Around about last Christmas I started thinking more deeply about social networks, and in particular the way that Facebook has changed over the years. By that point I had been on Facebook for about 8 years, and I was beginning to get fatigued by it. The initial usefulness of it was wearing off, and changes to the way the timeline was being generated meant that I was missing some posts and seeing lots of adverts. In January of this year I deleted my account.
I still use Instagram and Twitter, but there are privacy issues and advertisements with those as well, so perhaps my days are numbered there too.
So what next?
Enter “Mastodon”. There are plenty of articles you can read to find out more about what exactly Mastodon is, such as the official FAQ page, this Wired article or this Medium story written by the founder of Mastodon . What I’m sharing here is more of a personal reflection: what I think of Mastodon. I have been an active Mastodon user since early April 2017.
For me, a social network has to be useful. We all have our own way to define usefulness, but in my case what I mean is that it has to centre on conversations where all involved can offer and gain from the exchange. This hinges on there actually being people on the network to begin with. There are not many people on there yet (comparatively speaking): currently just over 116k users according to these stats. Twitter currently has 328million active users. This is a double-edged sword in the sense that there are not as many people to interact with, but then the timeline is less noisy and the posts tend to be more worthy of a read than a swipe-past (quite often feel that I am missing stuff on Twitter when I don’t check-in for a while and then find there are 250 new tweets since I last looked at it). I have had meaningful conversations on both Twitter and Mastodon over the past couple of months, but these are easier to find on Mastodon for sure.
Mastodon functions like Twitter in the sense that it is micro-blogging to a timeline that others can read. There are big differences, though. Firstly, the ‘micro’ is less micro: you are allowed 500 characters. I have found this to be a sweet spot: no need for 1/3, 2/3, 3/3 any more. It is still short enough to reign me in, but long enough for convenience. Secondly, each post has its own privacy setting, unlike Twitter. I have set my default to “Public”, but for any particular posts, I can chose the extent to which it is shown, right down to “private” (which is essentially the same as a DM in Twitter). I like this granular approach as it puts me in control more easily.
Just like Twitter, if you make a Mastodon post “public”, it is searchable and anyone can see it, even if they are not a Mastodon user. So, in this sense, Mastodon is not private, but you know what you’re getting into. In terms of data privacy, well, it’s a little muddier I think. The way it works, you sign up to an “instance”, which is a decentralised host service run by, well, anyone that wants to run one. So, you are beholden to the intentions and actions of the host. This is another distinguishing feature of Mastodon compared to Twitter: with Mastodon, you have to trust that the server admin is well intentioned and will not do anything sinister with your data, whereas with Twitter, you KNOW they are doing stuff with your data. The ‘unknown’ aspect is a concern of mine, so you know what? I contacted the admin of the instance I’m on and a public conversation took place with others joining in. He was very up front about the cost involved in hosting, his motivations for starting the community, and his commitment to not share any data and to simply provide a space for others to communicate and share ideas. I seriously doubt that this type of conversation could have happened with the CEO of Twitter had I tried reaching out on that platform. There is an openness to Mastodon which is very appealing. And no ads!
About a week ago I decided to move to another instance. This wasn’t because of any concerns over the intentions of the instance I started out on. It was because when I signed up originally, I chose one at random without really knowing what I was doing. As it transpired, the one I chose was one of the bigger ones (mastodon.cloud), so the local time line was filling up very quickly with posts from people I wasn’t following. (You can chose to only show a timeline of those you follow if you like, but I wanted an even cleaner approach). Switching instance is easy: just export the list of users you are following and import that into your new instance. But be warned: you cannot bring your followers to the new instance automatically so you have to leave a signpost on the old instance saying “come and find me at my new home”. I decided to make the switch at this stage because I did not have that many followers, and it was pretty easy to regain them on the new instance. If I had a lot of followers (again, a relative term, but for reference I have about 400 on Twitter), it would have been a tougher decision to make as I would have run the risk of losing a number of them.
Pro tip: if you’re going to do it, the time to move instance is early on!
Mastodon or Twitter?
I missed out on the early days of Twitter (I joined in 2011, but didn’t really get stuck in until 2013), but I get a sense that Mastodon is a bit like those early days on Twitter: there aren’t many others on there, and even though those that are there are familiar with micro-blogging, from what I’ve read most of us are still a bit unsure of exactly where Mastodon will take us. I read this great piece by Doug Belshaw on why he is not returning to Twitter, and I have to say I agree with what he says. However, I still see Twitter as a valuable place to be for me personally and I don’t think I am ready to pull the plug just yet. I have built up a following on Twitter that I can’t justify walking away from: a diverse bunch made up of friends, colleagues, professional contacts and celebrities that I enjoy interacting with. Right now, Mastodon cannot offer me that broad level of interaction because most of the people I follow on Twitter just aren’t on Mastodon (yet!). So for the moment I am going to keep a foothold in both camps to see how things develop. The benefits of Mastodon, as I see them, include longer posts, greater control over post privacy, no advertisements, an open approach to ownership, and a clean chronological timeline. Whether or not all Twitter users (eventually) see these benefits, only time will tell, but for now, Mastodon is definitely worth checking out and keeping an eye on.
If you want to find me on Mastodon, you can go to the scholar.social instance at this link.