For social network behemoths Facebook and Twitter, the adage is painfully true: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product being sold. As publicly traded companies, the only people they need to please are shareholders, and they do this by squeezing out of users that most valuable of resources: attention.
If it takes envy, outrage, and schadenfreude to generate the necessary return, then so be it.
There are alternatives out there. There are many. To be sure, many have emerged shining with hope, only to die of starvation — network effects are hard to come by. Path and App.net are gone, and Ello and Vero are mostly forgotten. By trying to replicate their mainstream counterparts, they fail because they try to monetize a small, niche user base that people don’t join en masse because there aren’t people there already.
But some alternatives are hanging in there.
By flipping the for-profit model and going the open-source route, they’re finding traction. When the software is free and available to anyone, the death of one server isn’t as big of a tragedy when another five have popped up in the mean time. And by trading walled gardens for open standards, these new platforms don’t live and die by Monthly Active User counts.
Mastodon — named for the band and not the extinct elephant — was born out of the mind of a German college student in 2016. It’s very clearly inspired by Twitter, or rather the Twitter tool Tweetdeck, in look and feel, and its clean and familiar interface helped it find its first users. Mastodon was heralded as the troll-free and Nazi-free “Twitter clone” in 2017, and last year’s #deletefacebook movement, born from the outcry over Facebook’s privacy abuses, brought even more attention and users.
Mastodon servers are federated, similar to the way email is federated. While thousands of users hang out and talk about software development on Mastodon.technology, they can also follow and interact with cat lovers over on Toot.cat, the same way Gmail users can exchange messages with Outlook users.
And one upside of the myriad servers is that the handle or username you’ve always craved is probably still available somewhere.
The Mastodon community has grown continuously over the past two and a half years. In the last month, the census keeping @mastodonusercount bot on the bitcoinhackers.org instance (for cryptocurrency fans, of course) clicked past 2 million users.
The actual population of Mastodon users is probably larger, even, because the aforementioned bot can only see the populations of other servers with which it federates. Mastodon is very big in Japan, for example, but for some disconcerting reasons many servers in the Western world don’t trade messages with them.
And are some of these Mastodon accounts bots that post automatically to the timeline? Yes. But they declare themselves as bots, and their posts can be categorically filtered out. There’s even a server dedicated to them.
Does this mean Nazis and racists can set up Mastodon, too? Yes. But individual servers aren’t required to federate with every other server. Trump fans have flocked to Mobile.co, but the users there can pretty much talk only amongst themselves.
To be sure, Mastodon is still niche. And it will never surpass Facebook and it’s 2.2 billion monthly active users.
But Mastodon doesn’t need to make money, as open-source contributors help keep the software evolving, and Mastodon instances are supported by donations, subscriptions, or simply out of love. (Most are run on love.) Today there are instances for pretty much every community, from artists to academics to solarpunk Libertarians. And there are mobile apps on iOS and Android (like Toot! and Fedilab) that can make Mastodon look as much or as little like Twitter as you like.
And Mastadon is only one suburb in the decentralized, open social web. There’s also Pleroma and Friendica and Diaspora and Pixelfed, which can all interact with each other. But thanks to a thriving mix of themed servers and a variety of apps, it’s probably the easiest place to start exploring the federated universe (or ‘fediverse‘).
Still not convinced? Here’s an exhaustive library of articles about Mastodon worth checking out:
- An Increasingly Less-Brief Guide to Mastodon
- Mastodon’s 2 Year Anniversary (Oct. 14, 2018)
- Podcast: The Changelog #315: Mastodon Awaits (September 19, 2018)
- Podcast: If Then: Twitter Without the Nazis (August 29, 2018)
- Mastodon Quick Start Guide (Aug. 27, 2018)
- Video: Intro to Mastodon 101 (Aug. 25, 2018)
- Tired of Nazis in Your Twitter Mentions? Try Mastodon. (Aug. 22, 2018)
- A Beginner’s Guide to Mastodon (Aug. 22, 2018)
- Tired of Twitter? Join me on Mastodon (Aug. 19, 2018)
- Mastodon is Better than Twitter (August 18, 2018)
- Getting Started with Mastodon (Aug. 13, 2018)
- How Does Mastodon Work (Aug. 4, 2018)
- Facebook Domination vs. Self-Determination (July 18, 2018)
- Podcast: Software Engineering Daily: Mastodon: Federated Social Network with Eugen Rochko (April 12, 2018)
- Video: What is Mastodon? (March 22, 2018)
- #DeleteFacebook: Perspective from a platform that doesn’t put democracy in peril (March 21, 2018)
- Mastodon Makes the Internet Feel Like Home Again (Dec. 19, 2017)
- Mastodon 101: A Queer-Friendly Social Network You’re Gonna Like a Lot (October 11, 2017)
- Like Twitter But Hate The Trolls? Try Mastodon. (April 13, 2017)
- A Complete Sloth’s Guide to Mastodon (April 8, 2017)
- A beginner’s guide to Mastodon, the hot new open-source Twitter clone (April 7, 2017)
- How to use Mastodon, the Twitter alternative that’s becoming super popular (April 6, 2017)
- The coder who built Mastodon is 24, fiercely independent, and doesn’t care about money (April 6, 2017)
- Mastodon Is Like Twitter Without Nazis, So Why Are We Not Using It? (April 4, 2017)
And here are some Mastodon instances worth checking out:
- Mastodon.social: General (205,373 users)
- Mastodon.technology: Technology (16,345 users)
- Octodon.social: General, Science (11,843 users)
- Mastodon.art: Art (7,385 users)
- Mastodon.host: General (5,362 users)
- Todon.nl: Leftists, progressives (3,381 users)
- Scholar.social: Academics (2,795)
- Vis.social: Data visualization (2,597 users)
- Toot.cafe: General, cats (2,391 users)
- Cybre.space: Cyberpunk (2,237 users)
- Elekk.xyz: Gaming (1,501 users)
- Sunbeam.city: Solarpunk Libertarians (1,267 users)
- Fandom.ink: Fandom (1,043 users)
- Writing.exchange: Writing (937 users)
- Radical.town: General, chill, 90s. (710 users)
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A few other instances worth noting:
* Fosstodon.org “for people who are interested in open source technology and the awesome community around it. Whether that be Linux, open source software like Firefox, or Mastodon itself.”
* Ecosteader.com “a network for builders, designers, and innovators of “green” or eco-friendly habitats, gardens, homesteads, farms, artwork, and more. We share ideas and inspirations with a friendly hippie environmentalist kinda vibe.”
* Radical.Town “The sort of place that feels like the Internet used to be back before it got paved over and turned into a mall.”