The Vibes of Mastodon

Back in December, I decided to leave Twitter and joined Mastodon: the federated social network that’s not owned by any one person or company. Shortly thereafter, I tweeted for the final time on Twitter. I had originally intended to test out several options for replacing the newly-Elon-Musk-purchased social network; but after dabbling with Post, Hive Social, and Tribel Social, I discovered that none of them really had the same “feel” as Mastodon. The “vibes” were—are—really different, and I like it.

So if you’re interested in joining Mastodon, here’s what you can expect:

It Feels like the Internet of 1999

If you remember the internet of 1999, you probably remember it feeling like the wild west: frontier town websites, scrappy discussion forums, and no algorithm guiding, gatekeeping, or filter-bubbling what you saw.

Imagine those heady times, add some better moderation, and you have Mastodon.

The spirit of old-school webrings is alive in the niche Mastodon instances that have gathered around various professions, scientific research topics, and fandoms. The spirit of discussion forums is on the platform in the way hashtags are used across the “Fediverse” (a collective name for all of the interconnected ActivityPub servers) to connect with people who are interested in the same topic across the world.

Now, this also means that you’re not spoon-fed interesting content like on big social media sites. If you’re interested in NASA, you’ll need to follow the #NASA hashtag. A lot of new users have reported the Mastodon experience being a solitary one; but that’s just because they haven’t gone looking for people and topics they are interested in.

Mastodon doesn’t need algorithms or recommendations to surface the people users want to follow; instead, we just see their posts come up in hashtags (oh, did I mention you can follow hashtags? More on that later). But in short, it feels like the old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century internet; not least of which in the way that…

It feels more cooperative

One of the first differences you’re likely to notice between posting pictures on Mastodon and posting pictures on Twitter is that people on Mastodon are much more interested in utilizing image descriptions. Not only are they a huge quality-of-life improvement for people with vision problems and slow internet, some people use them for further explanations and even extra jokes. People want others to see what they share, so they make it more accessible.

People also don’t tear other people down as much on Mastodon. In fairness, this may be a personal experience, but since there’s no algorithmic advantage to tossing off a hurtful zinger at an opponent, you’re a lot more likely to see people answering kindly, or just muting or blocking troublemakers. It makes for fewer mic drops, but it’s still nice to see such kindness and cooperation.

That cooperation also comes up in the form of hashtags. Since there’s no algorithm pushing content you’re likely to interact with, people often find others using hashtags; just like in the old days of Twitter. See a topic you want to learn more about? You can follow a hashtag just like you follow a user and see all the federated posts a server knows about with a particular hashtag in your timeline. This also means that which instance you choose doesn’t have to be particularly important, as you can follow topics and users from essentially any server from your account.

That cooperative nature also leads to users donating to their instance administrators to keep the site going because they like it; kind of like with public media. Some servers have a Patreon account with perks, while others simply put up a PayPal or Kofi tip jar. Compared to a big social media company that requires advertising and subscriptions to stay afloat…

It feels more solid

Early in my experience with Mastodon, I put my coding and development account on a smaller, up-and-coming server; but shortly after I joined, the massive increase in signups from people fleeing Twitter caused some uptime issues on the small, self-hosted server. In order to relieve the load, I moved the account to Universeodon, a bigger server (which interestingly also hosts George Takei‘s Mastodon presence).

The move took all of five minutes, and I didn’t lose any followers or follows. In essence, I was able to pick up exactly where I left off; I didn’t have to rebuild my network on a new server. Everyone just came with me, and it was very simple.

This gives me a lot of confidence for all of my accounts; if one server goes away, I can go to another instance. In fact, if Mastodon itself goes away, I can go to another service altogether, such as Pixelfed or Friendica (or the inevitable Mastodon fork that will inevitably be released within hours), and since it’s all based on open standards, there’s no way for a billionaire with a trollface gif to pull the rug out from under me.

In a lot of ways…

It feels like the future

Honestly, Mastodon feels like the type of social media that Starfleet would use; my instance is my starship, and it plays nice with all the other instances in the fleet (though there are a few Romulan warbirds out there that we don’t interact with since they’re trying to do devious stuff).

Maybe we won’t be using social media by then. But if we are, I hope it’s something federated and standards-based; something a single bad actor can’t destroy without our consent.

We’re building a new social internet out there. Won’t you join us?