Mastodon is Not a Twitter Replacement

The great Twitter Migration is causing all sorts of hype around Mastodon, but, in my opinion, for the wrong reasons.

People disillusioned with Twitter since Musk took over are flocking to Mastodon to the tune of hundreds of thousands of registrations per day. That is astronomical growth for what has been, for the last several years, niche communities of people around shared interests.

If you’ve never used it, the look and feel is very close to that of Twitter. Your timeline takes up the majority of the interface, you use “@” usernames to mention people, and you can follow topics using hashtags. There are some nuances in the differences between a singly-owned space like Twitter and the interconnectedness of individual Mastodon services (instances), but for the most part, the look and feel is similar.

I’m definitely not the first to say Mastodon is more comparable to email than it is to Twitter in terms of system structure. With email, you pick a home – @yahoo.com, @gmail.com, etc. Mastodon is similar – your username is linked to your home. For me, I’m brianb@fosstodon.org.

Looks are deceiving

With federated spaces, your home is part of your identifier. Instances look the same, but the community guidelines, norms, and expectations can vary widely. To really understand the value of Mastodon, it lies in the expectations of people within the community. This is where the email analogy breaks down and where most articles about Mastodon fall short.

Email is federated – different services talk to one another using a shared set of rules for communicating. But I don’t see what other people on gmail.com are saying (nor do I want to). Mastodon provides this structure but in a social media context.

Mastodon is federated for a specific reason – a single entity setting the rules for everyone is usually not the best way to go. Each instance is able to set their own expectations and the runners are provided tools to moderate the space. When you’re joining an instance, it isn’t just a place to post. It’s a community you are joining intentionally.

Community and trust building

Joanna Stern has a simple overview of Mastodon on the Wall Street Journal and she touches on the difference of trust as capital in a new social media paradigm:

“We’re in a big trust exercise,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University. “Is the server in some rando’s closet maybe better right now than Elon Musk’s Twitter?” Prof. Grygiel suggested looking for different trust signals on Mastodon, including servers with larger populations and those pitching more supportive communities.

There’s trust in the people who are running the instances. Sometimes, it’s single administrators running a public instance while others are teams of people. Either way, you’re shifting your trust from a corporation to not be bad to an individual or small team of people – all of whom have names and faces within your community – to act in everyone’s best interests. In return, as a member of the community, we act in accordance with the community norms.

Many instances have had some growing pains this week as new registrations flooded in. Some technical pains, but many more cases of culture clash. Hugh Rundle makes a good point in his post:

It’s not entirely the Twitter people’s fault. They’ve been taught to behave in certain ways. To chase likes and retweets/boosts. To promote themselves. To perform. All of that sort of thing is anathema to most of the people who were on Mastodon a week ago.

When you join a community, take time to make a good introduction and then spend some time looking at your local timeline. See who pops out and follow to begin curating your own Home feed. Once you feel comfortable, start searching with hashtags for your other interests to gather people from outside your home instance.

Most importantly, take time to listen and get the vibe. The time it takes to de-Twitter extends well past when you shut your account down. Resist the habits of interaction developed on Twitter because they don’t fit well with the structure of your Mastodon instance.

“This is a little bit more complicated. But in the long run, for people who are interested in a more community-oriented space, I think it is very much worth it.”

Slow down and really take some time to rethink how – and why – we spend time in these spaces in the first place.


Side note, the header image for this post was generated by the Stable Diffusion image-generation AI with the prompt, “a person running away from a giant blue bird in an impressionist style.”

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