Exploring Mastodon

Mastodon_Mascot_(Alternative)I decided to explore the Mastodon social network after a great deal of suggestions and gentle prodding from many people.  That’s Mastodon the software, not the very fine metal band.

In this post I’ll share my experiences of getting to know the thing.

First, to sum up some first thoughts: Mastodon is an interesting Twitter alternative, performing some of the latter platform’s functions while offering a different structure.  Its politics are certainly left/progressive, based on an anti-corporate stance, identification of and friendliness towards marginalized populations, highlighted content control or moderation tools, and a prominent content warning mechanism.

Instance architecture is interesting, but not well presented.  Mastodon is not a single site but a plurality of individual groups.  That suggests other internet structures, from subReddits to MMO servers to Google+ circles and so on, all the way back to Usenet, but the federated structure changes this up.  Users are bound to a single instance, it seems, and can’t easily move between them.  That home instance is their primary (but not exclusive) base of discussion, and their identifier for all communications in the Mastodon-verse.  Personally, this doesn’t work for me, but I can see the appeal.

There’s a strong element of playfulness here, which does work for me.  Instead of tweets we have toots, a term I still can’t bring myself to use, but do enjoy for its silliness.  There are many animals and odd characters used to illustrate points.

Looking ahead, Mastodon suggests several ways forward for social media.  For one, it’s avowedly political, a kind of mirror to right wing sites like Gab.  For another, instances point towards an increasingly fragmented digital world, perhaps with an echo to the proliferation of streaming video services.  It’s a call back to the microaudience model of blogging, back in the early 21st century.  And its defensive architecture seems apt for an age of troll armies. Finally, its strong stance against companies, advertising, and marketing, combined with calls for crowdfunding, connects with the indieweb movement.

Fediverse logoThe term “Fediverse” came up in my explorations, like on the Wikipedia entry for MastodonThe ‘pedia page for it listed a lot of projects, some of which I’d heard before.  That describes one way forward, away from the giant broadcast-like platforms of Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, towards a decentralized but interlinked form of web organization.

Economically, I don’t know how Mastodon survives.  It seems like the huge chunk of the web maintained by fans and generous people, and that might be what they’re banking on.  I can’t tell how much is costs to host a Mastodon instance.  If costs rise, potentially that could be a problem down the road.  I’m not sure what the preservation strategies are.

Now, a log of my exploration.

(For context, this isn’t my first social rodeo.  I started with online communities in the 1980s, using Usenet and my university’s text-based discussion fora.  Since then I’ve been all over the place, from blogging to Twitter to social gaming.  I’ve consulted on virtual communities.  I’ve learned and taught in online social environments for a generation.  And I’ve tried a lot of recent new services, like Ello and App.net.  In this post I’ll try to bring that experience to bear.)

I fired up one of my laptops and started off with https://joinmastodon.org/.   This showed me an introductory video as well as pointers to different Mastodon projects (is Mastodon a project, a site, or suite of open source projects?).   The multiple instances model as described appealed to me as a content organizational principle, as did the idea of a non-corporate platform.  The comparison to both Twitter and Tumblr was intriguing.  I also had many questions.  What was that about crowdfunding instances?  How much of an instance’s conversation was visible to the outside?  How much of this is Google-spidered?  What are those anti-abuse tools?  Why can’t governments “completely block” Mastodon (as a whole, or just instances?)? Can one join more than a single instance?

Then, when I tried to start using the site, things got odd.

I had signed up once before, but the page didn’t offer a way to just log in.  OK, maybe that account is in the past, and I should make a new one.  Trying that, I was first required to identify myself by a role from a drop-down list of sixteen identifies without any “other”.

Mastodon_I am list

I picked “writer,” because that’s something I do.  (Interesting set of choices, foregrounding creative functions and marginal populations, suggesting either a politically progressive angle or a ruthless right-wing troll farm.)  I also had to choose my language (primary language, I suppose): done.  Then I was also asked to choose a server, as “one server is going to be hosting your account and be part of your identity.”  A list of around 20 presented itself, each with a brief description.

