In Defense of Mastodon

Artwork of Mastodon

Elon Musk officially completed his purchase of Twitter on October 28, and everything went to hell remarkably quickly. The move has led to the open-source Mastodon network gaining ground, and interestingly, plenty of criticism. I don’t think all the criticism is warranted, though.

Putting aside Twitter as a business, which is a whole other topic, Twitter as a platform is visibly disintegrating. Twitter has never been a perfect software product — one of the few actions of the last Twitter CEO was rolling out NFT support — or the gold standard for content moderation. Musk has now fired most of the people responsible for running Twitter’s server infrastructure, turning the website into the equivalent of a Chevy Tahoe driving on a highway with Adaptive Cruise Control enabled. It will keep coasting for a while, but features are already breaking, and it’s going to get worse. Musk also fired employees responsible for fighting misinformation and maintaining Twitter’s accessibility features.

As nearly everyone with at least three brain cells predicted, Musk has also started allowing far-right figures back onto the platform who were previously banned — seemingly without that moderation council of people with “widely diverse viewpoints” he promised in October. Jordan Peterson and Babylon Bee, who were both suspended for repeated transphobic “jokes,” are back on Twitter. Donald Trump’s account was also restored as the result of a Twitter poll on Musk’s account. Andrew Tate, an influencer who frequently promotes misogyny, racism, sexism, and get-rich-quick scams, has also returned to the platform. He’s still banned from YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitch.

It’s abundantly clear that Musk wants to turn Twitter into an unrestricted playground for shitty right-wing people. That might be a winning strategy for Twitter to become more recognizable — we all saw how often Twitter was mentioned in the news cycle during Trump’s presidency — but it’s not really a place I want to be anymore. That’s a shame, considering I’ve met many long-term friends there, and Twitter’s global search has been invaluable over the years for finding an audience for my projects and research for work.

I’ve been using Mastodon for years, and it just so happens that it became one of the most popular alternatives in the wake of Musk buying Twitter. Mastodon gained one million active users in a week, and the bot account “Mastodon Users” has been sharing a continued steady rise — it’s still reporting around 2-3,000 new accounts each hour, with around 7.5 million accounts total across the whole network (not to be confused with active accounts).

Mastodon screenshot
Mastodon with the simplified desktop interface

Mastodon is an open-source defederated social media network. Unlike most other platforms, the network is comprised of different servers (also sometimes called “instances”) where people can make accounts. Generally speaking, anyone on any server can follow anyone on any other server, because they all use the same ActivityPub protocol for communication. It’s just like how I can send an email to a Yahoo address with my Gmail.

The network has gone through rapid growing pains. Pretty much every server has had some downtime to accommodate upgrades, while others have permanently closed public registrations. Many more servers have been created, though, and moderation generally seems to be holding up. Many of the people I talked to on Twitter have moved over, or at least are watching both places now.

The Problems with Mastodon

The complexity of separate servers is probably the most common complaint with Mastodon, which is valid to an extent. I believe most people online have a base understanding of separate-but-connected systems (phone networks, email, etc.), they’re just not used to applying it to social media. I’ve seen many “normal people won’t get this” takes, and while the demographics of the platform still lean heavily into tech people, I have seen plenty of people using it who don’t appear to be (or interested) in the tech industry. There’s also an increasing number of celebrities on the platform who I would not associate with technology at all, like Kathy Griffin and James Gunn.

Mastodon screenshot
Mastodon with the advanced desktop interface

Another complaint I’ve seen in a few places is that Mastodon is doomed because it’s not owned by a corporation, and most servers run off donations instead of more profitable advertising. Will some server admins shut down their servers in a few months, when donations can’t cover the hosting bills, or they don’t have enough free time anymore? Possibly, and there are examples of that, like mastodon.technology shutting down a few months ago. Most free software projects and services are never profitable — none of mine are — but they continue trucking on because it’s not about making money. The maintainers do it for fun, or as a learning experience for similar server work, or because they feel they are providing a public service, or all the above. That’s not setting up a product for success, but it is a model that has worked for decades in other areas of software.

A few people have also brought up Mastodon’s “support” of far-right social media networks as a reason to avoid the platform. To be clear, the Mastodon project does not officially support any servers other than its own: mastodon.social and mastodon.online. The only connection is that Gab and Trump-owned Truth Social are based on Mastodon’s publicly-available code. Truth Social isn’t connected to Mastodon’s cross-server federated network (the “Fediverse”) at all, and for the brief time Gab allowed external communication, nearly every Mastodon server and application completely blocked it.

There is a valid argument that a Mastodon server is more likely to suddenly vanish one day than Twitter or Facebook, wiping away all of someone’s data and following in the process. You can download backups of your data at any time, and asking people to follow a backup account on another server is also an option. If the server gives enough of a heads up that it is shutting down, as mastodon.technology did in its final days of operation, you can move your followers and data to a new account.

Tinfoil Hat Time

Without going too far into Alex-Jones-tinfoil-hat territory, I do think at least some criticism against Mastodon has been for personal or self-serving reasons, rather than purely logical reasons.

The most transparent example of this I have seen was from Occupy Democrats, a left-wing media outlet that is mostly known for just publishing social media bait. For a while, the organization was claiming that Mastodon was “hosting” Truth Social — the original tweet is gone, but others repeating the statement are still in the account’s retweets.

BREAKING NEWS: A bombshell report
reveals that Trump's Truth Social app is being hosted on Mastodon, sending Twitter refugees flocking to pro-democracy Twitter alternative
@TribelSocial. RT TO SPREAD THE
WORD!
I sadly didn’t think to archive this tweet when it was still live, so enjoy this screenshot from my Twitter app before it refreshed.

The group’s Twitter posts recommended people use Tribel Social instead, which is owned by the same organization. The Twitter account has deleted those posts, but continues to push people to Tribel without publishing a corrected statement. I asked the Tribel account why it was continuing to say Mastodon supported Truth Social, and it blocked me.

On a smaller scale, I’ve seen a few people get to the part in the signup process where you have to select a server, and then just give up and claim the platform is too complicated. I totally understand not wanting to deal with that. What’s not understandable when people (not naming names, I’m not trying to harass specific individuals) use their confusion as a reason why Mastodon will never catch on with anyone. It’s literally catching on right now. Will every person on Earth use Mastodon someday? No, but Twitter isn’t anywhere near the most popular social media network either. The “Mastodon is too complex” argument has spawned some excellent memes, though.

I think some of this, especially for “influencers” or influencer-adjacent people, boils down to self-preservation. If you’re on social media primarily for clout, you don’t want to have to start an audience from scratch on another platform. That’s the same reason legacy car makers avoided electric vehicles for so long — why invest in something new (EVs) when you’ve already spent years optimizing and building the old thing (gas engines)? Many larger accounts also use third-party tools for scheduling and managing posts, such as Buffer, most of which are not compatible with Mastodon at all.

The New Frontier

Despite the limited staying power of each individual Mastodon server, the network as a whole has been around for roughly a decade. Before the migration to ActivityPub, Mastodon used the OStatus protocol, which was already used on federated social media such as StatusNet (later GNU Social) and Identi.ca. Mastodon might never “catch on” in the same way that Twitter and Facebook have, but it’s an experiment against the increasingly-capitalist and frustrating experience of closed social networks that shows no signs of slowing down. As I write this post, Tumblr is implementing support for the ActivityPub protocol, and Flickr’s CEO is floating the idea.

I invite you to check out Mastodon for yourself. I’ve enjoyed using it for a few years, and it’s even better with all the new faces showing up. You can follow me at @corbin@toot.community.

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