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Mastodon: 10 things to know about the popular Twitter alternative

Jose Luis Orihuela, Contributor. 29 November 2022, 3:24 pm
Mastodon: 10 things to know about the popular Twitter alternative

The self-destructive crisis that Twitter has embarked on since Elon Musk took control of the company at the end of October has caused a flight of users who are looking for new digital homes.

Although Mastodon is not necessarily the only natural destination for Twitter emigrants, the spectacular growth it has had in recent weeks seems to reveal a clear preference for this network, in which even former Twitter employees have found refuge and set up their own instance.

It is also true that the exodus is not without its penalties, since Mastodon is not Twitter, and both the software design and the culture of each network respond to conflicting philosophies.

Screenshot 2022-11-29 at 3.19.01 PM.png

1. What is Mastodon?

Mastodon is an implementation of the ActivityPub protocol for the management of a microblogging service (the category to which they belong, for example Twitter and Tumblr), whose open code allows it to be installed on any web server (which constitutes an instance ). Mastodon is also the federated instance network and ultimately a registered trademark of Mastodon gGmbH, a non-profit organization run by Eugen Rochko, creator of the software and administrator of the original server.

2. How is it different from Twitter?

While Twitter is easy, Mastodon is frictionless by design. Twitter is centrally managed, with proprietary software, is a publicly traded company that sells advertising (and identity verification) and where algorithms have taken ownership of the user experience.

Mastodon, on the contrary, works in a decentralized way, with free software, it has no advertising and there are no algorithms that alter the user's timeline.

3. Should we leave Twitter?

It is not recommended to close the accounts, it is preferable to keep our identities and brands busy in that network. In addition, the profiles are the ideal place to share the links to our new destinations.

What is recommended is to download the account files to have a local backup and configure double verification to improve account protection.

4. Why is Mastodon playing now?

Without leaving the Twitter account, it seems reasonable to have a plan B in case that network implodes or goes bankrupt. There are many users who have taken the opportunity to return to their Tumblr accounts and there is also a growing activity on Instagram.

However, from the time Elon Musk made the initial offer until he took over the company, the conversation about Mastodon became more and more prominent on Twitter (at the same time that the conversation about Twitter in Mastodon intensified).

It is inevitable to go to Twitter as a reference to explain Mastodon, but not only because of this crisis but also for historical reasons. Mastodon was born in 2016 because a Twitter user left the network disenchanted with its inefficiencies. This is how Eugene Rochko designed Mastodon inspired by Twitter but willing to reverse all its structural failures.

For this reason I have affirmed that Mastodon is the answer to the question: what would Twitter have been like if it had been developed by the free software community?

5. With what criteria should an instance be chosen?

Choosing an instance (server) of Mastodon is, in part, similar to choosing an email provider: our identity is linked to the brand of the chosen platform (Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, AOL Mail or Outlook) and, regardless of what our option is, we will be able to communicate with the users of all the others.

In Mastodon there are generic instances (which are the most saturated) and there are thematic instances based on countries, regions, cities, languages, professions, disciplines and hobbies.

Other issues to consider when selecting an instance are:

  • the size of the instance (number of hosted accounts) because it can affect the performance of the server and because it conditions the experience of the local timeline, which is the one that corresponds to the updates of the users of that server.
  • the acceptable use policies and terms of service established by the administrator of the chosen instance (accepted languages, disallowed themes, blocked servers, unavailable content, etc.).
    the risk of defederation that the instance could suffer based on its theme or because of its members.
  • the good news is that Mastodon accounts are perfectly transportable between instances, so there is always the possibility of moving to another server (preserving the community of the account, even if the content remains on the old one).

6. How to find our contacts?

Screenshot 2022-11-29 at 3.19.16 PM.pngParadoxically, the most direct method to find out if our contacts are on Mastodon is to check their Twitter profile, since that is where the identity signs corresponding to Mastodon are being indicated.

One of the factors that has convinced me of Mastodon's potential for academic networking and the dissemination of science is the wide diversity of scientific specialities that have hundreds, if not thousands, of representatives grouped into perfectly identifiable communities: Anthropology, Archaeology, Astrophysics. , Bioinformatics, Biophysics, Economics, Chemistry, Communication, Criminology, Law, Digital Humanities, History, Neuroscience, Psychology, Sociology, etc. In Mastodon, a treasure awaits each investigator.

7. How is our identity verified on Mastodon?

In Mastodon there is no centralized verification of user profiles (Twitter's sky-blue hallmark), there is only verification of the links that the user includes in his profile (up to four) and only to the extent that the owner of the account can include a line of HTML code (available in your profile) in the HTML file of the page to which the link points. In this case, the corresponding link will appear in green, indicating that it is verified.

There is a very interesting service called Twittodon that allows cross-verification between a Twitter account and a Mastodon account and generates a link that, when added to the profile, confirms that correspondence and appears in green. Twittodon also offers access to a database of verified matches that can be used to locate the Mastodon accounts of Twitter users.

8. How is our identity communicated publicly on Mastodon?

When we communicate our presence on Twitter to a friend, we can say "find me on Twitter", since knowing our name can carry out a very simple search in the internal Twitter search engine. Instead, saying "I'm on Mastodon" is the equivalent of saying "I have email": there's no way to locate you if you don't indicate which server you're on.

In Mastodon there is no centralized search (just search against an instance's database) and there is no word search either. You can only search tags (#MastodonHelp), user profiles by username (@[email protected]), user profiles by URL (https://mastodon.cloud/@jlori) and posts by URL (https: //mastodon.cloud/@jlori/109331733327310686).

Outside of Mastodon, on any website, blog or social media account, the correct way to communicate identity is through the account URL. If, on the other hand, you communicate using the username (@[email protected]), the browser will interpret that sequence as if it were an email address.

9. What characteristics does writing have in Mastodon?

Twitter's original restriction was 140 characters per tweet, later extended to 280 characters, which is the limit up to now. In Mastodon the standard limit has been extended to 500 characters, although it is a restriction that each instance administrator could modify up or down.

The second characteristic that defines writing in Mastodon is the need to make intensive use of tags (similar to the content discovery logic that operates in Instagram) so that posts transcend the border of the local timeline (something that is also achieved having followers from remote instances) and reach Mastodon users who don't follow us but are tracking the tag in question.

10. What reliable information can I consult about Mastodon?

The official source, which should be explored further, is Mastodon Documentation and a highly recommended guide is Fedi.Tips.

The account of the developer of the original Mastodon software, Eugen Rochko, can be visited at mastodon.social/@Gargron.

Finally, as I have already confessed, those users who are willing to overcome the obstacle course that joining Mastodon represents and learn its techniques and its culture (unlearning part of the inherited ones) will find themselves in an environment that, to the old internet rockers, brings back memories of Usenet communities, the early days of the Web and, of course, the blogging revolution.

Jose Luis Orihuela is a Professor of Multimedia Communication and Digital Strategy at the University of Navarra, Spain

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


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