A friend sent along an early morning chat message two weeks ago. He suggested that I look at a new platform called Mastodon that will change social media. My interest piqued, I followed the link, created an account and, wheeee! … away I went.
The next few days were filled with media stories about whether it would supplant Twitter. This one was particularly humorous, although not on purpose. I like this one, because it’s pretty even-handed.
First things first. Mastodon is not going to become the next Twitter. That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works. The Mastodon interface might look and feel like Tweetdeck, but mimicry isn’t why it’s revolutionary.
A quick explainer: You don’t join Mastodon. You join an individual Mastodon network called an Instance. The relationship between Instances and Mastodon is like the relationship between a states and the central government laid out in the Articles of Confederation. That is, the individual networks are where all the power resides. The central network just kind of connects them all together. If you have an account on, say, Mastodon.social and want to see who is on, say, social.wxcafe.net, right now you’d have to create two separate accounts.
That sounds unwieldly and counter-intuitive based on how we have used social media in the past. But, it’s a feature, not a bug.
For the uninitiated: An instance is a server running Mastodon, and can be themed or not. Members of one instance can talk with members on other participating instances — the entire group of which is called the fediverse — if everyone decides to play nice.Jack Morse
This is what makes Mastodon revolutionary. It democratizes social media by providing access to network building code to developers or anyone who just wants to try it out. They can set up their own Instance, and can create their own community centered on whatever they want it to be and governed by their own internal rules. There is no central Mastodon authority to appeal to to contain unruly users.
The truth is that most social media users don’t care much for the things Mastodon users really like about it, privacy and that there is no money relationship hanging over it. Social media users want to go talk to people they know and swap photos and stuff. This gives a tremendous leg-up to competitors.
Where this becomes a big deal is in the customization. Because control is democratized, almost anyone with the will can create their own social media network, built up around its own community and governed by its own rules. You could set up a social media network entirely for your family, or your local swingers could create their own to chat and sort out get togethers (this is where the private nature of Mastodon pays off), or whatever. And, yes, eventually someone will figure out how to exploit Mastodon’s open code for money purposes. It’s just that in doing so, they won’t drag everyone else along with them, which is what ruined Twitter*.
*–I hate Twitter. I have always hated Twitter. I jumped into Twitter pretty early on, because I wanted to see what my techie friends were on about. People, it turned out, were mostly on about what they were having for lunch. These weren’t my techie friends, but the early followers-on of people who wanted to see what opportunity for self-aggrandizement Twitter offered. There was also the 140-character limit (dear god, so goes dialogue!), and the website was clunky to use. By the time I got a smartphone, Twitter had become the ass-end of social media, a place where celebrities vogued in front of fans and the man who would become president was beefing with random celebrities early in the morning. As for us plebes, Twitter had reduced basically everything to a race to say the cutest, cleverest-by-half thing possible. I hated it, I still hate it, and while occasionally I’ll Tweet or reTweet, I see no reason to think I won’t hate Twitter until one of us is dead in the grave.