Twitter's Emerging Competitor Doesn't Want To Be Twitter

Twitter is a hellhole. Mastodon isn’t trying to replace the trashcan fire that is Twitter, but it is offering its users something different.

Mastodon, a social network released in October 2016, could be described as a Twitter competitor, but the more you dig into it, the less true that feels.

On the surface, it’s pretty Twitter-like. Mastodon’s website design looks a lot like the Twitter client Tweetdeck. Posts can only be a certain number of characters, you can use hashtags and even boost other people’s posts. There are some marginal surface differences — instead of tweets, posts are called toots — but when you first look at the site, the experience looks more or less the same.

Untangling the knot of what Mastodon actually is, however, begins when you’re trying to set up an account. Unlike Twitter, Mastodon isn’t a single network, but hundreds of them. They’re called “instances,” and they’re all run independently by different users.

You can still talk to users who are in different instances, but whatever instance you personally join will have its own set of social norms and rules, sort of like early 2000s internet forums. There are instances for queer people, for furries, for filmmakers, for people interested in Magic: The Gathering. On one instance, you can’t make any posts with the letter “e.” This inspired another instance, on which you can only use the letter “e.”

According to people who talked to Kotaku about what it’s like to run instances on Mastodon, the site’s decentralized network is part of its appeal. Also, more than one of these instance administrators said that their interest in a decentralized internet began long before Mastodon.

“I’ve always felt strongly about the centralisation about the Internet,” Sascha, who runs deadinsi.de, a general purpose anti-fascist and LGBT instance, said over email. “There used to be a time where pretty much everything on the internet was a federated or at least interoperable protocol: Email, IRC, NNTP. This changed as the internet became more popular and commercialised. Federated solutions serve their users, centralised solutions serve their operators.”

“In short,” they went on, “Mastodon is human, Twitter is just another faceless corporation looking out for itself.”

The desire for a small, less corporate social network is strong among several instance admins. Many of them said they don’t even want Mastodon to become more user-friendly or for it to grow too quickly. Because of the way that it’s organised and its relatively small global user base, which grew to just over a million users as of last December, Mastodon can be a place where human interaction can actually happen in a more close-knit environment than Twitter.

“Interaction is certainly the point of social media for me; when I post I don’t want to feel like I’m shouting into the void,” said David, who runs tech.lgbt, a space for queer people in tech, via email. They went on to say that in general, their posts on Mastodon tend to get more engagement than on other social networks.

M.K., who runs guillotines.masto.host, which they described as “an intentionally small instance which is trying to ride the line between creating a safe space and allowing shitposts,” described interacting with people on Mastodon as very different than their experience on Twitter.

“I have a reasonably large account on Twitter (about 4,500), and some of my mutuals have VERY large accounts, so I get a fair amount of engagement on Twitter,” said M.K. over email. “One thing that’s been hard to deal with as my platform has grown has been the background radiation of constant hostility. Strangers giving unsolicited advice. Casual abuse. A couple of really graphic death threats.”

According to M.K., Twitter hadn’t done much to curb that hostility. “I got one death threat that was graphically sexual and I got a Twitter timeout for telling him off,” they said. “My most recent one included a photo of a corpse. That one’s still up, last I heard.”

M.K. is still on Twitter, but for them, using the service requires a particular approach: “My strategy on Twitter is to be fairly standoffish and to call out people who cross my boundaries, clearly and harshly, while trying to stay within Twitter’s capriciously enforced rules.”

By contrast, says M.K., “on Mastodon, I can enforce my boundaries, so that’s not needed. I can deplatform fascists. Not just defend myself, but 100 other people who aren’t a bigot’s punching bag.” As the head of an instance, M.K. can create and enforce their own rules, which includes booting bigots from their community.

“That’s not just the right thing to do, but it feels good to take their power. It’s easy to be gracious when you have power. I’m more deliberative. I get to channel feeling protective of people into actually protecting them, and that does feel good. That IS better than Twitter.”

Mastodon allows instance admins to protect the communities they’ve built, and for some, that ethos is at odds with the influx of people who are looking for Twitter alternatives.

