Mastodon.social: Why does every new “Twitter” fail?

Many users claim to hate social networks like Facebook and Twitter, yet they never leave the sites. Why? 

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No one likes Twitter. At least, no one admits to liking it. In the last year the social network has come under continual, the-switch-on-the-flamethrower-must-be-broken fire for failing to deal with harassment, becoming a home to neo-Nazis and, on top of all of that, not even managing to make any money out of it.  

Tweets criticising Twitter gain thousands of retweets, with users most recently irritated by the decision to change the default avatar from a cartoon egg to a faceless man. On 30 March, when the site changed its “replies” system in a way that arguably made it harder to see who was talking to who, users snapped. Over the course of the next week, tens of thousands of internet opinionators flocked to Mastodon.social, a Twitter alternative.

Mastodon is a free, open-source, and decentralised social network (more on that later). Contempt for Twitter is so vocal and raw that it was only inevitable that, when a new competitor came along, we’d switch right over. And we did. In our thousands. And then we switched right back.

There are an abundance of technical reasons for Mastodon’s sudden rise and fall. Let's start with the rise. Some features that attracted users were: its 500-character posts (significantly higher than Twitter’s 140), its content warning feature (that allowed users to hide sensitive parts of posts), and its lack of adverts. Most importantly for ex-Twitter users, the site has a strict policy that outright bans any racism, sexism, or discrimination.

Mastodon.social's guidelines

But many features also turned users off. Mastodon isn’t a social network in the same way as Twitter and Facebook. It is actually a free and open source software (Foss) network that means anyone can create an “instance” – of which Mastodon.social is one. Users of different instances can see each other’s posts and interact, which can be confusing (people have complained of not being able to find each other). The site is also clunkier than big brand social networks, has already shut off registration due to “exceptionally high traffic”, and suffers from, to be honest, having a shit name. What is a Mastodon? Isn't that a heavy metal band? How do I pronounce it? Why are tweets called “toots”?

Yet though there are an abundance of technical reasons why Mastodon looks likely to fail, there are also an abundance of psychological ones. Even if no one likes Twitter, plenty of us are addicted to it – and many like the feelings it brings. New competitors like Mastodon – and Peach, a social network which lived and died in a single week last year – simply can’t offer the same buzz.

“Changing social networks is a bit like changing mobile phone and having to re-enter all your contacts by hand,” says Dr Sharon Coen, a social and media psychologist at the University of Salford. She explains that one of the main motivations behind using social media is nurturing social connections, and people don’t want to “lose” these connections by moving to a different site. Not only do you lose your friends, she adds, you also lose your memories. “A study has recently shown how Facebook has now become a sort of personal diary for people," she says. "Therefore abandoning it is a bit like losing a record on one’s personal history.”

Yet some people – known as “early adopters” – are willing to take this risk. Early adopters are tech enthusiasts who happily try out new innovations, and Mastodon benefitted when sort-of-celebrities such as TV writers Graham Linehan and Dan Harmon became some of theirs. But though thousands of people signed up for the site, it simply wasn’t enough. Who cares for Harmon when your best mate isn’t about? As Sarah Jeong in Motherboard acutely summarised: “You aren't on Mastodon because your friends aren't on Mastodon. Your friends aren't on Mastodon because you're not on Mastodon. And I wouldn't be on Mastodon, either, if I hadn't promised my editor to write an article about it.”

And although early adopters like shiny new toys to play with, most of us are creatures of habit. It’s not a kooky coincidence that Mastodon looks and sounds exactly like Twitter, nor is it an accident that Facebook has spent the last few years copying Snapchat. New social networks need to walk the tricky line between innovation and ease.

“Social networks do combine a ‘slick n quick’, intuitive user experience, with the ability to easily and frequently share photos, videos and written content. This appeals to our predilection for simplicity and our limited capacity for processing information,” explains Allie Johns, a freelance brand planner and media psychologist. Yet at the same time, sites need to offer something new in order to be worth the change. Mastodon offers something Twitter users desire – a big fat no-Nazis-thanks policy – so why isn’t this working?

“Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have worked out what their users want, as all good socio-cultural anthropologists would do. But it took them a good few years to do that,” says Johns. Though Twitter users seemingly want a nicer environment, they don’t want it to be too nice. In Motherboard, Jeong explains that many users began to find Mastodon too clean – with content warnings for mere mentions of Donald Trump. “My relief at being on a social network that Julian Assange does not post on is almost perfectly counterbalanced by my regret that I cannot troll him,” she writes.

Fundamentally, however, social networks are a place to be social. Why would anyone swap 3,000 followers for three? Johns argues one of our main reasons for using social media is to “build social capital”, meaning many of us are reluctant to throw everything we’ve already built away. For a new network to succeed, she says, it needs to allow people to build up this capital “quickly and creatively” – something that can’t happen when new sign-ups are temporarily stopped, as with Mastodon. But ultimately it is not technology, but people, that determine whether a new social network will live or die. And people, unfortunately, are infinitely more complex. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh