A prehistoric graffiti representing flock of preistoric elephants, from the Cederberg Conservacy in South Africa.

Mastodon Revisited

A couple of years ago, I wrote about Mastodon. At the time, I was not convinced that the way to break the pernicious cycle of social media and attention-stealing was to develop an alternative to Twitter.

And to be perfectly candid, I still think so. But times change, and Twitter toxicity and dark patterns went so out of the roof that, for the sake of my mental and moral integrity, I had to leave it. And so, I found refuge on Mastodon, the place whose existence I critiqued not so long time ago.

Oh, the irony.

I think I owe you (and the Don) a review of the first month in which I was “forced” to ride exclusively on the elephant back.

So, let’s start.

What I like now

Before I start, we all need to be honest for a moment. It is not like Mastodon suddenly got better and became so attractive to people that users began to flock to it. On the contrary, Twitter got worse, and users started to move to Mastodon, and – as a happy consequence – Mastodon got better.

Because Mastodon is not really the most user-friendly experience, a significant chunk of people moving in were developers. And good ones. People who got screwed over by Twitter’s erratic policies decided to invest their expertise on Mastodon.

Mastodon not only got better because they moved in, strengthening the literal social network and providing engaging content to the platform, but because they started developing for it.

It isn’t a coincidence that we are living in a kind of Cambrian explosion of applications, services, and clients for Mastodon. The last time I tried Mastodon, I had the impression that there were only a handful of clients and smartphone apps. Now, instead, there is a new app popping up every day. You can use Elk as an alternative web client (and thanks God, because the standard one sucks); on iOS, you can use Ivory (rising from the ashes of Twitbot), the open source IceCubeTuskToot!, only to list my favorites. But there are many more that I am getting tired of only listing them.

Nowaday, I use Elk.zone. Even if it is still in alpha and it is clearly inspired by Twitter, it is a much nicer experience than the default Mastodon UI.
Figure 1. Nowaday, I use Elk.zone. Even if it is still in alpha and it is clearly inspired by Twitter, it is a much nicer experience than the default Mastodon UI.

There is a lot of exploration in this field, making me genuinely interested in the platform as a whole. Moreover, it makes me excited because Mastodon may finally become what I desired it was in my first article: a playground where the community can experiment with different models and different interactions in the context of social networks.

The Big Problems

There are still many issues in Mastodon. However, compared to my last exploration, I now see some slim hope that they will be addressed in the short-medium term.

People are saying that entering in Mastodon is the hard part. That the concept of instances is confusing and scares people away. I don’t buy it.

Entering in Mastodon is easy. The difficulties begin when you are in. Mastodon architecture, at the moment, provides all the problems of a distributed system in addition to the problems of a centralized one.

Instead of an Evil Emperor ruling over the entire world, we have one thousand feudal kingdoms ruled by random guys. If your instance is run by the good guys, you are good: but what if you stumble into the particular ones? They can arbitrarily bubble you by banning entire servers, they can technically see every private message (remember: there are no private messages in Mastodon), and they can randomly disappear or get hit by a bus, taking down all your data.

“But it is a federated system,” you may say, “if you don’t like where you are, you can move to some other place.”

Ah. You wish.

You can move, but 90% of your data remains a hostage of whatever server you are on. Likewise, you can download all your data, but you cannot import them into the new server (and so what’s the point?). There is an automated way to migrate your followers (thank Gods), but this only works if the instance where you came from is still active. If it gets shut down, good luck.

I may get political here (as a well-known cosmopolitan), but there is no freedom without freedom of movement. So, the fact that an OpenSource distributed service still lacks such an obvious feature is flabbergasting.

Presently, the only safe way to be a Mastodon citizen is to be the king of your own kingdom. That is, you have to control your instance. And there is no way this is a reasonable solution for everyone, and it would contrast with the concept of local communities.

The only viable solution will be for the user to fully control their data. A Mastodon profile will be an atomic component that can be loaded into and removed from any instance.

No gods or kings. Only toots.

ActivityPub is greater than Mastodon

Even if I am still a bit skeptical about the Mastodon project, I am entirely on board with ActivityPub. I want to be clear here because, the last time, I put the two things into the same bucket.

If you don’t know, ActivityPub is the open, decentralized social networking protocol on which Mastodon is built. It provides a client-to-server API for creating, updating, and deleting content and a federated server-to-server API for delivering notifications and content.

ActivityPub is not only Mastodon. Many services use the same protocol: PixelfedBookWyrmmicro.blog, and more. This allows each social network to interact with the other (with some limitations). For instance, I can use my Mastodon account to follow an account on Pixelfed, or somebody could get my reviews on a BookWyrm instance directly in their Mastodon timeline.

This kind of cross-platform interaction intrigues me. The potential of a universal timeline is captivating.

So, now what?

At this point, people try to predict the “future of Mastodon.” I don’t. I can only discuss what I see. Mastodon remains a weird, clunky alternative to social media. Its limitation and network effect and social inertia) may slow down (and maybe reverse) the explosive growth of the last couple of months. Or not. Everything else can get worse and worse fueling the migration. Who knows.

Still, for nostalgic techie people like me, it provides a sweet “early Twitter” feeling. So, what if it stops growing? What if it doesn’t replace its competitor?

People tend to use proprietary and business models to Open Source and community-driven projects. Mastodon’s growth is exciting for many, but it is not the primary goal of its developers and community. Mastodon users want only to create a nice place for themselves. They don’t want to “rule the world.”

So, personally, I’m not really concerned with the “future of Mastodon.” Mastodon may fix all its issues, continue to attract users, and have a vibrant ecosystem of utilities and applications dedicated to it. In that case, my experience will get better.

Or it may slow down, become stale, lose users, and I could get ultimately bored with it. In that case, I would have freed myself from all Social Media once and for all.

As I see it, I win in both cases.

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