The hunt for Twitter alternatives: Mastodon

Mastodon

Let’s get this out of the way right at the start: Mastodon is not a Twitter killer. It’s more like Twitter crossed with Reddit, plus it’s open source. But while Mastodon is not going to take over the world, it does have promise as a community platform. Here’s why…

I first came across Mastodon in early April, via a Vice article. It was described as “a kinder, nicer, decentralized open source version of Twitter.” Curious to see what the fuss was about, I jumped over to Mastodon to check it out. I immediately came across its first quirk: Mastodon isn’t one single social network, like Twitter. Instead it’s made up of multiple “instances,” each one hosted on a different server. Indeed the most popular instance, Mastodon.social, wasn’t accepting new users when I arrived – due to its sudden ascension to Internet fame. So I had to sign up with another instance, in this case Mastodon.technology.

Other than the hundreds of instances, Mastodon is fairly similar to Twitter. You post short “toots” (only you get 500 characters, compared to Twitter’s 140) and you follow other people via a Tweetdeck-like interface. The differences are subtle but meaningful; for example you get more privacy options when posting. And while the feeds are chronological and real-time, just like Twitter, there are more of them. In fact you get several timelines: “Home” for people you follow, “Local” for public posts from the instance you signed up to, and “Federated” for public posts from the wider Mastodon network. So there’s a bit of a learning curve, but after a day or two I was used to it.

Mastodon.social

The Mastodon.social interface – very similar to Tweetdeck.

Where Mastodon really differs from Twitter is that it’s made up of multiple communities, rather than the one massive community that Twitter is. In this sense, Mastodon is actually more similar to Reddit than Twitter. According to Mastodon creator, Eugen Rochko, the community aspect is key. In an FAQ, he wrote: “Mastodon is decentralized. Anyone can run a Mastodon server, under their own community rules.” Whereas Twitter, he wrote, “is run by a central authority.”

Mastodon appears to have grown nicely since April, although predominantly in Japan. Overall it’s still well under a million users, which is small fry compared to Twitter’s 313 million monthly active users. As at time of writing, Mastodon has 702,813 accounts and 1,568 instances. Mastodon.social has just under 67,000 users and has re-opened for new users. But it’s no longer the most popular. Two Japanese instances, pawoo.net and mstdn.jp, have 163,000 and 132,000 respectively. Pawoo is run by Pixiv, a popular Japanese artist community. Its Mastodon instance was described by a fan site as “a place where pixiv creators can share their activities and communicate.”

For english speaking countries, Mastodon.social seems at first glance like a poor replacement for Twitter. Not for any technical reason, but because not many people you know are on it. Eventually I found some active Mastodon users to follow. I asked one of them, Johann Savalle, what he uses Mastodon for compared to Twitter. Does he have different conversations here and/or follow niche subjects? “Mastodon is much more conversational than twitter is today,” he replied. Mastodon has “real engagement” and since the character limitation is larger, he can “talk about more complex subjects.”

As if to illustrate the longer, more complex conversations that can happen on Mastodon, Johann and another Mastodon user named Destry Aloysius proceeded to have a back and forth about the uses (or not) of bots on Mastodon. But that also showed that a lot of the early conversations on Mastodon, at least amongst the people I’m interested in following, are about Mastodon itself. Much like the first year or two of Twitter were people mostly talking about Twitter.

What Mastodon needs to evolve into is a community tool that everyone can use, no matter what their interest. That’s certainly what Twitter managed to do, perhaps despite itself (Twitter’s UI is problematic to this day for new users).

The problem, as with any new social network, is that network effects haven’t yet kicked in for Mastodon – and there’s a good chance they never will, because that’s just the norm on the Web. For example, I tried to find a niche Mastodon instance that catered to my non-tech interests. I picked one called Bookwitty.social, which promised to be “a social network for all book lovers.” It had just 186 users when I joined, so I became number 187. Unfortunately, the local timeline wasn’t very busy – with just a few toots a day on average.

Mastodon instances

The top Mastodon instances currently.

With this kind of inactivity, a lot of people have already (unfairly) dismissed Mastodon as just another Ello. If you remember, Ello was hyped up as a potential “Facebook killer” during September and October of 2014. During that time, everybody rushed to create an Ello profile. It was only after the rush that people realised that Ello wasn’t open at all – it was just another Walled Garden, like Facebook and Twitter. It’s primary claim as a Facebook killer was that it didn’t have ads. But of course that was never going to be enough. (incidentally, today Ello is a niche social network for “creatives” – so it appears to be doing alright).

I mentioned at the outset that Mastodon has little or no chance of displacing Twitter. Even if by some miracle it did, it would be nearly as centralized as Twitter is. Let’s say Mastodon.social became massively popular and got hundreds of millions of users. Well then you’d be playing by the rules of the entity or person who runs the server. In other words, it would be a central authority just like Twitter. Albeit the software is still open source, rather than being owned by @Jack.

Mastodon’s best chance of success is to promote itself as a kind of meld between Reddit and Twitter. For example if that book-focused Mastodon instance ever takes off, then it could provide conversations as focused and enlightening as r/books on Reddit (which has over 13 million subscribers). I would definitely find value in that, and it may even cipher some of my attention away from Twitter. I’d love to use a Twitter-like tool to network with people about topics I’m passionate about – like books, science-fiction, wine, etc. Twitter had an opportunity to provide that (and still does), but instead it has spent many years trying to compete with Facebook. So that’s where Mastodon could succeed, if it manages to seed niche communities like Reddit has done.

Let me know if you’re a Mastodon user and, if so, what are your thoughts on it as a Twitter alternative? Also feel free to follow me on Mastodon: ricmac@mastodon.social.

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