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Mastodon's Promising Federated Approach Will Frustrate You More Than Twitter

Mastodon's Promising Federated Approach Will Frustrate You More Than Twitter

I had a great chat Robyn Bresnahan on CBC Ottawa Morning on 08-Nov-2022 to try and explain Mastodon. Listen to our discussion 👇

Twitter is currently a dumpster fire heading over a cliff.

In what can only be described as a chaotic festival of irrational whimsy, the site has seen drastic content and technical changes in the past few weeks.

This has people looking for alternatives.

There aren’t any.

…at least there aren’t any other Twitter’s out there. There are other social media platforms that have made different decisions over time, build up different cultures, and deliver fundamentally different experiences.

Enter Mastodon.

Open Alternative

In 2016 Eugen Rochko formed the open source project and the organization of volunteers to help develop and promote it. Over time, that became Mastodon gGmbH, a non-profit registered in Germany.

The idea behind Mastodon is simple: a social media platform that centres around user choice.

With Twitter (and Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.), there’s just “Twitter.” Everyone’s tweets are on the same platform and a series of algorithms help determine what content you see.

You can influence those algorithmic decisions by following different accounts, engaging with specific content, and using the platform more and more.

You can always go find specific content from accounts on Twitter, but you’ll have to work for it.

With Mastodon, those choices are far more explicit. There is no algorithm promoting content based on data analysis.

The Fediverse

There isn’t one “Mastodon” system. The network is made up of a number of servers. Each server is it’s own island. Those islands can

You—the user—select a server as your “home base.” This decision will influence your experience significantly.

Pick a server that has a theme or primary topic that interests you…or one of the many generic servers out there.

Once you’re set up on a server, you login and see…nothing.

This wall of nothingness is one of the biggest blockers for new users joining Mastodon. It’s also one of the systems biggest strengths.

Control What You See

As a Mastodon user, you can follow the content from almost any account on any server. If you choose to follow an account, you’re going to start to see their posts (or toots 🤦) on home timeline.

Over time, you will follow more and more accounts, slowly building out the timeline of content you see. You can also view the local timeline for the server (posts from everyone on that server) or the federated, which is a combination of other servers local timelines.

If you’re still looking for more content, you can search by hashtag (#), but not by the content of the post. That’s an important limitation and another place where users struggle as they move to this platform.

To summarize what’s available for content:

When you toot (post, it’s a post…🤦), accounts who follow you will see it. If one of those accounts boosts (essentially a share/retweet) that post, their followers will see it. It will also be added to the servers local timeline and any servers that have your server in their federated timeline.

Notice what’s missing? There is no algorithm promoting content or showing it to people to gauge their reactions.

The Gap

This is both an advantage and disadvantage for Mastodon. If you know the goals of the system, it makes sense.

You—the user—are in control of what you see.

This is also why there’s a very strong content warning culture within the platform.

If you think of Mastodon as somewhere between Twitter and a forum or chat platform like Discord, it makes a lot more sense.

If you are moving to Mastodon thinking it’s a Twitter replacement, you’re going to be frustrated. Very frustrated…and lonely.

Mastodon can help you maintain and build a community online. But it is its own unique animal. Keep that in mind as your explore and reach out.


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