Almost every instance admin who spoke to Kotaku said that they hope their instance doesn’t grow too quickly. One said if Mastodon ever got too mainstream, they’d leave it. When Wil Wheaton tried to join an instance, the people already on it weren’t very happy with having a celebrity, especially this particular one, on their server. Wheaton ended up leaving his account of his own accord after being told by an admin that it was going to be suspended.

“I think a big part of what makes it what it is are the people. There’s somewhat of a gateway into using Mastodon which means the people on it tend to be more alike,” Shaun, who runs the tiny instance ilovela.in, said over email. “If the normal people started to flood into it I think it would lose a lot of its charm, it should always stay a little niche.”

For the Mastodon users who don’t want the site to grow too fast, the obtuseness of the website is a feature, not a bug. These users don’t think Mastodon should be a Twitter competitor, but something completely different: a different kind of internet, one that’s owned by its users, and not a corporation.

In my own experience on the platform, Mastodon does feel like it allows people to be more authentic. I see less of the performativeness that is characteristic of Twitter. I joined Mastodon shortly after it was released in 2016, and as someone who has broken ten thousand followers on Twitter, it was refreshing to find myself in a smaller setting, with fewer people vying for my attention.

Sometimes, on Mastodon, people I don’t know will respond to random queries that I throw out into the ether. Being able to have actual conversations with those people, who are for the most part acting in good faith, feels more like the marketplace of ideas that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey claims his website would be, at its inception. There is drama on Mastodon, and there are arguments, but for the most part, they’re contained to communities rather than whipping through the entire site like a wildfire. I’m less active there, but I like that too. Mastodon doesn’t make demands of my time. After I took a months-long break, my friends on the platform greeted me back with enthusiasm.

“I don’t think every instance needs to be a safe space. Mine is,” M. K. said. “I have a couple of people who have one account on my instance and one on another and use my instance as a place where they can be authentic and soft. I’m happy with that. That was my goal for my users.”

Although Mastodon’s newfound mainstream attraction is bittersweet for the users who don’t want the site to grow too fast, it does also spur some hope from fans of its design that a better, decentralized internet is possible.

“I’m going to have to balance Mastodon just as I would any other service that takes up my time, attention, and emotional investment,” David said. “But right now it’s becoming more interesting now that there is an influx of new users, and I welcome anything that gets more people involved in decentralized web services.”


Comments

    That Will Wheaton example shows exactly what's wrong with this platform. When you have individuals on a power trip forcing people into quitting simply because they're this, or they're that is ridiculous, ironically it's almost a form of fascism that many of these instances claim they are against.

      And the bigots and homophobes, gamergaters, incels, flat earthers and whatever other weird groups are out there can all have their own instance where they all pat each other on the back.

      Don't we already have reddit for this?

      But instances are meant to be private little clubs. Membership is not guaranteed to everybody for whatever reasons the creators feel necessary. And any respectable intelligent person (like Wheaton) will understand that there's no point in being were one is not wanted even if you don't entirely agree with the reasons for it. I am positive that there are other instances delighted to have him.

      Also please educate yourself. Fascism, to be fascism has to be enforced or at least endorsed by a nation's government which can leverage the law of the land against the citizens. A tiny group of people to which belonging is optional is nothing similar to that.

        Fascism has lost all meaning - it lost all meaning when people started using it to refer to police enforcing any law they find inconvenient, or anyone who doesn't agree with the far left. You can thank Twitter for diluting it even more.

        Sorry, I should of said shares some traits with fascism being suppression of any type of opposition.

          Yeah, that's a better turn of language. However, in this case there's no suppression nor opposition. Simply a private club that didn't want a given person to join.

    My favourite part if how everybody realised how shitty Wheaton and Randi truly are.

    I'm trying to work out whether they've just re-invented IRC or this is just a web platform and free hosting type deal. (eg. self hosting a Wordpress site)

      A bit of both. With the added wrinkle of being able to communicate across instances.
      It's like if everyone was able to self-host their own twitter (similar to how phpBB was, once upon a time), but your account on one instance can communicate with others like email.
      It's just as weird and confusing as it sounds.

    So basically, it's a place for groupthink free from outside scrutiny or criticism.

    I mean that's fine if that's what you want, this is why we have subreddits and before that forums, but this just creates its own brand of toxicity and hostility, and allows it to perpetuate without question. I don't know why this is lauded as some achievement.

      That's exactly it. But people (or more accurately, narcissists) only join Twitter to get patted on the back and be the most extreme of their cohort, not because they want genuine disussion.

      This new platform let's them do just that!
      They should have just called it echochamberr, and called tweets echos, and retweets circlejerks.

      I think Twitter is horrible and can't for the life of me think of any reason for any sane person to be actively using it.

        It's a good place to dump Switch clips for sharing.

      Also free from harassment, which is the whole point.

      I agree that there are dangers to circlejerk, even for the noblest causes and I'd certainly prefer if people who think like I didn't remove themselves from the discussion. That said, seeing the systemic harassment enacted in Twitter against those who speak out about things like reproductive rights, or Trump being an idiot, or compassion towards queer people, etc, I really can't blame them for wanting a safe space.

      Also, do note that those harassers didn't need a walled-garden environment to be toxic and hostile. Some people are just like that, and if we're being honest, there are some opinions or beliefs that naturally engender such behaviours. Why should we tolerate spaces that allow such people to enact their brand of cruelty, but not tolerate spaces designed to thwart them?

        That 'systemic harrassment' works across the political spectrum, including attempts to deplatform people from common sites. Sites like these aren't all that different from communities like Wizardchan or an Antifa group - insular, bound by common identity defined by separation from another usually designated 'antagonistic' group, and hostile to divergent thought.

        I agree that the toxicity on sites like Twitter is getting out of hand, but I don't know if sites like this are any real solution. All this does is increase political polarisation, which is already dangerous. I don't know how we can cheer for this when we've seen time and time again that insular sites breed toxicity. The only difference I can see is that it suits somebody's personal and political values, thus that makes it okay because it's us, not them. It's the kind of cognitive dissonance that makes #killallmen or #cancelwhitepeople not only acceptable but applauded.>

          I dunno man. As I said, I know that segregation is not good, but I also can't disagree with people's desire not to be targeted and have a safe space. Haven't you, for example, heard time after time how women are terrified about reporting sexual assault because social media makes them easy targets for further harassment, which include death threats, doxxing and the such? Harassers have made of /speaking up the truth/ an act of escalation.

          So yeah, creating a safe space may not be the ideal solution but sure beats doing nothing. Maybe we should redouble our efforts to shame and punish harassers and bigots, then neither safe spaces nor retributory movements such as the ones you mention would have a reason to exist.

            Haven't you, for example, heard time after time how women are terrified about reporting sexual assault because social media makes them easy targets for further harassment
            Well yeah, but I've also seen careers destroyed by the mere allegation of sexual harassment or inappropriateness on social media. The harassers are on both sides - except people (on both sides) are desperately trying to claim that it's okay when they do it because it's for some greater cause. Ideally we wouldn't be harassing each other and desperately trying to defame each other - but we do, because social media has such a massive reach.

            Like I said if people want to wall themselves off in their own little echo chambers, that's fine - this is the Internet, you can do that sort of thing if you want. But it needs to be recognised for what it ultimately will become - ideological echo chambers that will breed their own kinds of toxicity, bastions of groupthink and sameness that protect not just from harassment, but from criticism. I just find it mildly amusing that the cognitive dissonance has grown such that we're applauding echo chambers while simultaneously trying to deplatform or destroy other echo chambers simply because we don't agree with it. It's kind of antithetical to what the Internet used to be about.

              Saying that "harassers are on both sides" does absolutely nothing to advance any kind of discussion. It's a false equivalence that usually ends in a big "whelp, that's how things are, and we cannot take sides or do anything to fix it". For example, if rape, sexual assault or gender-based harassment and abuse against women were not so depressingly prevalent, it would not be so absolutely EASY to believe any given claim of it happening. Moreover, it'd be absurd to believe that the amount of fake career-assassination reports are in any way as plentiful as the real reports. Yes, ideally no innocent man would have to suffer in order for the many guilty to be punished, but the alternative (aka, how things were up to a decade or two ago) is that the guilty get away with everything, which in turn, creates a culture where men are encouraged to do as they like with little repercussion.

              I just find it mildly amusing that the cognitive dissonance has grown such that we're applauding echo chambers while simultaneously trying to deplatform or destroy other echo chambers simply because we don't agree with it. It's kind of antithetical to what the Internet used to be about.

              This is another false equivalence. Are you saying that an exclusionist group created, for example, to organise Nazi rallies is just as bad as an exclusionist group created for women or LGTB+ to be safe from harassment? I think we humans are creatures complex enough to understand how similar things with different purposes are not the same.

                If you think trial by social media is better than people actually taking things through the legal system, or an actual alternative, then I really have nothing else to say. Ask Asia Argento how she likes it now the pendulum has swung the opposite way...

                I'm not talking about actual Nazis but as you well know terms such as Nazi and Fascist have been co-opted by groups like Antifa to refer to anyone they dislike - and insular groups like Antifa, or incels, or radical feminists posting #killallmen unironically, along with actual Nazis, are exactly the type of groups that these sites will breed and fester. You seem to suggest that the only reason sites like this exist is for sanctuary for LGBT+ - but it's going to breed its own kind of toxicity, except for somebody else's idea of politically or socially acceptable views. There's still going to be large bastions of toxicity, same as Reddit, and it's nothing to hail as some big achievement.

                I totally agree that stamping out toxicity on all sides is worthy - but it outright isn't happening. It's fine for people to have their own little echo chambers if that's what they really want. Its fine if people just want it walled off to protect against harassment. But it's going to breed its own form of toxicity - same as so many other 'safe spaces' - and cut people off from divergent speech.

                  I 100% have no idea where you got that I agree with or endorse "trial by social media". I do like when people speak up against true abusers, which is something that people would feel discouraged or even intimidated not to do just years before. I don't like the social media circus that ensues but again, I'd rather have that and keep victims exposing criminals (and they getting the due process) than shutting the whole thing down.

                  Regarding your second paragraph: I have already agreed that insulation is not ideal. However, we have also agreed that toxicity /already exists/ insulation or not! It has always existed and will always exist (though admittedly, it has become worse under the current US administration which has emboldened bigots of all kinds and sizes). So why should we be fine with people being victimised, but cry out when they seek safety because they /may/ become toxic as well? As you yourself imply, being victim of toxicity already has the effect of making one toxic in return. So why not to try and see whether enclosed communities where its members experience peace from their harassers actually generate more toxicity than having said victims continuously exposed to hatred and abuse until they snap?

                  Also, I have to say that it is a bit disingenuous to believe that the "anti-Nazis" come first and create the Nazis. Nazism and white supremacism spread in western countries in the past few decades is very well documented and communities who try to combat them are justified in doing so. Does it not happen that sometimes someone who is not a Nazi gets splashed with the insult by a too-excitable/too-angry/too-ignorant person? Sure it does and it's unfortunate--but no more unfortunate than allowing Nazis to remain uncontested: their tactics always have been to insidiously try to gain political or cultural legitimacy. And if a non-Nazi becomes a Nazi after being called one... if that's all that it took to radicalise them? Well, I'm thinking that SS was already in their heart.

            The best way for people not to be targeted on Twitter is to not use it.

            People can have views without spewing them across the internet in 140 characters, and more often than not, who cares??

            Twitter is essentially built on that division and antagonism now.

              You are not entirely wrong, but suggesting that the innocents should give up and retreat would only serve to confirm that aggression and underhanded tactics are indeed effective ways to take over cultural platforms and dominate the discussion.

                I think people who are using Twitter think that others care about what people think, or say on Twitter than they actually do.

                What is published/repeated from Twitter is already only largely representative of the fringe, because it tends to be the more outrageous or click bait worthy.

                It's not a cultural platform. It's a giant game of one-up man ship. It's a soapbox for nutters. Let the nutters have their soapbox and it becomes irrelevant.

                  Not sure, man (or ma'am?). I'm positive that there are many that are exactly what you describe. On the other hand, Twitter is also widely used by creators to keep in touch with their fanbase (which for independent creators often constitutes an invaluable and irreplaceable part of advertising and generating goodwill in our hyperconnected social media present). People who are just trying to do their thing, and then the harassers just descend upon them.

        The problem is there's just as much systemic harassment coming from the people who claim to be getting harassed themselves. Everyone is the hero of their own story, the far right, and the far left, and that's why the problem will never be solved by a different platform.

