Mastodon Is Like Twitter Without Nazis, So Why Are We Not Using It?
I quit Twitter to join a kinder, nicer, decentralized open source version of Twitter.
I have been on Twitter since 2008, accumulating nearly 100 thousand tweets and an inexplicable following of 42 thousand people.
I tweet a lot, and I tweet often. My engagement is high. I drive decent traffic.
I have been called "good at Twitter." I am not sure this is a correct assessment. Jack in the Box sells 554 million tacos a year. This does not make the tacos "good" by any reasonable measure.
I mention these things to establish the fact that I am completely addicted to Twitter. And the new changes to how replies work have made me want to quit entirely.
So I quit cold turkey (okay, fine, cold turkeyish) for a week and replaced it with Mastodon, a decentralized, free and open source software version of Twitter.
Let's be clear: I'm not expecting myself to quit Twitter forever. In fact, I figured that my report back would be something like, "Mastodon: it's weird. Pretty okay though? Anyways, none of my friends are here, so I'm back to the garbage bird site again. Social media services are natural monopolies, shrug!"
But in the middle of writing my first dispatch from my place of exile, Mastodon began to change. It jumped from 23 thousand to 25 thousand to over 30 thousand users. The developer finally met his modest Patreon goal of $800 a month. Graham Linehan (creator of The IT Crowd) and Dan Harmon (creator of Community and Rick and Morty) joined. And the servers finally buckled under all the pressure and I saw my first fail-elephant.
This is what mastodon.social looks like: it looks like Tweetdeck before Tweetdeck got too clunky to use.
There's a few key differences. Instead of Twitter's signature 140 character limit—a holdover from SMS—mastodon.social posts have a much more generous cap of 500 characters. This means fewer chained tweetstorms, very little screencapped text, and generally longer and more introspective posts.
The star—the "favourite"—is still here, no cute animated hearts or "likes." A tweet isn't a tweet, it's a toot. (An early financial backer requested that posts be called toots). But a retweet isn't a retoot, it's a boost. None of this lingo really matters, because the icons and buttons are pretty much all the same.
The most interesting deviations from Twitter are privacy settings and the content warning feature.
The content warning (the "cw" button at the bottom) is basically a jump that hides the body of the post. The rules require that you hide pornography and gore with a CW. Some people use the CW to provide trigger warnings for posts about depression, suicide, eating disorders, or sexual assault. Many people even hide political discussion behind a CW, citing that a lot of users are exhausted about hearing about Trump. Other people use the CW simply to reduce clutter: it functions similarly to a "Read more" jump on a blog.
Others use the inherent functionality of the CW to make jokes.
Privacy settings are more flexible than they are on Twitter—privacy is set on a per-post basis, a little similar to how it is on Facebook.
I could make it so all of my posts are private by default, but I don't have to choose between having a public or a private account.
The really interesting nuance here is between "Public" and "Unlisted." An unlisted post is viewable to the public, but it doesn't post to the local or federated timelines.
When I joined, mastodon.social had under 25 thousand users. Now it has 35 thousand. That means there just aren't that many toots being made at any given time. When you open up "local timeline" or "federated timeline" in the third column of the interface, you can see all the public posts being made by all users at any given time.
When I joined, the timeline was clipping away at a steady, but still readable speed. It was entertaining, but not so much of a firehose that it became overwhelming. At some times of the day it slowed down to a downright halt.
At this point you might be wondering what the difference between a "local" and a "federated" timeline is. It's… complicated.
If you—like me—are unfamiliar with the landscape of free and open source software (FOSS) social media, Mastodon is weird. It's really really weird. I'm used to apps and services like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter—companies that took venture capital, are publicly traded on the stock market, and intend to make a return on investment through advertising, and possibly the sale of user information as well.
As the saying goes, if you don't pay for the product, you are the product. When looking solely at these corporate products, social media feels like the hellish extreme of late capitalism, Faustian bargains where consumers consume themselves.
But of course it doesn't have to be that way. And for many years, there's been a small, devoted, and extremely unsuccessful niche of developers and activists trying to get people to adopt various forms of FOSS social media. One example is "GNU social," a software that, in some respects, emulates the functions of Twitter. Mastodon is the most usable version of GNU social so far.
Mastodon has no money, no advertisements, no venture capital—and doesn't plan on getting any. It has no board of directors, no VP of product, no Chief Financial Officer. Peter Thiel will never partly own Mastodon.
Mastodon is pretty much just some dude in Germany with a Patreon goal of $800 a month, to cover "hosting of mastodon.social + my living expenses." When I first made my Mastodon account, his pledges were at about $680. As of writing, he's finally reached his goal, but is still only taking in $967 a month.
