Apparently, it was August last year when I first heard about Mastodon. I made an account, then completely forgot about it until this week. After Sarah Jeong hopped on it and then wrote an article for Motherboard, it’s garnered a bit of steam. Usage exploded. The band Mastodon even got involved, with a remarkably chill handling of mistaken identity.
Immediately, a bunch of other articles came up about the network. Many of those posts are explainers, which is natural for any new hotness. For Mastodon, though, it’s a requirement; the system is subtly different, just enough that it feels misleadingly familiar.
Rather than throw around technical terms of federation and decentralization, think of Mastodon as a Twitter/Email hybrid. Most of the conversation and activity is around the “flagship” instance, mastodon.social. That one is run by core maintainer Gargron. But anyone can take the code and start their own instance. I have an account on mastodon.social, but I also have one on another instance, awoo.space. (Abandon all hope for normal domain names, ye who enter here.)
Naturally, this can be a little confusing. Why two accounts? Why are they distinct? And what the heck is “tooting”?
This is where the email comparison comes in. Because I have an account at Gmail, I have an @gmail.com email address. Since I own hupfen.com, I also have an @hupfen.com email address. All together, I have a ton of different email addresses for various different reasons.
Mastodon addresses look like email addresses, just with another @ on the front. With my existing accounts, I’m at @firstname.lastname@example.org and @email@example.com. By this system, my “birdsite” (Twitter) account would be @firstname.lastname@example.org. (Twitter isn’t a Mastodon instance, so that doesn’t actually work.)
The reason this all works is that Mastodon sites use what are called “federation” rules. This means you can talk to people across instances, the same way you can email me at hupfen.com if you’re using Yahoo. If you’re on the same site, you don’t need that part — saying @hupfen on mastodon.social hits me on that account, while saying it on awoo.space hits my other account, and saying it on mastodon.cloud doesn’t reach me. I don’t have an account there.
Like with email addresses, if you want to change providers (to, say, witches.town) you can transfer your “contact list” (who you follow) and your “spam filter” (your blocklist). But, like email, you don’t bring over posts or followers. You’d have to actively copy your emails from an old name to a new one, and you’d have to tell everyone to stop sending messages to the old address and start using the new one. It’s not quite like changing your Twitter handle.
So what about trust? Verification? How do you know who you’re really talking to?
I don’t know who owns email@example.com. I just know it isn’t me. For that matter, I don’t know who owns firstname.lastname@example.org. But I know who owns email@example.com: The New York Times does.
That was the train of thought behind a rather popular post (called a “toot” in the flagship Mastodon instance). It’s also something that Aaron Parecki brought up in a Slack conversation. With Twitter, we’ve become accustomed to the trust existing on the first half of the address: there’s only one @nytimes on Twitter, and it’s verified! So you know it’s them.
But Mastodon doesn’t have verification. So how do you know if @firstname.lastname@example.org is legit? Functionally, that’s like asking if email@example.com is legit. Instead, you’d look for someone like @firstname.lastname@example.org. You’d know that was Paul Krugman, not simply because it said it was him, but because it came from a domain (nytimes.com) that you trust.
This may be the largest hurdle for Mastodon. You really need to trust the people running the instances you join. Mastodon.social is anti-Nazi, but bad actors can run their own instances. Many of the same social engineering tools that work on email and Twitter work on Mastodon. Add in confusion over which half of an address to trust and there exist plenty of openings for disinformation. It’s not an issue yet, because Mastodon is a fraction of a percent of Twitter’s size, but if the system grows there will inevitably be problems.
The uncertainties around what Mastodon really is are just echoes of larger misunderstandings around online social networks. Young sites try to differentiate themselves through features — photo filters, more characters, ephemerality. But features alone aren’t the point of a social network. It’s right there in the name: social networks are about their communities.
So far, that’s been a large draw for people moving to Mastodon. Most major instances aggressively ban hostile behavior. These rules and norms result in a community looking for a space free of Twitter’s toxicities; the early community came with a strong queer and leftist lean. (Throw in the natural techie lean of an open-source project and it’s not surprising how many furries there are. Calling posts “awoos” comes from a furry meme.)
The features that Mastodon provides aren’t its focus. But features reflect and influence the community. Having content warnings as a first-class feature, for example, means conversations that warrant them feel safer. This is why changes to Twitter come with such backlash — they change the rules of interaction, be it overtly or subtly. Mastodon’s rules will change as its community and features do, but since it’s decentralized someone can set up an instance that follows the old rules instead.
I’ve set up my own instance, one focused on musicians. I think it’s worth the experiment. Because, while there are plenty of strong comparisons to Twitter and email, there’s another that I think will illustrate Mastodon’s long-term value: subreddits.
Like Twitter, Reddit has an overwhelming toxicity problem. But it also has a conceptual value: an array of focused forums with the ability to talk across them. Although the largest Mastodon instances are general-purpose, we’re already seeing some spun up for specific communities, such as mastodon.technology. That may be the best way forward for the network in terms of creating value and connection.
There’s a value in the “town commons” approach of Twitter, but there are clearly plenty of problems. Mastodon lets us build clubhouses, where we can discuss just the thing we care about and, as best as we can, keep out people who’d cause trouble. We always had that (they’re called “forums”), but now those clubhouses can connect if they want. Is that what we want? I guess we’ll toot and see.
If you’re interested in Mastodon, there are quite a few instances where you can sign up. Be aware: the network and its communities are still in very early stages.