Mastodon_opening communities

It wasn’t clear what some of these were, and there didn’t seem to be any way of learning more.  Is stability a problem in the Fediverse?  Based on their heterogeneity (general and Finnish language and whatever the heck xy.ag is, plus the wide range of people listed) I inferred this was neither a set of the broadest groups, nor a total one, although the page offered no clarification on those points. This decision requirement stymied me.   One of these servers, none of which I could really grasp, would “be part of your identity” on Mastodon from here on?  My presentation would be forever marked by something I couldn’t honestly be said to be choosing with any kind of knowledge of reflection?  It reminded me of the way Second Life used to force new names on people.  It did not sound appealing.

No other options presented themselves on the page – no “click here to learn more”, no “click here to generate more instances” –  so I just reloaded the page to see if anything would change.  Yes, there was now a different set of instances, now totaling 50.  However, they were still either unclear, or repetitive, or too hastily sketched to be informative.  I didn’t feel good about pinning my identity to one of them, and so checked elsewhere on the page for other routes in.

There was a “Find Twitter friends” option elsewhere on the page, which led to another site with a copy of the video I’d seen previously.  I authorized it to connect with my Twitter account, which popped up another site (Chrome was beginning to have a lot of Mastodon navicons sprawling across the top of my laptop by this point).  That page took time to pilfer my account, then asked me if I’d like to follow my Twitter friends on Mastodon.  That sounded like a better plan.

finding Twitter friends on Mastodon

I clicked the blue button.  A loading bar appeared, which was followed by… exactly the same page.  At the bottom were cards for several Mastodon instances, presumably ones my Twitter follows were part of? administered?  I clicked on one, which told me it wasn’t accepting new people.  A second one didn’t explain what it was about, but did have a cheerful note about taking bitcoins.  A third was closed to newcomers.  A fourth was devoted to manga and international-ness, I think.

None of those appealed.  Next to them, another button directed me back to the opening screen.  Which, I realized, had no search option.  This was getting frustrating.

I opened more tabs to escape from this trap and to look for Mastodon information pages hosted elsewhere.  I remembered a discussion about the site on MetaFilter, and reread it.  That reminded me and also my browser of this page, which I then launched.

one Mastodon interface

That felt much more comfortable.  It was like Tweetdeck, a tool I use constantly.  Notifications: check.  #smallstories is, I think, a hashtag that’s either restricted to this instance or that is used by others.  There was a column for a local timeline (that instance?) and for a federated timeline (everyone whom I follow? who follows me?).

I tooted that I was back, checking things out.  Not much seemed to be happening.  I looked for an about page for the instance (Lifehacker said there should be one), but couldn’t find it.  I wrote a few more toots, @ed some people I know from Twitter, and added hashtags like #introductions.  No responses.  I read the local timeline, which was exactly like scanning the main Twitter firehose: a stream of random content.

All right, time to do more research off-Mastodon.  One Masto-blog post actually offered some useful information.  You are basically attached to one Masto-instance, and it takes some work to switch to another.    “A pain,” in the words of one fan:

Like a physical move (between houses, say), according to another:

Also, I learned that if the Tweetdeck interface doesn’t display an about page, you can manually change the URL, since it “always follows a format like https://mastodon.social/about/more.”

I’m still not sure about users and instance identification.  Some make it seem like you’re stuck with the one you find, or the one you somehow relocate to.  This guide claims you can actually join more than one.

Back to the Twitter interface.  A Twitter connection suggested I look into https://scholar.social.  So I threw caution to the winds and signed up.  Now I have a new (second? replacement?) Masto-handle, @bryanalexander@scholar.social.

By this point it was late and my frustration levels were high, so I went to bed.

This afternoon I returned after a manic morning of house-showing, and found many people had been tweeting and tooting at me.  They offered more helpful suggestions.  One entered data into an instance page so that it actually displayed an awful lot of instances, and had a search box that worked (sometimes).  Hearing back from folks helped a great deal.

