Mastodon

We run a Mastodon instance

You can find it at retro.social. Feel free to come create an account! If registrations are closed, that means we’re running low on disk space. Either contact us so I can create your account by hand, or check Join Mastodon to find another instance.

 

What the Eff is Mastodon?

 

Mastodon is a different kind of social network. It started life as an implementation of the OStatus Protocol used by GNU/Social, if that means anything to you. These days, it’s the leading ActivityPub network.

Before your eyes glaze over, try this: 

Mastodon is a platform for sharing 500 character microblog posts (colloquially known as Toots) in a timeline. In theory, this is much the same as Twitter, and Mastodon has drawn lots of comparisons to twitter (even from me) but there are some big differences between mastodon and twitter that are worth discussing.

 

1) Mastodon is federated and decentralized

  • Okay, so what does that mean? It means that, unlike Facebook or Twitter where there is One place to interact with the service and that place is entirely controlled by a single corporation, with Mastodon there are dozens of different places you can interact with the service (known in this case as instances.)
  • Anyone can launch their own instance, and any instance can communicate with any other instance.
  • ( Well, mostly. We’ll discuss that more below. )
  • This is really cool! Because it means that no single company can own or control Mastodon.
  • This is also kind of dangerous, because it means that individual instances might not be trustworthy, or they might disappear without much warning. (This is okay! Don’t worry! We’ll talk about ways to manage this a little later.)
  • For example: Users from Mastodon.Social can easily interact with users from Toot.Cafe, and vice-versa.
  • There’s a local timeline, showing all posts on the local instance, and a federated timeline, showing all posts that have been seen by users on your instance.
  • I know that sounds confusing, but it makes a lot of sense in practice.

 

2) Mastodon has very fine grained privacy controls.

 

  • Individual users can choose on a per-post basis who to share their toots with.
  • Individual users can choose on a per-user or per-instance basis to mute or block specific accounts or instances
  • Instance administrators can choose on a per user or per instance basis to mute users or instances (allowing users to interact between the instances, but preventing content from one instance from appearing in the federated timeline of the other instance) or block users or instances (especially useful when troll instances spring up.)

 

3) Mastodon does not have global usernames.

 

  • Right now, I’m @ajroach42@retro.social
  • You could be @ajroach42@mastodon.cloud, and that’s okay!
  • This is a feature, not a bug.
  • You can have multiple accounts on multiple instances
  • For example, you may choose to have an account on an instance that only federates with a select few other instances, so that you can talk in relative privacy and also have an account on a bigger instance, to keep up with the conversation on the federated timeline
  • You can export your following list, and import it to another account with ease.
  • So if your instance dies, you can continue following all the people you followed before
  • Some folks are working on a way to automatically DM your followers if you move to a new instance, and to migrate your post history. That’ll happen eventually, I’m sure.
  • If you have ideas on this front, I’d love to hear about them.
  • At the moment, there isn’t any form of indentity validation built in to Mastodon. There are a couple of ideas in the works, and we’ll see if anything comes of that.
  • It’s okay if it doesn’t! Identity validation is not a Mastodon specific problem, and it does not need a Mastodon Specific solution (more on that later.)

4) Mastodon is a pretty coat of paint on a long standing set of standards

 

  • Folks have been using Mastodon compatible tech for 10 years.
  • From Mastodon instances, you can follow GNUSocial users and viceversa
  • Mastodon is WAY easier to use than GNUSocial, and it looks better. It has better privacy controls, and generally has better moderation.
  • Mastodon uses more up to date technology than the older federated social networks, but is backwards compatible with most of them.

5) Mastodon is open source, under the AGPL

 

  • This means you can make your own modifications to Mastodon
  • This means that your modifications have to be released under the AGPL
  • This means that anyone can contribute to Mastodon, and help the project grow
  • So if the service is missing a feature you’d like to see, implement it and make a pull request.

 

6) Mastodon works on iOS and Android

 

7) Most Mastodon instances take a hard line on harassment

 

  • This is a community project, and no instances currently have round-the-clock support
  • But the community policies of most instances explicitly forbid harassment, and I’ve seen this taken very seriously.
  • It’s not perfect, but it is in good faith, and it’s more than Birdsite ever did

8) You don’t have to be afraid of Anime Avatars!

 

  • On twitter, anime avatars are normally a signifier of nazi affiliations
  • On Mastodon, anime avatars are normally a signifier of an artist, or an anime fan

9) Things are growing quickly, and there will be growing pains

 

  • This community is way weirder and different than the social networks you’re used to.
  • It’s more like usenet, or even BBSs than a traditional social network
  • Adjust your expectations accordingly

Addressing Concerns

 

So far, I’m having a lot of fun on Mastodon. I have seen a couple of common complaints, and I’d like to address each of them in turn:

What do I do if my instance dies

 

Move to a new instance, notify your former followers. The tools for this are still young, but they’ll mature.

Have fun. Back up your list of people you follow occasionally. Don’t worry about the social capital of identity. This is anti-capitalist software.

To be clear, many instances will die over the next few months. There has been a rush of new instances, and a lot of them won’t make it. Pick your instance carefully, and support your instance admin financially if you can.

Or host your own (single user) instance, and then you only have to worry about yourself.

How do I prevent people from impersonating me?

 

Publish your preferred Mastodon handle and instance in multiple places, so that it’s easy to find. You can also use tools like The Mastodon Bridge to verify that you’re interacting with the people you think you are. More tools will pop up, and best practices will emerge.

For now, consider putting together a profile on a service like Carrd. From there, link to all your public profiles. From all your public profiles, link back to your Carrd. That way, there’s no confusion.

I’m also hearing a lot of talk about using Keybase as a way to cryptographically verify that an account or instance belongs to a specific user. That’s cool too, if you’re in to that techy stuff.

I heard that instance admins can read your DMs

 

Yep, that’s true. It’s also true for Twitter, for Facebook, and for Email (unless you’re using encryption.) Heck, Police don’t even need a warrant to access any electronic communications older than 6 months, thanks to a dumb law from 1986, and social services don’t have to notify you that your data has been accessed.

Don’t use a social network for publishing sensitive information. This is not a Mastodon specific problem. If you have something that needs to be shared actually in private, use strong encryption in the form of PGP, OTR, or a secure messaging app like Signal.

What about bad actors on other instances? Or bad instances?

 

This could be a problem. It hasn’t been yet. If it becomes a problem, talk to your instance Admin about blocking the bad instance. This is not a Mastodon specific problem, but Mastodon has better tools for fighting this problem than other platforms.

But Mastodon is doomed to die!

 

Nah, federated social networking has been around for 10+ years. It’s not going anywhere. That means that Mastodon will keep working, too. Use might wax and wane, but because it’s decentralized and federated, it can’t really die.

Heck, if anything, it’ll out live twitter.

But it’s too complicated, it’ll never replace twitter!

 

Nope, it won’t replace twitter. It will provide an alternative to twitter for those folks that want one. And it’s fun!