What’s a mastodon you ask? A prehistoric elephantine mammal. It’s also an American heavy metal band. But the mastodon I’m referring to is the newest social platform that might just upstart Twitter.

Perhaps you haven’t heard, but Twitter isn’t doing so hot right now. Despite recent improvements made to the platform, Twitter is struggling to retain and attract users. Growing revenue is also proving difficult for the aging platform. From widespread abuse, out of control trolling, to its confusing interface, the whole operation, really, is drawing widespread criticism. Which begs the question, is Twitter’s fate doomed? I will say that Twitter still has some potential and value left to offer users. But it is on a precipice, in danger of falling off. All that needs to happen is the right service needs to get enough momentum.

Enter Mastodon: an open-source, decentralized Twitter clone with a more intuitive interface. Not only that, there are better privacy controls and it’s non-commercialized! But I’ll get into the nitty gritty details of how it works in a few moments.

We’ve established that Twitter is in a vulnerable state. Pretty much anything that vaguely resembles it can replace it. Well, Mastodon has only just come onto the scene but it’s already growing rapidly, just in the last ten days or so. The main server actually had to shut down its doors to new users!

What Mastodon is

Eugen Rochko, a 24-year-old German resident, created the alternative social network and initially released it in October, 2016. Simply put, Mastodon users can create accounts, follow others, and post status updates called “toots.”

How it works

The new service seeks to set itself apart from Twitter through its emphasis on small communities and community-based moderation.

Here are the basics behind Mastodon:

  • Users join a specific Mastodon server rather than a single flagship application or website
  • Toots can be 500 characters long
  • Individual toots can be marked private; messages can also be marked unlisted from timelines or direct between users
  • Users can mark their accounts completely private
  • Posts have the option of being tagged with “content warning” which requires readers to click on the content to reveal the entire message (no spoilers or NSFW content here!)
Using Mastodon

The user interface is pretty nice! It’s simple, features a few columns, and is easy-to-use.

To get started, check out this page of various live instances and pick one that appeals. Do you like cats and yoga? Internet memes? Technology? There are instances for each. Follow the instructions for signing up and begin looking for friends to follow.

What’s an instance?

As mentioned before, Mastodon is decentralized; there are different servers (Mastodon calls them “instances”) and users create an account on one while still being able to interact and follow accounts on different servers. (Think of it like how Gmail users can still email people with Yahoo addresses.)

The ‘federated timeline’ is like a single Twitter feed that has everyone’s tweets, or, in this case, toots. Each server/instance has a local timeline which only users on that instance can see.

Confused? Don’t worry too much; the reason to have different servers is that is makes it much easier to run a non-commercial enterprise.

Larger issues

I want to take a second to mention the rapid growth of Mastodon. Although there aren’t millions of users, the numbers seem to be growing quickly. Let’s all relish in this breath of fresh air to the social landscape.

Cool, now that I’ve taken that moment the cynic in me has an important question – is Mastodon truly on its way to widespread adoption? There’s been a lot of buzz about the new platform, as it tries to break into the mainstream but just because it’s getting a lot of attention online doesn’t mean Mastodon will last. (Do you remember the anti-Facebook social network, Ello?) There are, of course, problems.

In theory, moderation, instance-specific posting guidelines, and a smaller user base will aid in Mastodon not becoming problematic like Twitter. Mastodon hasn’t yet esablished its personality; I think it will depend on which instance(s) you use. But how long until banned content makes its way through the moderation? How long until it goes the way of its contemporaries and is overrun with the mindless rants, politics, trolling, and hate-speech?

One can only speculate but there are a few other things that might drive users nuts.

When you join, you don’t become, for example, @dowitcher on Mastodon. You become @dowitcher@mastodon.xyz, which makes searchign for people difficult. If you want to also be on another instance, you have to create separate accounts and there’s no way to sync them. There doesn’t seem to be a way to claim your identity across the entire platform, paving way for a lot of confusion for all the John Smith’s out there. I’m only half-joking – this could be a serious problem for brands hoping to join Mastodon and finding all the appropriate usernames are taken.

Folks on the service keep equating a Mastodon account with an email account. But, hold on, email is private and social media public, no? This doesn’t seem like an apt anology which may signal a disconnect in the basic understanding of what people want from a social media platform.

So should you use it?

If you like the small community-feel and are looking for a less mainstream social platform, Mastodon is for you. Joining a growing network in its infancy is an uncommon thing so check it out!

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Your content and marketing strategies may soon have to incorporate Mastodon! I hope this brief synopsis helps you prepare. If you’ve tried the Twitter’s latest competitor, let me know how you feel about it in the comments below.

 

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