new users migrants or refugees, of not adding alt text to images so blind people can follow along, and of not being appropriately sensitive to everyone and everything. There is a lot of discussion about your obligations to appease everyone else.
The biggest issue seems to surround the use of CWs, or Content Warnings. This is a tool whereby you can hide the bulk of a post behind a button that says “Read More” with a header that describes the nature of the triggering material below. This is not a terrible idea if you want to hide truly disturbing concepts or imagery, such as war, sexual assault, murder, or other highly-sensitive topics. But its use seems to have gotten out of hand.
The OGs insist that anything having to do with journalism, politics, or news has to be hidden behind a CW, or it risks terrorizing its users. We’re not just talking about graphic imagery here. If you’re saying so-and-so won an election, they don’t want to even see it because A) they don’t like politics, or B) they don’t give a shit about your politics.
Despite the fact that Mastodon has a significant filtering feature that gives users incredible leeway in deciding what they want to see, the consensus is that the obligation is on the author of the post to protect everyone else from anything they might find distasteful.
Does this apply to everyone? No, it does not. It’s a free space to talk about whatever you like, but apparently only as long as they are the approved topics of discussion. Why politics and news have been deemed worthy of shame is not entirely clear, but there is definitely a tremendous amount of animosity toward those in the media at play.
The very idea of this would be foreign to most people who’ve ever used social media, and simply antithetical to anyone working in journalism. It’s a form of censorship, no matter what you call it, and ethically dubious for many. Some have gone so far as saying that it’s white liberalism run amuck and that it discourages minorities from expressing their real-world experiences by trying to suppress content that is not sufficiently upbeat.
Suffice it to say, for a decentralized federation of independent communities, there sure are a lot of rules. God forbid you question them or fail to follow them. They’ll block you, mute you, sever ties with your server, or simply harass you until you leave.
I started out thinking it was like camp, but before long, the children of the corn appeared to be carrying knives and looking for trouble.
The New Game Looks A Lot Like The Old One
If you were around, and online, in the 90s, your experience of using the internet will feel very familiar here. It’s a much more intimate experience, as well as a little messier. The entire platform was designed to be interactive as opposed to performative. Think 1:1 instead of 1:1000.
There is no algorithm deciding what you see. The posts are listed in chronological order. There is no QT (Quote Tweeting). You can Favorite (Like) a post, you can Boost (RT) a post, and of course, you can respond to a post. There are all sorts of tools to filter out topics and people. You can mute accounts or servers for minutes, hours, or days. You can also create posts that self-destruct after a period of time.
From what I understand, many of the choices that were made in creating this platform were made so to avoid all the mistakes that have made so much of social media unbearable. Everything from personal safety to creating a more intimate, harmonious environment.
One of the most significant is that with a smaller community, each server is able to police its own content and users much more quickly, effectively, and efficiently. If someone starts posting racist or hateful posts, harassing users, or otherwise being a nuisance, they are quickly reported, and then either reprimanded or removed. It’s an actual person, most likely a volunteer, and not a robot who doesn’t understand sarcasm.
But what struck me most when I first arrived, was how small and intimate it felt. Especially with everyone else being new and lost, it felt a lot like the first day of summer camp, which I’ve written about here. Basically, we were all a bunch of 12-year-olds, wandering around looking for our cabin assignments and introducing ourselves to our fellow campers while a few stoned CITs gave us the rules and told us where the mess hall was.
The Future Of Social Media
Mastodon is not the only one of its kind. It is not the first, nor will it be the last. It’s got some issues, and it will be interesting to see how the whole experiment scales—or doesn’t. But the idea of a community-funded, self-hosted platform, made up of thousands of individual cliques, certainly has a lot going for it.
It’s possible that social media will always be problematic, given human nature and the shortcomings of technology, but this might be our best shot at trying again. If we can find the right balance between rules and freedom, Independence and culture, we might be able to create something worthwhile and lasting. Or it might just be the next step in our evolution towards something yet to be invented.
Once you reach a certain age, you stop expecting everything to work, you distrust new things, and you’re skeptical of claims of utopia. It’s an honest-to-god effort to remain open, humble, and gracious.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying.