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Mastodon: What it is and Where it is Going
Twitter's meltdown and its competitor
Well, this is awkward. My one-week break turned into a 2-month hiatus. No new ideas seemed good enough, and my half-finished work did not feel right. Most of my time was spent enjoying the last moments of the warm season. I hiked through the dyrehaven with the puppy, went apple picking thrice, and visited the Jelling Stones.
I also wrote two Good Articles (Leander Schnerr and Marriage License) and co-closed a contentious discussion on Wikipedia. Halloween has come and gone, and we have entered the cultural start of winter here in Denmark. The sun now sets before 4 PM, and the winter drizzle has returned. I now feel refreshed and set for another year of writing.
Twitter in a meltdown
On October 27th, Elon Musk paid $44 billion for Twitter. Since his purchase, things have not gone great for him. Journalists and celebrities have blue checkmarks to verify that they own the account. The bar to get it was inconsistent and vague. A journalist at a major media outlet or a candidate for office would get the check no matter how few followers they have. Meanwhile, people with hundreds of thousands of followers would routinely get denied for not being important enough. There is social status to having the checkmark, but there is also a basket of features and perks for high follower accounts. Musk decided, announced, and had Twitter ship the code to give this to everyone who pays $8/month for Twitter Blue. It didn’t last long. He has been forced to backtrack on this until after the election.
Musk’s free speech crusade has also hit a snag. After tweeting “the bird is free”, extolling his new position on free speech, and firing the trust and safety team, the backtracking has begun. After a string of people changing their display name, avatar, and bio to match Musk’s and then tweeting out rude things, content moderation has returned. As I wrote about in April, Musk’s stance on free speech hit reality like a brick wall.
All of this chaos has encouraged people to find other options for their microblogging. One place where many people have turned to is Mastodon.
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon is open-source software that allows people to do almost everything on Twitter: post short text posts, follow accounts, and interact with other people’s content. What makes Mastodon unique is that it is a federated system. If you have an account on one server, you can interact with people on other servers. If you are extremely nerdy, you can host a server just for you.
Usernames on Mastodon have two parts to make sense of the federated system: a username and a server address. For example, I am @firstname.lastname@example.org. Fish is my username and my server can be found at https://wikis.world. It is pretty much the same as an email address but with an extra
@ at the beginning.
Mastodon has no algorithm and a purposely limited search. You can not search for a phrase across every server. Instead, all feeds are chronological. To get found, content creators need to make posts out of 2009 with several hashtags.
The downside of this model is that you are fully reliant on your server admin. They can read everything that you have ever sent or received, even if it is private. Your IP address and therefore your location is also accessible. If they decide to delete the AWS instance your server runs on you are out of luck.
This is why I chose a small invite-only server run by two Wikimedia community members over the other options. Kunal and Taavi have had access to private data on the Wikimedia servers at some point over the past decade and have not abused their access. They have a track record of working to keep the Wikimedia servers live. They have a plan to keep the server up and running. I trust them to do moderation right. I hope they know how to keep the server running if it gets hugged to death.
I understand that I am extremely lucky to know people who are running a server, but my general thought process is one that you should follow. Econtwitter.net looks great, but people should ask @email@example.com how he intends to keep the lights on in the future. This is true of every other new server that has appeared over the past month.
Future of Mastodon
I think we are going to see some servers implement ads in the next year. In the past, servers were run on donations and goodwill. It is a bit like email in the 1990s. With the mainstreaming of Mastodon, the costs of running a large server increase due to the spike in bandwidth. Users have shown that they prefer free access over paid, so ads will have to start appearing.
Servers are going to also cope with the crush of mainstream trust and safety issues. No longer are the majority of your users FOSS nerds and techno-utopians. This will require paid moderators and staff. DCMA takedown notices need to be acted on. Illegal material needs to be reported to the proper authorities. Even Wikipedia can not do all of this with volunteers alone.
My best guess is that in the long term, Mastodon is going to turn into something much more like email. Email is open by spec but in practice a closed system. Google and Microsoft pretty much control who can and can’t have their emails delivered. Similarly, I imagine that most Mastodon users are going to shuffle into a number of large servers with paid moderation that mostly federate with each other. The openness to new servers that we see now, will be replaced with a more closed system after it is abused by scammers and trolls. Utopian systems are too tempting for bad actors to keep open forever.