Facebook and Twitter have defined a generation of the web, but free and open-source services like Ello and diaspora* have sought to provide an alternative. Mastodon is the latest contender. Named in honor of the progressive metal band, it’s an open-source, radically anticapitalist, and surprisingly mature Twitter-style platform that emphasizes openness and uses a distributed, federated platform. Unfortunately, some of its best features (ever heard of “federation” outside the realm of Star Trek before today?) are confusing to newcomers, and it certainly won’t eclipse other platforms anytime soon. It is a radical vision that suggests a different kind of internet—one that, perhaps, will gain converts.
Like Twitter, but…
Remember the term “microblogging?” Probably not. It was meant to be the general category to describe Twitter, referring to Twitter’s pithy, character-limit-enforced brevity. Considering that no other microblogging service has risen to prominence, the term has as much semantic weight as several feathers. But, in as much as anything can be a microblogging service, Mastodon is one .
Instead of Twitter’s 140 characters, however, Mastodon offers you 500. After spending nearly a decade learning to cram complex thoughts into tweets , 500 characters is almost overwhelming. Most of the time, I don’t come close to the character limit. But it is easier to express a complete, nuanced thought, without resorting to tweetstorms .
Speaking of tweets, a note on terminology: On Mastodon, individual posts are called “toots” (not “tweets”) and reposting someone else’s toot is “boosting” (not ” retweeting” ). In a jab at Twitter’s decision to replace the favoriting star with a heart, Mastodon uses a star, so you can show your appreciation for a toot. I’ve been using Mastodon for four months, and I still think “toots” sounds hilarious.
Nintendo Miitomo (for iPhone)
Twitter Periscope (for iPhone)
Emojli (for iPhone)
LinkedIn (for Android)
Facebook Messenger (for iPhone)
Workplace by Facebook
In most other respects, Mastodon is very much like Twitter (Free at Apple.com) . You follow other users to have their toots flow into your feed. You can respond to a toot and message other users publicly with an @ reply. Placing a hashtag (#) in front of a word creates an ad-hoc category that you can click on to find all other instances of that hashtag. These are features that Twitter users take for granted, but that actually didn’t launch with the service. Being designed from the ground up in a post-Twitter world means that Mastodon’s creator can deliver a product that benefits from Twitter’s years of evolution.
Some features from Twitter haven’t made it to Mastodon. Polls, quote-tweets, and analytics are just a dream. While you can view a toot and its responses at a static URL, just like on Twitter, it’s harder to take action outside the web-based Mastodon client. Boosting and faving, for example, are difficult from a toot’s static webpage. Searching, too, is difficult. I spent an hour searching through a timeline for a specific toot. Mastodon is surprisingly smooth and robust for a homebrew project, but the cracks show in cases like this.
Behind the Toots
What really sets Mastodon apart isn’t the toots or the boosts, it’s the code. Mastodon is an open-source project, the code being freely available on GitHub . This means that Mastodon benefits from transparency, with volunteers working to add new features and watching out for potential problems. It’s built on the open GNU Social protocol, making it potentially interoperable with other GNU Social-based services. Your tweets and Facebook posts are bound to those respective platforms, but GNU Social has the potential to be infinitely more flexible. However, that potential hasn’t been fully realized on Mastodon.
Being open-source means Mastodon has a fundamentally different ideology than most social media services. Mastodon is intended to be free and ad-free forever. Its creator has written that this lets the people working on Mastodon focus on making it better for users, without having to bow to Mammon. There’s no data mining, no ads, and no rejiggering your timeline to show you promoted material.
Twitter and Facebook, by contrast, have made major changes to their service that were great business decisions but weren’t designed to help the user. For example, both services use algorithmically ordered feeds by default (you can deactivate this feature on both) instead of chronologically ordered feeds. Twitter and Facebook say this helps surface the most interesting content, but it also allows for ads and promoted posts to be pushed to you. As a free, not-for-profit platform that can be tweaked by anyone with the knowledge to do so, these kinds of changes are unlikely if not actually impossible in Mastodon.
Mastodon also isn’t a monolithic, single service like Twitter or Facebook. Instead, it’s distributed. Volunteers install copies of the Mastodon software on servers they operate. These are called Mastodon instances, and they all work together as a federation. It’s similar to the much-hyped, little-used diaspora* platform. You can join any instance and still be able to communicate with any other Mastodon user, regardless of the instance they’re on. I should note that the Mastodon community has generated some pretty wonderfully named instances .
