Some may have noticed that vintrock.social is now a thing. I registered it because I’m toying with, maybe, hosting my own Mastodon instance. I figured I should grab it while it’s available, even if I don’t go down that route. For now I’ve pointed it at the main vintrock.com site.
While I’m still on Twitter (both personally and with Vintrock), I’m exploring options. I’ve put myself on the waitlist for Post (here’s a link that, if you click and register through it, I get extra “points” or something to move up the queue. I won’t be insulted if you don’t bother, just putting it out there), but who knows how long until I get invited to sign up for real.
No, I’m not convinced Twitter is going to disappear anytime soon. Even with all the chaos and anarchy that Elon Musk is creating, Twitter will likely be around for a while. Sure, it may end up like MySpace (which still does exist), but it’s not going to disappear entirely. Okay, maybe it will, but we are a long way from that happening.
I have also joined a Mastodon server (@email@example.com), and I’m messing around with it. The concept is intriguing, but I’m not convinced that it’s going to be the “thing” that could challenge Twitter, let alone replace it. Of course, the adherents who have been on Mastodon for a while think otherwise.
The basic premise, and the way you use it, is virtually identical to Twitter. You create posts (they used to called them ‘toots’, a result of the site’s creator not being from North America and being familiar with some, er, cultural nuances). People can read them. Or not. They can be “reblogged” (that used to be called ‘boosted’, but was changed for no apparent reason). There are a few editing tools available that aren’t on Twitter, like being able to hide content that might be sensitive or a spoiler, so people have to click through to see it. Generally, though it’s very similar. You get a reverse-chronological scrolling list of things people have posted.
There are rudimentary search features, as well as ways to find out what’s happening in the rest of the Mastodon world. And it’s here that the troubles begin, and will likely be an impediment to growth and adoption.
The problem is that there are two Mastodons. There’s Mastodon the technology, and “Mastodon” in the form of the various instances using that technology. People conflate the two regularly. There’s no way to “join Mastodon” per se, because there isn’t just one “Mastodon” out there. There are a bunch of them, and there more appearing regularly. And then there are sites that use Mastodon, but aren’t “Mastodon” in the sense the rest of the communities think.
A Mastodon server, or instance, can connect to other instances and join what is called the “fediverse”. Basically, the servers are “federated”, each running independently with their own community of users and their own policies on content and activities, but still interconnected. Their message traffic can be shared with other instances. This allows someone to follow an account on a different server, and you’ll see their posts, reblogs, etc. This allows groups to set up their own private instances when it comes to access (only people invited to join can use it), but still interact with the wider community.
You can, of course, set up your Mastodon instance as stand-alone, and not join the fediverse. Truth Social is using the Mastodon platform for its service, and it is not part of the fediverse. The founders of Mastodon aren’t happy about it, but because the software is free and open-source, anyone can download and use it. This, of course, has created confusion, since some people think that, since Truth Social uses Mastodon, it is somehow “part of” Mastodon. Truth Social also likely runs on Linux on servers powered by Intel processors. That doesn’t mean that Linux and Intel have anything to do with Truth Social and it’s content or users. So Truth Social uses Mastodon, but it isn’t “Mastodon” in the conventional sense.
It’s this fediverse, and the distributed nature of Mastodon that forms the crux of the problem when it comes to adoption by casual users. Step one in getting on to “Mastodon” (the service) is “choose a server”. For technically-inclined people, that’s probably not a big deal. But for normal human beings, that introduces a challenge. Which server is “best”, where “best” is different for each individual? Sure, you can move your account to another server if you find the one you’re on isn’t working for you, or isn’t to your liking. But while you keep your followers and who you follow, your posts don’t follow with you. And just from reviewing the instructions, moving isn’t nearly as simple as experienced Mastodon users would have you believe.
One Service Is Simple
Most people like simplicity. They have enough things to do in their day without having to figure out the complexities (minor as they might seem) of trying to decide where to start. You go to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or whatever, sign up, and everyone else is there, or might appear later. It’s really easy to do.
