Users

The Mastodon and Twitter logos

The logos of the social networks Twitter and Mastodon are reflected in smartphone screens on Monday in Paris.
Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

As Twitter under Elon Musk threatens to crumble into an understaffed, glitchy operation propped up only by half-baked revenue generators, bot armies, and diehard Tesla/SpaceX stans, some users—including those going out in a blaze of anti-Musk glory—are looking for alternative social networks to resettle their online communities. There’s just one issue, though: What could possibly replace the singular nature of Twitter?

Sure, the network was never as widely used as Facebook/Instagram/TikTok, and it’s been losing its most active users for a while now. Still, it’s an influential collective of journalists, academics, creators, and activists; a space for global politicking and diplomacy, for better or worse (definitely worse); a meme generator and spreader; and an effective news maker and aggregator. If Twitter goes down, where next for the communities that gathered? Discord? Newsletters? Reddit or other message boards? The blockchain? Blogs?????

Perhaps, some have posited, this is finally Mastodon’s moment. (And just to be clear: We’re not referring to the acclaimed heavy metal band.) Launched in 2017 following rumors that right-wing tech titan Peter Thiel wanted to purchase Twitter, Mastodon was crafted as a not-for-profit alternative with all the best parts of the bird app (fun and informative microblogging, smooth user feeds, room for personal customization) and none of the worst (a bizarre content algorithm, user data collection, weak moderation, loads of far-right trolls). Instead of a C-suite and centralized farm of servers, control of the open-source Mastodon is granted to myriad volunteers who run specialized servers that can host participants and interact with other servers. The platform also explicitly bans hate speech and neo-Nazis. Otherwise, server moderators have pretty broad leeway over how they’d like their communities to function. But Mastodon has never boasted more than a few hundred thousand dedicated users.

That may have changed this month. Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover and the resulting wildfire has sent a larger-ever number of users over to Mastodon—including yours truly—finally giving it 1 million active monthly users. More tech sites are covering the service and speaking to its founder, and even Musk himself has felt compelled to respond (… weirdly) to the exodus. Some began signing up for Mastodon back in the spring, when Musk first announced his Twitter bid, but now users actually seem to be following through. So, to take stock of the Mastodon phenomenon, learn what the experience there is actually like, and figure out whether this can actually become Twitter 2.0, Nitish Pahwa, a Slate associate writer on technology, and Evan Urquhart, Slate’s community manager, got together to chat about the hype. The conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Nitish Pahwa: Evan! As a longtime tweeter and content moderator yourself, what do you make of Musk-era Twitter so far?

Evan Urquhart: It’s been fun to watch Musk, because I don’t much like billionaires and everything that happened felt incredibly predictable. I even tweeted, days before the current festive atmosphere of widespread Musk impersonation, that Musk would struggle with the question of people going after him personally.

Musk made the rookie mistake of not knowing that in content moderation, widespread user buy-in is everything. You can do a lot, but if your superfans turn on you en masse. that’s a much harder problem than spam bots or even Nazis. Your users can and will leave, and the ones who stay will become overnight geniuses at finding out what your weaknesses are and exploiting them.

Pahwa: Could you explain what Mastodon is and why it may be an appealing Twitter alternative?

Urquhart: People are definitely leaving Twitter, although it’s also gaining users. I’m still skeptical that the site is actually dying or, at least, that it’s dying right now. (A lot of smart business folks seem to think the long-term prospects don’t look good, but that’s another story.) I first made a Mastodon account in April, when Musk announced he was buying Twitter. All I did then was create a profile, post an introduction, have a look around, and bookmark it for later. I wanted to have it, in case I needed it.

Mastodon layout with a photo of Greta Thunberg

Nitish’s home feed on Mastodon.
Screenshot from Mastodon by Nitish Pahwa

Mastodon is an open-source social media platform. You can make “toots” from your account, which have a 500-character limit. (This is significantly longer than Twitter’s 280 characters, but much shorter than a blog post.) You can follow people; you can “boost” (or … re-toot) other people’s posts; you can post links and media. It’s not corporate, it has no ads, and there’s also no algorithm, so you just see posts in reverse chronological order. There’s an earnest, old-web feel, but in many ways it is a lot like Twitter: text-based with a limited character count.

Pahwa: I share your doubts that Twitter is nearing an imminent death. I also gotta say, I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to the concept of “tooting” something. (Where does that even come from? I apologize for being 12 years old, but I can’t help but be reminded of farts.) Still, quite a bit of what you mentioned about Mastodon—the open-source factor, the Twitter-reminiscent UX, the volunteer-led initiatives, the lack of either algorithms or corporate infiltration—sounds promising. How much have you used Mastodon since you set up your account? And what are your biggest takeaways?

