A few weeks ago I created an account on Mastodon and have been trying it out as an alternative to Twitter (and I suppose Facebook, which I don't use). I'm not leaving Dreamwidth, my friends here, and DW's support for longer-form posts; DW and "social platforms" are good at different things.
As I mentioned in a previous post, the part of the Mastodon community (-ies) that I've encountered so far feels to me like the earlier days of the Internet. It feels more friendly, helpful, and supportive than even pre-Musk Twitter (driven by algorithms and ad sales). It kind of reminds me of some of the more social Usenet newgroups of yore, like the Rialto and alt.callahans.
It's different, and different takes time to get used to, and different is sometimes better and sometimes worse. And getting set up isn't going to be as easy as going to Twitter or Facebook and clicking "sign up".
barriers to entry
I actually looked at Mastodon back in the spring, when the Twitter thing was starting to happen, but I bounced. You see, Mastodon isn't a service, like Twitter or Facebook is; it's a federated platform. The best analogy I've seen to setting yourself up on Mastodon is getting an email address. You can get email services from lots of places and they all inter-operate. Choose Gmail or outlook.com or your ISP's bundled account or your own server or anything else; no matter what you choose, you'll be able to send and receive email. Email providers aren't all the same and you might find your choices have consequences -- Gmail silently nukes certain messages and you'll never know, and aol.com is oft seen as a bad neighborhood. You choose an email provider, follow its rules, and deal with its issues -- and if you decide to move later, with some disruption you can. Your choice matters some, but it's not permanent.
Mastodon servers are like that. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of Mastodon servers out there, and there are lists of recommended servers that you can find with a search for something like "find mastodon server", and from the outside it can be overwhelming. Back in the spring I saw that I had to Make Decisions first, and I didn't know enough to make decisions, and I hadn't seen the email analogy, and I was only casually looking and wasn't invested...and I walked away.
All of that is true today, too, except that more of my friends were moving there so I had a reason to dig a little deeper.
I found one of those pages of "50 servers you might consider" or some such, many of which are aligned to particular interests like Linux or open-source software or furries or art, and started browsing things I wouldn't mind being affiliated with. (Your Mastodon server, like your email provider, shows up in your "address", so there's an appearance aspect to it.) Servers can have their own moderation rules and terms of service and those are things I care about, so I read those pages on short-list candidates, eliminating some by what I found there. I identified a server that aligned well with my interests, my views on moderation, and the expected local conversation (more about that in a bit), and applied for an account.
Yeah, "applied" in this case. Some servers are totally open -- anyone can create an account. Some were but then Twitter started to implode and servers that had had 5000 people were seeing tens of thousands of new accounts and buckling under the load, so they went to a wait-list model. The server I joined asked for a short "why do you want to join this server?" message.
There are some huge, general-purpose, open servers. I recommend against trying to join them now. Across the network of all public Mastodon servers, there were something like a million new accounts in the first week of the Musk era. These servers aren't usually being run by well-funded megacorps but by mostly volunteers trying to keep up with demand.
Mastodon isn't a single site or a single thing. It'd decentralized and distributed. "Mastodon" is the name of the software. Strictly speaking, when you join a Mastodon server you are joining a server that is part of "the fediverse" -- "fed" like in "federated". People talk about being "on Mastodon", and what they mean is "on one of these servers", and sometimes a well-meaning person tries to correct your terminology, and I want to give y'all a heads-up.
The fediverse has other "things" besides Mastodon. There's a whole big set of open-source projects for sharing different kinds of things across a network, with an interface called ActivityPub at the center of it. I don't know very much about that stuff yet.
So, technically: there is the fediverse, and Mastodon servers are part of it, and so are other things. But there's no mastodon.com that runs it all, like twitter.com or facebook.com. Remember: like email, not like corporate social media.
(There is a mastodon.com. Of course there is; every URL you can imagine that consists of a single English word is claimed by someone. This one is a forestry site.)
sounds like a lot of work; how's this better than Twitter?
Still with me?
On the surface Mastodon looks kind of like Twitter, federation aside. You can see short posts from other people in a feed, and you can interact with them (liking them, replying to them, etc). There's a big difference, though, and I think it's an important difference that helps with constructive discourse instead of amplifying the loudest people.
Twitter creates, and Google+ after the early days created, a "feed" for you, curated by an algorithm. I don't know how G+'s worked; on Twitter, a post (tweet) is more likely to show up in your feed if it's posted by someone with a lot of reach (the reach get reacher), or if it has a lot of likes (encourages socks, bots, and echo chambers), or if it's somehow connected to someone you follow. That last seems to be the least important, anecdotally. I almost never use my Twitter feed because it's full of stuff I don't care about. In Musk's Twitter, rumor has it that paid members also get substantial priority.
