Mastodon has been around for years as an open-source social media platform, and it’s back in the spotlight, thanks to ongoing turmoil at Twitter. I’ve been on Mastodon for years, and it’s a great platform.
You may have seen more people talk about Mastodon in the past few weeks, as Elon Musk worked to complete his purchase of the social media platform Twitter (after he tried to back out and Twitter sued to keep the deal). In the days following the acquisition, the Mastodon network grew by around 500,000 accounts, and others returned to accounts they previously abandoned. It doesn’t seem like that will slow down, either — the initial spike happened before much has changed at Twitter. Who knows what Twitter will look like in a few months, especially with roughly half its employees now gone.
So, what exactly is Mastodon? We have a full explainer for how Mastodon works, but on the surface, it’s similar to popular platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, or Twitter. You can make posts with text, images, or videos, and follow other people to see their posts. However, there is at least one infrastructure difference, and a few unique features and decisions that add up to a (mostly) better experience than other platforms.
No Algorithmic Nonsense
Most of the complaints about modern social media are around algorithms, and how they promote content. Facebook and Instagram primarily rely on algorithms to choose which posts you see, and Twitter’s default sorting is also algorithmic instead of pure chronological order. Sometimes that functionality is helpful — TikTok became a dominant platform in just a few short years entirely because its algorithm for finding videos is impressive — but on most platforms it’s just a hinderance that jumbles your posts around.
Mastodon has no algorithms at all. None. Zero. Your home page has all the posts from the people you follow in chronological order, with no advertisements or recommended posts sprinkled among them. Once you get to the top (or bottom) of your feed, that’s it, you read all the posts! Now you can go about your day, instead of constantly refreshing the page or switching to a different tab to see posts that were hidden the first time around.
The Fediverse: Not Just Mastodon
The structure of Mastodon might be the most confusing aspect at first, but it’s one of the platform’s best selling points. There’s no single company or server with everyone’s profiles and content — instead, there are many different servers (also sometimes called “instances”) where people can create an account and start posting, collectively called “the Fediverse.” People can also follow people from other servers, without creating another account there. It’s like email: if I have a Gmail account, I can communicate with other people with Gmail accounts, but I can also talk to people that have Yahoo or Outlook email addresses.
Some servers are general-purpose, like mastodon.social and mastodon.online, but others are centered around a specific topic or community. There’s mastodon.art for artists and designers, tech.lgbt and mastodon.lol for LGBTQ+ people, mastodon.ie for Irish people, fosstodon.org for anyone interested in tech or free software, and so on. Since Mastodon is open-source software, some servers have minor tweaks compared to the typical experience — some have higher limits on the word count, and that Irish server has a has a funny photo of Irish President Michael D. Higgins on the screen when sending a post. Each server also has its own moderation team and rules. If you want to move to a different one, you can use the migration and export features to move all your followers, follows, and other data (but not posts) to a new account.
Under the hood, the cross-server Fediverse is powered by the ActivityPub protocol, which has been implemented by other social media platforms. For example, PixelFed is an Instagram alternative that supports ActivityPub, so I can follow people on PixelFed servers with my Mastodon account.
The underlying infrastructure isn’t perfect — it’s currently undergoing a stress test like no other — but it’s an impressive achievement. Switching social media apps usually means losing most of the people you follow and talk to, but not with the Fediverse. Of course, that’s why big platforms are unlikely to ever adopt the technology (or a similar one), since a platform’s userbase is its most valuable asset.
A Better Social Experience
Mastodon has implemented many of the features you might expect in a social media app, but there are also a few differences that were made specifically to avoid some types of abuse and toxic behavior found on other platforms.
For one, there’s no full text search on Mastodon. You can search for a hashtag and find any posts that use that hashtag, but searching for just “iPhone” or “airplane” won’t show you results from people talking about iPhones or airplanes, unless they were using hashtags. This is intentional “due to negative social dynamics of it in other networks,” according to Mastodon’s lead developer.
I use the search function on Twitter and other social networks constantly, especially for work. For example, if I’m writing about a buggy Windows update, searching for tweets that mention a Windows update can give me additional context and reports for an article. However, indexing every word in every post on Twitter also makes it easy for spammers and abusive people to find their targets. Lists are often used for the same goal. The lack of built-in indexed search makes my work a bit more tedious, and limits other helpful information discovery, but I think it’s probably the right move.
Mastodon also doesn’t have the ability to share a post while adding an inline comment. That’s a common feature on other platforms — “quote tweeting” on Twitter and a “stitch” on TikTok, to name a few examples — but it often just amplifies terrible people. It’s common for people on Twitter to share toxic content with a quote tweet that insults the tweet or its sender, to the point where “they’re roasting/beating you in the QTs [quote tweets]” became a meme (language warning on that link). However, all that practice accomplishes is amplifying the awful content and the content’s creator. A single tap takes you to their original message and profile.
Mastodon’s main developer said in 2018, “I’ve made a deliberate choice against a quoting feature because it inevitably adds toxicity to people’s behaviours. You are tempted to quote when you should be replying, and so you speak at your audience instead of with the person you are talking to. It becomes performative. Even when doing it for good’ like ridiculing awful comments, you are giving awful comments more eyeballs that way.”
Mastodon’s content warning/spoiler feature also creates a better experience. Its main purpose is to hide content that many people might not want to see, like spoilers for a movie. However, it’s also common for people to use it for other types of discussions that might just be irrelevant or uninteresting to some people. For example, “pol” or “uspol” are common content warnings, which mean “politics” and “U.S. politics,” respectively.
Most of these changes make Mastodon less useful if you’re a social media influencer, a corporate brand, or (in my case) using social media as a source of first-hand information on a broad scale. However, it does make the platform a much better social experience, which should be the main goal of a social media service.
But Wait, There’s More
There are many other features on Mastodon (and the Fediverse as a whole), including custom emojis, a complete lack of advertisements, verification based on a website and not personal documents (or money/fame), and much more. You can check out the server list on the official Mastodon site to get started. Consider sending some money to the person running whichever server you join — remember, there aren’t any ads to pay for those server costs.
If you want more people to follow, you can find me at @email@example.com. Also, be sure to browse the #introductions hashtag on your server to find some cool people!
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