Mastodon: Here to stay or DOA?2017-04-20
There is so much hyperventilating over Mastodon, the upstart social network du jour, that it’s easy to drop it into the same bucket as all the other presumed Twitter killers moldering in their digital graves.
Which is exactly what a lot of people are doing. Without even giving it a once-over, they remind their followers of Ello, Plurk, Jaiku, and the laundry list of other social hopefuls. And let’s not even start on the trash heap of Google’s varous attempts.
I’m not ready to proclaim Mastodon a keeper. Odds are, in five years when the next startup hits the scene, the doubters will ask us to remember Ello, Plurk, Jaiku, and Mastodon before getting amped up about the New Big Thing.
There’s something tugging at the back of my mind, though, insisting that Mastodon might, just maybe, find its place in the constellation of social networks.
What (besides a terrible name) is Mastodon?
Or just watch this:
The short version: Mastodon is a network of social networks that all use the same software created by a German developer named Eugen Rochko. It uses GNU social, a free open-source microblogging server that has been around since 2014. As Wikipedia puts it, “GNU social seeks to provide the potential for open, inter-service and distributed communications between microblogging communities. enterprises and individuals can install and control their own services and data.”
Anybody can set up and run an “instance,” Mastodon jargon for a server. The people who join that instance can communicate with each other. They can also communicate with people on other Mastodon instances thanks to federation, in which each Mastodon instance is connected to all the others. (Well, sort of. More on that in a bit.)
In a way, as Dan York put it, it’s like email. Your email account is on an email server. It could be Gmail or Hotmail or SBC Global or your company’s server or your own (like mine at holtz.com). You can send and receive email with people who have accounts on the same server as yours. You can also communicate with people whose accounts are hosted on other servers.
It also reminds me of the old FidoNet, which fueled community messaging back in the old bulletin board system (BBS) days. According to the Big Dummy’s Guide to FidoNet, FidoNet is a “a loose confederation of bulletin board systems which stretches around the entire world. Each BBS belongs to a local NETWORK. Each Network handles its own operations more or less independently of other networks in the world. Each Network belongs to a larger REGION, and each Region belongs to a ZONE.” You participate locally but get the benefit of what others have posted through their local BBS.
Of course, Mastodon isn’t exactly like either email or FidoNet.
First of all, there’s the interface. If you’ve ever used Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, it’ll seem comfortably familiar. One tab is for writing and sending your messages (called “toots,” which have a 500-character limit, allowing you to write a pretty normal paragraph). The next is your “Home” tab where you’ll see toots by everyone you follow along with any toots that reference you. The home tab also features toots from people I haven’t yet figured out why they show up.
The notifications tab is where you get toots that include your username. The final tab lets you select from a variety of options, including the local timeline (chronological toots from everyone posting to your instance), the federated timeline (the toots from people who are followed by you and other users of your instance), the toots you’ve marked as favorites, your preferences, and more. Finding people on other instances is no easy task (yet); to engage with someone on another instance, you need to include their account name and their instance (like @SLHoltz@mastodon.social).
If all this sounds daunting, that’s one of the reasons so many naysayers have proclaimed Mastodon dead on arrival. The same dismissal was aimed at Twitter back in 2007, though, and those who found value there figured it out.
Mastodon has a lot going for it. Rochko created it to limit trolling, avoid blatant commercialism, provide a true chronological timeline, and promote privacy. None of that will make it thrive or even keep it alive. That will happen (if it happens) because of the federated model.
Federation? Like Star Trek?
Yeah, well, sort of, if you want to think of each instance as a planet with its own sentient race that lives together but communicates and trades with other races on other planets. Quina Liu likens instances to subreddits in that “each are moderated by a dedicated team of volunteers and each may have their own specific rules, interests, themes or cultures.”