Mastodon gives you multiple feeds (I'll get back to that), and the "algorithm" is "reverse chronological", like it is here on DW and probably on every blogging site you've ever used. You see stuff as it was posted, not something yanked out of its context from three days ago and pushed at you now, and not yanked out of its context of all the other conversation happening around it. Nothing has priority; you get what you asked for, in order. I've found the things I read and interact with here on DW to be much more thoughtful, nuanced, and civil than what I see on Twitter (granted post length is a factor too), and so far that's what I'm seeing on Mastodon too. (BTW, posts on Mastodon are by default 500 characters, larger than Twitter, and it's a server setting. I've seen one server that lets you use 5000 characters so long as you put most of it behind a cut tag.)
Mastodon also gives you multiple feed options, so you can choose the size of your fire hose. You can see just posts from (or boosted) by the people you follow, or just posts from your local server (regardless of who you follow), or a "federated" view that reaches out to other servers and does, um, something based on the people you follow and their connections. I haven't explored that one much yet. It's big. But it's still reverse chronological, no prioritization, no buying or shouting your way into top position.
I think that local feed will end up being pretty important. If you choose a server that aligns with some of your interests, then that "local" view can connect you with people who share those interests. Because people are usually multi-faceted and the instance is a home, not a topic restriction, you'll see a variety of content from the people there. It's not like Usenet newsgroups or Codidact communities where you can only talk about this thing here and not that thing, but there's a rough sort based on some shared interest, if you want to use that. (Of course, if you want to create multiple accounts on multiple servers, for example to separate personal and professional content, you can do that too.)
I'm being an armchair sociologist here with too few observations and no data, but I think this "local community of multi-faceted people" aspect will act somewhat like physical neighborhoods (back when we socialized with our neighbors, but maybe your barony or congregation is a model too) or like the more social Usenet groups. Because these online neighborhoods aren't bounded by geography or (probably) by culture, the people I see on that local feed are more heterogeneous, more diverse, more "like me in some ways, very unlike me in others". I hope easy interaction with that community will help build connections and resist polarization. I'm game to try the experiment, at least. On Twitter, only the loudest (and probably most extreme) "people not like me" would make it to the feed, the feed that was overrun with topics I don't care about from people I don't know so I never looked at it anyway -- but if I did look, I wouldn't find the "regular people", only the people with big fan followings.
(Aside: a week or so ago I came across a server for my city. So physical neighborhoods might be represented too.)
boosts and retweets
On Twitter, you can "retweet" something, which means "show this to my followers". On Twitter you can also retweet and add your own message. If you've seen tweets that embed other tweets, that's what's happening. So you might see Musk's latest policy flip-flop and retweet to your followers, adding a snarky comment of your own, and your retweet will be its own tweet, not part of the thread of replies to the original tweet.
On Mastodon you can "boost" something, which is like that first kind of retweet. I saw something that I wanted to add my own message to (further support in my case, not snark), and I couldn't figure out how to do it -- the "boost" button doesn't have an option for adding a comment. On investigation, I learned that this was an intentional design choice.
My initial reaction was "huh, weird". Then I thought "ok, maybe if you can't easily snipe at people you'll be less likely to snipe, so maybe that improves the climate?" and that sounded like a good idea. But since then I've seen more cases where it would have been helpful to either add something (as the booster) or comment to the booster not the original poster (as a reader). So I'm not sure how I feel about this now.
You can always do this manually, of course -- you can link to anything, after all. You won't get the fancy rendering, that thing that looks like an embedded tweet on Twitter. But if you decide to just boost something, instead of creating your own post, then people who want to respond to you can't. Like, if you didn't know that that thing you boosted has been debunked or has more context or something like that... no easy way to do that.
Mastodon, and the fediverse in general, exudes a scrappy "do more for yourself" mindset. There's no single entity making decisions for you -- what you see, how it's moderated, how the software works, etc. Servers are run by ordinary people who make those decisions for their servers only. Norms can vary. I expect that the most successful servers operate by some form of consensus, either up front or emergent (as people opt in or out). Servers can block other servers, so there's some level of shared baseline to operate in polite society. You can set up your own neo-Nazi server if you want to, but you might find that a lot of people don't want to talk with you.
I've seen the fediverse compared to anarchy (you and those with shared goals can do whatever you want), and I've also seen it compared to fiefdoms (somebody controls your server and it's probably not you). I don't think it's a fiefdom in the way that Twitter is; first, you can move to a different server, and second, that you can set up your own server for you and your friends mitigates if you don't like any of the options. A serf can't just say "well I'll take that land over there and do my own thing", because all land is ultimately owned by someone. On the Internet, you can buy a domain and set up shop -- the space isn't wholly owned. But whether you're a serf or an Internet denizen unhappy with the existing servers, you have to do work -- setting up your own place isn't free. And that effort can be a substantial barrier, too. So it's not a complete mitigation for networks with problematic owners, but I think we'll be better off on the fediverse than on Twitter or Facebook, which feels like an even bigger fiefdom to me. Time will tell.