In the wake of Twitter’s seeming implosion, many people have flocked to Mastodon, the open-source, decentralized, social platform that’s run by individual server administrators. However, despite its sudden popularity, Mastodon is decidedly a different beat from Twitter, with differences that may sway your opinion on moving to the platform.
Decentralized social media
Created by German software developer Eugen Rochko, Mastodon differentiates itself from Twitter—and just about every other social media service out there—by its decentralized nature. This means that everything on the site happens in “servers” which are run by individuals who are more often than not unaffiliated with Mastodon.
In effect, it feels more like Discord—the text and voice chat service popular with gamers and content creators—which uses a similar server-based system.
Mastodon’s server-based nature permeates the experience from the get-go. When signing up, new users have to pick a server to join, and what server a new user joins also becomes part of their user name—though users can also move servers should they choose to do so. In addition, some servers require approval before a new user can join and some even have waiting lists for new users.
Now, what server a user joins doesn’t limit who they can follow—users can follow anyone on any server. That said, being on a server means that a user can see the “local” feed of that server. (Read: Twitter to rehire staff let go after Musk’s takeover)
This method of basing a user’s feed in part on the “local” feed of a server plays into one of Mastodon’s selling points. Unlike most social sites, Mastodon does not use an algorithm. Whatever toots—the sites’ version of tweets—appear on a user’s feed are based purely on their server and whoever else they’re following.
Beyond that, Mastodon still allows users to like toots, as well as to boost them—Mastodon’s version of retweets, but without the ability to quote them with commentary. In addition, the site also allows users to add a “CW” or content warning to their toots similar to how tweets can be marked as NSFW.
What users should mark with CW, however, can be a bit unclear. Eugene Rochko himself has stated that he feels that there is no accepted practice for when they should be used. More importantly, this can often be down to the server a user had joined and the preferences of its administrators.
“Having been here since 2016, I can tell you there is definitely no such thing as a consensus on usage of content warnings on the fediverse,” Rochko stated in a toot. “It’s a decentralized network that doesn’t belong to any one party, so by definition there is no single culture on it. Different corners have different expectations and customs.”
Mastodon’s decision to split everything off into servers gives it a distinct feel when coming from Twitter. Having to choose a server means that new users must decide what they want to see and why they’re on the network from the get-go.
While this might sound great for people simply looking to connect with others who share the same interests, it also means that the site lacks Twitter’s feel of a big town square where anyone and everyone had a voice. Mastodon sections off that town square into smaller spaces that, with enough time can become echo chambers.
The algorithms that Mastodon does away with have often been blamed for creating echo chambers in traditional social media. But despite the lack of algorithms, Mastodon’s network of servers has seemingly allowed even bigger echo chambers to form. Indeed, one of the largest far-right social networks—one tied to the suspect in the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue terror attack—exists on Mastodon.
Does this mean that the shooting would not have happened had said network not existed on Mastodon? That’s hard to say. That said, it would probably have been harder for any such discussion regarding the planning of similar actions to occur on Twitter.
Who’s paying for the servers?
The other question raised by Mastodon’s decentralized nature is one of finance. Each individual server is financed by its respective owners and not by Mastodon. While this does help the latter avoid the financial problems that Twitter faced—the reason it bit on Elon Musk’s $44 billion deal—it also means that it’s up to the server owners to make sure said server remains afloat.
This raises the question of what happens should a Mastodon server go down. Looking through Mastodon’s documentation, the proper procedure of shutting down a server, called a “self-destruct,” takes down everything in that server. This includes accounts, toots, statuses, attachments, and a whole lot of other details associated with the server. This is done in part because each account is tied to a cryptographic key.
Of course, users can still move to other servers, but this is still a lengthy process and requires the user to be aware of the impending shutdown.
This idea is perhaps not as worrying for regular users as it is for journalists and activists. For years the latter have been using tweets as first-hand sources for stories or as receipts to call out people for past misbehavior or broken promises. All this is backed up by the fact that Twitter would have said tweet on their servers.
With Mastodon, any toot of import can be lost the moment the server it’s hosted on goes down.
But even for those not affected by this, it means that their accounts are still under the mercy and budget restrictions of individual server admins who may not always opt to keep them alive.
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