Mastodon After Elon Musk Destroyed Twitter
About a year ago, I laid out some ideas for how Elon Musk could take a company like Twitter, which he recently acquired, and turn it into something that makes money and retains its value.
Elon Musk didn’t exactly go with that approach. Instead, he’s kind of been running it into the ground. There’s little value in rehashing his shenanigans, but suffice it to say, Twitter’s value is a fraction of its purchase price value, and what’s left of it seems like a miserable place to participate in, and the company seems like a miserable one to work for.
When Musk decided to shut down third party Twitter apps, Twitter was useless to me. If I couldn’t use Twitter via Tweetbot, I wasn’t using Twitter. After that, I started participating more actively on Mastodon, where I’ve had an account for several years.
Two exciting things then happened:
- Tapbots, makers of Tweetbot, decided to make a Mastodon client based on Tweetbot’s codebase. A couple months later, Ivory was born.
- A sizable contingent of the people I followed and interacted with on Twitter moved over to Mastodon.
Some days, it feels like I didn’t miss a beat, and when I scroll through things on Ivory I almost forget that it’s not Twitter.
But let’s dive into what life on Mastodon is like.
Mastodon isn’t about hyper-growth
Mastodon has been gaining users at a steady pace for a while now and there are now a total of around 15 million accounts.
If Mastodon were a startup funded by venture capitalists, this would be panic-inducing.
But instead, Mastodon is happy and financially healthy. Their latest annual report shows healthy financials, buoyed primarily by the fact that Mastodon as an organization runs super lean.
Mastodon (the organization) leads the Mastodon software project as a whole, and they run two of the largest Mastodon instances. I’d love to see them getting more money, and they are going to be getting it from donations from ordinary users like you or me.
For me, I don’t care if Mastodon hits 100 million or a billion users. Twitter didn’t become more valuable to me when it gained hundreds of millions of users. If anything, Twitter got less appealing to me as it got more growth-obsessed.
I hear a lot of nerdy-ish users lamenting that Mastodon isn’t just a little bit more like the incumbent social networks, being a little more algorithmic to help the onboarding experience and to keep users.
I hope Mastodon continues to reject that thinking, even at the cost of more users. I want Mastodon’s user base to be made up of people who value having agency over what shows up in their feeds. It’s still possible to toot something that goes viral; it just needs the help of people with lots of followers boosting your toot. And honestly, that’s a more honest way of going viral than getting lucky and having the algorithm tip the scales in your favor for something you made.
I’ve previously described how Mastodon addresses a lot of issues by structurally being different by not being one monolithic Mastodon service, but many Mastodon instances that work together.
Big monolithic networks like Twitter want growth so badly that they try to appeal to everyone, and aren’t always the best at moderating extremists who make others feel not safe to exist. I’m happy to say the worst kinds of users Twitter tolerated aren’t tolerated on the mainstream fediverse in general. Sure, you can make a Mastodon instance composed of white supremacists (and people have), but no one’s going to want to federate with you and you’ll be isolated and not able to recruit people from the mainstream.
To be clear, I’m not saying this solves all of Mastodon’s problems and that it’s free of racism and such. It’s not, but this feels like a more solid foundation.
Instances on Mastodon have agency over how they moderate, and that includes the freedom to defederate from other Mastodon instances, preventing the instances’ users from being able to communicate. Defederation is a sharp tool and personally, I feel like it should only be an absolute last resort. But I’ve seen instances defederate others because of beef between admins.
Now, if you run the instance and you’re paying for the infrastructure, you are well within your rights to defederate as aggressively as you like. But I’ve seen more than a few users end up in situations where they’re on an instance that either defederates or is defederated a lot, and then they got fed up with losing connections with people.
If you don’t like a decision your instance admin makes, you can move over to another instance pretty smoothly, but the migration process isn’t perfect (for instance, your historical posts don’t move with you, and if your instance defederated with another, those follower relationships won’t be able to move because they aren’t there).
I’d like to see Mastodon making some bigger investments in account portability for the sake of robustness of the fediverse overall. Not only is there drama among people who run instances, but also some Mastodon instances just don’t stay around. That saddens me; lots of toot URLs will eventually be dead links. One advantage Twitter had was that every public tweet was accessible by a URL (though recently Elon Musk ruined that too).
The reality of Mastodon is that the people running Mastodon instances aren’t paid professionals and they aren’t backed by a big community safety team. To some people, hearing that is a relief and there are finally some instances where some groups of people feel safe (I know a lot of instances that are substantially safer for LGBT people to use, even when they’re posting racier content). But also, the fact that these are run by amateurs means that we’ve got a lot of instance admins who are not prepared to handle the issues of moderating a community, and in many cases instance admins aren’t adequately protecting people of color.
For now, my recommendation for most people is to just make an account on mastodon.social, and if they want to move later to something that suits them better, they can.
