The Mastodon social network system is the most promising advance I’ve seen recently toward establishing a better, more compelling social networking system.
I’ll explain why I think it’s worth leaving closed networks like Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc. for Mastodon. I’d also like to say a little about how Mastodon works and mention something nice for the academic community. Perhaps you use something like Academia.edu or ResearchGate? Or just a general purpose social network? Then perhaps you should know about some other options. But first, what is Mastodon.
[Note: I’ve updated this several times since originally posting it, as things shift and more people use Mastodon. Most recent edit: 1 November 2022.]
What is Mastodon and Why Should I Care?
Mastodon is a social network that at first glance, does roughly the same thing as Twitter—it’s simple (omits all the gaudy confusion of Facebook). Its terminology is a bit different, cleverly calling posts toots instead of tweets, which can be 500 characters (more comfortable than Twitter). The current Mastodon interface also gives you a few more features than Twitter does.
Why switch? The essential problem with services like Twitter and Facebook is that they are the only ones who can provide access to their proprietary platforms. They can and do manipulate their services for the sake of their commercial ends, regardless of what you’d like to do with your communications and relationships. They manipulate how you see posts, news, etc. Regardless of how you might assume that you’re receiving information. Aside from not using those platforms, you have limited control over your communications and the content you produce. All of the most used social networks centralize control of your ability to communicate such that ultimately, if they choose to do something you don’t like, you’re stuck with it.
Contrast that for a moment with e-mail. E-mail works based on a standard, open protocol that anyone can use. You can choose your own e-mail provider and still communicate with anyone else using e-mail. You could have a work account, your own personal Gmail (or Mailfence or ProtonMail) account, or even set up your own server. No single company controls e-mail communication entirely because they all interoperate using the same standard open protocols. If you don’t like Yahoo’s interface or business practices, nothing stops you from switching to Gmail and still being able to communicate via e-mail with all of your friends, family, colleagues, etc. No company interferes with the information you receive, when someone sends you a new message, you get it at the top of your list. If you’re using a desktop e-mail application, you retain your correspondence too. This is not the case with Facebook, Twitter, and their kin.
Yet, that is something that Mastodon enables. There are many Mastodon servers (known as “instances”) that you can choose from, similar to those different e-mail services (Gmail or Yahoo or your employer’s system). You can also set up your own instance. The instances can all communicate because they’ll work through standard, open protocols. See, the ActivityPub protocol recently became a W3C recommended standard. This is critical to letting you break out of the centralized control of services like Facebook or Twitter.
Mastodon also offers some cool features that you won’t find on the mainstream proprietary systems.
How to Get Started Using Mastodon
To get a Mastodon account, you first must select an instance. Whichever instance you select becomes your local community—it’s where you login. This makes for an interesting situation because in addition to general ones, there are also Mastodon instances sprouting up for all kinds of communities. Interested in visualization techniques, the way coops function? Science fiction? Scholarly work? Boardgames? Hand-rafted work? A specific language? You can join any of those instances and there is a tool to help you find them.
That means that initially when you sign up, you’ll see the things that people in your local instance post. However, the important point is that you are not restricted to communicating with people on that instance. If you were restricted to communicating with people on that instance only, you might as well be using Twitter or Facebook.
Instead, you can connect with people using any Mastodon instance. This is known as the fediverse because each instance is part of a federated network. They all can communicate with each other. In a way, it’s similar to sending an e-mail from a Gmail account to someone else that uses a Yahoo account. In the Mastodon context, you generally make that connection by following them, like you would with Twitter. You can send messages publicly or privately using their address. Compare:
- E-mail address looks like: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Twitter address looks like: @myname
- Mastodon address looks like: @email@example.com
Posts can be seen by anyone choosing to follow you and from any instance that they have an account. You can send messages publicly or with varying degrees of privacy (depending on what you choose).
In the Mastodon interface, you see
- a panel of interactions with people that you follow regardless of instance,
- a panel of your notifications,
- a panel with the stream of activity from people on your local instance,
- and a panel with the stream of activity from people on other instances.
Items 3 and 4 are options that you can toggle depending on what you want to see. I’ve put a screenshot below from my account, with an explanation of what appears (typed on the right-hand side). This is the web browser interface but apps are available (e.g. the excellent Mastalab) that work similarly.
The way the system works reminds me a little of electronic social networks before the Web existed: BBSes. Ok, I know that most people won’t know what Bulletin Board Systems were like but I have great memories of those small, localized communities of people; communities that also eventually networked with each other.
A tip for getting started: put some initial time and effort into searching for people to follow on Mastodon networks. Look at their followers/people they follow and connect to some. This will start populating your stream with activity to make it interesting and useful.
A Concluding Thought with a Few More Links
In my opinion, the big proprietary walled-communities of electronic networks don’t last. They tend to give way to open systems, which do not centralize control. Think of early AOL, Compuserve, or the other walled-garden competitors of that era versus the open Web. The open Web thrived. Walled-gardens like MySpace flourish for a short time before collapsing to a competitor. The problem is that they don’t support open, standard protocols to interact between services. (Google had a chance when it introduced its Wave system but it executed that poorly… I was optimistic and incredibly wrong about it at the time). Eventually (if they aren’t already) Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc. will probably all go the way of MySpace and other failures at locking people in.
People in the academic community are likely familiar with networks like Academia.edu or ResearchGate. Those are closed social networks that provide some interesting features for academic use. They’re ways to share research, publications, and connect on relevant issues of interest. These are commercial enterprises, with commercial motivations, working in the same, centralized and proprietary manner as other leading social networks. That is a problem with respect to the research lifecycle (and scholarly communication), which thrives through access to shared knowledge.
Let’s get away from the perverse control of the existing social networks by switching to things that use open, standard communication protocols. Let’s return to establishing real, online social-network communities.
To find out more about Mastodon and to set up your own account, you should go to https://joinmastodon.org/ (or see some of my suggestions in this post). While you’re at it, I’d be happy to connect with you from @firstname.lastname@example.org.