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Thoughts about Mastodon

I’ve seen quite a few people posting to Twitter recently that they’ve tried or are actively trying out Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter. This gave me the chance to actually have a few good conversations on the subject and I decided to note down some observations from what I’ve seen. I’m going to preface this and expect that you have an understanding of what Mastodon is – if you don’t then read this ‘Meet Mastodon’ by Tiffany Brown.

The Problem

Twitter (along with most social networks) can be a very toxic place. Recently an effort has been made to counteract this but I don’t think that has been anywhere near successful. The toxicity problem isn’t just confined to Twitter though – you can head over to Facebook, Reddit and YouTube among others and see the same on those platforms. I’d even go as far as saying the same toxicity is present in the developer community as well which for a long time felt like it didn’t have that problem. I think as development has become more commonplace it’s inherently gained some of the unpleasant aspects of society and that transcends every method of communication.

Mastodon prides itself on giving users better control of protecting themselves within the social environment. Users can not only block other users of the same instance – they can block entire instances. There are additional controls built in but like anything it isn’t, can’t and won’t ever be foolproof. I think headlines like Motherboards ‘Mastodon is like twitter without the nazis’ don’t help the situation and give a false sense of safety – each and every platform suffers from toxicity. Mastodon is still small enough that it hasn’t attracted the bad crowds yet (I have absolutely no doubts that there are instances already around that are dedicated to horrendous things).

It’s a little like when folks used to say Mac’s wouldn’t get viruses because they weren’t targeted – the market share was too small for hackers to care. Once the Mac and iOS platforms both got larger they became attack targets fairly quickly. Mastodon will be no different to those.

Prominent Trying Out

I’ve seen David Chartier, Eric Barnes, Ian Landsman among others testing out Mastodon recently.

Brand Use

Part of the conversation I had with Eric was that Mastodon just doesn’t suit a brand or personal brand presence anywhere near as well as Twitter. If you instruct someone to follow @ericlbarnes on Twitter then it is fairly easy and failsafe to do so. Mastodon suffers the same problem as ICQ did. In the days of ICQ, you had to remember a long number which was your identifier – mine was 32646413. Not easy to remember, but still slightly easier than Mastodon to find the right person.

The next issue along is verification and proving that someone who says they are X really is that person. There is no built-in mechanism to verify that a person is exactly who they say they are within Mastodon. Usernames on Mastodon look a lot like a combination or a twitter username and email address. For example, these three could be Elon Musk:

@elon@elonmusk.com
@elon@tesla.com
@elon@spacex.com

There is zero chance of you verifying which (if any) is the real Elon Musk. Twitter solved this by adding a blue mark next to profiles that they had independently verified but there is no such process with Mastodon.

So back to Eric, there could be an @ericlbarnes located on the more popular mastodon.social instance, or mastodon.cloud or even ericlbarnes.com – there is no method to verify which actually is Eric so there isn’t a canonical place for people to find brand Eric.

The closest that people have come to be able to do this is writing a page on their website detailing which user and instance they are. Straight away, you’re making people jump through hoops to do something that should be quick and easy. That makes it a much tougher sell to someone to use Mastodon as a brand communication tool.

Smaller Communities & Closer Discourse

I’ve used Mastodon for quite a while and the thing that still sticks with me to this day is that it really feels like there is a value of conversation. I think part of that comes from it being a smaller environment but the where Twitter seems to have a post-and-forget feel – Mastodon has a conversation feel.

A lot of people including Eric think that Mastodon will die out soonish with the likes of Myspace, Digg et all but I think that its resonation with getting back to the conversation will make it stick for a lot of people.

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