“So your favorite social media site has been taken over by a bumbling fascist-friendly narcissist.”
Mine, too. With Twitter under new management that leaves me very pessimistic about its future as a viable communications site, I’ve been taking a look at some other options again. Two of these are Mastodon and Counter Social, both of which have a posting and following structure similar to Twitter (and are kinda related, but I’ll get to that).
I actually joined both a few years back, sometime around 2017, when Twitter was already making some dubious and infuriating decisions in how it runs things. I haven’t spent much time on either, until recently, but having the accounts set up made it easy for me to jump back in.
There’s a lot of concern and confusion about the sites, particularly about Mastodon, and its at-first-glance strange home server system. Now that I’ve gotten a bit oriented, I thought I’d write a post trying to explain things as I understand them, from the perspective of a relative newcomer myself. I actually enjoy both, so hopefully I can help others to get a bit comfortable, too! I will update and correct this post if I learn that I’ve gotten anything wrong.
Let’s address the big elephant (mastodon) in the room first. So you go to the Mastodon site, and you get a page like this.
So far, so good! But then you click “create account” and you get the following intimidating sight:
Which is followed by a list of confusing server options; here are a few examples:
This is the point that typically loses people. Why do I need to choose a server, and what effect does choosing a server have, and what if I pick the wrong server?
Now for some explanation: Mastodon, though it functions similarly to Twitter, is operated and maintained differently. Twitter is a single company that handles all aspects of the application, from servers to software. Mastodon is not run by a company, but is instead a federation: there are a large number of servers, each operated independently, but all able to talk to each other. This is an important point: regardless of what server you join, you will be able to communicate with almost anyone on any other server. You can follow them, and they can follow you. Their “toots” will appear in your home feed, and yours will appear in theirs.
Each server is run by volunteers, and each server has its own code of conduct. In my experience, these codes of conduct are pretty reasonable. For example, here is the server rules for mastodon.social, where my account is housed:
I find these rules quite acceptable, and actually more relaxed than Twitter’s rules, which generally does not allow sexually explicit content at all. As long as you’re marking your material as sensitive, it is allowed. (More on this in a bit.)
When Mastodon started, the main server, run by the founder, was mastodon.social. That server is currently not taking new applications, because of the large influx of users. I imagine things will open up again when they upgrade their infrastructure.
So code of conduct is one thing to look at in a server, though I imagine that most of the “recommended” servers have a similar code of conduct. Is there anything else one should look for in a server? Now, we can talk about one of the big differences between current Twitter and Mastodon: the absence of algorithmic feeds in the latter.
In the early days of Twitter, the only tweets you would see in your timeline would be those tweets of people you had explicitly chosen to follow, shown in chronological order. This made starting up on twitter a bit challenging, because you had to find people to follow, and your Twitter experience depended on how good you were at finding accounts to follow. After a while, Twitter introduced the “Home” feed, which is the default, which shows you not only the stuff from your following list, but also tweets algorithmically chosen for your interest, not necessarily chronologically, based on [God knows what]. So many people like me complained, however, that Twitter still has the option to see “Latest Tweets,” to maintain the original experience. Compared to other social media sites like Facebook, this has always been Twitter’s strength: the ability to choose explicitly who you want to hear from.
Mastodon is very much like old Twitter, with some enhancements. Your Home feed shows you all the toots from the people you follow. Now let’s look at your other options, as they appear in the side bar of the web interface:
“Home,” as we said, shows those folks you follow. “Notifications” shows all the interactions you have, such as people mentioning you, sharing your posts, or following you. “#Explore” is the basic algorithmic feed, picking out toots from across the federation for you that are very popular.
But what if you want a more tailored experience? This is where your choice of server comes in. The “Local” tab will show you toots from within your own server. So if there is a particular community you want to be able to really follow, like science or banjo playing or whatever, choosing that particular server will give you a local feed of that server to find new people or conversations. And the “Federated” tab shows you a glimpse of current toots from the entire federation; the “firehose,” so to speak.
One other concern, though hard to predict: is your server stable, or will it be shut down because the operators are quitting? If it is going to be shut down, you can transfer your account to another server. Your old toots will remain on the old server and not show up on the new server, but all of your followers/following will transfer over. So when you pick a server, you should basically make an educated guess at first, and if you don’t like it, you can move to another once you figure out the interface.
For me, personally, the details of the server don’t matter too much, because I know enough people from Twitter that have started Mastodon accounts that I have a healthy following list already.
One way to think about the whole concept of the federation, if the above discussion wasn’t clear enough: the United States is a federation. It is a collection of states, each of which has its own rules, and those rules are very similar but with significant differences from state to state. So picking a server is very much like choosing a state to live in: Do you like the laws? Do you like the people? Does the state seem relative stable, or is it a complete mess (Texas)?
And once you’ve chosen a state to live, you are free to talk to anyone in any other state, and you can move from one state to another if you don’t like the local trends. (Much easier to do on Mastodon than in reality, of course!)
Okay, with that out of the way, how does posting work, and how does it differ from current Twitter? Here’s the basic posting interface:
You have 500 characters to work with. In the upper right, you can add emojis. In the lower left, you can attach one or more images with the paperclip. (NOTE: it appears that the default Mastodon servers do not allow animated gifs, which is a shame, but something I can live with.)
The three bars represent adding a poll to your post. The globe represents privacy settings: you can make a post public, visible only to followers, visible to only mentioned people, or unlisted (visible to all but not “discoverable” in features like #Explore).
CW is content warning, and that is worth talking about a bit. If you are talking about something that could be upsetting or not generally appropriate, you can add a content warning so that people have to click the post to see the contents. Ever since Mastodon began, there has been a strong tradition of using content warnings on triggering topics, which not only includes political discussions but also food. I think in general one should just use common sense: Mastodon strives to be a friendly, safe place for discussions, so anything that might needlessly cause distress should be CWed. It is important to note that these topics are not prohibited, only that as a community we should take care in what we share with others.
Once you’ve posted? Or you’re reading another post? You’ve got a bunch of familiar options there, too:
On the lower left is reply; the next option with the double arrows is a boost, essentially a retweet from Twitter. You will notice that there is no option for quote tweeting. The managers of Mastodon feel that quote tweeting encourages arguments and conflict with others, and so it is not available. This is something that I disagree with, but again I can live without. Personally, I only used quote tweets to boost other people’s ideas; if I want to comment on a complete jerk’s tweet, I would screencap to not give them the extra attention.
The star is “favorite.” This is the old style Twitter “favorite,” where it does absolutely nothing for the visibility of your post, and only serves as a way to tell the person “hey, I like your post!” Twitter added “likes” to their algorithm much to the dismay of many users, who felt that they would retweet if they wanted to give the post more attention. Sometimes you just want to quickly let people know you appreciate their post, or whatever they’re posting about their life!
Next to the star is “bookmarks,” a separate category to save things you might want to come back to later. (If you’re like me on twitter, you “like” everything reflexively, so “likes” are a poor way to remember tweets.) Next to bookmarks is a sharing option, to copy a link or send it to someone else. Finally, you have options for reporting posts, muting conversations, and other options at the three dots.
So those are the basics of Mastodon! There are a few other important things worth mentioning:
- There is no direct search of posts. The managers of Mastodon feel that a lot of trolling and aggressive behavior is done by directly searching for words or phrases (like “Elon Musk”) and then attacking the poster. There are two things you can search for: usernames and hashtags. So if you want to make your post searchable for a given topic, use a hashtag to make it easy to find. When searching usernames, usually you can just include the username and not include the full server name, but I’ve found this kind of flaky, and sometimes you have to put the full name in (with the @ at the beginning).
- Image descriptions. Mastodon also has the tradition of being as accessible to people with disabilities as possible, so you should add an image description to any attached images whenever it makes sense. This is easy to do; once the image loads in the post, you can click on it to add text.
- Be nice. A big goal of Mastodon is to provide a genuinely pleasant and supportive place for people to gather and interact. Try to add to that vibe.
- Be patient. Mastodon has had explosive growth ever since billionaire baby started his tantrum, and it is run by volunteers. Things can be quirky at times due to overload, so please be patient with any hiccups you encounter.
- Verification. Because it is a federation of independent servers, there is no default verification process for users. However, you can connect your personal web page to your Mastodon account to verify that you are the owner of that site.
- Donate! Because the servers are run by volunteers, they have no advertising and no commercial source of income. If you join a server and like it, I encourage you to find how to donate to them to keep them running. Usually you can spend as little as $1 a month to support the system; I made the deliberate choice to make my total monthly support for Mastodon and Counter Social $7.99 per month.
The more I think about it, the more I really enjoy the federated model of Mastodon. There is no profit motive, so bad actors are removed quickly and unflinchingly. Twitter has always been focused on growth, so you get the impression that they reacted to every complaint they got something along the lines of “okay, this is racist, but is it ‘RACIST racist?'” I understand that there was at least one attempt to add a nazi server to the federation; the result was that all the other servers immediately cut off all connection with them! They were free to be nazis all by themselves. This can happen to any server that becomes a bad actor, providing pressure for individual servers to maintain standards.
Twitter was and is heavily motivated by driving as much interaction as possible. Its structure encouraged outrage, and making offensive statements go viral. Again, there is no such motivation in Mastodon. That isn’t to say that things could go very wrong in the future with all the rapid growth, but I’m cautiously optimistic.
So that’s Mastodon, in a nutshell! To close, I want to say a few words about Counter Social, which I am also a member of. Counter Social was started in 2017 as another alternative to toxic social media by a fascinating and infamous hacker known as Jester. You can read some of the background, and some of the features of CoSo, at this page. As basically a single server run by a single person, it has a much smaller user count of about 100k as of this writing, but it is a very welcoming community. It has much more of a left-leaning activist vibe to it, and in fact there is a news ticker at the top of the CoSo page with current headlines.
Posting at CoSo works very much the same as Mastodon. For reading, one can have multiple vertical tabs open at once. On my page, I have the “community firehose,” “my friends,” and “notifications” all open at once. If all the information on screen is overwhelming, you can activate “ostrich mode” to simplify the interface. CoSo has a “pro” option which ironically gives you a blue tick in return for financial support of the site; in contrast with Twitter, however, this has always been the way it works and there is no confusion about what the tick means for different users. One other CoSo bonus: animated gifs are supported!
Content warnings are encouraged on CoSo just like Mastodon, and hashtags are encouraged. CoSo has been described as being more like hanging out at your local coffee shop with friends, and I can see that.
Both Counter Social and Mastodon have decent mobile apps, as well. When I first joined them, neither did, but most of the functionality and utility (and time-wasting) of Twitter can be found in both today.
I hope that this post helps people understand a bit about these alternative “micro-blogging” websites! For my own part, I’m sticking around on Twitter as well for the moment, but it is really nice to make new connections on these other sites where the vitriol is way, way lower. And also have a backup place to keep in contact with people if Twitter goes completely kaput!