I’ve started playing a bit more with Mastodon.
For some of you, Mastodon will be old news — I’ve had a Mastodon account for four years, but haven’t really used it before — but many more, I imagine, will be saying, “Mastodon? Never heard of it!” I think you probably will be hearing a lot more about it, though, very soon, so I wanted to make sure you heard it here first!
At its simplest, Mastodon is a social network/microblogging platform rather like Twitter. And it’s getting a lot of attention at present as people are leaving Twitter, or at least exploring alternatives, because they don’t like what Elon Musk is doing with it or what they fear he might do in the future. I’m reserving judgement on that for the moment, but Mastodon has apparently gained about a million users in the last couple of weeks.
So what does Mastodon have going for it, apart from not being under Elon’s control? Well, a proper answer to that would be really quite long, but here are a few key points:
Mastodon is not run by any single company. It is not driven by profit as its primary motivation.
The feed(s) you see are based purely on whom you follow, and not on somebody else’s algorithm. There’s essentially no spam or advertising, at least for now, and it’s much less likely in the future.
Mastodon is ‘federated’, meaning that it consists of lots of servers talking to each other. Many people sign up to one of the big ones like ‘mastodon.social’ — you can find me as @firstname.lastname@example.org — but there are lots of other options. Some servers (or ‘instances’) are built around particular interests or regions, others may be run by companies or other communities. Each server is moderated and managed by the people who run it, and one view you can choose shows you the new content from people on your instance.
But you can follow, and be followed by, people on any instance, not just the one you’re on. The best analogy here is email: a large number of people choose to use gmail.com, but they can still send and receive emails to people on any other email server. You can choose to get your email service from Fastmail or Microsoft or Yahoo or you can run your own server. (Running a Mastodon instance — e.g. for your company — is rather easier than running an email server!)
You can have multiple accounts on multiple instances and switch between them easily. If you decide to move somewhere else, you can leave a forwarding address so people will find you, and you can even arrange that all your followers will follow you automatically. (Your actual posts are stored on the instance, though, so your history doesn’t come with you to the new place.)
For the technically-inclined, Mastodon instances communicate using an open protocol called ActivityPub, which is also used by other systems such as NextCloud and PeerTube, and I suspect we’ll see it adopted more widely soon. For example, I’ve installed a plugin for this blog, so it can publish using ActivityPub. As well as following me as @email@example.com, you can get notified of posts on this blog by following @firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please do!) If all goes well, this post will be one of the first I publish that way! The feed will be entirely independent of any other organisation, but you can still choose to follow it through, for example, any Mastodon apps or websites.
What I like about this stuff is that, to me, it feels more like the way the internet was in the early days, and the way it should be: people running or choosing their own servers, and people reading and subscribing to content based on their own preferences and not on the profit-maximising algorithms of big American or Chinese corporates.
I hope it flourishes.