Twitter’s instability over the course of 2022 caused an unprecedented number of people to seek alternatives. The alternative that appears to be the most viable is Mastodon, an open source social network with some clear similarities, but also notable differences. So let’s look at Twitter vs Mastodon, and I will provide some tips as someone who has started the migration.
Millions of people migrated to Mastodon in November 2022, a migration that rivaled the migration from Digg to Reddit in 2010. And much like how Reddit was like Digg in some ways but not others, Mastodon is like Twitter on the surface but has some differences that can be confusing at first.
The concept behind Mastodon
Mastodon is not new. Its origins date back to 2015, although it was very much a niche social network. It is open source in the same sense that Linux is open source. The actual code is available to download, study, modify, and run yourself.
The ability to run it yourself is key. Not only is Mastodon a way for human beings to connect and network together, but it is an actual decentralized computer network.
It is not a commercial entity. It is a literal network of hobbyists running servers on a volunteer basis that exchange data with one another. More on that later.
This is part of the reason that Mastodon addresses look the way they do. You don’t just have a username, but you also have a server name. That’s why you see much longer names on Mastodon than you do on Twitter. On Twitter, I was @siliconundergro. On Mastodon, I am @firstname.lastname@example.org. That last part, ioc.exchange, is the name of the server I reside on.
The server is the most confusing part for someone trying to migrate from a commercial social network.
The Mastodon server, and why and when it matters
The server you are on in Mastodon matters, but only to a limited degree. As long as you know the full address of anyone you wish to connect with, you can follow them. You can reside on any server and participate in conversations.
That’s one major difference between Mastodon and Twitter and other commercial social networks. If I’m curious whether someone I know is on commercial social networks like Twitter and Facebook, I can just start typing their name, and anything that remotely matches will start coming up. Mastodon is different.
Years ago, I wrote about having an unwanted interaction with a one-time romantic interest on Facebook. I don’t know exactly how she found me, but the algorithm may have identified that we knew a lot of the same people and suggested that we connect.
No permanent damage came from the interaction. But there are times when that is not going to be the case.
Someone in an abusive relationship may very well need a place where they can talk with people who may be able to help them, and without being found. Commercial social networks like Twitter and Facebook do not want to be that place. There’s no money in that. Mastodon wants very much to be that kind of place. It’s part of the culture.
It also means that a photogenic attention seeker who posts controversial things to get strong reactions and build a following as a social media legend isn’t going to like Mastodon.
That’s why the culture seems different.
Choosing a server
I promised I’d get back to the server. Mastodon is a network, but there are certain advantages to choosing your server appropriately. I’m on a server run by people who do the same thing for a living as me. That makes it much easier for me to find people I’ve met on other social networks.
The main reason for that is that there are two feeds on a server, the local feed, and the federated feed.
The local feed consists of content that originated on that server. So I can find like-minded strangers by looking at that feed.
The federated feed contains content from the local server, and people that anyone on the local server follow. That can also be a good place to discover content. And if you are on a server full of people who are very much like you, those two feeds are useful. If you’re on a server for no particular reason other than it was accepting applications, those two feeds may not be very useful.
Let’s talk about the algorithm for a minute. An algorithm is just a method for solving a problem. It was originally a mathematical term, and computer programming inherited the name and the mindset from mathematics. In this case, the algorithm refers to the way the social network decides what content to show you.
Mastodon makes a big deal about saying it has no algorithm to feed. That’s a slight oversimplification. Of course it has an algorithm, it has to. But the algorithm is very simple. Show stuff in chronological order.
Twitter, on the other hand, makes a major point of figuring out what you like and don’t like. They keep you hooked by sending you a steady stream of stuff you like. The dark side is that they interject stuff that you won’t like. You react to it, and it gives the person who produced the thing that you don’t like a dopamine rush, because they triggered somebody. And then Twitter shows that interaction to your friends, and they pile on, giving you a dopamine rush, and that keeps you glued to the screen and it provides advertisers a very captive audience, or at least it did until Elon Musk started breaking stuff. But it did nothing to make the world a better place.
The upside, since everything is in chronological order, is it if you scroll along enough, you won’t miss anything.
The downside is that the stuff you like may very well be interspersed with stuff you aren’t interested in. If you follow me on Twitter, and you click like on the stuff I write about technology, but scroll right past when I write about trains, eventually Twitter figures out you’re indifferent to trains and buries it. On Mastodon, you either have to put up with the stuff that doesn’t interest you, or you can put a filter on me so that you only see the stuff you want to see.
It’s a lot more work, because it doesn’t happen automatically. But you are in complete control of it. So if you’re willing to learn how to use the filters, it can be the best thing about it.
Sometimes you’re more interested in following a topic than specific people. Type a hashtag into the search, and then you can optionally follow that hashtag.
Finding hashtags is easier than finding people. And if someone posts about a lot of different things and you’re only interested in a subset of those things, following hashtags helps you keep your feed from getting inundated with stuff you don’t find interesting or helpful.
This feature is very new and not fully developed yet. For example, you can’t add hashtag follows to lists yet. It’s already useful as is, but I expect this capability to become even more useful as time goes on. Potentially, following hashtags could become more common than following individual people in the future.
On Facebook and Twitter, lists are bad. I tried to use lists on Facebook to avoid saying anything political to certain people I knew, but I didn’t know that Facebook told them I put them on that list. Two of them really didn’t like that.
On Twitter, lists are primarily a tool that trolls use to build collections of people to argue with.
So let’s just say I was surprised when I saw a Mastodon had lists, and I was hesitant to click on it.
Then I saw some advice to add people to lists when you follow them. The reason for that is really simple. And it’s not abusive. If you just follow them, their content gets lost in the flood of other content. But if you add people to a list, you can click on a list, and just see the things that the people on that list have posted. Maybe there are times you want to see political news, and there are times you’d really rather not. By grouping the people you follow into lists, you can catch up on each list. Not in the mood for a specific topic? The algorithm isn’t going to force it on you.
Muting and otherwise cooling down
Trolls are a problem on any social network. A troll is someone who goes looking for an argument. And they typically don’t argue in good faith. On commercial social networks, you have some options when this happens. In extreme cases, such as when they are attempting to legitimately harm you, you can report them.
If they haven’t broken any rules but you don’t want them interacting with you anymore, you can block them.
If you’re fine with them being able to see your activity but don’t want to see what they say to you, you can mute them.
On commercial social networks, blocking and muting have no expiration date. You can unblock or unmute but you have to make a point of doing it.
Mastodon can mute someone temporarily. Sometimes you get into a discussion and you need to get away from it. For times like that, Mastodon lets you mute someone for a few hours or a few days so you can step away and not get constant pinging about the interaction.
Hopefully this isn’t a feature you need frequently. But when you do need it, it’s much healthier than the ways commercial social networks handle the situation. It’s much better than stoking the drama until it destroys the relationship.
How do I retweet with a comment?
That’s the cool part. You don’t. On Twitter, retweeting with a comment, or quote tweeting, was a big part of the platform. And sometimes it was good. Sometimes people used it in bad faith.
On Mastodon, the closest thing is to reply to someone’s message, then boost your reply. Then your followers can jump into the conversation where you did, and they can see the whole thing in context. Or not.
This design decision gives the feed a very different feel. But once you’re used to it, I think it’s a lot better. It’s less noisy and less manipulative.