What the toot is Mastodon?

By: Michael Savich

If you’ve been on Twitter recently, you might have heard whispers of a service called “Mastodon.” Whether it’s people asking what Mastodon is, or people saying that they’re leaving Twitter for Mastodon, the buzz has gotten to the point that major publications have covered it. So what is Mastodon, exactly, and why are people talking about it now?

The latter question is a bit easier to answer, but it requires some context. Recently, Twitter users have been frustrated with the growing amount of harassment they face. Twitter stated they were taking steps to address harassment, and in January an employee even went on record saying that they were thinking about implementing new anti-harassment features in terms of “days and hours, not weeks and months”. Two months later, the American Nazi Party is still on Twitter, which makes one wonder if even the most basic steps toward ending harassment have been taken.

Additionally, Twitter recently rolled out a set of changes that hardcore Twitter users are unhappy about. Most importantly among them is hiding the @-usernames in replies to tweets. It’s tricky to explain why that bothers some so much without explaining the nitty-gritty of how Twitter works, (though this article on the subject is worth reading.) Suffice it to say, there has been a growing sentiment that the interests of Twitter (which continues to disappoint investors) differ from those of its most passionate users.

This discontent led some to move to a service called Mastodon. At first glance, Mastodon seems to be a simple clone of Twitter: tweets are called toots, retweets are boosts, and likes are once again referred to as favorites. But what makes Mastodon different from Twitter is that it isn’t owned by a corporation or even run by a single group. Rather, it is a collection of “federated” servers which means anybody can run the Mastodon software on a server they own, have it connect to and interact with what users affectionately refer to as the “fediverse.” Mastodon.social is the flagship server run by the primary developer of Mastodon, but there are many other servers to choose from.

The use of the word “federation” is very deliberate here. Each Mastodon server starts as its own island. However, when users from one server follow users on another the servers start sharing information, and a federated network starts growing. Servers that are part of the federation pull posts from their neighbors into what is called a federated timeline which is basically like if Twitter had a public timeline that showed all tweets. (Which, by the way, it once did, back when it was a tiny startup.)

It’s important to note that the protocol Mastodon uses to communicate, which is known as OStatus, is actually much older than Mastodon itself. Mastodon’s network is actually larger than Mastodon itself, and you’ll see and be able to interact with users of other OStatus-compliant programs, none of which you’ve heard of before. (GNU Social, anyone?) But, the fact that Mastodon can integrate with other networks so seamlessly is a clear statement of the ideological difference between it and Twitter, which tends to operate like a walled garden.

Mastodon works a lot like email— if you use Gmail and a contact uses iCloud email, you can still send messages to them. In contrast, a Twitter user cannot tweet at a Facebook user.

To be clear, it’s not a coincidence that there is so much tech to talk about Mastodon. This is a social network created by a team of volunteer developers that is mostly populated by people who are either seeking shelter from harassment on Twitter (which Mastodon users refer to obliquely as the “birdsite”) or are nerds tired of their social lives being owned by corporations. In short, it’s a bit of a cyber-hippie community.

Tech media is abuzz over the question of whether Mastodon will be a Twitter killer. The answer is… probably not. Even the idea that Mastodon is comparable to Twitter is something of a manufactured narrative. Since it is not a corporation, Mastodon cannot “succeed” or “fail” because it isn’t a for-profit company. Nor can it be shut down as anyone can run their own Mastodon server. At worst, a critical mass of users could leave. This would leave the network in a zombified state. But, the number of people required to sustain a community is often surprisingly low.
If Mastodon is a revolution, it is a quiet one. It comes as a whisper, stirring the few people left who can imagine life outside the grips of corporate behemoths. Historically, paths that claim to lead away from capitalism tend to wend their way back to where they began, and frankly there isn’t much reason to think Mastodon will be any different in that regard. But, that never seems to stop people from trying.

(Photo Credit: Mastadon.social)

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