Urquhart: I let my Mastodon account lie fallow until I started seeing tech-savvy people I follow on Twitter warning that, with Musk’s mass Twitter layoffs, it was possible the site might just go down. With that, it seemed like time to get serious about alternatives. There’s been talk of a great blog renaissance—which my website assignedmedia.org would fit with nicely—but Mastodon seems like the best hope for a real replacement. I’ve dipped in pretty heavily the past few days, and I think that if the user base grows, I’ll find I like Mastodon as much as or more than Twitter. I’m a Tweetdeck user, so reverse chronological tweets were already my jam.

Mastodon isn’t one big garbage heap like Twitter. You have to choose (or create, but let’s not get too crazy yet) an individual server like @mastodon.social or @toot.community. The server is like your home base or neighborhood. You can follow people from other servers, but you’ll see much more of the people in your neighborhood, and it’ll be easier for those people to find and follow you.

The first thing people who are trying Mastodon need to know is not to sweat their server choice too much. It’s not that choosing a server isn’t important, but you probably won’t know what server’s right for you until you check things out a bit. It’s reasonably easy to change servers, so just pick one that seems large, or one you get an invite for, or one you see people you know talking about joining, and understand that you might switch to a different server once you get a little more familiar.

Otherwise, the one thing I’d say to Twitter people is that Mastodon natives are very, very earnest. At first, like with any new platform, you should look around and be friendly and open to absorbing the local customs. Also, Mastodon is growing fast, and there are lots of growing pains. Servers are down sometimes, and users unfortunately just have to deal with it. I heard this happened pretty regularly in the early days of Twitter.

Pahwa: Thanks for that walkthrough. I’ll admit, I just created a Mastodon account yesterday. You were one of my first mutuals on there; as you already know, I had a bit of trouble figuring out the server situation as well as what to do when your choice of server goes down.

The whole concept also reminds me of subreddits a little bit. You join a particular channel that appears to align with your interests, but your actual feeds resemble the Reddit front page—in that you can see a bit of everything from everyone you follow, no matter if they reside in a separate server (or subreddit). Is that a fair comparison?

Urquhart: Your Reddit analogy isn’t bad, but at least for now there’s no way to individually choose what servers you see posts from. The admin for your server chooses which other servers to “federate” with, and your federated feed is based on that decision. It shows you “everything,” defined as every server your admin considers close enough in moderation approach with your little neighborhood.

So, on Mastodon, you have your home feed, which is much like your Twitter feed and shows you posts from those you’ve decided to follow, regardless of what server they’re on, and even if your admin doesn’t federate with that server. Then you have a local feed, which shows you just the posts from your home server, and also a federated feed that goes even wider. There are also hashtags, which let you follow specific topics across servers.

Pahwa: I think we should note some servers require that you apply to them and give a little explanation for why you’d like to join, not unlike some locked Facebook Groups.

Something your description makes me wonder: It sounds like the admin of whatever server you choose has quite a bit of power over what their members see, and with whom they interact. As Mastodon’s founder mentioned in a recent interview, the site doesn’t tell these admins what to do, just as long as they’re not promoting hate speech. I’m wondering, is there the potential for abuse or concentration of power in such a system? There are many, many servers out there, but I could see high-profile admins working together in conjunction to make their servers a bit more dominant over others.

Urquhart: Mastodon is so small right now, and there are a lot of unknowns about what it would look like if people end up moving over in large numbers. I think the short answer is that in such a scenario, a lot of what makes Mastodon unique could be drowned out and Twitter culture could come to dominate. Since there are a lot of problems with Twitter culture, I think that’s a risk. There is definitely potential for abuse by server admins, but it doesn’t seem that different from the powers granted to a forum owner or creator of a subreddit. The one thing you should watch out for is direct messages, however. They’re not really like DMs; they’re more like posts hidden from people who follow you. The server owner can see them, and you can accidentally tag people into a DM just by mentioning them.

Pahwa: I think that’s a good lead-in to my last question for you. Is there a good reason why everyday Twitter users—those who mainly log on to scroll news, follow sports, chat with online friends, laugh at jokes—should migrate to Mastodon? For me, the platform has already been useful in a professional capacity. I’ve joined a server for journalists, I’ve reconnected with Twitter mutuals as well as other interesting people in media, and I’ve gotten a glimpse of cool virtual scenes. But for someone who just wants something casual to scroll, who lurks and reads but doesn’t often post, what’s the benefit in joining Mastodon?

Urquhart: I think Mastodon is a good place to connect with people over shared interests, much like a forum. It could be a good or even an essential place for a fan if the person you’re a fan of has a Mastodon. Right now the prominent people there are mostly journalists and academics, not celebrities.

But I think the main reason to join Mastodon is still the same reason I joined—to have an option if Twitter disintegrates. If there’s anyone you follow on Twitter whom you really don’t want to lose track of, and that person has a Mastodon, it probably makes sense to create an account there and follow that person purely as a precaution.

Pahwa: Nice—thank you so much, Evan! Readers, if you’ve made it this far and are intrigued by Mastodon, feel free to follow me and Evan at @nitishpahwa@journa.host and @e_urq@journa.host. Until the next social network.

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