Mastodon and the Fediverse
A new structure for the old format
Greetings, gorgeous person. If you're reading this, it's likely because someone (maybe me!) linked you to it as a quick summary of Mastodon and the Fediverse.
I will keep this as clear and to the point as possible, and will section parts off. Read whatever seems worth reading, as I don't want to waste your time!
In short, if you are frustrated with massive tech companies controlling huge communication platforms that should probably be a public utility and regulated by the people instead of a single company, read on, because this is explicitly for you.
If you don't care and actually just wanna try the dang thing, you can check out joinmastodon.org. I'll be linking to this website a few times along the way as a reminder.
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a decentralized social network. It is very similar to platforms like Twitter, but with a few key differences:
- No company owns the network
- There are no ads, algorithms or trackers
- It is completely open source
- It has flexible solutions for moderating content
- It is comprised of many interacting servers, rather than just the one service
- This is not as spooky as it sounds, I promise
- It's not blockchain and has nothing to do with crypto
Mastodon is just a social network. It is nothing you don't already know how to use. In fact, the default web app and mobile apps just look a heck of a lot like Twitter. The default character limit per post is 500. You can follow, boost (retweet/reblog), favorite, reply, DM, write a bio, pin posts to your profile, use hashtags, run polls, and more. It even has some nice additional features, such as content warnings.
If you're interested, you can find an instance and join at joinMastodon.org
So how does it work?
When you sign up for Mastodon, you're actually creating an account on a Mastodon instance. An instance is just a website running Mastodon. The biggest instance is mastodon.social, though there are literally thousands of other instances, each with their own specialities. And the nice thing is that you can port your account between instances whenever if you'd like.
When you sign up at an instance, your account will be email@example.com, where “something.com” will be whatever instance you signed up for. Think of it like email: when you sign up for a gmail account, people reach you with firstname.lastname@example.org. Same thing here! For example, I use mas.to as my Mastodon instance, so I am email@example.com on Mastodon.
Here's the great part: Mastodon instances can all talk to each other! If you have an account on one instance, you can follow, mention, favorite, boost, DM or interact with anyone from other servers seamlessly. Your instance is like your “home”, but you can step outside your home no problem and connect with anyone else.
Into it? Again, you can find an instance and join at joinMastodon.org
What is the Fediverse?
The “Fediverse” is the term for the collective network that Mastodon is a part of. Without getting too deep into it, Mastodon is actually just one part of a larger ecosystem of social networks that all can interact with each other! Mastodon is a great way to get into the Fediverse, but there's a bunch of other stuff out there too. There's even decentralized YouTube and Instagram alternatives! Just about all of these services can interact with each other seamlessly.
How is it better?
“Better” is hard to define, and will always be an uphill battle, since moving from an existing social network to another is always going to come with the problem of losing your followers. So instead of “how is it better”, I will answer “why should I try it?” because you can keep using your existing stuff while dipping your feet into a new way of social networking.
The best way I can describe it is that Mastodon feels very genuine. My guess is that's because people are actively curating communities, rather than being handled by an algorithm that tries to maximize engagement (often read: vitriol). You get back what you put in and then some. On Mastodon, a simple “hello, this is who I am!” post on an account with zero followers can still gain traction and help get you connected with others. People engage far more often with the content in their feed. It is a welcoming, collaborative and unapologetically human space. I cannot emphasize this enough: we're all just vibing over here.
In addition to that, moderation is handled much better on Mastodon. It puts control back in the hands of the community. Each instance is responsible for moderating its own content, but since there's many instances, it means that no one instance is stuck trying to solve the question of “how do we handle hundreds of millions of users posting content all at once?”. Instead, admins and moderators can act on their own instances to keep things in check, and if an instance is failing to handle its users, other instances can just block the malicious instance entirely.
How is it worse?
Obviously the big hump to get over is that if you “move” from one social network to another, you lose your followers. On Mastodon, you can change instances without losing followers, but to make the initial switch does require some effort on your part to build up a new social profile, and of course, who wants to to that?
The biggest issue I have run into as I've helped people onboard to Mastodon is discoverability. Big tech social networks have their algorithms and whatnot watching what people like, say, etc so they can suggest accounts to you to get started. Mastodon tries but definitely falls short of giving you a big list of who to follow.
Luckily, folks have done a few things to help, like making big lists of great accounts to follow by topic for example.