          Yeah, sure, anybody on either side can dish nastiness, but dude, you seriously can't compare. The people on the right (and not even necessarily far right) are the ones who commonly use tactics such as doxxing, swating, DOS, death threats, organised sexual harassment and a long list of etc. Even if we wanted to agree that the victims can, in turn, attempt to harass the harassers, wouldn't we be arriving at the conclusion that ALL harassment would end if the ones who systematically enacted it first stopped?

          "He did it first" is a cheap excuse that I don't endorse but trying to use that to dismissively say that "both sides are bad" is a false equivalency.

            You seriously can compare. The problem is that the same targeted harassment is being undertaken by some on the left constantly. Look at how actors like Scarlett Johansson are forced off films for not being the thing they are portraying (you know, the most basic description of an actor's skillset). Films that would actively benefit the very community that shut them down.

            Look at the way that Google dude was fired from his job because of targeted harassment around the memo he sent internally that had almost zero ideological agenda but was mischaracterised as a hateful "screed" (seriously google that exact term and his name to see the linguistic pile-on the left-wing media often partake in).

            A really exciting and promising band called PWR BTTM was kicked off their label and essentially erased off the internet (you can't stream their albums anywhere anymore) because of unsubstantiated anonymous claims of sexual harassment. This was a queer band who's recently released album was objectively an excellent and and socially important piece of work that covered all sorts of social justice issues in an empowering way. Their work had value, it personally changed my mind about pronoun usage, and it was destroyed because of a "guilty until proven innocent" mindset that now pervades the left and dominated headlines in 2017 and 2018.

            Look at concepts like "privilege" and "the patriarchy" that seek to silence or discredit people before they have a chance to speak based on gender, ethnicity, and class. These are the very things the Left call reductionist and seek to destroy, yet at the same time use as a weapon against almost half of the population.

            I also want to address this comment in particular:

            The people on the right (and not even necessarily far right) are the ones who commonly use tactics such as doxxing, swating, DOS, death threats, organised sexual harassment and a long list of etc.

            This isn't true. It could only be suspected as true if you had a dichotomous worldview in that if you aren't Left, you must be Right. These sorts of people are almost entirely social outcasts and misfits online who seek to cause chaos and hurt through the only means of power they believe they have. These are people on 4chan and places like that, people who care more about personal slights than political ones. Some of them may identify as right-wing, but they are not representative of right-wing people in general.

            Through chronic self-victimisation, the left have found a way to justify every reprehensible action they take. Through the language and lens of resistance and revolution, they can maintain the cognitive dissonance that lets them oppress while also maintain the identity of the downtrodden.

            I want to make something perfectly clear, because this kind of critique has led people to jump to conclusions about me in the past. I am an ally, not an enemy, to the left. I vote Greens almost every election, and wholeheartedly believe in many of the things that the left claim to fight for. But I am sick of this self-sabotaging sanctimonious worldview that has polluted people who claim to want change for the better.

            The Left won't change anything claiming to be the good guys and then acting like the villains. Claiming to be above reproach when their actions so clearly highlight double-standards and hypocrisy. The Left have got to tighten up their pitch and brutally fact-check their ideas, or they'll forever be the losers in this battle.

              Regarding the first few paragraphs: Sure I am aware of what you speak. What do we have here... people who at worst lost their jobs or some reputation? Yeah, that's not great and I genuinely wish that it had not happened. But when you are comparing it to the causes that generated the backlash that produced all of this? Rape, death threats, systematic and/or institutionalised bigotry? And yes, loss of jobs, reputation, opportunity, etc as well!

              You only care more for the former than the latter because the latter is a newer thing that involves people like you. Were you this vocal before when you saw or heard about women being harassed or abused? Or when POC were mocked or disenfranchised? Or when queer people were beaten to near death? I don't think so. Oh, but some people now dare do some bad things against the holy, untouchable straight white male demographic (even when it's deserved?) No sire, not on your watch!

              Second, it is really funny that when I mention the horrible things that people on your side do, you go "ah yeah, that's just a small bunch of idiots we can easily disassociate ourselves from, merely by saying so", but when it comes to the things done to people on your side? "Oh that's THE Left". Are you even aware of this fallacious thinking?

