Every now and then a new social network comes along which people claim will “kill” Twitter or even Facebook.
Although killing Facebook seems downright impossible (nuke it from orbit?), Twitter is always on the ropes and battling contenders.
The latest challenger is Mastodon, a distributed, open source platform with many of the same features as Twitter and some key differences.
Mastodon was developed by Eugen Rochko, a German-born 24-year old college graduate.
Like a lot of Twitter users, Rochko was upset by recent unpopular Twitter updates, such as the move to an algorithm-driven timeline rather than a chronological one.
He started building the platform in early 2016 and named it Mastodon, after the extinct animal – not the metal band.
Unlike Twitter, in which everyone logs into the Twitter site or app, Mastodon consists of something called “instances”. These are essentially connected nodes, and the instance you connect to is where your account lives.
According to Mastodon’s official “Instances list”, there are currently 403 instances to choose from serving a total of 141363 users. Of these instances, mastodon.social is considered the flagship since it boasts around 42,000 of those users.
There are several advantages to decentralisation. The first is monetary since, like BitTorrent technology, Mastodon isn’t really owned by anyone. This – in theory – results in a social network which houses no advertisements or managerial control. If an instance dies, others can pop up to replace it.
— Maneet Siwach (@maneetsiwach) April 7, 2017
Rochko has made it clear that money doesn’t matter to him either. He has set up a Patreon with a goal of making enough to run mastodon.social and cover his basic living expenses. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wants a Porsche collection or Hollywood mansion (yet).
The second advantage of decentralisation is that is easier to create “safe spaces” in which users can avoid trolls.
MY FRIENDS ARE THE BEST PEOPLE AND THEY DO AMAZING THINGS sorry I will take this unmitigated joy to Mastodon where it belongs
— Ingrid Burrington (@lifewinning) April 10, 2017
In a post on Medium entitled “Learning from Twitter’s mistakes”, Rochko wrote:
Smaller, tight-knit communities are less prone to harbouring toxic behaviour; you could think of it as moderation work of the entire network being spread somewhat between countless administrators of independent but compatible communities, which makes it way more scalable than a single multi-million-user company with a small safety team.
Mastodon, of course, does retain some similarities with Twitter. At the moment, mastodon.social looks a lot like Tweetdeck. Like Twitter, Mastodon has a character limit, but it is 500 rather than 140. A tweet is called a “toot” and a “retweet” is called a “boost” (not a retoot, unfortunately).
There are more options for privacy on Mastodon, as users can choose posts to be Public, Unlisted, Private or Direct. In addition, posts can be tagged with a “content warning” for things that are NSFW.
When using the site, you can choose between looking at an instances timeline or the “federated timeline”, which is a stream of posts from other instances.
So will Mastodon kill Twitter?
Writing for Mashable, Lance Ulanoff doesn’t think Mastodon has what it takes to survive. He gives six reasons for the site’s likely demise, including the terrible name, the decentralization and the difficulty in finding people.
Mastodon still feels, and is, small. In the world of social networks it’s positively tiny. By dipping your toes in now you may be able to enjoy it before the inevitable happens.
If history has taught us anything, social networks can go one of two ways. Either they go mainstream and become flooded with fake news, trolls and baby photos, or go extinct, much like the real mastodon of yore.