Think of it like email. There are lots of places that let you create an email account, but you can send email to, and receive email from, anyone. An Outlook.com email account can talk to a Gmail account, and so on. It’s a simple concept, but one that doesn’t really jibe with the popular understanding of social networks. The Mastodon.social instance, for example, is the flagship instance of the service. It’s currently closed to new sign-ups, meaning that users have to find another instance to join. This is a high bar for entry, made worse by the sheer dearth of explanatory documentation.
One of the interesting benefits of a distributed network is that no single operator bears the brunt of hosting all Mastodon users. Instead, the computing requirements are handled by each individual instance. That’s allowed Mastodon to remain mostly operable, even after experiencing a massive spike in popularity.
The confusion about where Mastodon “is” is only compounded by usernames. If you and another person are on the same instance, you can @ reply them as you would on Twitter. If that person is on a different instance, you have to include the username and instance. So @maxeddy becomes @ [email protected] . With the email analogy in mind, this doesn’t seem so strange but, again, it’s sure to be confusing to anyone more familiar with Twitter. Mastodon does autocomplete usernames, but it helps to know a user’s instance.
This raises the issue of verification. Is @ [email protected] the real Max Eddy? What about @ [email protected] ? The blue verified checkmark on Twitter might be an artificial tool of class construction (and probably data mining), but it also helps ensure you’re talking to the right person. And, more importantly, that the wrong person can’t easily pretend to be you. Without a rock-solid method of verification, Mastodon isn’t likely to attract the celebrity interest that drove the early adoption of Twitter. But that seems to suit Mastodon just fine.
Behold, the Mammoth
Most of my time testing I was Mastodon I did so via its web interface, which I used on a MacBook Air running Google’s Chrome browser. Because it’s web based, you can access it on virtually any device. As long as there’s a web browser, you’re good to go.
There are a handful of mobile clients available for Mastodon, Tusky for Android and Amaraoq for iPhone being the most notable. None of these third-party clients have brought anything new to the table, however. There are also no desktop clients as of this writing. While that’s frustrating in the short term, one of my big complaints about Twitter was how it virtually destroyed its third-party developer community. That seems unlikely to be the case with Mastodon.
When you log into the Mastodon instance you call home, you see four vertical columns. The layout is very similar to Tweetdeck, a piece of software whose interface I frankly loathe. Still, it gets the job done, and Mastodon’s take is easy on the eyes using flatter colors than Tweetdeck. That’s more than I could say about Ello . While the Mastodon interface resembles Tweetdeck, it only lets you manage one account. If you want to toot from another instance, you need to log in there, too.
Note that some instances might be tweaked to look different or use different icons. One admin I follow on Mastodon replaced the Toot button with a Florps button. And so it was law—at least on that instance.
The far-left column has a text box where you can compose your 500-character toots. There are buttons for adding emoji, hiding text behind a content warning (more on this later), and adding pictures. This last feature was the only one that gave me trouble, as Mastodon appears to use some image compression on large images that noticably distorts colors. I only had this problem for one of the images I uploaded, however.
A Globe button lets you choose the level of visibility of your toot, ranging from Public on all instances to Private, which hides your message except for the specific users you designate. You can also lock a post to only be visible to your followers, or set it to not appear on any public timeline. This is more of a Facebook-style tool, and offers far more flexibility than Twitter, which is all-or-nothing when it comes to tweet visibility.
Moving toward the right, the next column is the Home section, which shows toots from users you’ve followed. The next column shows Notifications. Settings tabs at the top of these columns let you change how they function. One noticeable option is the ability to shut off boosts and replies from appearing in your Home feed. Twitter lets you suppress user’s retweets, but you have to adjust those settings on the user page for that Twitter user. Mastodon takes that power and gives it back to the people.
The far-right panel is a multiuse space, with shortcuts to toots you’ve favorited, a list of users you’ve blocked, and your account settings. It also lets you view your Local timeline and the Federated timeline. The Local timeline shows toots on your particular instance, sort of like the neighborhood news. The Federated timeline is the Mastodon fire hose. It’s everything.
This distinction between the Home timeline of people you follow, the Local timeline, and the Federated timeline make Mastodon instances all the more important. You and your friends or local community could create your own instance and it would be your Local timeline. You’d still be connected to the rest of Mastodon through the Federated timeline, and could follow any Mastodon user in any instance and have their toots appear in your home feed. It’s a completely unique experience, and one I am still trying to wrap my head around after using Mastodon for some time.
