One of the things that you probably already know about me by reading my blog… is that Twitter is my social media home. It is where with the release of this blog I carved out a place for myself online and then filled my feed full of other awesome gamers and bloggers. It was for years my happy place, where I came to get new ideas or interact with others about my own. Then something happened along the way that started to darken the environment. More politics started filtering their way into these discussions and with the introduction of the Gators, there was a massive chilling effect on this community I so loved. So it is a world that I still feel very connected to, and is still the primary source of communication I have for a lot of my friends… but the day to day interactions just don’t feel as good as they once did.
Hey, I made a Mastodon account. Come follow me there. So far it’s like early twitter, but gayer, so better in every single way??https://t.co/NMLEUjL7cH
— Kathleen De Vere (@Kathleen_LRR) August 17, 2018
The above tweet was sort of a catalyst for an interesting journey I have been on this weekend. Initially my thought was “why the hell does the metal band have a social network?”. It seems like I have been behind the times and another network sprung up without me knowing about it. Mastodon is essentially the latest not-twitter to show up on the block, but in truth by latest I mean it has been out in the wild since October of 2016 in one form or another. Twitter is the most readily available comparison but in truth it is doing a lot more than that, some of which honestly is a bit of a detriment to easily on-boarding new users.
Mastodon is a distributed and federated social network that is by nature decentralized, and while there is in fact a Flagship site called Mastodon.social, there are a ton of smaller communities that have downloaded the open source software and are running their own instances. The largest of these is the primarily non-English speaking Pawoo.net with around 400,000 users, and the smallest ones somewhere in the sub-100 user range. No one person controls the network as essentially all of the instances out there have control over the code base of their own server… pending they don’t tweak the general network protocol settings.
So you are probably thinking to yourself, what use is a social network if it is a bunch of disconnected islands? This is where the Federated part comes in allowing users on different island states to talk to each other freely as though they were on the same network. That means I can take my @Belghast@Elekk.xyz account and talk freely to @Tamrielo@Tabletop.social or @email@example.com. The naming following an email like scheme with @Username and then @Instance following it if they are not also on your local instance.
The user interface has a very “I swear I am using TweetDeck” feel to it, but it is just subtly different enough to trip you up a little bit. However it was extremely easy for me to shift over to using it comfortably because a lot of the things I was used to doing were also here. Instead of a Tweet you have a Toot since Mastodons… and instead of a Retweet folks call it a Boost, which in some ways is a more pleasant way of thinking about it given you are trying to share someone else’s content with the world. Significantly different is the fact that you can change the visibility of a given “toot” so that it shows as public, unlisted, follower-only or is instead a direct message to a specific user or users mentioned.
There is also the Content Warning tag that allows users to hide anything that might be sensitive behind one of the Show More walls that you are seeing in the screenshot above. Each community uses this a little differently, and a lot of people will simply use it as a way of truncating a long post so that it doesn’t clog the feeds of others with a wall of text or something that is image heavy. For example this weekend when I syndicated my podcast, I was able to give a little longer of an intro to it given the 500 character limit instead of 140/280 and hid most of that behind a CW tag for making life easier on the folks reading their timelines. The only thing that seems to be missing is the ability to add a comment along with a boost similar to the quoted retweet functionality that I use so often.
One of the other interesting things about the Federiverse as a lot of people call it… is that you can effectively start on one server and uproot and move to another. For example I started out on Mastodon.cloud because I simply did not understand at first how this network worked. It was a more general interest instance and quite honestly was still very awesome with a very nice admin. However the longer I used it, the more I realized that maybe I wanted to be on an instance that was more drift compatible to my own interests. I had a lot of great interactions with folks from Elekk.xyz and that lead me to investigate it closer… and when I saw the above image I knew that it was probably the right place for me.
One of the things that separates Mastodon from Twitter is that you have the ability to read essentially every public toot that comes across the server. You have a local timeline that shows you everything happening on your own instance, and a federated timeline showing you everything happening on all of the servers your local is connected with. It is probably best to think of this in MMO terms as your Local Timeline is your Guild Chat and your Federated Timeline is Trade or General.
The other thing that it feels like to me is an old dial-up BBS. During Fido.net era when they were loosely connected through a hub and spoke relay network, a user on one BBS to communicate with a user on any other connected BBS. However it sometimes took four or five days for the round trip depending on when you sent the message and when the person on the other end received and replied to it. In the Federiverse each of these instances is like your local BBS where you get to know everyone, with the ability to reach out and make friendships with anyone else in the larger connected community.
I feel like I have spent an awful lot of time talking about the hows and not much about the whys this morning… but unfortunately the WHY I am enjoying myself is going to have to come another day. Essentially the short version is… it feels like a throwback to a simpler time in the internet when we all were much more open to talking freely with each other. Thusfar everyone I have encountered has been charming and helpful in me getting settled into their neighborhood. There are a handful of us from the blogging space that have made a home for ourselves on Elekk.xyz, but there are so many other instances that I highly suggest you start out on JoinMastodon.org and see some of the other instances. I am finding out it is weirdly customary to have multiple accounts on multiple instances. Tam for example has one on TableTop.Social, Elekk.xyz and some Game Dev related one that I don’t know the address for.
Does this mean I am leaving twitter? Probably not, but I do find Mastodon to be a much more engaging network than the current state twitter is in. If you too sorta miss the days when the internet and social engagement was simpler, or have a hankering for an even older time of BBSes and IRC Servers… then maybe it might too feel comfortable. It is more than likely always going to remain a niche thing, but I think in the grand scheme of things that is its strength. We talked about this at length on the podcast, but maybe having a bunch of fragmented islands leads to a better community than having one mega server as it were. I know we have commented as such in various MMO communities, so why would that same theory not apply to the broader social media?