WTF is Mastodon

Posted on 11/05/2022 in misc

All the cool kids are publishing beginner’s guides to Mastodon, so here is mine. I dashed this off over a cup of tea in the morning. There are likely errors. Please use the email link at the bottom of the post to point them out, and I’ll update the post.

WTF is Mastodon?

Mastodon is software that provides a Twitter-like microblogging experience. It differs from Twitter is several key ways.

  1. It’s open source software (like Android, Firefox, Thunderbird, and most server software running the Internet. That means there isn’t just one place to use Mastodon, there are thousands, as anybody can fire up a Mastodon server.
  2. It’s federated, meaning all those individual Mastodon servers mentioned in #1 above talk to each other, just like your Hotmail address can communicate with your friend's Gmail address or my ODonnellweb.com address. Which server a user is on doesn’t really matter, you can follow, reply, DM each other regardless of which server you use. Again, think email, not Twitter for this particular point.
  3. Because they are separate servers, they can all have their own rules. The server I use has strictly enforced rules prohibiting trolling, abuse, harassment, spam and is explicitly welcoming to people of all races, genders, orientations, etc. I’ve literally never seen anything on the site that bothers me. Trying saying that about your Twitter feed.
  4. This also means each server and each user decides what other servers it communicates with. So there is an exception to #2 above. If Elon Musk sets up a Muskboys Mastodon server after he kills Twitter, and 200,000 racist, misogynist basement dwellers join it, you can block the entire server with just one click. You probably won’t need to, though, as your server admin can also do the same at the server level.
  5. I lied above, your server may not matter from a technical standpoint, but if somebody from the Muskfanboys instance follows me I’m blocking the entire server immediately.
  6. The individuality above means the user experience on Mastodon is slightly different than Twitter. You have three feeds on Mastodon.
    1. Home - which is the people you follow.
    2. Local - Everybody on your particular instance
    3. Federated - The Masto universe, minus all the stuff your server might be blocking. The Federated feed is exactly what you are thinking a generally unmoderated feed of Internet content might be. Explore at your own risk.

Is it free like Twitter?

Twitter is not free. You are paying with your privacy, and your soul. You are the product on Twitter. The customers are the advertisers. One reason Twitter was never as big as Facebook or Instagram is that Twitter was never as good at matching ads to users as the other services were. Somebody is paying for the server time to run Masto servers. The developer runs a non-profit to help buy groceries, pay rent, hire programming help, etc. Individual Masto servers may be hobbies funded out of the pocket of the owner, or cooperative efforts with users donating to help cover costs. If Masto continues to grow, I expect we’ll see more blatantly commercial instances pop up, but today it’s all still a very homegrown feeling.

Is Masto full of guys who eat Soylent and are mad that their wives won't switch to Linux.?

Yep, as was Twitter when it started, email when it first became a thing, websites when they were first built, etc. The nerds are always the early adopters online. The nerd ratio has fallen dramatically in the last week, though. The beauty of Mastro though is that you can find (or start) an instance focused on whatever you are interested in, and your local feed will mostly be that stuff as you add relevant people to the instance. Instances are kind of, sort of, like Geocities neighborhoods, but much more granular and not limited to the handful of options Yahoo gave you. It’s tech heavy today, but that is changing quickly. I saw an instance yesterday titled “heavyrock.” When the metal heads show up, you know it’s getting mainstream 🙂

What is this “instance” you mentioned above?

Every server is an instance of Mastodon, and can talk to other instances, as I mentioned above. This means a deranged billionaire can’t buy Mastodon and ruin it overnight. A really cool thing is that Mastodon runs on a protocol called ActivityPub (getting nerdy here.) Other things such as blogs and photo sharing sites also run ActivityPub. This means you can literally follow your friend's photo sharing posts on PixelFed (think Instagram) from your Mastodon account. You don’t even need a Pixelfed account to keep up with your friends photos there, since it speaks the same language as Mastodon. Try that with Instagram!

Mastodon isn’t as stable as Twitter.

LOL. You weren’t on Twitter in 2008, were you? Google ‘Fail Whale” and get back to me. Also, Musk just fired ½ the Twitter staff. It’s likely to get unstable again real quick, or maybe not if usage continues to scale down as fast as the employee head count. Also, the fact your Masto server is down tells you nothing about the thousands of other servers. They’ll be operating normally.

Is Mastodon better than Twitter?

Mastodon is different from Twitter. Better is a value judgment you need to make for yourself. The developer of Mastodon made some very specific decisions when he built Mastodon to try and curb the worst excesses of Twitter. I think they work and make Mastodon a generally better place. Some of those differences are explained very well here. Because there is no algorithm, your Mastodon experience is really up to you.

My feed is empty, this sucks.

There is no algorithm feeding you crap you don’t want to see on Mastodon. When you initially create your account, you are not following anybody. Check out the local feed of your instance, they’ll be stuff there. Follow me, I’m at https://fosstodon.org/web/@chrisod. Follow the same people somebody you like follows. The more people you follow, the more you'll see in your feed.

Facebook and Twitter have trained us to consume whatever crap they put in our feeds. That is bad. When you created a blog in 2002 you started with zero readers. It took some effort to get people to read your blog. When you got your first email address, interesting emails did not just start coming into your inbox. You had to find your friends that had email addresses, subscribe to newsletters, or whatever. Make an effort and you’ll be rewarded. Or don’t and abandon your new mastodon account immediately. It doesn’t really matter to me either way.

Do you have a step-by-step guide to building my personal brand on Mastodon?

With no algorithm to game, there is exactly one way to build your following on Mastodon. You have to post interesting stuff that causes people to follow you. That’s it. But I do hear LinkedIn is good for personal branding, you should check it out.

This seems hard

It’s different, not hard. I ran a tech blog for parents for a short while, back in the heyday of blogging. People were really confused by Facebook and Twitter back then. Give it some time, and you’ll figure it out. Or just stay on Twitter and Facebook. Nobody needs a Mastodon account. It’s entirely optional.

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I like hearing from readers, all three of you! Nobody comments on blogs anymore, and I'd rather not use Facebook or Twitter as a comment system so it's back to the email.