Let me start by saying this, despite all the hype and the soaring numbers of people signing up over the past week – I don’t think Mastodon is the answer, not at the moment anyway and I will get into more details about that later in this blog post.
However, it should serve as a big wake up call for Twitter and show them just how fed up people are with the platform. While I don’t think Mastodon has the answers, I think someone will come along and provide a better alternative at some point probably soon and Twitter better be ready for it.
What Mastodon has shown us over the past week is that people are fed up with Twitter and are prepared to sign up and try out a new platform in massive numbers to see if they can find a better replacement. Mastodon is not new, it has been around since September 2016 but has seen a surge in popularity over the past week with new users signing up.
According to founder Eugen Rochko, it has a lot to do with people being fed up with Twitter and in particular the recent changes to the replies system. Twitter has a bad habit of A/B testing and implementing change without really listening to what the users want. In fact, Twitter just feels like one big massive A/B test pool now – so many of us are being tested out on different features and layouts without knowing it.
Mastodon has been mopping up users who are seeking an alternative and while they are still tiny compared to the rest, the past week has proved one big problem. Twitter is failing to keep large numbers of users happy.
So what is Mastodon?
Mastodon is somewhat like a Twitter clone but very different. It looks like Tweetdeck with a vertical timeline. You can retweet (called a “boost” in Mastodon), you can tweet (called a “toot” in Mastodon) and favourites are stars instead of hearts (remember when people were freaking out over that change on Twitter!)
You can toot updates that are 500 characters in length and I’ll be honest, it was a very welcome change and feels so much less restricting without being complete overkill on the timeline.
There are more privacy options here, toots can be totally public, private (only followers can see it) or unlisted which means it is only viewable when people actually visit your profile and does not show up on public feeds.
Mastodon is not the first one to come in as a potential replacement, anyone remember Ello, Peach and app.net? No? I’m not surprised – these social platforms will only be familiar to small numbers of people and they all fizzled out after generating some buzz at the time.
Why do I think Mastodon will not pose a big challenge to Twitter?
I think this is more a wake up call for Twitter and one they should take seriously too. Mastodon is generating more than just waves but in the long run I don’t think it will be a replacement to Twitter in its current form. There are a number of reasons why but I want to focus on just one thing in particular…
Okay, here is where it gets a little bit complicated. So in order to deal with heavy traffic and keep the service going, Mastodon is not taking new registrations on Mastodon.social but they have got what they call “instances” where you can sign up.
Mastodon is a free open source protocol which is distributed across multiple “instances” which means there is no centralised server. Each instance has their own set of users and you can follow and interact with users from other instances. There are two timelines, local and federated timeline. The local timeline shows you toots from your instance only and the federated timeline shows toots from your instance and other instances which your home base is interconnected to.
Each instance can have its own set of rules instead of having rules governing the entire platform and these rules are put in place by the local admins of that instance. What does all this actually mean and how is it a problem?
1) For starters, it is possible to create multiple accounts with the same handle across every instance if you want. I tried pointing this out on Twitter and got a response from someone along the lines of ‘zomg, you don’t have to create multiple accounts across all of them…you are using it wrong lololol…’
Yeah, not the point I was making but thanks anyway. The point here is that if I create an @TheMarkDalton account on one instance I can make it across all of them if I choose to do so and that makes it easy to impersonate people on the platform. So if I create @TheMarkDalton on mastodon.social then there could be a completely different @TheMarkDalton on mastodon.cloud and that is a big problem if we value privacy online as much as we say we do.
2) The second issue is that users are basically separated into silos and it can make it hard to find other users. You are of course connected to users on the same instance but if your friend signs up using another instance then you better hope that instance is connected with yours (not all of them are) otherwise you won’t be able to find them or see their toots.
I created @TheMarkDalton on two instances which were not interconnected and it holds true, I can log into both of them individually and when I search for @TheMarkDalton there are no results returned from either account so the two accounts, identical, are existing on Mastodon but in different places.
Will it be able to make the big leagues?
Probably not, I wouldn’t rule it out though. Despite the flaws there has been a surge in sign ups recently and so there is every chance that Mastodon could make bigger waves but my gut tells me it will fizzle out like others before it.
The whole user silos thing is a big big problem which will stagnate growth. We want to connect with other people online without limitations and that is exactly what these instances are – limitations.
These are basic things that every other social platform has nailed. Bash Twitter all you want but Mastodon is not really providing the answers we are looking for and when the hype dies down I don’t see a new kid being on the block. However it should be a big wake up call to Twitter regardless with the message being – Users are fed up.