Is Mastodon the solution?

By Ande Jacobson

I’ve written about social media before, most recently as the Twitter turmoil was ramping up. I originally joined Twitter back in 2011 mostly to help bolster my fledgling A Good Reed Review website. Originally, that’s all I used it for. Every time I’d publish a piece on the site, I’d have it appear on the site’s Facebook page and on what I considered its Twitter account. Then I got involved in politics in a more substantial way in 2020 volunteering for the Biden text team during the general election. At that point, I started using my Twitter account for more than just the music and theater related content on my website, and I started to recognize much of the good that Twitter could do. News agencies had long used it to get important information out quickly, particularly in times of crisis. The same was true for various public figures.

As time went on, I became more active on Twitter seeking out accounts of interest well beyond the music and theater-centric core I had originally established. I branched out into science, technology, politics, history, the law, and other subjects of interest. Along the way, I made a few friends through some of my Twitter contacts. I always tended to use the platform deliberately, seeking out content of interest rather than letting my experience be driven by the algorithms that focus on rage-inducing content. Much more recently, I learned ways to further focus my experience on Twitter beyond just going directly to accounts of interest and wrote about some of those tools in Social media again.

As time has gone on, tens of thousands of Twitter users have been fleeing the platform with each report of the company’s impending doom. Many have gone over to Mastodon. Teri Kanefield recently shared her thoughts about the future of Mastodon and social media in general on her blog. She provided a comprehensive overview of Mastodon from a user’s eye view, not a technical perspective. Several aspects come through, but one is particularly noteworthy – the Mastodon framework gets away from the profit-driven, corporate control of social media and instead supplies a distributed, connection-centric framework that users can join through multiple avenues. The beauty of Mastodon is that there’s no one master controller nor any algorithmic manipulation of the user experience. People can connect with whomever they choose across the network.

In early November, I joined two Mastodon servers that I treat as a primary and a backup. My primary server focuses on connection within my local region. My backup is a general, international server, but there are numerous servers to choose from, each with a different community focus. The entire Fediverse (the wider Mastodon community) is accessible from any Mastodon server, although a server admin can block another server if they so choose. This doesn’t happen often, and usually only occurs if a particular server abuses the rules. Each server is able to set its own rules, but most tend to be pretty similar prioritizing positive engagement rather than the rage-inducing antics seen on most corporately-owned social media. Every server I’ve looked at has most of the same rules that amount to something like the following:

  1. Sexually explicit or violent media must be marked as sensitive when posting
  2. No racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or casteism
  3. No incitement of violence or promotion of violent ideologies
  4. No harassment, dogpiling or doxxing of other users
  5. No content illegal in Germany
  6. Do not share intentionally false or misleading information

All of the servers also appear to be moderated, and bad behavior is not allowed. Beyond rule 1), people are encouraged to provide content warnings on anything they post that might be triggering in some way with respect to political content, but there’s also a bit of friendly debate in some corners if those warnings need to be required or not. So much of the daily news is consumed by politics, it’s hard to discuss current events without venturing in to the political arena at least a little. Still, the rules and moderation I’ve seen to date are very encouraging and more than fair.

So far, my Mastodon experience is much calmer than on Twitter. I enjoy seeing what’s happening, although I’ve noticed that there seem to be a lot of boosts compared to original individual content. This could be the result of a lot of new users hitting the platform at the same time. The first server I joined was the international one, but one night it was incredibly slow, so I joined a local server. Over the course of a week or so, I decided to make the local server my primary interface and tend to use the other one far less frequently. I thought about migrating from one to the other, but I wanted more of a hot backup situation, so I’ll let them diverge a little. I try to remember to tag my other account in any original posts, but boosts (which are essentially retweets, not quote tweets) can’t be tagged – that’s actually a feature that reduces rage-inducing potential significantly.

From what I’ve seen so far, Mastodon is far more welcoming and downright friendly than many other social media platforms. It has all the earmarks of actually achieving the original goal of social media – connection without the bullying that’s become so prevalent on pretty much all corporate-owned sites. Mastodon’s federation has been around at much lower levels for several years, but with the massive migration off of Twitter recently, it’s getting a lot more attention right now.

Teri Kanefield builds a pretty strong case for Mastodon or something like it becoming the future of social media with a distributed, not-for-profit framework run by volunteers. I enjoy the fact that there aren’t any ads on Mastodon. It’s not about monetizing. It’s about connecting. Still, we live in a world driven by economics, and servers, even personal ones, cost money to operate. Most of the servers I’ve seen so far have some kind of donation mechanism where users can contribute if they so choose. I’ve also seen a few admins hint that if the growth continues at the current pace, they might have to start charging something just to maintain their servers given the growing out-of-pocket costs they are now seeing. Might that stymie one of the biggest draws of the Mastodon universe, or would some servers charging to join with others remaining free with voluntary, donation-based cost sharing merely cause some users to shift their home server? Time will tell. Currently, Mastodon users can move servers pretty much at will, although some servers sometimes stop accepting new users from time to time as they scale for the growing load.

Despite its growing pains, for now at least, Mastodon seems a promising social outlet. It’ll be interesting to revisit in a few months to see how the situation has evolved. Interested in trying Mastodon out? See: to explore the possibilities.

Additional Reading:

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