As mentioned earlier, Diaspora was one of the earliest alternative, privacy-respecting social media platforms, but it was focused on being an alternative to Facebook (and it has done this fairly well). But that leaves the other big platform of the social world, Twitter.
Twitter has deservedly been attacked for being a sewer, but there also seems to be an appetite for a platform that can deliver quick notes. One of the earlier alternatives was identi.ca, which was created by Evan Prodromou. But he deprecated that service in favor of pump.io, and my impression is that never got a critical mass of followers. Meanwhile, a new contender seems to have taken up the challenge, and that is Mastodon. But note that Mastodon does use software developed by indenti.ca and pump.io.
Mastodon is another federated service, meaning that it lives on many independent servers, but they pass messages to each other so that you can be in conversation with someone who is on a different server and not even need to know it. As I mentioned in an earlier article, this is very similar to the original Internet social network, Usenet Newsgroups. Mastodon also has no ads, which most people will view as a positive.
It also has some interesting features around anti-abuse, which may not be to everyone’s liking. They clearly do not want Mastodon to become the abusive cess-pit that Twitter so often is (see Gamergate). If you are a free speech absolutist this could be a deal-breaker, but personally I find it refreshing. But it may prove problematic. Let’s take a look.
Mastodon spells this out on a page that is prominently linked off of the Home Page, titled Cage the Mastodon. But because this is a federated system, there can be some variation among the different servers. Every server has a signup page with links to the server rules, which you must agree to if you want to set up an account. So on one extreme, the linuxrocks.online server links to a page with nothing on it, so they seem to be pretty relaxed about anything you might post. On the other hand, mastodon.social, which is the largest and the default choice for new users, has a page with a long list of policies. Here is a quote of paragraph #2, to give you a sense of what they do:
“The following types of content will be removed from the public timeline, and may result in account suspension and revocation of access to the service:
- Racism or advocation of racism
- Sexism or advocation of sexism
- Discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, or advocation thereof
- Xenophobic and/or violent nationalism”
I think this would be attractive to some users, and put off some others, but you do have a choice by getting an account on a server that matches up with your needs.
Finding a Server
If you start at the Join Mastodon page there is a link to Browse the Communities which takes you to a list of servers that tend to match the Mastodon.social server instance. They state
“ We only list servers that are committed to active moderation against racism, sexism and transphobia”.
As I said, this does not bother me particularly. I never really got into Twitter because to me it was a sewer and unpleasant, so I have no problem with this. But I understand that others might have a different set of preferences. For an alternative try https://instances.noct.zone/ , which has a number of interesting instances you can look at. As an example, anarchism.space is one that appears to have no server rules at all, which seems appropriate for the name.
An interesting option is a search list at https://instances.social/list#lang=&allowed=&prohibited=&users= . This lets you search among the various servers using parameters such as the language, how many users it has, and what kinds of things are allowed or prohibited.
Recognize that new instances are popping up all the time, so I am not aware right now of a 100% complete list of server instances, but also remember that as a federated system you can follow people on any server at all without problems. One thing you might want to keep in mind is that a server is only as good as its admin, and a small instance with one admin might have trouble keeping things running smoothly. My friend Michael W. Lucas, who is also a darn good writer, is on a BSD instance. He is planning to visit his admin in person at a conference, and as he put it, his admin won’t buy a single beer all conference as long as Lucas is around. These admins are volunteers, and you should find ways to support them. If there is a PayPal link to tip the admin, use it.
OK, so you have found a server, and have an account. You should know that because it is federated, you need more than a username. As long as you are talking to someone on your same server, a username is enough:
But when you want to talk to people on other servers, you need to include the server name as well:
The interface you get by default resemble TweetDeck, at least on my computer monitor, but there are alternatives. There is an archived list, no longer maintained, at https://github.com/tootsuite/documentation/blob/master/Using-Mastodon/Apps.md, which includes various mobile apps both open source and proprietary. I am not sure why you go to the trouble of getting on a federated social media platform and use proprietary software, but the option is there. It presents Mastodon in 4 columns:
- Settings and search
- Home (my feed)
The first thing you will need to do is find some people to connect with and follow. I got invited onto a server by a friend, who followed me as soon as I signed up. Then I followed a few more people who had sent me their info.
But there are two feeds you can follow right away, the local timeline and the federated timeline. They are on the right column, and you can select either one. The local timeline is everyone on your local server, and if this server is not too large it might be a fairly moderate feed. The federated timeline is not the Grand Unified Firehose of all of Mastodon. Instead, it is a feed of people on other servers who are followed by someone on your server. You see, there is only a connection created between servers when one person follows another. If you select this federated timeline you will see a lot more traffic. One thing I did after checking out the federated timeline was go into settings to set my application to only show “toots” that are in English, since that is my only language. (Hey, I’m American! We are almost all like that.)
In the middle column you see notifications. Then in the Left column (Home) is your personal feed, which shows “toots” by people you follow, or “toots” boosted (similar to re-tweeted) by people you follow.
In the upper left is a search box. You can enter a name or username and hit Enter to search. If you get a hit, click on the person icon next to the name to start following them. If you find someone in one of your timelines you want to follow, just click on their name and then click Follow.
A Few Notes
Mastodon is not Twitter. I know, right? But there are a few things you want to keep in mind to be a respected member of the community.
- Tweets are called toots.
- Retweets are called boosts.
- Likes are Favourites.
- Toots are seen in chronological order with the latest toots appearing in the top of your feed.
- A chick replaces the default Twitter egg/profile.
- You have a 500-character limit compared to Twitter’s 140.
- And Twitter’s known as the birdsite.
Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!