Therein lies the potential. Mastodon instances have been created (as a Mashable article notes) for people who attend Burning Man, pizza fans, book lovers, and more. Podcasting’s podfather, Adam Curry, has set one up for people who listen to No Agenda, the popular podcast he co-hosts with John C. Dvorak. (Adam Curry is a hardcore geek.)
You could create one account on one instance and use it like Twitter in an effort to engage with people on instances everywhere. More compelling, though, is to have accounts on each of the instances that revolve around your specific interests, engaging heavily on the local scene and using the federation for related conversations.
The complications of maintaining several identities across the federation could be too much for most people. I suspect, however—if Mastodon lasts long enough for late-adopters to find a thriving instance populated by like-minded people sharing an interest—that this single instance will be the gateway. A lot of people may hang out in their local instance. Others may venture beyond.
This would also present an opportunity for organizations. Not to hawk their products like they do on Facebook or Twitter, but to create a place for people with relevant interests to hang out. Ford Motor Company could launch an instance dedicated to Mustang lovers. Dell could create one for cloud engineers. My friend and former podcast co-host, Neville Hobson, suggested I set up an instance for everyone engaged with the FIR Podcast Network. Maybe. If I find the time.
But we in the communications profession talk endlessly about building real relationships around substantive conversations in online communities. Mastodon’s model provides the foundation to do exactly that. To get it right this time.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, lots of shit.
To begin with, most of the instances that have been created so far are run by hobbyists who could lose interest and fail to install updates, fail to enforce the rules, let the whole thing die, or uninstall it altogether.
Then there’s the Twitter analogy, bringing people who expect to find Better Twitter. Yes, Mastodon addresses a lot of what’s wrong with Twitter. But it’s not really a Twitter clone. Frustrated, those people will give up pretty quickly.
Rochko could do a lousy job at improving the interface, leaving only early enthusiasts and failing to attract new users. (Hello, Ello.)
It may never get easy to find an instance that interests you.
Mastodon users may never stop talking about Mastodon and move on to other things, but that’s a phase every new social network goes through. (Remember when most blog posts were about blogging?)
Marketers could flood Mastodon, presenting an insurmountable challenge to volunteer moderators and kill it with commercialism.
Worst, the federation could fracture. It’s already happening, in fact. In his look at Mastodon, PC Magazine’s John C. Dvorak (co-host of No Agenda) writes...
The first thing Curry noticed is that much of the “we are all humans living on the same planet” social justice warriors have already blacklisted the No Agenda server and other non-PC communities. He joked to me on a recent show that those who advocate “No Borders, No Nations” are the first to put up borders and lock out those who don’t abide by their anti-Trump, anti-Republican, anti-Brexit, anti-capitalism, safe-space philosophy.
Dvorak also wonders if this might not be such a terrible thing, since Mastodon could “auto-segregate annoying nutballs who are incompatible with the general population.”
So what are you saying here?
I honestly don’t know. Instances are cropping up everywhere. People are joining instances like crazy. A user count bot on Mastodon.Social—Rochko’s original instance—shows 50,364 accounts, 904 of which joined in the hour before I checked, 2,894 in the last day and 7,353 in the last week. Some other instances are experiencing equally impressive growth.
But that doesn’t mean squat in terms of a long-term prognosis.
I do know I’m enjoying the hell out of it, more than I have enjoyed Facebook or Twitter recently. It has a more organic community vibe to it.
If I had to bet real money, I’d bet against Mastodon. I know the odds of an upstart social network succeeding are slim. They’re even slimmer when there’s no money behind it, just a bunch of hobbyists. But I hope it becomes something important. It could fill a sorely needed gap in the social networking world.
You can find me on Mastodon here: https://mastodon.social/@SLHoltz. This is Rochko’s original instance, which he closed to new accounts at one point to deal with the surge of new account registrations and the strain it was putting on his server, but he recently reopened it to new accounts. I have accounts on two other instances, but I think this’ll be my primary account. Drop by and say hi.
We can talk about whether Mastodon is here to stay or DOA.