Why Mastodon won't, can't, and shouldn't be Twitter (and that's OK)
What this document is and isn't
I started this document as a way to introduce people in my personal and online circles to the value of federated and decentralized social networks, and as such it may reference situations and use-cases that may not be applicable to everyone. It is also my hope that this will be a living document that will update as my own usage of these networks, as well as the technology behind the networks expand and change.
This post is in large part inspired by Darius Kazemi's Run your own social, which I highly recommend checking out first - but where Darius's guide is making a case for those with the passion, bandwidth and the resources to run their own social networks, I aim to make the case for joining a new (federated) network to folks in networks, both online and offline, that I am already a part of.
This document will also not be a technical primer on how to use Mastodon, nor an introduction to the concept of federated networks in general; others have done that work much better than I could! A few of these guides will be listed in the Resources section.
As well, this guide will usually use "Mastodon" when referencing a specific software just because it's the one I use, but it should be broadly applicable to all federated networks.
While I personally do believe in the value and viability of the platform, this post also doesn't aim to proselytize, ultimately the task of maintaining a new social media presence isn't trivial and there are genuine problems with the fediverse that may by a dealbreaker for some. As well, as time goes on I am having more and more issues with the twitter format writ large. That is something I encourage everyone reading this to consider when deciding whether this social media endeavour is worthwhile for them.
Let's get started!
The elephant in the room is a bird
(See, mastodons are related to elephants and Twi- you know what, nevermind)
Any conversation around Mastodon is inevitably going to invoke references to Twitter. It has been around for about a third of the entire lifespan of the Internet itself, and in that time it has fundamentally changed how people consume and propagate information on the net. Entire industries and modes of work have uprooted and reshaped themselves around Twitter. Its influence is undeniably immense.
At this point I think the problems with Twitter - as a platform, a community, a technology - is well-trodden ground and is beyond the scope of this document, but I am working under the implicit understanding that Twitter is broken.
Mastodon, at its core, is trying to replicate the Twitter experience on a purely mechanical level. However, I firmly believe that it is at this surface layer of the "Microblogging Experience" that the similarities end.
Why not both?
At current count, I've got around a dozen apps on my phone that are either explicitly for social networking, or contain social features. And in apps like Discord the concept of servers multiply the number of networks I participate in. For the most part, all of these networks are separate both in terms of their purpose and participants. We make use of these "silos" intuitively in the current social media landscape, and have them intersect when it suits our needs.
Twitter, enabled by a hyper-capitalistic system demanding all at once uncontrolled reach, influence and scale, has managed to somehow embody the nonsense string of words "a bi-partisan marketplace of ideas" once uttered by Nancy Pelosi. It demands your full attention and wants nothing more than to creep into all your silos and monopolize your entire oeuvre; and in doing so has parasitically made itself indispensable to many people's lives for a myriad of reasons. It is unreasonable to think that the option to up and leave exists for everyone.
However, this doesn't mean that Twitter can't be siloed and specialized in a similar way. A popular option for doing this within Twitter is to have a "main" account and a "private" account, but for me personally, Twitter has given me very little reason to trust them with anything I'd post to a "private" account.
Even if that isn't the case for you, consider the value of mastodon from the reverse position: why not also have a silo where you can safely share your leftist minion memes, or where you can loudly pronounce DS9 as the best Trek, or to hang out with some fellow cryptids - all with the explicit understanding that having to endure right-wing trolls in your mentions or having your account suspended for calling a TERF a TERF won't be part of the experience? These are just some of the very specific, tailored experiences that actually exists on the fediverse that almost anyone who has read this far can get behind!
As I write this there's currently discussion on the fediverse of starting a new temporary instance solely for the purpose of organizing a Pokemon SwSh battle league and for folks participating to roleplay as Gym Leaders. That kind of experience would be extremely difficult to replicate on Twitter and the format of this experience would feel wildly different in a chatroom like Discord.
