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8 November

Whatever Mastodon is, it won’t replace Twitter

The social network might be an alternative, but it’s unlikely to become a replacement.

By James Ball

If you’ve been on Twitter this week, you have no doubt seen people change their handles to something that resembles a mistyped email address and then announce they have set up an account on Mastodon – usually before continuing to then tweet as normal.

Mastodon has become the social network (if it counts as a social network – more on this later) of choice for those worried about the erratic Twitatorship of Elon Musk, which in a mere ten days has been on a journey from “comedy is now legal on Twitter” to perma-bans for verified users that parody Elon Musk. The number of Mastodon users has been boosted to around a million in the last week alone.

But Mastodon is not just “Twitter but nice” – it is very much its own creature, for good and for ill. For starters, it isn’t a single social network. Instead, it is hundreds of small-ish networks that are joined together, or federated – in a similar way that 50 states are federated to become the US.

People join a particular instance (or server) on Mastodon, with its own name – one of the defaults is mastodon.social – and this is a key part of their username. I am @jamesrbuk on Twitter, but if I were on Mastodon (which I am not) I would be jamesrbuk@some-server.name.

Each of these servers is run by a different person or company, and they can set their own rules about who can join and how they should act while they’re there. So far, that has resulted in people picking servers relevant to their profession or interests, leading to a somewhat more directed conversation than Twitter’s famous scattergun timeline.

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Because the servers are federated, though, people can cross-post and cross-message between different instances – so you can see posts from people on other servers. However, the admins of each server can choose to block any other server for any reason – there is no guarantee of interoperability.

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The admins of your server are also able, should they wish, to see the direct messages of people on their server. In the case of DMs across servers, both sets of admins would be able to see them. Most people on Twitter would, I am fairly confident, be quite shocked by this. There are other instances of strange behaviours that would startle Twitter users. If two users are DMing and mention the handle of a third, that person is added to the conversation. This could clearly lead to some uncomfortable situations.

Mastodon is generally a calmer and more restrictive place than Twitter, even pre-Musk. Server admins tend to err on the side of banning and defederating, and flagging sensitive content is a must. Conversations tend to be more on-topic and more civilised – “like early-era Twitter” is a common refrain – but there is, of course, no guarantee that this will last if Mastodon catches on.

It is understandable that some Twitter users are balking at the implications of the Musk era and searching for an alternative. But it’s important to have realistic expectations. Mastodon is not “Twitter but good”. It is its own entity and one that is by design a lot more complex and confusing for users than Twitter, or even early-era Twitter, which was much fiddlier to use and less reliable than the service today. It is unlikely to get the same kind of mass adoption as Twitter did – and Twitter itself stayed much smaller than its rival social networks, in turn.

The other question is whether Mastodon is ready for primetime. The project is commendable – unlike most tech start-ups, it is a not-for-profit, it is open source (meaning anyone can see the code, and people can contribute to it) and it is free to set up a Mastodon server.

These are all good things in principle, but they could cause practical problems. Until last Friday, Twitter had 7,500 staff – thousands of them engineers. Mastodon has an engineering staff of less than ten. Because it’s set up as a not-for-profit, it can’t expect a huge flurry of venture capital cash, and donations only get you so far. Most server admins are volunteers – and bigger audiences mean higher running costs.

Beyond a heavier user load and higher costs comes the reality of a bigger user base: if people continue to actually use Mastodon, it will begin to see a corresponding influx of spammers, hackers and con artists. Moderation teams and security engineers are major functions of every major social network. Mastodon does not really have either in place at any kind of scale.

Ultimately, Mastodon risks being all too much like its real-world namesake: Mastodons were (we believe) peaceable, forest-dwelling herbivores, which were then hunted to extinction by humans some 11,000 years ago. Has human nature changed enough since to let Mastodon live?

[See also: How long does Facebook have left?

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