October 18, 2020 —
I’m sure you have already heard about Mastodon,
typically marketed as a Twitter alternative.
I will try to convince you that the word alternative doesn’t mean here what you think it means,
and why you may be using Mastodon wrong if you find it boring.
An alternative community
You should not expect to “migrate from Twitter to Mastodon.”
Forget about the privacy angle for now. Mastodon is an alternative community, where people behave
It’s your chance to make new internet friends.
There may be some people for whom Mastodon is a safe haven. Yes, some users really do migrate
there to avoid censorship or bullying but, for most of us, that will not be the case.
Let’s put it this way: Mastodon is to Linux what Twitter is to Windows.
Linux is libre software. But that’s not why most people use it. Linux users mostly want
to get their work done, and Linux is an excellent platform.
There is no Microsoft Word, no Adobe Photoshop, no Starcraft. If you need to use these tools, honestly,
you’d better stick with Windows. You can use emulation, in the same way that there are
utilities to post to Twitter from Mastodon, but that would miss the point.
The bottom line is, you can perform the same tasks, but the process will be different.
You can post toots on Mastodon, upload gifs, send DMs… but it’s not Twitter, and that is fine.
The Local Timeline is Mastodon’s greatest invention
The problem most people have with Mastodon is that they “get bored” with it quickly. I’ve seen it a lot, and
it means one thing: the person created their account on the wrong server.
“But,” they say, “isn’t Mastodon federated? Can’t I chat with everybody, regardless of their server?”
Yes, of course. But discoverability works differently on Mastodon.
Twitter has only two discoverability layers: your network and the whole world. Either a small group of
contacts, or everybody in the whole world. That’s crazy.
They try very hard to show you tweets from outside your network so you can discover new people.
And, at the same time, they show your tweets to third parties, so you can get new followers.
This is the way that
they try to keep you engaged once your network is more or less stable and starts getting stale.
Mastodon, instead, has an extra layer between your network and the whole world:
messages from people on your server. This is called the local timeline.
The local timeline is the key to enjoying Mastodon.
How long it’s been since you made a new internet friend?
If you’re of a certain age you may remember BBSs, Usenet, the IRC, or early internet forums.
Do you recall how exciting it was to log into the unknown and realize that there were people
all around the world who shared your interests?
It was an amazing feeling which got lost on the modern internet. Now you have a chance to relive it.
The local timeline dynamics are very different. There is a lot of respectful interactions among total strangers,
because there is this feeling of community, of being in a neighborhood. Twitter is just the opposite, strangers
shouting at each other.
Furthermore, since the local timeline is more or less limited in the amount of users, you have the chance
to recognize usernames, and being recognized. You start interacting with strangers, mentioning them, sending them
links they may like. You discover new websites, rabbit holes, new approaches to your hobbies.
I’ve made quite a few new internet friends on my Mastodon server, and I don’t mean followers or contacts.
I’m talking about human beings who I have never met in person but feel close to.
People are humble and respectful. And, for less nice users, admins enforce codes of conduct and,
on extreme cases, users may get kicked off a server. But they are not being banned by a faceless corporation
due to mass reports, everybody is given a chance.
How to choose the right server
The problem with “generalist” Mastodon servers like mastodon.social
is that users have just too diverse interests and backgrounds.
Therefore, there is no community feeling. For some people, that may be exactly what they’re looking for. But,
for most of us, there is more value on the smaller servers.
So, how can you choose the right server? Fortunately, you can do a bit of research.
There is an official directory of Mastodon servers categorized by
interests and regions.
Since you’re reading my blog, start by taking a look at these:
- bsd.network, for fans of BSD systems
- linuxrocks.online, for Linux fans
- fosstodon.org, for free software in general
- tilde.zone, for oldschool internet users
- merveilles.town, with a very particular mixture of art and technology
- metalhead.club, to enjoy those classic riffs
And the regionals
There are many more. Simply search online for “mastodon server MY_FAVORITE_HOBBY.” And believe me, servers
between 500 and 5,000 people are the best.
Before clicking on “sign up”, always browse the local timeline,
the about page, and the most active users list. You will get a pretty good idea of the kind of people
who chat there.
Once you feel right at home you can continue your adventure and start following users from other servers.
Mastodon has an option to only display toots in specific languages. It can be very useful to avoid being
flooded by toots that you just have no chance of understanding or even getting what they’re about.
You can also filter your notifications by types: replies, mentions, favorites, reposts, and more.
This makes catching up much more manageable than on Twitter.
Finally, Mastodon has a built-in “Content Warning” feature. It allows you to hide
text behind a short explanation, in case you want to talk about sensible topics or just about spoiling
a recent movie.
Good luck with your search, and see you on the Fediverse! I’m at