I’ve been trying out a new social media site, here’s a few thoughts. A caveat: I’m not a software developer or a user researcher. This is just going to be my user experience, your mileage may vary. Do a Bruce Lee and take what you can use, leave what you can’t.
Animal Noise Onomatopoeias
I’ve been looking for new social media platforms for a while now. About a year ago I signed up to Ello, but something didn’t click and I’ve never used it. Recently, however, I came across Mastodon, a Twitter alternative.
On Mastodon, posts are ‘toots’, (you know, like the noise a prehistorical elephant might make) and have a limit of five hundred characters. Unlike Twitter the site is decentralised, meaning that it’s run on many servers (called instances, numbering over a thousand at time of writing), instead of one at Twitter HQ. You can follow people and browse hashtags to find new users.
While Twitter has one timeline, where you choose what to see… or it used to be anyway. Now Twitter is ‘helpfully’ showing you things it thinks you missed and things your friends liked, even though it has a system for that, called retweeting. Mastodon has three timelines, as well as a notifications section. Your home timeline holds the toots from the people you follow. The local timeline holds the toots from people on your instance. Finally the federated timeline holds all the toots from the people that have federated (connected) with your instance. Think of it as a global line, sort of. I noted on Mastodon yesterday that the federated timeline is how I imagined the Internet as a kid; lots of people talking about lots of different things in loads of different languages, and though I can’t read much of it, it’s glorious. Way more anime avatars than I expected as a kid though.
Instances are a really interesting idea. It means that if you have specific interest and there is an instance for it, you can join that instance and you instantly have a local timeline filled with toots from people who share that interest. I know that’s not the primary reason it’s run that way, but it’s a delightful byproduct.
Signing up was nice and easy, although at first I struggled to choose an instance. Eventually I used this site to pick an instance based on its number of active users and its up time/quality etc. I didn’t want to get stuck in a specific interest instance (it doesn’t quite work like that, but I didn’t know that at the time) so picked a general instance that didn’t give any specifications about its topics.
If you’ve used TweetDeck before, Mastodon’s interface won’t be too daunting. The same for Twitter users really; it’s just duplications of the time-line serially from left to right. Home Time-line, Notifications and then what I’ve come to think of as the browser column. It changes to display user profiles, the local time-line, the federated time-line, or your hashtag searches. It’s one of my favourite features, but if I could change things, I would let users add more columns, like TweetDeck.
The big, noticeable difference for me, upon first using Mastodon, was the character count. On Twitter I constantly find myself chaining two or three tweets together for little posts, but which are longer than 140 character. It might be the larger character count, or it might be that users have to put in more effort to access it, that gives Mastodon a more relaxed feel. For some reason Twitter has always felt to me like people barking at each other, short and sharp.
Previously on Twitter, I’ve lamented plans to expand the character count, but here, I’m lauding a large character count. What gives? The context is what changes it for me. On Mastodon instances aren’t for profit, (except perhaps the capitalist.party!) and there’s no advertising, ‘brands’ are not present. I’ve yet to be boosted on Mastodon by a Brand bot who’s caught a keyword in my toot and reflexively boosted it even though it’s irrelevant. It happens all the time on Twitter. That’s why a larger character count, combined with unlimited number of replies, would be a nightmare on Twitter. There are so many people with something to huck, and it’s so easy to automate, that it would be so much easier to reach large audiences with their message i.e. harrangue people with stuff they don’t care about.
There’s an argument made that constraints are opportunities to be inventive, that Twitter’s shortened character limit fosters (forces) creativity. That’s true, but not grounds to build a communication tool on. Making art, sure? But the fundamental reason that I go to social networks is to communicate, not to art-about. For the same reason, although I find it hugely entertaining, I won’t join oulipo.social. I struggle with Twitter; its constraints hamper communication. As an aside, I’ve posted a few times on Mastodon and had several conversations with other users, and I’ve yet to hit the character cap, or had to chain replies together. [ED: This has happened since I wrote this; I was being particularly verbose about the dangerous of feeding seagulls at the train station.]
Mastodon’s infrastructure is one of its most interesting aspects. Most social media sites have one company doing all the hosting, all the work and maintenance. Mastodon is ‘federated’, something that I hadn’t come across before. The open source software is provided to anyone to run their own server, called an instance. These are then connected to other instances in the network, which is what provides the access to users all over the world.
The result is that there’s no central collection of data. No central point of failure (although I’ve got to think that it’d take a heckuvalot* to take down Twitter’s servers). It also means that you get two different types of time-line, as mentioned above. This means that the people who’re running different instances can decide on a code of conduct or theme that produces different types of user experiences. Oulipo.social won’t allow folk to post toots containing that fifth Latin graphical symbol. Dolphin.town only accepts toots in solely that fifth Latin graphical symbol!** It gives the whole thing a more eclectic feel than Twitter, but at the same time, it also gives it more character.
