Social media users of a certain age may remember the early days of Twitter and the feelings it evoked.
It was a simpler time.
Before there were 240 characters, before there was Twitter Blue and, yes, before there was Elon Musk, Twitter stood starkly apart from the monolith that was Facebook.
Everything was public. Everything was open. And, because it was niche, everything was mostly cordial.
That’s all long-gone as Twitter has grown to encompass celebrities, brands and megalomaniacal billionaires all trying to shout loudest in an effort to be heard. That’s to say nothing of the divisive abuse and bullying that can exist there.
So, in an effort to recapture some of the early enjoyment of social media I decided to join Mastodon instead.
If you haven’t heard of Mastadon, it appears to be an early front-runner in the bid to replace Twitter. And a sizeable amount of people have already jumped ship – including famous faces like Stephen Fry and Caitlin Moran.
Unlike Twitter, Mastodon is a decentralised platform. It can’t be bought or operated by a businessman or woman with tens of billions of dollars burning a hole in their pocket.
Like Twitter, it involves character-limited posts (called ‘toots’), as well as the ability to post images, video, audio and polls.
The main difference is that you need to choose a server to sign up with when you first create an account.
Servers are grouped by topic and location, and are supposed to bring users together by common interest.
The server is also where your account lives, so your account name will be nickname@server-name. I went with the nerdculture.de server because I liked the cut of their jib. But if you don’t fancy that one, there’s over 4,000 others to choose from.
Some are closed for registration as they have reached capacity or simply prefer to keep their communities smaller. At the moment, Mastodon’s flagship server mastodon.social is not currently accepting new members.
Think of it like linking your account to a subreddit and then using that as a springboard to join others.
Once you’re signed up, you can follow people no matter which server they use and even change servers yourself at a later date.
How does it work?
After you register, the interface looks somewhat similar to Twitter, with toots up to 500 characters by default. And it’s not called a retweet, it’s called a ‘boost.’ You can use Mastodon on desktop through a web browser or through either the iOS or Android app.
While the mechanics of Mastodon are simple, the structure can be a bit puzzling. A lot of people have simply joined from Twitter and are, in effect, wandering round trying to get to know the place.
Content warnings let you hide posts containing sensitive or triggering material until you’re ready to engage with them and each community has its own guidelines and moderators.
If you’ve got hardcore interests, knitting or Star Wars for example, you’ll probably find it easier to get on board.
But it isn’t as intuitive as Twitter when it comes to getting yourself set up.
Whether or not Mastodon has a future remains to be seen.
Eugen Rochko, a German software engineer, created Mastodon in 2016. Since then, it’s amassed around 1.5 million active users. That’s a fraction of Twitter’s 238 million but the Mastodon app has, according to Rochko, seen a record number of downloads in recent weeks.
But the question of if it can truly displace the blue bird on a mass scale comes down to who joins up.
Twitter succeeds not because it’s particularly groundbreaking or pleasant, but because of the personalities that have lodged there. People may not tweet often, but they’ll use the site for the visceral thrill of seeing the latest nonsense (and resulting outrage) from the likes of Alan Sugar or Piers Morgan.
Mastodon’s approach – siloing people into likeminded communities – may preclude it ever becoming a single entity as big as Twitter.
But then, perhaps that suits the people who’re using it just fine.
At any rate, I’ve got some toots to post. If you want to come and say hi, you can find me on Mastodon here.