Even if Mastodon can be functionally different to Twitter, a side effect of Twitter's ubiquity is that it now there's an incredible amount of inertia when considering splitting your social output of a type (say, microblogs) with another platform of that type. This has forever been the curse of any new social networking tool and federated ones are no different.
Your network on Twitter has taken a large amount of time and emotional investment to build and getting into a new platform means doing that work all over again and that's a big ask. Like most problems involving social interaction it's a problem with no easy solution. As far as I can tell, there's only two feasible ways to do this:
- Dive into the deep end, go essentially sight unseen into a brand new community. As microblogging platforms need you to immediately start building those connections to get anything out of it, "lurking" to learn the culture isn't usually an option (though Mastodon's Local Timeline feature does enable that to some degree). This is a hard sell.
- Try to bring people with you so you don't go the transition period alone. This is an even harder sell.
Neither option is particularly appealing for a lot of people, myself included. I find myself in the midst of implementing solution 1 at the moment and while it is exciting to get to know new a lot of new folks and communities it is also anxiety-inducing. This particular combination social-tech problem with no mappable existing solution from either side is a relatively new phenomenon and I'm not sure a right answer exists yet.
Community and Moderation
CWs for discussion of Nazis and Facists this section
It's no secret that the fediverse is not only home to leftists seeking refuge but also techbro reply-guys and straight-up facists that have even gotten too embarrassing for even Twitter. Of these, Gab is probably the most prominent. What Gab is, what they have done, and their effect on the Fediverse as a whole is something well-covered in the blog post "On Mastodon and Nazis" by maloki.
From my own experience helping to moderate a few Discord servers, some with thousands of users, I can say that while it's certainly not an easy task, it is possible to build and protect communities free from fash, even if you technically share a common platform. So long as certain safety measures are in place, you can rest somewhat assured that your experience on Mastodon will remain Nazi-free.
The single most important safety measure is to join an instance with a clearly defined Code of Conduct. Most instances I've encountered will pretty outright state what is and isn't acceptable on their corner of the fediverse, and from there the various safety features already baked into the platform like content warnings, and cross-server reporting features should make it pretty clear the ways that Mastodon differs from Twitter on the issue of user safety.
Note: I also want to point out here the role of community moderators on Mastodon. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, moderators for Mastodon communities are often unpaid volunteers chosen from the community itself. The instance run by one of the lead developers of Mastodon, mastodon.social, one of the largest in the fediverse, does compensate their moderators but that's obviously not an option for all. The role these admins and moderators play in keeping their communities safe is significant and is frankly incredible!
It's important to reiterate here that I don't believe Mastodon or the Fediverse in general is a perfect platform, and that stance is corroborated by a lot of the writing done on Mastodon from folks who are active on the platform. However it should also be apparent that the Mastodon community is one that is often eager to address these issues, and in the few years that I've been paying attention to the project they've made some major strides in protecting the safety of their users.
Hopefully this has been able to at least pique your interest in joining the fediverse! If that's the case, I highly recommend checking out some of the links in the resources section - some are introductions to the usage of mastodon, some are talking generally about the benefits of mastodon, some are recommended instances to join or people to follow! If you do decide to join in, these will hopefully serve to make the process much easier!
All the following resources were inspirational to the writing of this post and I really appreciate all their work, please support them if you are able!
joyeusenoelle - "An Increasingly Less-Brief Guide to Mastodon" - What is mastodon, how to use it & why brands aren't welcome.
Dairus Kazemi - Run your own social - On why and how to run a small-scale social network of your own
Shonalika - [Youtube]What Is Mastodon? (And Why You, A Leftist, Should Be On It) - A great intro to mastodon in video form!
(CW: discussion of Nazis) maloki - On Mastodon and Nazis - an article about Gab and their effect on the Fediverse,
Trunk - https://
Bonus: Stop Using Facebook - https://