- Mastodon looks like Twitter but is structured like a cool, diverse neighborhood.
- Twitter amplifies the worst voices; Mastodon ignores them.
- Twitter is too important to be trusted to one company.
Mastodon might look and feel just like Twitter, but it is fundamentally different—and that’s a good thing.
Refugees from Twitter’s ongoing meltdown are heading to Mastodon, a federated micro-publishing platform that lets you “toot” and follow, just like Twitter. But unlike Twitter, which is like jamming every single participant into the same dirty sports stadium where they can shout over each other, and the most obnoxious are flashed up on the Jumbotron, Mastodon is a collection of neighborhoods. And this is what will stop it from boiling into another online swamp.
“I don’t see Twitter going anywhere, but I do see it dying as a community. Like other social media sites that use engagement as the determining factor for the algorithm, the content focused on ‘angertainment’ and rage culture to determine what gets seen, which makes Twitter a very difficult place to be,” new media producer, and social media heavyweight Ashley Ryan told Lifewire via email.
The biggest misconceptions about Twitter are that it is a social network and that it is a community. It is neither. Twitter is a publishing platform with about as much community as a subway platform at rush hour.
Anyone can sign up and immediately begin following and tweeting, but they can also start trolling and harassing. Unless those trolls get banned (unlikely, under the current ownership), the burden is on the individual user to block and manage any harassment they experience.
Mastodon offers the same micropublishing format, but its structure is fundamentally different. Instead of one big Twitter, there are many, many little Mastodons, often themed around a special interest or a political idea. Think of these "servers" as cool neighborhood bars or community centers.
The trick is, all those instances are interoperable. You can follow anyone you like, whatever server they hang out on. And your server, or bar, can also block and ban other servers. This, combined with the decentralized, egalitarian nature of open Internet communities, makes for a very robust setup. If you get sick of the server you are on, you can switch. You can even create your own.
Of course, all this is open to abuse. It's easy to set up a server for far-right wingnuts. But it is also easy to block it.
People rely on these platforms for public information, use them for democratic debate, and many invest their livelihoods in them.
One huge advantage of Mastodon is that no algorithm can determine what you see. Instead, you follow people, and you see what they share. Even likes are private, only seen by the poster.
This makes for a much calmer space, one that doesn't boost the worst voices. Mastodon doesn't care about engagement any more than your paid-for email service provider cares about engagement.
"What's great about Mastodon is actually the community itself. Mastodon offers a slower-paced Internet experience that is reminiscent of the early 2000s that is not determined on the engagement of the post to get shown to people," says Ryan.
Despite all its faults, Twitter is important. It's a place where local emergency services can share information on wildfire threats, where citizens in oppressive regimes can rally, and all the good stuff that comes from a public publishing platform.
But perhaps Twitter is too important to be trusted with itself. Now that anyone can pretend to be the "verified" fire service and issue a bomb warning, and now that the worst bullies are being reinstated, ready to harass minorities, and now that advertisers are deserting the platform, can it be relied upon?
“The collapse of Twitter for (basically) self-inflicted reasons makes a strong case for building online infrastructure structured as a non-profit or public utility,” Luke LeBrun, a journalist, said on Mastodon. “People rely on these platforms for public information, use them for democratic debate, and many invest their livelihoods in them. These platforms are too important to public safety, people’s livelihoods and democracy to leave in the hands of eccentric billionaires or the whims of stock markets.”
Open, decentralized internet services have a way of sticking around. Email, which is structurally very similar to Mastodon, isn’t going anywhere, despite spam and a total lack of privacy. Five years ago, technologist, blogger, and former Kickstarter CTO Andy Baio predicted that Mastodon would outlast Twitter.
“Historically, decentralized, open-source platforms and protocols with any adoption run forever, even if they rarely reach the popularity or cultural relevance of centralized platforms,” he wrote on Mastodon in 2017. “It seems likely to me that when Twitter eventually shuts down, people will still be running Mastodon instances.”
It looks like he was right.