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.”

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