So far, Mastodon doesn’t talk with Twitter. You won’t have an easy time finding tweeting friends who have jumped to Mastodon, although there are third-party tools that can help . That said, I’ve taken some real pleasure in browsing through the local and federated feeds, talking (politely!) with randos, and feeling out the Mastodon experience. It’s new territory, and there’s a real sense of excitement exploring it.
Also missing are some of the fringe services found on the established social networks. There’s nothing like Periscope or the excellent Facebook Messenger. Mastodon comes close to providing an experience similar to Twitter’s Direct Message groups, but it’s not as robust. That’s not necessarily a problem for Mastodon users. You could, for example, delete your Facebook account and continue to use Messenger quite happily. Then again, the kind of person attracted to Mastodon in the first place seems more likely to be a Signal (Free at Apple.com) user.
Hell Is Other People
Mastodon launched quietly about a year ago, but exploded in recent weeks after being hailed as a new haven from the abuse and Nazi egg accounts that have come to define modern Twitter. But I’m quick to caution anyone who sees Mastodon as “like Twitter, but for not-awful people.” There’s nothing about Mastodon, aside from its comparably low user base, that makes it resistant to the siren song of internet bullshit. Even as I saw new users embrace the platform this past week and make their inaugural toots, I also saw some of the same combative, angry, vitriol that’s on Twitter or Facebook these days.
The problem, in a word, is people. But there are a few things about Mastodon that might counteract some of the acid in modern electronic discourse. Mastodon’s developer Eugen Rochko wrote on Medium :
“Very early on in the development of Mastodon I’ve decided that centralization and unexpected algorithmic changes were not the only one of Twitter’s problems. Harassment and tools to deal with it have always been lacking on Twitter’s end.”
When you block someone on Mastodon, you don’t see their posts under any circumstances. Not when they message you, not when someone you follow (and haven’t blocked) mentions them, not when their messages are boosted into your timeline. You can also mute users or words, if you simply want to see less of them.
Mastodon also comes with a Content Warning tool. Click it, and your toot will be hidden behind an opaque block that other users must click before your message appears. You can customize the text that appears over the block, so you can post a trigger warning, set up a punchline, or warn people against spoilers. It’s a flexible tool, and one that seems to have been embraced by Mastodon’s early settlers.
Because there’s no monolithic structure to Mastodon, the administrators of instances can take action against other instances. An admin could block an entire instance, for example, if it became the source of too much strife for users. Still, all of this requires active participation from communities of users and admins, which is quite different from the rather passive experience of using Facebook or Twitter. No one said Utopias came easily.
Building a Better Web
The limitations of Mastodon are undeniable. It’s unlikely to get celebrity interest, and, given that one of the most popular Mastodon instances is called Marxism.party, it’s unlikely to gain traction among brands and advertisers. Its federated nature means that it’s hard for people used to the “big room” feel of Facebook and Twitter to understand, or even sign up. It’s in desperate need of onboarding materials.
But some of those limitations come from its greatest strengths. Being federated means that the service has scaled surprisingly well, and it affords users the opportunity to create real digital communities, as well as create and enforce different rules on different instances. Open-source projects don’t make money, but they do attract motivated volunteers. Mastodon has already revved in the course of my review, and it offers surprisingly mature features for a homebrew service.
There’s also an important sense of buy-in with Mastodon. People are coming to the service not to recreate what they have on Twitter or Facebook, but to try and build something different. Maybe it’s the powerful blocking and banning tools, maybe it’s the sense of community fostered by individual instances and an emphasis on users owning their own identity and their data. Or maybe it’s testing the limits of dank memes presented in 500 characters. Mastodon isn’t going to replace Twitter any time soon, but it presents a vision of what a free, not-for-profit, people-powered social network can look like. It may not be as busy as Twitter, but I’m rather smitten with it.
Like What You’re Reading?
Sign up for Lab Report to get the latest reviews and top product advice delivered right to your inbox.
Thanks for signing up!
Your subscription has been confirmed. Keep an eye on your inbox!
- Requiem for a Dream
- Insider: IU's veterans must make sure this doesn't happen again
- The possibilities for Indiana sports run the gamut in 2018 and beyond
- Concerts in Phoenix in July 2018: Shania Twain, 311 and the Offspring, Supersuckers
Mastodon Review have 2906 words, post on www.pcmag.com at September 30, 2021. This is cached page on Law Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.