It's a small ask, but meeting that threshold is a sign of how far the developer, Eugen Rochko, has come compared to a lot of similar projects. Remember Diaspora? No? Well, that kind of tells you all you need to know about the inevitable fate of most decentralized FOSS alternatives to social media.
The thing is, GNU social isn't just the pipedream of hackerspace denizens. It fills a need and a desire articulated even by people who don't have mohawks or recurring yearly donations to the Free Software Foundation. New York magazine's Max Read wrote in early 2016:
"There should be a 'public option' social network. The open web exists as a public and largely protected space, but it lacks the convenience or centralization of Twitter or other social networks. Let's build one! A public, open, convenient, centralized social network, dedicated to freedom of expression protected by the First Amendment."
Mastodon isn't quite that. But it could be.
The thing is, Mastodon isn't just a social network. It's a protocol that can be reimplemented into an infinite number of "instances" maintained by anyone and everyone. But instances aren't segregated and isolated the way chatrooms or Slacks or your group text messages are.
Many of the existing instances are "federated," meaning that members of awoo.space can find me, follow me, and boost and favourite my posts despite the fact that I only have an account on the flagship instance, mastodon.social.
It's a little like how Reddit has subreddits. A redditor can move fluidly between subreddits, and top posts of nearly all the subreddits aggregate to the front page. But where Reddit is actually centralized, with top-down control by administrators across the site, the Mastodon federations are not.
Mastodon.social is run by Eugen "Gargron" Rochko, the developer of the Mastodon protocol, but he doesn't have any say in how awoo.space or icosahedron.website are run. A bannable offense in one instance might be completely acceptable in another.
For now the instances are on friendly terms with each other, coexisting peacefully in federation with each other. Federation isn't as simple as mastodon.social having a treaty with awoo.space. Rather, because one person from awoo.space follows my account, the entirety of awoo.space is now "subscribed" to my posts and can see them in the federated timeline. In order to become visible to awoo.space's federated timeline, someone from awoo.space has to follow you in the first place.
But if mastodon.social and awoo.space had a serious falling-out—which is highly unlikely—the administrators could choose to break ties and blacklist each other. Users from each instance would no longer be able to communicate with each other, unless they made accounts on the other instance.
Max Read calls for a public option social network that protects users based on the First Amendment. Mastodon.social is very much not that. Rochko—who lives in Germany, and is German by nationality—has no allegiance to American constitutional norms.
In fact, mastodon.social bans Nazis. Not even implicitly, but explicitly. The rules of the instance prohibit "content illegal in Germany and/or France, such as holocaust denial or Nazi symbolism" and "conduct promoting the ideology of National Socialism." The instance also bans "racism or advocation of racism," "sexism or advocation of sexism," "discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, or advocation thereof" and "xenophobic and/or violent nationalism." Mastodon.social is definitely not the free speech wing of the free speech party.
But in an increasingly polarized political climate where white nationalists are key advisors in to the US president, banning Nazis is deeply appealing to a lot of people. When asked, users repeatedly cite "Nazis" as a problem they would like Twitter to address. After leaving Twitter, writer Lindy West retorted, "Get back to me when your website isn't a roiling rat-king of Nazis."
Mastodon.social has a better user interface, a non-exploitative financial model, an extremely nice community, and no Nazis. So why isn't mastodon.social winning?
You probably already know the answer. You aren't on Mastodon because your friends aren't on Mastodon. Your friends aren't on Mastodon because you're not on Mastodon. And I wouldn't be on Mastodon, either, if I hadn't promised my editor to write an article about it.
My week off Twitter begins with me discovering that I am going to have to set up an elaborate series of hacks to get around the inconveniences of my hiatus. The problem is that Twitter is currently the most reliable way to receive updates on key litigation. But if I stay logged into my account, I'm definitely going to fall into temptation and start tweeting. So instead, I create a dummy account that follows two lawsuit bots and Chris Geidner, the legal editor of Buzzfeed, who tweets a lot of breaking news about Trump-related lawsuits.
Is this cheating? Yes. But I need this to do my work. I'm trying. By God, I'm trying.
I create a Mastodon account on Thursday. By 4PM on Friday I'm completely logged out of Twitter (except for @projectexile420 on my phone). In its place I have Mastodon open in a browser window, and Amaroq—an iOS app for Mastodon—installed on my phone. I have a little initial difficulty setting up Amaroq, because I still don't totally understand the concept of federation. The Amaroq login screen asks me to log into any Mastodon social instance. I try typing in @sarahjeong and get an error.