Having to pick a server is the first complication. Then, if you’re trying to track down people on other servers, well good luck with that. You have to know which server they might be on, and there are dozens (with more appearing every day or so). The discovery elements of Mastodon are primitive, and in some cases non-existent. And that is likely to hold it back.
They’re still going to see some growth for a while as Elon thrashes about more-or-less at random. But I expect the growth to slow or stop. Part of it will be people simply abandoning their interest the moment the “pick a server” thing is encountered. You’ve just created friction. Then, as they find that servers they pick are full, or invite-only, or are performance limited, again, they’ll abandon their interest and move on.
Then There’s The Community
The server I’m on is mastodon.social, and it was the first server that was created. What I’ve found, so far, is that the people and groups on it (and many I’m following for now) are showing some trends. There are a lot of posts about how Mastodon is superior because of the fediverse thing (without providing more than half-baked reasons to back the assertion). Some are saying that no server should grow beyond a certain point, again based on ideas that don’t seem completely thought through.
There is a lot of outrage and indignation at, well, almost everything. Rich people are bad. White people are bad. Some new thing is uncovered that is the singlemost worst and awful-evilist thing to have happened. Outrage of the shootings in Colorado I get. People died that should be alive, and they were killed by someone who is evil, period. But the whole “colleges associated with on-line gambling” thing? Yeah, that’s a problem, but the level of outrage I’m seeing over it is beyond the pale.
From time to time, there are also people who decide to shame new users. They bully or berate them for “not doing things the right way here”, or because they did something they way they would on Twitter. Hmm, I wonder why that would be? I’ve seen reports of accounts being suspended or deleted because a single post violated some rule on content that apparently wasn’t described very well (or, in one case, that the site owner simply “didn’t like it” with no explanation on how to remedy the transgression). Since each server has its own rules, and those rules aren’t necessarily stable, it makes for a bad experience. And single bad experience is all it takes to lose that person as a potential customer forever.
Questions about Stability and Performance
Some servers have adequate performance. Some are buried almost instantly because they’ve undersized the resources for the server. And any instance will cost money, even if you’re running it out of your home or office (Internet access isn’t free, kids). So how do you pay for this?
Most servers either offer a way for you to donate to them directly, or via a platform like Patreon. To add to this whole “fediverse” confusion is the presence of the original Mastodon Patreon account. You can give money to it, but that money only goes to the original core sites and the main developers of the technology. It isn’t spread across the other instances. This means you have to track down the Patreon (or whichever) for your server. With Twitter having been free to use, I expect very few of the new people will donate to the instances they’ve joined.
But the platforms are, for now, anti-advertising. Some are proud, almost obnoxiously so as they brag about it on a near-regular basis, of the fact they aren’t doing this for profit, that they aren’t “greedy”. Fine, if you can make a go of it, more power to you. But I’m expecting that there will quickly be limits on what people will pay, and how many will bother. Twitter’s problems don’t stem from their need to grow and be profitable. They stem from larger problems, that have nothing to do with the money.
Other Services Are Coming (Maybe)
Apparently Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter, is creating something called “bluesky” that is being described as a “social protocol”, but supposedly isn’t meant to be a Twitter competitor (so it may sound like Mastodon, perhaps). Tumblr is apparently looking for developers, and is appealing to the now ex-Twitter folks to contact them. They may be trying to create their own form of social network beyond the blogging platform they have now. I’m sure others will start to emerge from the woodwork as well.
Twitter is Unique
What Twitter does, and how it works, is unique. It isn’t perfect, not by a long-shot, and it has been something of a dumpster fire for over a decade now, depending on what parts of Twitter you interact with. I’ve managed to avoid that myself, through the use of Tweetdeck instead of the normal web interface or official apps. I don’t see ads, and I only see posts from who I follow, and things they re-tweet. And that’s it.
It’s questionable whether you can effectively replicate Twitter without encountering the same junk that Twitter now features. And perhaps you wouldn’t want to. What a new Twitter-like system might look like, I don’t know. I haven’t thought that much about it. I’m not convinced Mastodon is it. We’ll see what Post is like, if I ever get invited to join. I don’t depend much on Twitter, but I do use it, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.