Tuesday, 21 Mar 2023

Joining the herd: whats it like moving from Twitter to Mastodon?

Joining the herd: whats it like moving from Twitter to Mastodon?

Joining the herd: whats it like moving from Twitter to Mastodon?

Mastodon feels like the old internet. "Welcome to Mastodon, where you can boost a toot from hellsite.site to mas.to, but remember to CW politics and boot doxers or your instance might be defederated" is a sentence that will make sense eventually - but is unlikely to mean anything on your first day.

Social media startups are ten a penny, but few are so proudly distinct from the competition as the countercultural network that has gained millions of new users over the past week as Elon Musk triggers an exodus from Twitter.

Mastodon isn't one site. Instead, it's a protocol, a system of rules for spinning up your own social network that can also interact with any other following the same code. Some of those social networks are large and general-interest: Mastodon.social, set up by Eugen Rochko, the German software developer who first created the Mastodon protocol, has 169,000 users. Others are the opposite: hellsite.site, set up by Mastodon user @goat, has 440 proudly "shitposting" members and the slogan "be gay do crimes".

On the surface, any given Mastodon site, or "instance" as they are known, looks and feels like slightly tweaked version of Twitter. Users make posts (affectionately called toots, not tweets) that are short (although typically 500 characters, not 280), and can be reshared ("boosted" not "retweeted") and replied to.

There are a few additional features, such as a content warning (CW) option that lets you hide posts behind a caveat - as useful for movie spoilers or niche rants as for objectionable content or upsetting material.

But the way the network functions is radically different. Each instance can link to any other, and users are free to follow posters on their own instances or across the wider "fediverse". Administrators make and enforce the rules on their own instances; on a larger one, that might be a full-time job, while on a smaller instance, it is no more work than being in charge of a mid-size WhatsApp group chat. And the rules can be as tight or as loose as they want. Rochko's original Mastodon instance, for example, bans "racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or casteism", as well as the sharing of "intentionally false or misleading information".

If you want, you can jump to another instance with looser rules, but be warned: admins can ban users, but they can also ban whole instances, "defederating" them. When rightwing social network Gab switched to the Mastodon protocol in 2019, it brought with it a million users, and was promptly defederated by almost every major instance, leaving the users in a bubble universe where they could talk to each other, but not interact with the wider social network.

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