Eventually I figure out that it wants me to type in the name of the social instance—in my case, mastodon.social—and then log in with my username and password.
Day 1 of Mastodon is very lonely. My home timeline is starting from scratch. I look for funny accounts on the federated timeline, and follow aggressively. I follow back anyone who follows me. I text my friends and try to convince them to join. In a group chat, one friend says, "I thought about it but everyone I know who is an early adopter besides like, you two, totally fucking sucks and posts on Facebook about their latest apple store experience or whatever so i was like basically i'd rather be dead than hang around those perfectly nice people."
It's true that the Mastodon public timelines feature a lot of people tweeting about the latest project they're coding. But the predominant culture of mastodon.social isn't San Francisco techies, it's really more of an LGBTQ-oriented space, one with a lot of anime avatars and a lot of furries. A veritable multitude of anime avatars, but sans Nazis.
On Day 1 of my Twitter exile, mastodon.social strikes me as quiet, gentle, and introspective. There are a lot of CW-hidden posts about depression. Trans users are passing around fundraising links for community members in crisis. One user writes a post about what it was like to be homeless.
Of course, there's shitposting as well. But it's soft in tone. The jokes are funny, but they lack the hard mean edge of Twitter.
When I note that there doesn't seem to be a news reading culture on Mastodon, a user gently suggests that if I post political content, that I should put it behind a CW. This strikes me as overkill, but when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
On the public timelines, one new user comments on how relieved they are to be on a social network where "Buzzfeed" won't be "stealing" their content for clicks. At this point, it seems polite to introduce myself to the Mastodon community, and let them know that a journalist is now hanging out with them. I realize, somewhat to my chagrin, that I will likely have to notify every single user who winds up in my screencaps, and possibly even change screencaps if they object. If I try to defend myself with "But your post was set to public," I will probably be tarred and feathered. But very gently, and possibly with all the tar and feathers behind CWs.
I miss Twitter. I miss it with the intensity of a thousand suns. At 7:25 PM I am hit with the burning desire to search for my latest article on Twitter, and see what people are saying about it. The inherent narcissism of this feeling is embarrassing, and I wish it would go away. It doesn't.
I open and close Twitter on my phone multiple times. Each time, the empty profile of @projectexile420 taunts me for my weakness. When I check the timeline, it's pretty much just Chris Geidner tweeting. I try to calmly gather in whatever news he's breaking at the moment, but I am nearly overcome with the impulse to interact with his tweets.
By 8:49 PM I send Chris a sad Snapchat complaining about my Twitterless existence. He responds with a side-eye emoji. I accept it. I deserve it.
At 9:40 PM I watch as a new user makes a serious faux pas by complaining about mastodon.social's code of conduct.
"I hope nobody is getting too attached to this place. No 'advocation of sexism', I guess that was the world's biggest problem right there, the 'sexism advocates' everywhere with their weird advocacy. For me, there's no way I'm repeating the mistake of allowing 'code of conduct warriors' to control my ability to access a platform I rely upon."
The public timelines immediately explode with subtooting.
"Are people seriously joining here and whinging about the code of conduct," one user writes. "Do you realise why some of us wanted to fuck off from birdsite in the first place?"
"Free Speech™ isn't free folks every awoo $350," toots @eurasierboy. "Every. Awoo."
@Wilkie attempts a serious response. "I'm already seeing people complaining about the *presence* of a code of conduct on this site. Say they might leave, etc. Code of conduct doing its job, I'd say! That's the power of social federation: to create manageable moderated social spaces for everybody without disconnecting a part from the whole. Just go somewhere else."
The Code of Conduct complainer attempts to fight back by screenshotting one of his subtooting critics and trying to shame them with the retort, "I guess there can never be enough platforms dedicated to social justice."
The public timelines just end up subtooting him some more, until he posts, "Hello, my passive aggressive friends. There have been maybe a couple dozen mean messages directed at me over the last thirty minutes, but nobody ever mentions me by name. Even so, rest assured your point is made, thank you."
For the next hour or so, "Hello, my passive aggressive friends" becomes a meme. I myself sign off for the night with "Good night, my passive aggressive friends." The next day, I sign on again with "Good morning, my passive aggressive friends."
I wake up on Saturday to find that I have already tooted over 150 times and I now have 300 followers. Mastodon has also seen a giant spike in sign-ups—or at least, giant by Mastodon standards. Nearly 900 joined mastodon.social on March 31. But the next day, there are another thousand. As of Monday, there have been 10 thousand new user accounts created just in the last week.
Long-time users of Mastodon comment dryly in the public timelines that Twitter must have done something terrible again.
I'm still not used to quitting Twitter, and I keep opening the app on my phone, only to be confronted with an endless backscroll of tweets by Chris Geidner. As much as I love Chris Geidner, this is no replacement for the fast-paced adrenaline rush of content I've curated on my actual account.
I can see on the public timelines that new users are happy that there are no brands, no celebrities, no news junkies on mastodon.social. I am extremely not happy. There is nothing more I'd like to see right at this moment than twenty text-heavy screencaps of the New York Times and a cascade of outraged tweets about the latest Russia scandal.
Is the Merriam-Webster dictionary subtweeting the president today? I wish I knew, so I could pretend to not care.
I am scum and don't deserve mastodon.social. But here I am.
I post an article about Mike Flynn's financial disclosures behind a content warning. I explain in a separate post that I am going to post news links from now on, but out of respect for existing community norms, I will keep Trump-related content behind a CW. Several accounts thank me for it.
My interests and sensibilities aren't well-represented in this community. One of the things I crave the most is the commentary that builds on top of commentary on Twitter. I miss the tweets where people screenshot a pundit's tweet and then place it next to a @dril tweet. Upon further reflection, this is an incredibly stupid thing to miss, and I should be ashamed of myself for letting Twitter take over my life to this extent.
And there's one thing that has to be said about mastodon.social. There are a lot of people complaining about transphobia, homophobia, cissexism, sexism, and Nazis. There are not a lot of people complaining about white supremacy, and there isn't a lot of chatter about the surge of Islamophobia in the world. I understand the need to insulate oneself from upsetting topics, but insulation necessarily breeds insularity.
Not a lot of people on Mastodon use their actual face as an avatar, so I can't make the assumption that Mastodon is extremely, extremely white. But my uncertainty alone feels isolating. On Twitter, many users of color use their avatars or display names to signal that they are an ethnic or religious minority. That social signalling creates clumps of users bound together by preexisting cultural norms and shared concerns. I miss my Twitter feed, and I can't wait to get back.
I still have the greater part of a week left to go. I've garnered over 500 followers (which is a lot in the world of Mastodon) but I still feel isolated and lonely. Part of it, of course, is that only a handful of my friends from Twitter have joined.
Honestly, I am probably a little too mean for mastodon.social. Everyone is nice, but I nonetheless feel like a stranger in a strange land, a complete Twitter jerk stranded in a country of kind-hearted anime avatars. My relief at being on a social network that Julian Assange does not post on is almost perfectly counterbalanced by my regret that I cannot troll him.
But Mastodon's norms aren't set in stone. And mastodon.social is only one instance in a larger federation. There could be an instance with the fast-paced and hard-edged humor I've come to value from Twitter. There could be an instance propagated with news junkies and commentariat. There could be an instance premised on First Amendment principles—the social network that Max Read wants to see exist.
Did you know that for $40 a month, Eugen Rochko will configure and install a Mastodon instance for you?
On Sunday, I wake up to find that Graham Linehan and Dan Harmon have joined Mastodon, bringing with them thousands of users. The federated timeline used to flow at a readable pace, now it streams along far too quickly to follow.
Linehan apparently loses interest after finding that the existing community discourages posting publicly about Trump. But the new userbase keeps swelling anyways, and the public timeline is full of people arguing about the future of Mastodon.
"In case anyone is wondering why you can only search hashtags, this was, to a lot of us, a beneficial design decision to counter-act harassment, so that nobody can just do a search for 'otherkin' or 'intersectionality' and then find all the ppl they want to harass, etc. etc," writes one long-time user. They also explain that quote-boost doesn't exist for similar reasons. These features weren't exactly dismissed, but both ended up becoming deprioritized as features to implement because of the disagreement around them.
"So do we ban memes on this website just to be safe or what?" snarks a newer user in a subtoot.
On Monday, the servers are struggling to keep up. Almost 6 thousand users have joined in the last day. I direct message Rochko to ask a few questions for the article—he answers as best he can while working to scale up the servers. It takes several minutes for some of my direct messages to get through, because the servers keep crashing.
In between the crashes, every other toot is a link to someone's long blogpost about Mastodon, or a call for others to donate to Eugen Rochko's Patreon.
35 thousand users is nothing compared to Twitter, and $900 a month is nothing compared to even Twitter's yet-insufficient revenues. But Mastodon doesn't need to kill Twitter, it just needs to survive. And judging by the chatter on the federated timeline, a lot of people have found a home here. Mastodon, I think, is here to stay.