              And last, you admit, begrudgingly that "some" people on your side, however few you want to pretend they are do absolutely despicable things to others. And yet, when you have to describe the reaction from their victims, you feel the need to use the term "self-victimisation". Again I have to ask, are you aware of this cognitive dissonance on your part? how it betrays a heavy bias and double standard?

                Oh, but some people now dare do some bad things against the holy, untouchable straight white male demographic (even when it's deserved?) No sire, not on your watch!

                Out of the three examples I mentioned, one was regarding a white male. The rest of my arguments were specifically about the danger of segregating people based on skin colour and race while simultaneously identifying it as your biggest enemy so thanks for being a perfect case study for that.

                Second, it is really funny that when I mention the horrible things that people on your side do, you go "ah yeah, that's just a small bunch of idiots we can easily disassociate ourselves from, merely by saying so", but when it comes to the things done to people on your side? "Oh that's THE Left". Are you even aware of this fallacious thinking?

                And last, you admit, begrudgingly that "some" people on your side, however few you want to pretend they are do absolutely despicable things to others. And yet, when you have to describe the reaction from their victims, you feel the need to use the term "self-victimisation". Again I have to ask, are you aware of this cognitive dissonance on your part? how it betrays a heavy bias and double standard?

                I'm just going to quote my above comment regarding this, given it's clear you didn't read it properly:

                "This isn't true. It could only be suspected as true if you had a dichotomous worldview in that if you aren't Left, you must be Right."

                "I want to make something perfectly clear, because this kind of critique has led people to jump to conclusions about me in the past. I am an ally, not an enemy, to the left. I vote Greens almost every election, and wholeheartedly believe in many of the things that the left claim to fight for. But I am sick of this self-sabotaging sanctimonious worldview that has polluted people who claim to want change for the better."

                Read the comment before you start writing your response, please.

                  Yep...I started replying after reading the first paragraphs of that post and I guess I didn't really read the last two. There's no excusing it, I apologise. I guess I have proved you right, huh? :)

                  @pylgrim As far as I'm concerned, whatever you've said previously doesn't matter, this comment proves your character. Admitting a mistake is hard enough in real life, on the internet it's unheard of. Thanks for the debate!

                  Yeah, thanks for being cordial about it. You were entirely justified to unload on me and you didn't. I'll try to make of this a lesson not to forget.

              Very well said.

              The big issue is the hypocrisy in the people who strongly self-identify as any group on twitter, as well as the lack of consistent principles.

      except you're missing the part where it's federated, so plenty of people outside the local instance can comment and contribute. Federation works mostly as a web of webs, so if you follow outside your instance, your instance will now Federate with the instance of those you follow and they will appear in the Federated feed.

      Its very different to how you have categorised it, and definitely nowhere near as insular as a subreddit.

    Kinda reminds me of the old "Men's Clubs".

    "We just want a place where we can have a beer with other blokes"

    But now it's in MAD-lib form.

    "We just want a X where we can have a Y with other Zs"

    I like how this articles main message is that it feels good to go on a power trip and hurt people we don't agree with. I know that's not what they wanted to get accross but, that's what does.

    Personally I think if somone wants a completely safe webspace that they can have total control over they can make their own website. purchase a domain and server that run joomla and there are free forum extensions. make an entire site dedicated to whatever you want. it'll survive if enough people actually care about it.

      That's basically what Mastodon is, except that it works more like Twitter than a forum and allows cross-instance communication.

        yeah but, are the people running the instances actually paying for it in any way? Are there terms of service that allow for these things? I'd have to look into it. I don't think it's necessarily a problem these sorts of things. I'm just a little wary about someone having that much people without actually having a stake in the site staying up. it can lead to creating a bigger problem than twitter. if they actually pay for it, people might be more invested in ensuring that they are responsible with their power.

        Again I'd need to properly look into it but, for now I don't really have the inclination for it.

    Twitter is a hellhole. Mastodon isn’t trying to replace the trashcan fire that is Twitter, but it is offering its users something different.

    The irony is it's the tribalistic echo-chamber types that were interviewed in the article that make it that way. How many social media platform migrations will they need to undertake before they start wondering why the problem keeps coming with them?

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