The good news: Like I've said, people are far, far more engaging on Mastodon. Just starting off by fleshing out your profile and posting an introduction post (using hashtags for topics and whatnot helps too!) will get you engagement. People are much more likely to click in to your profile. We're all looking to follow genuine folks, so if you just be you, you'll get settled in no time.
Misconception: mastodon.social is Mastodon
Reality: mastodon.social is one instance of Mastodon. It is the largest by registered users and run by the original creator of Mastodon. You by no means need to sign up there, since instances can all connect with each other. Mastodon is the software, not the website. Think about it like Wordpress in a way.
Misconception: Mastodon is owned by a company
Reality: The codebase for Mastodon, while open source, is run by a company. The network uses an open, established protocol for interaction. As an example of this, recall that Mastodon instances can interact with any other service in the Fediverse, including non-Mastodon stuff. And since the codebase is open source, anyone can make their own version of it if they don't like something. And instances outside of mastodon.social are completely unaffiliated with the company, which to my knowledge mostly just exists for logistics.
Misconception: mastodon.social (or another instance running Mastodon) went down! It can't handle the users!
Reality: That's one instance going down, and often if it does happen, its because understandably, people flock to it whenever bad news about Twitter comes out, overloading the server. There are thousands of other instances that still go on if another server has a temporary outage, and they are temporary indeed.
Misconception: It's not actually decentralized!
Reality: “Decentralized” has a lot of baggage these days because of the crypto crowd. There are many ways to decentralize, and the Fediverse is one of them. A fleet of community-run servers rather than one company-owned service is a great way to have the best of both worlds. People who just want to have an account can just have an account and use it, while still not being under big tech surveillance. Often, servers are crowd funded by those who wish to contribute. And on the other end, if you want to totally own your data, you can run your own instance! There's even one-click systems out there to spin up a Mastodon server on the cheap. You are totally in control.
Misconception: I'm not cool enough
Reality: Yes you are, you cool cool person.
I'll finish out with just a few more quick thoughts about this all. I don't want to just sit here and try to sell you on Mastodon for ages. I do want to give you an understanding of what the heck it is, so that you can decide if you want to try it out yourself.
Human: Mastodon/the Fediverse feels very human. We are building this space very much by the people for the people. No company owns the network. It's not plagued with brands doing marketing. There are literally no ads. If you are trying to market yourself or you are trying to “build your personal brand,” this probably isn't what you're looking for. But if you're sick of “brands” and ads and marketing and influencers and algorithms stoking anger, you may want to try this out.
Easy: A lot of folks seem to be afraid of the word “decentralized” or “instance”. I promise you, if you can use email or Twitter, you can use Mastodon.
Flexible: Unlike Twitter, Mastodon has a completely open API, which means developers can fully build excellent mobile apps. There is now an official Mastodon mobile app, but other great apps exist, such as Metatext or Toot! on iOS, or Tusky on Android.
Here to stay: Mastodon (and moreso the Fediverse) has been around for years now, and it shows no signs of going away. The software is open source, the system it is based on is an open standard. No single company can fold and take down Mastodon. Even if a server goes away, the rest of the network is still here, and growing rapidly. It's the difference between having one huge Walmart in town that is the only place to shop, versus having an abundance of smaller shops to go to. If one closes, its no big deal, we've still got plenty of other places to shop. Sure, you may need to change how you shop a little bit, but the quality of the produce is much, much higher. This metaphor is reminding me that I need to go to the store, sorry.
Other Options: Mastodon is not the only Twitter-like Fediverse service out there, but for simplicity, its the one I've been discussing. You can check out fediverse.party to explore further.
There's a lot of reasons to be reconsidering how we interact online. I've been on Mastodon for several years now, across a few different instances and even hosting my own instance for a while. The amount of engaging interactions I've had compared to other social media is staggering. It feels great to have conversations with folks who are just here to be themselves, rather than trying to get the algorithm to hook on to their posts. It feels great to not see brands posting fake mental health breakdowns. It feels great to see bot accounts labeled as bot accounts. There's even an entire instance dedicated to bots!
There's a lot of cool stuff coming down the pipeline as well. Groups are being planned across the Fediverse. Improved apps and discoverability. Yes, it has its own shortcomings, but they are rapidly disappearing.
If you'd like to know more, I'm happy to chat. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org on Mastodon!
If you've read all the way to here, you should just take the next step and try it out. Browse some great instance options at joinMastodon.org