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10 Initial Notes On Using Mastodon

Mastodon

In December 2023, I signed up for Mastodon. It had been a full year since the crazy, impulse Twitter migration. So, I figured things had calmed down to give it a solid try. I’ve been on Mastodon for 3 months at this point.

I’ve poked and prodded, hacked around with it, moved servers twice, and even ran my own server for a bit. I’m at that point where I know enough about Mastodon and the Fediverse to feel like a totally true beginner – I know enough to know that there is so much I don’t know.

Here are my current notes & observations in no specific order about this weird and potentially wonderful technology or Mastodon*, the Fediverse*, and ActivityPub*.

The Technology Feels Like The ’90s Again

One of my favorite shows as a teenager was The Screen Savers with Leo Laporte. It was a call-in show about technology and the Internet. I remember one episode where he spent so much time explaining Hotmail.

Hotmail was, of course, one of the first services to allow the broad public to send & receive email on the Web with a browser instead of an email client on your desktop. It was amazing…and nobody knew what to call it. Hotmail was simply a service that allowed you to use email via the SMTP / POP protocol. But everyone called it Hotmail there for a while…until finally, other web-based email services came out, and everyone realized that Hotmail was just email.

OK! Mastodon is like that. Except in this case, Mastodon is Hotmail. It’s the most well-known and largest service that allows you to send & receive posts on the Fediverse (analogous to email in my analogy, but for social networking) via the ActivityPub protocol (analogous to SMTP / POP in my analogy).

Either way, it’s really fun and weird (and a bit confusing) to be interacting with a truly new Internet protocol again…instead of just learning a new product.

Which….is also super-confusing now, because unlike email where we had very few products to compare it with…now we have hundreds of massive, global brands to compare it with. And it’s not quite the same…at all. Mastodon is not Twitter…even though it’s absolutely built to feel like Twitter…but on the Fediverse.

Mastodon Is Much Smaller Than I Thought

For all the press Mastodon gets and all the energy and innovation it sees, it’s small—like, smaller than small. But since it’s its own thing, the media treats it as an equal with other social networking products. It’s like how we treat countries as equals—even though China, India, and the US are not even in the same demographic or power league as Suriname.

The thing that I quickly learned about Mastodon is that it has a fairly diverse user base (though definitely with lots of self-selection bias). It has enough users to be a decent sampling of parts of the Internet….but there’s just not many people per interest. For example, Reddit has a subreddit dedicated just to Atlanta. It has 467,000 users. And Reddit is one of the smallest social networks on the Internet.

Mastodon, in total, has like ~1,000,000 active users. People are chatting about Atlanta on Mastodon…but like 5 that I could find.

Ditto for backpacking, marketing, etc. It’s there…but absolutely nothing like the scale of even a single Facebook group, IG account, Twitter account, etc.

A few highly influential groups, like Information Security and Privacy people, have moved to Mastodon, but that’s mainly because Mastodon aligns with their interests.

And size is not a bad thing! The conversations are much more chill and slow. It reminds me, again, of email in the 1990s. It was…just different than it is now.

The Tech Works

I’ve been honestly blown away at how well the technology works. Like, ActivityPub, Fediverse, Mastodon, and all the consumer apps work.

Sure, there is a lot of discussion about UX improvements, bugs, etc…but those conversations are only possible because…it all just works.

Now, it is different and slower than the big social media companies. But to me, the UX bumps on Mastodon only highlight how slick and manipulative the big platforms have become. I mean, the UX on Instagram & TikTok is scary.

Mastodon reminds Me of 2011 twitter

I did not realize how much we’ve outsourced our thinking to interest-driven algorithms…on every platform. Finding, following, and filling up your feed is not hard on Mastodon.

But, like 2011 Twitter, you have to manually find a few accounts you like, and then manually find people they follow…to follow. People do FollowFriday and recommend Lists. You can follow hashtags to find people.

It’s all very manual and deliberate in a good way. I love it.

It’s Really Nice To Have No Ads & No Manipulation

For me, one of the best things about city and state parks, libraries, Wikipedia, and scenic byways is that there are no ads, no commercial pressure, and it’s just chill. I also notice the huge contrast of just how many ads are on social media—it’s insane.

I love that on Mastodon; the feed is clean, and it’s exactly how I want it. I can favorite or boost a post without being afraid the company will flood my recommendations with similar content.

It feels like I’m in control – like my email inbox.

Mastodon Still Has the Root Negatives of Social Networking

Speaking of being “in control” of my email inbox…Mastodon and the Fediverse are not somehow better for your mental health or more virtuous than commercial social networks. They aren’t. In fact, in some ways, they can be worse.

People are still people on the Fediverse, just like they were people on old-school blogs and Usenet before that.

Mastodon still triggers that Pavolvian random-reward dopamine rush. It’s the same cycle that pulls you into your email, your IG feed, and any sort of distraction. That basic function is still there.

Mastodon still has human tribes seeking status and belonging. And everyone can see everything…even people from other tribes and interests. Sometimes, that generates meaningful discussion. But sometimes it generates dominance games.

Now, I think there is less on Mastodon because it’s not quite as convenient and as slick as modern social media apps. Mastodon still has hiccups in the ability part of the BJ Fogg model.

The Fediverse Will Win…It May Take a While

Mastodon and the Fediverse are small, but they’ve been growing…steadily.

My one observation (and belief) about the Internet and computer technology is that open-source software and protocols always win in the end.

It’s the basic story of the tortoise (community open-source) and the hare (corporate closed-source). Open-source software, by its nature, never goes away. It just keeps plugging along, slowly improving, and slowly gaining adoption—and never losing it. That is why every server on the Internet runs Linux. It’s why Android keeps marching along. It’s why WordPress can’t be killed. And it’s why everyone keeps coming back to email.

I don’t think everyone will be using Mastodon in 10 years, but I do think Fediverse and ActivityPub will win. It’ll be weirder but better. It’ll be like how everyone uses web-based email—even if Hotmail is a shell of its former self.

And like ditching AOL for HotMail back in the ’90s, even if you’re a bit early, I think it’s worthwhile to think more “open” than “closed.”

A huge moment came last year when WordPress improved the ActivityPub plugin, which turns blogs powered by WordPress into Fediverse “instances” that people can follow on Mastodon (or any ActivityPub server).

Flipboard added ActivityPub support this year. And Meta’s Threads will soon as well. I think the future is built on ActivityPub, even if Mastodon is the current main player in the space (imo, Mastodon might actually be the Hotmail in my analogy).

Mastodon & The Fediverse Seriously Complicates Internet Speech

I thought I had a nuanced political stance about Congress regulating the big social media companies. But after using Mastodon (and setting up my own instance), I literally have zero clue.

Here’s the thing. Mastodon (and all Fediverse apps) are software that anyone can download and run on any server – and that includes a used PC from the ’90s running Linux. If that computer is connected to the Internet…you can share anything to anyone no matter what your country is.

And yeah…that truly means anyone, anywhere, doing anything (NSFW example and political example). That moves enforcement back to the person rather than the platform (sort of like how you can’t ban houses or streets because criminals use them)…but it also makes creating regulations around social media companies even harder (for better and for worse).

Mastodon & The Fediverse Can Power Distribution Again

I think the most exciting thing about the Fediverse is distribution. Right now, if a business and a customer (or just two people) have a relationship, the only guaranteed way to interact is via email or phone or RSS.

If you interact on a platform, that platform can prevent you from distributing your information to that customer. The Fediverse changes that. When I follow someone on Mastodon, I will see what they post. There’s no one to filter or change that. For creators, businesses, etc., that is an exciting and positive prospect.

There is a world where, say, people and institutions won’t have to maintain accounts on every random social network. They’ll just have their own self-hosted (or managed hosted) Fediverse profile that sends updates to whatever product people are using to follow them.

It’s Fun To Poke Around & Explore

It’s not often that a truly new technology comes along (ActivityPub was approved in 2018). Most social media products are old and copy each other’s features. Mastodon is part of something cool…even if Mastodon isn’t the final technology, I’ve enjoyed playing around with it…even if I’m keeping most all of my writing on this site.

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