Mastodon is the hot new alternative to Twitter: Can it decentralize social media?


Elon Musk’s takeover of social media giant Twitter has been a controversial mess, pushing hundreds of thousands of users to Mastodon, a decentralized alternative. 

Mastodon, with over 1.8 million average monthly users, has been making headlines in mainstream media as an alternative to Twitter. Average monthly users on Mastodon stood under 400,000 before Musk turned up at Twitter headquarters on Oct. 27, miring the platform in a string of controversy and fears of bankruptcy.

Twitter is estimated to have lost over a million users since its change in management. Those losses could represent an opportunity for platforms like Mastodon to transform the social media landscape, according to Danny O’Brien, a senior fellow at the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web. 

“Up until now, people have felt stuck with sites like Facebook or Twitter. My hope is that, after years of working in the background with a smaller pool of people, decentralized social media is ready to catch fire and grow,” O’Brien added.

So what is Mastodon? 

Mastodon is considered decentralized because it is not one platform nor owned by one person or firm. It is a collection of about 3,000 individual servers run by separate organizations or individuals. The different servers make up the collective network of Mastodon. 

“It comes from the idea that the original Internet was fundamentally built on, which is that we’re all peers, and we want to talk to each other without having to go through an intermediary,” said O’Brien. 

While the decentralized structure of Mastodon has made some users unsure of which server to sign up for on the main website, O’Brien calls it a return to the roots of the internet.

“The choice of servers is similar to choosing your email provider, and each one appeals to a different mix of people with its own set of policies.”

The servers, called “Instances,” determine the updates and posts a user sees on the “Local” news feed. Most servers are themed – such as by country, city or hobby – with a user’s selection shaping the overall experience. 

With the search or explore functions, users can follow other Instances and their accounts. The Mastodon “Home” page shows posts across followers from all Instances. “Home,“ “Local” and “Federation” are the three news feeds available on Mastodon, with “Federation” as an expanded version of “Local”.

Posting 

Once a profile is set up on a server, the platform allows accounts to post videos and images. While a post on Twitter is called a tweet, Mastodon calls them ‘toots.’ Reposting a user’s toot is called a “boost.”

Most servers allow for posts of up to 500 characters, almost twice more than the 280-character limit on Twitter. The site also allows for direct messages, but Mastodon warns that message data can be saved by individual servers. 

Post moderation falls to the owners heading each Instance who create their own rules, instead of Twitter’s top-down approach. 

While the platform says most servers have their own moderation policy, some have none. Posts can be reported to the server owners, who can delete them, but that does not necessarily delete it everywhere, according to Mastodon. 

The platform’s guidelines suggest moving to a server with a moderation system that best fit a user’s preferences.

‘Not for sale’

Mastodon calls itself a “social networking server that’s not for sale,” offering a platform without algorithms, ads, or paywalls. 

Unlike Twitter, Mastodon does not suggest accounts for users to follow. The platform also does not offer a curated experience as Twitter does in terms of viewing posts – users see what their followers are saying in real time. 

The lack of algorithms also make it harder to go viral on the site. 

That is because Mastodon is trying to be “antiviral,” according to O’Brien. For example, users cannot quote tweets on Mastodon the way they do on Twitter. 

“That’s because the designers recognize that quote tweets are usually for dunking on people and making them look bad,” said O’Brien. “The thing is designed for good communication rather than a troll fest.”

Looming rivals? 

Mastodon may be seeing some new competition, with Twitter founder Jack Dorsey working on his decentralized network BlueSky that is undergoing beta testing.

Though platforms like Mastodon share themes of the Web 3.0 space, O’Brien reiterates that it is fundamentally the same kind of software that underlined the original web. 

The hope is that decentralized social media can bridge Web 3.0 and traditional internet users and make them more curious about the space, said O’Brien. 



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