Last November, like many others, I decided that I’d had enough of the antics of Elon Musk and that Twitter no longer seemed like the social space it once was. So, despite having enjoyed being part of Twitter for over a decade, I looked for an alternative.
People were talking about Mastodon as a possible destination for anyone leaving Twitter. I decided to investigate, liked what I saw and joined. Now, six months later, I believe that Mastodon is more than merely a replacement for Twitter; in many ways it’s an improvement.
However, you may have read recent articles online or in the press that seem to suggest there are problems joining Mastodon, that it’s a bit of an echo chamber with a limited breadth of opinion, and that it’s difficult to understand as a technology.
How is Mastodon different?
Obviously, part of the appeal of Mastodon is that it is not Twitter. Firstly, and perhaps most famously, rather than being a single site, Mastodon is decentralised. While the core software is shared, Mastodon is made up of a network (a federation) of ‘instances’ which host Mastodon users. Each ‘instance’ has its own rules, its own moderation practices and in many cases, a community it focusses on serving.
The terminology is also different: you boost posts (not retweet them); you ‘favourite’ posts (not like them). There is also a partly observed norm of hiding sensitive content (which is available as an option).
Because Mastodon is federated, you can see posts on other instances, provided you follow the poster’s account, or (more importantly) you follow a hashtag (#) subject or subjects. The key to Mastodon is hashtags, which underpin the flow of posts around the decentralised system.
There are a number of other technical differences, including how you manage your account and how it appears to other users, all of which is relatively intuitive. Another important difference is that you can edit posts after posting – to correct typos, to update a post, or anything else – and anyone who has favourited or boosted you post sees your edit.
There is also a much stronger norm of alt-text for image description. On Mastodon, failing to describe the image accompanying any post using the alt-text function, draws almost immediate (friendly) comment from followers.
And this is one more way Mastodon is different; it’s a more friendly and civil place than the sometimes toxic environment that Twitter had become. There are lots of people who may disagree with what you have posted, but in nearly all cases any subsequent exchange, in my experience, has been civil, constructive and above all interesting.
How difficult is it to get involved?
Like any new technology, there is a little upfront familiarisation required, but it is not the minefield that is often presented. While I have been using computers for decades, I am not particularly adept at the finer points of their working (I don’t code or program and my expertise goes little further than Microsoft’s Office suite).
The first thing you need to do is find a suitable instance to join. You can change this later, and there is plenty of guidance available. All you need to do is Google ‘which Mastodon instance to join’ for a range of guidance or try one of the available decision wizards. You really don’t need to invest that much time once you’ve decided on your criteria.
Then like any other social media, you set up your profile responding to the prompts in the system. Apart from the usual profile box, there are four other free-text boxes to use as you see fit. This can always be amended and doesn’t have been done all at once when you start. Under preferences there is a wide range of tweaks to your account, often with a recommended setting. Again, these can be changed or amended as you get used to Mastodon and want to fine tune your experience.
Another Mastodon norm is the expectation that at some time, when you have a few followers, that you post an introduction to yourself elaborating on things you have summarised on your profile. You might also repost this as your follower count grows.
As with Twitter you can lurk, but if you do want to post, because people follow hashtags (#), you need to use a range of hashtags and your posts will immediately start appearing in timelines. As you type your post with a hash-tagged term, the hashtag function will tell you if the one you are using is live and how many people have used it. Especially when you are starting out, it can be a good idea to modify you phrasing to use more popular hashtags thereby widening the likely audience for your thoughts or reflections.
Is it an echo chamber?
Because you are much more in charge of what appears in your timeline, Mastodon does have the potential to only expose you to people you agree with. But it is your choice, rather than having your timeline partly populated by an algorithm that responds to the needs of paid advertisers. This also takes some of the pressure off when thinking about keeping up with posts.
My experience has been that posts have an extended life on Mastodon. On Twitter, while occasionally a tweet might be reposted in the days after you wrote it, mostly the retweets and engagement come within hours. On Mastodon, you will find people responding to posts for days after the initial posting. When I discussed this on my timeline recently, the consensus among replies was that the ‘half-life’ of posts was around three to five days.
Certainly, my posts have seldom if ever prompted flame-wars. Instead, on Mastodon I have had a higher number of really interesting and insightful responses, and the disagreements have been well-tempered and rooted in evidence or analysis not personal attacks.
Is it worth trying it out?
Well, I think you can likely guess what I’m going to say here. Mastodon is different from Twitter in a good way. Certainly you have to be more proactive to build what you want from Mastodon, but sometimes as Twitter has shown, the cost of convenience can be toxicity. While no social media platform is perfect, Mastodon definitely seems to be an improvement on what Twitter has become!
(Thanks to all my Mastodon followers who shared their experience(s) with me over the last week; sorry if not everyone’s views got an airing above.)