I should start this post with a confession: I’ve never been “into” social media. When Facebook was rising in popularity, I was in school and still kept in touch with friends via AIM. 15-odd years later, and it seems everyone wants to stay connected using either Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
This is unfortunate because these companies can not be trusted with your information. Their business model relies on your activity on their “free” platform - you pay for these services with intimately personal information about yourself. Facebook has been the most egregious about this, and the collective harm these companies are doing to our society can’t yet be fully measured or comprehended. (By the way, if you still use Facebook and haven’t read the above post, please do so)
At the same time, it’s clear that, as social animals, humans want to interact with each other. Fortunately, there are ethical alternatives to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest of the digital hegemony.
Mastodon is a federated social network that appears familiar to users of the other social networks. These appearances are only skin-deep, however and the improvements over the rest are many.
First of all, Mastodon is a federated social network. This is a fancy-ish term that means there is no central server running the entire service. Rather, there are many different servers, stood up by individuals like you and me, that can all talk to each other so users on any server can see all Mastodon messages.
Think of email: Mastodon the social network is like Email the communications service. An instance of Mastodon is like a particular email provider such as Fastmail, ProtonMail, Tutanota, etc. A Fastmail user can send email to and receive email from any other email service.
In the same way, a Mastodon user on the Fosstodon instance might join that instance because of their interest in Free and Open Source Software. However, that user can send messages to and receive messages from anyone on another Mastodon instance thanks the ability to specify a user using a familiar syntax - @use[email protected]. Basically a twitter handle meets email!
To use another analogy, Mastodon instances are like neighborhoods or communities of interest. A user is free to join any community of interest and can communicate across all communities of interest.
An interesting and enjoyable outcome of this federated approach is that users have three different timelines they can view: Home, Local, and Federated.
Home - this timeline shows posts (toots) by those you follow. Unlike some other sites, there are no ads or promoted posts to be seen!
Local - this timeline is the main reason I’ve found to choose a “neighborhood” (Mastodon instance) wisely. Viewing this timeline will show you toots from all people local to your same instance.
Federated - This timeline shows you posts from all across Mastodon. Beware: some content viewable on this timeline might be offensive or inappropriate so exercise caution while browsing this!
NB: there’s a settings preference you can set to either hide media marked as sensitive, although this relies on trusting posters to appropriately mark such content. If you need it, you can set a preference to hide all media
This has been my favorite feature of Mastodon so far: I spend most of my time browsing the feed of my local instance, though from time to time I’ll view all Mastodon toots as well.
Oh, and one more thing - Mastodon’s timelines are purely chronological. There are no algorithms designed to shift content around, giving the illusion that there’s constantly new content. Everything you see in your timelines is presented in a nice, timely fashion. This might actually be my favorite feature of Mastodon so far!
Mastodon has all of the interactive features a user would expect: one can submit a new post (called a “toot”), attach media to a toot, create a poll, re-toot, boost a toot (similar to “retweet”).
Notable improvements Mastodon introduces are the ability to delete and re-draft a toot (almost like editing a post), the ability to mark a toot as sensitive (with descriptive message), and, my favorite, the ability to scope a toot’s visibility.
The options for this last ability are:
- Public - Visible to all and allow use of hashtags for discovery
- Unlisted - Visible for all, but not in public timelines
- Followers-only - Visible only to followers
- Direct - Visible to the mentioned user only
This simple, elegant approach reduces confusion (my first week on Twitter, I accidentally posted a public tweet asking my boss when he was going to show up to work) and gives fine-grained control to the user.
Mastodon has learned from the pitfalls of the social networks that came before it. For instance, users can boost (i.e. “retweet” or “like”) a toot so that their followers can see it, but the user cannot add commentary to the boosted toot. In this way, the original message will be communicated across the platform and they are resilient against brigading tactics or message manipulation.
Users are given ample control over what content they see and from whom. Users can mute other users whom they may never want to hear from. Similarly, users can create time-bound filters for terms or hashtags they may not want to see. This filtration can be set for the Home timeline, Public timelines (Local and Federated), notifications, conversations, and profiles. Further still, these filters can actually drop the message, so that even if the filter is later removed, the messages will remain disappeared.
Packing up and Moving
As I said, Mastodon instances can be thought of as neighborhoods. If a user wishes, they can pack up their profile (and followers) and move to another instance. Nearly everything is retained in this move, and other Mastodon users will be notified of the user’s new address. Without federation this would not be possible or indeed necessary. The point is that users are empowered and control where they call home.
I’ll succinctly sum up what I love about Mastodon and why I’m not going back to other social networks: Mastodon gives me control. I feel empowered. On other networks, I have no power (not even of my own freedom of speech). That alone is reason enough for me to use Mastodon.
I invite you to try it out as well! Click this link and you’ll be invited to the fosstodon.org instance that I’m home to. Note that clicking this link will also automatically cause you to follow me.
Reach out to me at @unl0ckd < at > fosstodon.org!