Let’s talk about the Mastodon in the room

This weekend’s hype in the Twitterverse is hands down Mastodon — the free (as in free beer), free (as in free speech), open, federated social network slash microblogging service. Technically speaking it’s a GNU Social implementation, but what it really is in layman’s terms, is a Twitter clone. The service(s) currently count around 128k users, adding a couple of hundred every hour. I can’t explain very clearly why, but this attempt looks very exciting to me. I’m trying to collect nonetheless.

First off: it’s federated. That is, in true GNU spirit it’s fully open and you can run it on your own server. (Well it’s not trivial, but not very complicated either, in fact, I’ll probably set up one to experiment with too.) Federation in this context means that regardless what Mastodon instance (basically server running the Mastodon server code) you are registered on, you will see a global, or as they call it, federated Mastodon timeline. You will also see a local timeline, containing only stuff from the Mastodon instance you’re on. This might come handy for smaller communities down the line.

Federation comes handy too, as currently the service has a scaling problem as I see. The original mastodon.social instance is closed for new registrations, so I, for one, ended up registering on mastodon.technology. This is who I am now on Mastodon (to show off the complete format):

@[email protected]

The first @gergolippai being my username of course, and the second part helping to make sense of the federated service. Still, if you have a mastodon.social or mastodon.xyz username, you are still able to follow me (like Twitter), and interact with me just like you would over Twitter.

By the way interact: tweet == toot, and retweet == boost in the Mastodon ecosystem. Toot is particularly cute. (Or coot.) You get 500 characters instead of Twitter’s 140. There are no ads, there is proper push for web and mobile app (this is a lesser known limitation of Twitter that honestly pisses me off every time I think of it). I also like the ui: a bit basic, but resembles Tweetdeck (which, by the way, everyone should use instead of the “gen pop” Twitter.com site).

At the time of the writing this article, Tusky seems to be the best Android client, but this can change quickly. Tusky is basic, but quick and, for me at least, stable. Does the job in a Talon-like ui, so it’s also immediately nicer looking than Twitter’s own client.

It being a relatively (well, brand) new contestant, it’s not without flaws of course, and even more questions.

Federation at the moment is up and down, like the Assyrian Empire. I sometimes can’t follow people from other networks, sometimes it loads indefinetely, or I don’t see their stats. I’m assuming this is one of the big tasks on the developers’ todo list, apart from the scaling bit. (Or they are related.)

Federated timeline in itself will make little sense after a while, or more precisely: I hope it will make little sense, as this would mean the number of users will have grown to a size where it makes little sense. (Ie.: you don’t want to look at a timeline that is rolling constantly and quickly.)

And last but not least on federation, it needs to be an underlying, but not very vocal concept behind Mastodon, simply as it is confusing to people. From the outside, and currently, this federation business might be hard to grasp for a simple user. Yes, there is a list of current (and constantly growing) Mastodon instances, and yes, there is even a “Mastodon randomiser” service called tooter.today, but this is still very complicated to someone who basically used Twitter in the last 11 years.

It will be very interesting to see if Mastodon’s community moderation works. I suspect that in it’s current form, it won’t, and it will be a problem to solve.

The next big question then is will the service reach critical mass, ie. for example will at least a segment of the press pick it up. With the unfolding privacy hell in the US, and with Facebook’s continued inability to be anything else than an advertising network, this might just be the case. Communities will need a platform to make their voice heard.

Last but not least, Mastodon is a community driven effort (or did I mention that before?) You can greatly help the effort by helping those who build it. Gargron (@gargron on Twitter) is the dude developing Mastodon, and he’s on Patreon. Go support him. Ash Furrow is the dude maintaining mastodon.technology, and he’s on Patreon too. If you use mastodon.technology, you can support him too.

Bottom line: look up who is providing you the service. It’s not Twitter, it’s not some VC moneybag, it will be a dude with a server and/or free time. Your support is most likely appreciated.

Fun fact: Mastodon is also a heacy metal band, on tour currently in Europe. Looking for Mastodon on Google now brings a lot of funny search results.