Bluesky and Threads
Most of the recently announced microblogging apps don’t have much traction, but two seem to have decent backing: Bluesky, and Threads.
Bluesky was originally an idea of Jack Dorsey’s back when he was running Twitter, and the idea was to create an open protocol that would support Twitter-like features, and then Twitter would migrate to becoming a participant of that open network.
Personally, I’ve always been a little suspicious of the motives behind Bluesky; if Dorsey really did want to move to something open and decentralized Mastodon and ActivityPub had existed for years when he announced Bluesky.
It’s also become clear that Dorsey is hoping that with Bluesky he can wash his hands of having to moderate and community manage the network, which is always the kind of material work that tech bros wish didn’t exist, so they like to just pretend it doesn’t have to exist. But the truth is that online communities need moderation and care, and that takes real human effort that you can’t just replace with an algorithm. People continue to try and fail, and in the age of large language models I’m sure people will try again.
Bluesky opened up a beta app this year, and it’s got some traction, but nobody’s making third party apps for it so far, and it seems to be focused on an algorithmic timeline (albeit one that has some customizability, and there is a promise that you will be able to pick a chronological timeline). If Bluesky does indeed take off I hope Mastodon adds interoperability with it or vice versa so that I don’t need to have another separate account just to see what my friends on Bluesky are ~posting~ skeeting (sighs yes, really) about.
Facebook released Threads as an Instagram product earlier this year. Threads initially made a big splash, in part because when you have the engineering resources of Facebook you can crank out a large scale app like that at incredible speed, and also it seems like they flat out lied about engagement and numbers by just counting Instagram users as Threads users, even if they weren’t using Threads yet. Recently Mark Zuckerberg has claimed Threads has 100 million monthly active users, and that sounds like a big number but that’s just the number of people using it at least once a month. That’s an… odd metric to cherry-pick and it’s likely it’s only being highlighted because it’s the only one that sounds good.
One reason I’m ostensibly rooting for Threads is that they are promising ActivityPub interoperability, meaning in the future we can (theoretically) follow and interact with Threads accounts on Mastodon (and vice versa).
That’s actually kind of exciting to me. Mastodon is still a little bit on the nerdy side, and a lot of non-nerdy people I know are probably way more likely to become Threads users than Mastodon users. With ActivityPub support my friends can follow me from Threads and see my musings, and I can follow them, and neither of us needs another account or to even leave our respective social apps.
Better yet, if a friend is ever talking to me about Threads and complains about something like the number of ads, I can make a great case for switching to Mastodon, and they can actually move but still be able to follow the people they currently follow on Threads.
Over time I’m hoping that interoperability will become table stakes for social networks, and I’m likewise hoping that new social networks coalesce around ActivityPub (which is what Mastodon uses).
Here are a few different projects that interoperate using ActivityPub:
- Pixelfed (picture sharing network like early Instagram)
- PeerTube (video sharing like YouTube)
- Lemmy (link sharing, like Reddit)
- micro.blog (a microblogging site like Twitter or Mastodon)
- WordPress via the ActivityPub plugin (icanthascheezburger is actually using this plugin now and you can follow it via ActivityPub at @[email protected]).
- Pleroma (microblogging)
- Calckey (microblogging)
Tumblr (also owned by Automattic, makers of WordPress) has made public commitments to add ActivityPub support but it’s unclear whether that’s still happening.
Clawing back control
In short, I was able to replace a product made by a company worth tens of billions of dollars (as much as $44 billion if Elon Musk is to be believed) with one made by a company that brings in less than a million a year in donations.
And the products I’m using (Mastodon via mastodon.social + Ivory for Mac and iOS) are better than what Twitter can offer. There are no ads. The apps aren’t littered with tracking code and other useless.
And because Mastodon is philosophically different, it’s fostering a different clientele; one that is more aligned with my values on these things.
There are still areas where I want to see Mastodon mature, but when I step back I’m really proud of what we accomplished as a small community. Through community action a chunk of us have managed to reject a mainstream social network and make our own better one.
I look around at all of the other ways the tech world has gotten shitty. Streaming services were great but they’ve all been consolidating and jacking up prices like they’re cable companies. Every web site I visit is littered with ads and modal popups, and the dreaded “we noticed you’re using an ad blocker” notices. Too many of my apps are sending me push notifications that are nothing more than “hey, open up this app!”.
But Mastodon’s not trying to sell me anything. It’s not pushing for me to follow more people or interact with people just to juice up engagement numbers. It’s just there, humbly at my service.
Sometimes I feel like so much of software is so entrenched that we’re stuck with it as-is, but it turns out that isn’t true. Sometimes a company will just make its stuff unusable for you and you leave (Twitter, Reddit), or you just learn that this is all made of software, and it’s actually not as hard as you might think to build something new and use that.
And I take great comfort in that.