More like a village than a city, Mastodon has less cruelty and bad-faith debates than Twitter, in my experience Could it be a social media platform to trust, asks Annalee Newitz
IT HAS been nearly six months since Twitter’s transformation from iconic social media platform into the eccentric personal project of tech billionaire Elon Musk. I abandoned my account last November, save for work announcements – I didn’t want to stick around and watch the place fall apart. Still, I craved a digital hangout where I could connect with friends and colleagues, test out my half-baked ideas and look at cute pictures of capybaras.
I tried out several platforms, from newcomers like Post to the well-established TikTok, and nothing felt right. How do you know when you have found an online community that fits?
After living through at least three generations of social media abandonments, starting with BBSes, or bulletin board systems, I actually have a pretty good idea. I search for that feeling I get when travelling to a city where the mix of shops, public libraries, cafes and parks gives me an ineffable sense of belonging. It is personal and idiosyncratic – obviously not everyone cares about libraries as an urban amenity – but it is also social: an intimation that there are many places to meet people who share my interests.
As I set up my Mastodon account and searched for people to follow, it was as if I found myself on a wide boulevard with shady trees, odd little storefronts and laboratories full of chatty scientists who wanted to tell me about their research. I reconnected with people I had known years ago, but lost in a previous social media abandonment era. I made delightful new acquaintances. We joked about The Mandalorian and made software puns and discussed our jobs.
After a few weeks of friendly patter and small talk, I got into a complicated debate on Mastodon about the politics of social media. A post of mine had gone viral and a lot of people were replying. I braced myself for Twitter-style abuse and bad faith clapbacks that didn’t actually address the concerns I had raised.
Hours went by, then days. Plenty of people disagreed with me, but generally they did it by explaining their own positions and making suggestions about how I could rethink my own. I found myself reconsidering my ideas. I learned a lot. Slowly, I stopped cringing at the gargantuan discussion thread I had spawned. Instead, I looked forward to reading what people had to say.
What is this strange feeling I am having on a social media platform, I wondered. Then I realised: it was the first glimmer of trust. Warily, I posted a few more serious comments, and still received no cruel reprisals. Instead, I got constructive feedback from people who weren’t out to win a fight. It occurred to me that, for years, I had been part of a vast and unacknowledged psychological war on Twitter and I had completely forgotten the joys of a peaceful conversation with strangers. Pretty soon I was no longer a Mastodon tourist. I had moved in.
I have heard critics say that Mastodon is too difficult to figure out because it is decentralised, which means you sign up for a specific Mastodon server instead of joining one massive corporate entity like Facebook or Twitter. Oddly, nobody ever makes this complaint about email, which is decentralised in exactly the same way. You don’t “join email”. You sign up for a specific email service and it delivers your mail to people on different services.
Mastodon has the same model. You can pick a server, sometimes called an “instance”, from a helpful list of open servers maintained by Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko and his team. Many newbies start on Mastodon. social, which is run by Rochko himself. Once you are on a server, you can follow and be followed by people on any instance, or search for subjects you like using hashtags.
Other social platforms, such as Medium and Tumblr, are setting up Mastodon instances, so you can also follow friends you know from those social networks, too. That is the joy of Mastodon, which runs on a protocol that joins many disparate social media sites into a shared “Fediverse”. All of your posts can travel freely between servers and apps, just as emails do. And if you find a server you like more than the one where you started, Mastodon makes it easy to move your posts and friends there.
Will Mastodon replace Twitter? Absolutely not. I don’t think we will ever have something like Twitter again, because social media has entered its classic era. It has gone from a few big networks to thousands of small and medium ones. We have also outgrown the need for cutesy, specialised language like “tweet” and “retweet” to explain what we are doing. We are just writing things, sharing stuff and talking to friends and strangers. Sometimes, it feels as ordinary and comforting as home.
Annalee Newitz is a science journalist and author. Their latest novel is The Terraformers and they are the co-host of the Hugo-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. You can follow them @annaleen and their website is techsploitation.com