It does mean that development is down to a small group of people and that server maintenance is down to one or two server owners. Some of them have set up Patreons to cover up keep, others on smaller servers are doing it off their own backs. At the moment it’s working pretty well, but I wonder if it’s scalable should Mastodon become larger or approach Twitter’s size. Either way, once I know for sure whether I’m going to stick around, I’ll definitely be looking to contribute to the upkeep of the instance that I’m on.
The Barbarian Hordes
Twitter has a hate problem. It has roving gangs of lunatics who dogpile the poor sods they pick as targets, and plethoras of unsavouries who post racist, homophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, and anti-semitic content with wild abandon. Twitter’s reluctance to deal with that kind of behaviour is legendary, and until it begins to really impact brand’s abilities to promote themselves on Twitter (one of the things that Twitter loves being able to do), I don’t think their policies will change significantly. Until it comes to the point where the barbarian hordes are costing Twitter more to ignore than they are to do something about, or users begin haemorrhaging, the company will likely maintain its laissez-faire attitude to dealing with them.
Mastodon, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have this problem, or if it does, it’s harder to find. This may be due to the network’s infancy, or it may have something to do with the fact that it’s not quite so simple or obvious how to sign up and use Mastodon vs Twitter (the differences are minor, but there nonetheless). The problem may get worse as it grows, or those people may simply move to instances that condone that kind of behaviour, allowing instances that don’t, to simply mute them. Most instances have a sensible reporting and code of conduct system which is not conducive to being a dick-head. The principles of the original instance, Mastodon.social, lay out a strong moderation policy from the get go. Very positive; that aspect of it is basically everything Twitter should be and isn’t.
Twitter’s basic experience is undoubtedly a little more polished and sleek. You get a little more space, images are larger etc. There are far more public figures and large organisations on Twitter (that’s a good or bad thing depending on your view), and it seems easier to get things like news, follow a favourite author etc.
Twitter feels more like a large public forum or marketplace. Everyone’s yelling something short about their wares. This is something that I’ve always said; Twitter is a great place to point to something else. Point to a blog post, a product, video or idea. But it’s not the place to have a conversation, to build a dialogue.
Mastodon feels more like a public meeting place like a coffee shop or a library. You can go there to have a conversation about something, with people who are interested in what you’re interested in. Most little ideas or messages can be encapsulated in 500 characters, and you can still use it to point elsewhere, like Twitter. It’s TweetDeck UI does feel a little cramped, (just like TweetDeck, funnily enough), compared to the regular Twitter UI, but it still manages to feel at least a little more serene than Twitter.
The Twitter Dodo?
I don’t know what the future holds for Twitter and Mastodon. I can’t see Mastodon suddenly competing on the same scale as Twitter, unless it gets some big names (I’m reminded of Stephen Fry being an early Twitter adopter). Honestly, though, that might not be a bad thing. With public figures or celebrities come their legions of fans, and the hardcore ones are the ones that cause problems. Popularity means another platform for politicians; lord knows we don’t need another avenue for them to broadcast. The more users join Mastodon, the more that they post. Twitter supposedly gets 6000 tweets a second; if that were the same for Mastodon, how would the federated timeline work? It’s already pretty fast, any faster and it would likely become unusable.
Twitter might collapse under the weight of it’s own un-moderated husk if it’s not careful, but ultimately, I don’t think that people will abandon it entirely. If brands abandon it, Twitter might clean up it’s act and entice people back, with it’s frog-free atmosphere.
If there were anything that I would change about Mastodon, it would be to add, not take away from it’s current format. I’d like to see subscribable instances, so that you could follow instances that interested you, without having to make multiple accounts. I’ve read that multiple accounts are part of the fun, but sorry, I’m a crotchety old man.*** If subscribable instances isn’t possible, I wouldn’t mind seeing integration for multiple accounts within the basic UI.
I’ll stick with both for a little while, and test Mastodon out. I might even do an update of this post a little later down the line when I’ve had chance to really get to grips with it. Remember; I’ve only been on Mastodon for a week, and this is just an initial reflection. If I’ve misunderstood something, or your experience is wildly different, I’d love to hear about it. Comment below!
* The heckuvalot is a legitimate scientific unit. Don’t question it, trust me, I used to do a science. Yes, that’s the right grammatical construction. You do a science, sciences get did, and he, she or it, does a science.
**Translation: Eeeeeee.eee eeee eeeeeee eeeee ee eeeeee eeee eeeee eeeee eeeeeeee eeeeee!
*** Ok, so twenty-six isn’t old, but I am grumpy.