Words: Ellen Kenny
People are touting Mastodon as the new Twitter in the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover, but is this social network really the next big thing?
With Elon Musk taking over Twitter and turning it into his own Wild West, many users are seeking an alternative platform to avoid witnessing the easing of regulations and increase of harassment on Twitter. The main contender for the Twitter-alternative is Mastodon.
It’s yet to be seen if Mastodon will truly catch on to the wider population as it currently is used predominantly by people who rely on social media for their livelihoods such as writers and tech executives.
Most explanations of Mastodon focus on how the network can benefit those who need social media for professional reasons, but what about the people who are here for a mindless scroll? Is Mastodon the next best network to get social with?
To keep things simple, Mastodon is a “federated network”, affectionately known as the “fediverse”. This means that, unlike Twitter which has one single, unhinged server everyone can interact on, Mastodon hosts several separate servers. Each server is run by a volunteer and has its own rules and policies on what can be said in the server and who can join.
Servers can be based on different topics you might be interested in, such as music or the LGBTQ+ community, or based in certain regions, such as the Irish server. To join a server, you fill in your username and email and then either gain admittance following a confirmation email, or wait for your application to join to be accepted. Since Mastodon is dealing with a huge influx of new members, this application can take a while. The Irish Mastodon server is currently taking applications, while the British server is actually free for anyone to join.
With multiple servers comes multiple usernames. On Mastodon, your username is @[username]@[serveryouhavejoined]. So if you were to join the Irish server, your username would be something like @email@example.com. Looking more like an email address, these usernames are not as clean as Twitter’s.
So let’s say you finally make it to a Mastodon server and you want to get social. Tracking down the people you followed on Twitter can be difficult, but Twitodon allows user to log in with both your Twitter and Mastodon accounts and scan to look for users you follow.
Content-wise, the explore page of Mastodon right now mostly consists of people talking about joining Mastodon. Otherwise, there’s not much engagement or craic, with one of the highest trending hashtags being #mytopshelf with 194 posts. Then again, I’m still waiting to be accepted into the Irish server and currently lurking in the British, which could explain the lack of good content.
There’s also a “federated” page on your server that shows you everything being posted on all Mastodon servers, which I’m failing to see the point of when you don’t even have to read the posts.
Mastodon also has an app, with a somewhat cleaner interface than its desktop version, although navigating through the different pages of a single server can be a bit too much effort for someone who just wants a daily dose of memes.
If you want to make your own posts on a server, you can say goodbye to tweeting and hello to “tooting”, the slang for posting on Mastodon. Toots (is that really going to catch on?) allows up to 500 characters, a nice boost from Twitter.
Also on the plus side, users have more control over who can see your post, from being discoverable across the server, down to only those who you mention in the post, similar to a DM. However, you can’t “retoot”, or quote tweet another user’s post.
Mastodon also has a verification system that’s available to everyone with their own website, a refreshing alternative to Musk’s 8 euro charge on Twitter verification.
If you link to a website you control on your profile, then it can recognise you as the owner of that website, which will give followers some justification in trusting you are who you claim to be. Of course, if you don’t have a website, there is no way to gain verification and you’re stuck being a nobody on Mastodon.
Taking a scroll through Mastodon, the fact that the network is named after an extinct wholly mammoth makes sense in a certain light. Right now, it is a clunkier version of Twitter, with a less appealing interface and slow loading times. Joining from scratch feels a bit like entering a smoking area by yourself without a cigarette- just awkwardly hovering, unsure of how to approach anyone or your environment.
Of course, just like there’s always a chance you’ll find someone sound who offers you a cigarette and you have a good chat with, there’s potential for Mastodon. Some features and ideas on Mastodon could create a much nicer social experience, such as more character space and more control over who can see your toots. If people are serious about switching from Twitter, Mastodon may take this chance to improve their more awkward features and boost their better features.
It’s early days, and I would not be running to Mastodon with any urgency. It would not be a surprise if Mastodon becomes a flash in the pan as people ruefully remain on Twitter as we simply stick to what we know. In the past, any controversial decisions made by a social media network has always led to recommendations for alternative websites, and none have caught on in a meaningful way.
While we might love to avoid witnessing the chaos pit that Twitter becomes, it will take some more time for Mastodon to become a hospitable environment for the average social media user.
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