I can’t shake the Second Life vibe.  On the positive side, I’m getting a sense of an exciting and ambitious project designed to carve out a new digital world, with a bunch of helpful people working on and in it.  On the downside, there’s that feeling of having to learn two things: technical skills and an already developed, not very clear culture.  Onboarding is awkward if not self-defeating.  You need to make social connections to help you into the space.

So what’s next?

I’m going to explore @scholar.social, which sounds like a good place for conversations.  I’ll see how it goes.

I can’t find an instance on the future of education, so I’ll keep hunting for one.  Maybe I should create one, if I can figure out how to and claw free the time.

I am not planning on giving up Twitter.  It’s unpopular to say so now, but the thing still works for me for all kinds of reasons, both personal and professional.  And I am not finding Mastodon to replace it; instead, the beast complements the bird.

I’ll keep open one or two Mastodon tabs in my main work browser, alongside Twitter and Facebook.  Let’s see how they compare with each other.

Are any of you on Mastodon?  Any pointers or experiences to share?

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11 Responses to Exploring Mastodon

  1. Chris Lott says:

    The use of instances is opaque to me. Perhaps its just different social media strokes, but I hear some people saying that belonging to more than one instance is doing it wrong and others who seem to be promoting belonging to many of them.

    Honestly, Twitter mostly works for me, functionally, and the anti-corporate value of Mastodon doesn’t count much for me (at the moment).

    I’m of average intelligence and at least average tech experience, and given how confusing things seem to me, I also have a hard time seeing linguist-twitter or poet-twitter or writer-twitter moving to Mastodon anytime soon. I never found Twitter that confusing, but it definitely was similar ed and tech geek centric in the early years, so that could change for Mastodon.

  2. Mark Corbett Wilson says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only bewildered beast at the watering hole.

  3. I use Mastodon as a way to diversify my learning network. I use the hashtag function to share #smallstories #smallpoems #smallactions with others. I don’t try to make Mastodon carry too much freight. I find it to be a convivial tool much like Illich would describe it: graceful playfulness.

  4. Alan Levine says:

    Do you remember how twitter was bewildering at first? Who am I talking to? Who cares what I had for lunch? There was not much of anything before to set a stage of expectations.

    It seems worth acknowledging that experience in twitter shapes your perception of Mastodon. I set up an account early but rarely go there. I actually don’t feel a strong need for yet another place to spend time in back and forth. It seems sometimes like the main conversation is how things are different there from twitter. But I do respect people who have found a more comfortable feel there, less noise, and more varied voices.

    And the federated structure, design is interesting as well, it does make me feel good to see a space that is not strictly owned or managed by an entity. At the same time, i like to think of my presence online as not being in or dependent on a single place, but multiple ones I move across.

    I feel much as Chris does above. Yes there is poop in twitter and in the town park. I try to not be standing in it all day long. My twitter approach is not all that different from Mastodon in that my main view is in a Twitter List of people I care more about hearing from; I almost never go into the public stream.

    Happy tooting

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Hey dog!

      I appreciate your take on Mastodon. I’m starting to wonder if I need another channel/venue/platform.

      Hm. Like Chris I found Twitter simple to use at the start. Maybe I was just used to what felt like a cross between IM status updates and chat rooms, both of which I was into at the time.

    • Chris L says:

      I’m going to keep digging into Mastodon because I do dig the idea of it and I am truly interested in how it might facilitate a different kind of community…since that is a subset of the ongoing and fascinating questions about how (social, mostly) tech shapes our interactions and vice-versa.

      Like Alan, though, I very rarely browse the public Twitter timeline (or its Mastodon instance equivalent), but operate mostly from lists, which grow all time…and shrink sometimes too.

  5. Bryan Alexander says:

    Hey dog!

    I appreciate your take on Mastodon. I’m starting to wonder if I need another channel/venue/platform.

    Hm. Like Chris I found Twitter simple to use at the start. Maybe I was just used to what felt like a cross between IM status updates and chat rooms, both of which I was into at the time.

  6. Thanks for the kind words, Shane 🙂 And thanks for the suggestions. Feel free to suggest them “”officially”” using the included form. We’ll use those suggestions to update the post in coming months.

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