So a while back I had a fondness for ranting about social networks on this blog. Lately, I’ve had the urge to revisit that trend and spend some more time ranting about social networks on this blog. Why? Well, I’ve been using Mastodon some recently, and that’s got me thinking about my whole concept of what social networks (and the apps built on top of them) should be. And while I’m not going to try to claim that a relatively minor (compared to the other social networking apps out there) app is the future of social networking, looking past the app to some of the design decisions show a lot of things that make me happy about the trend in how some of these newer apps are getting built.
For those of you not familiar with Mastodon (and I don’t blame you), it’s basically a distributed Twitter clone that lets you put 500 characters in 1 status post. If nothing about that description excites you, that’s because the stuff that makes Mastodon truly compelling aren’t in the app itself. It has a 500-character limit, and apparently some other nice features like better privacy controls, and better anti-abuse controls (although to be honest, I haven’t tried to use any of them). The whole network is made of a bunch of independently-run servers, which is kind of nice on it’s own.
Mastodon built using the open-source GNU Social project and API. That is the true beauty behind Mastodon – the general-purpose API and data model behind it. That was the big thing in all my social network-related ranting – there should be an open protocol that anyone can build off of. This means Mastodon is a working example of a social networking app built on top of a common social networking library. In theory, I could build an app off the same social networking model that Mastodon uses, but behaves very differently (for example, my “app” could be less Twitter-like and focus on document sharing and annotation, sort of like a social code review tool). This is exactly the sort of common underpinning that I think social apps needed, and it lets the app makers focus on the user experience instead of trying to deal with the nuts and bolts of building and maintaining a graph mapping out everyone’s various social networks.
Another good feature about Mastodon is the distributed nature of the application. Mastodon servers are run by people all over the world, not just the ones who maintain the source code. One of the ideas behind this is that people can join servers that are geared towards their interests (I’m on “tech” server, if you can somehow believe that). Another benefit to this is that different instances can reflect different social networks (what larger social networking apps typically refer to as “lists”, “circles”, etc.). In other words, I can join a Mastodon server full of people I work with, another with people I went to college with, and another with family members. While social networking apps that are open to the world have their uses, I still think that the ecosystem would be best served by more apps that are meant for smaller, more clearly-defined groups.
Probably the biggest drawback to the Mastodon application itself is the fairly low chances that it’ll really catch on. At the end of the day, the app is basically a Twitter clone. If people really wanted to use a Twitter-like app, they’d probably be on Twitter. While I actually prefer Mastodon due to the “distributed servers” concept, it’s not enough to really trigger a mass migration from Twitter. That’s a big problem with the newer social networking applications that come out these days, instead of having a “hook” to make people want to change the application they use, they’re just slightly modified clones of already widely-used applications.
There’s also the fact that Mastodon, like many other social networking applications, is trying to be ad-free (in this case, Mastodon is crowd-funded). Generally speaking, advertising works, even on social networking applications, so refusing to use it seems counter-productive. While there’s certainly nothing against trying something new, it seems like these new networks are mostly trying it because they think the ads are the biggest problems with the social networking applications out there (they aren’t, it’s the “one app for all of your different social networks, all in the same feed” approach). If your social networking application is going to have a revenue model that isn’t based on ads, it should be because that model is a better fit for what you want your app to be, not because you’re trying to make some sort of principled stand against advertising and the user behavior tracking that goes with advertising (I should probably point out that 1 of the applications I work on does user tracking for our customers – it’s not used for re-targeting and I don’t speak for my company, they pay people for that). The reality is that the major social networking applications have millions to billions of users signing on every day, clearly the whole ads and ad-tracking thing isn’t that big a problem for people.
I don’t know what it is about Twitter that everyone wants to build their own copy, but when you’re trying to take advantage of an open API designed to help model people’s social connections, I’d really love to see a unique take on direct interactions with who you know. Venmo is a much more creative social application than Mastodon is. The good news is, the foundation for creative social applications is there with the GNU Social API. App.net tried to be something similar, although I think it’s initial attempt at a funding model made adoption too prohibitive for it to be truly successful.
So how well does Mastodon stack up on what I think social apps should look like? No better than anything else out there to be honest. I haven’t spent a lot of time reviewing GNU Social, but Mastodon is a solid-enough application that I think it has promise as a common library across a lot of social networking applications. If Mastodon’s biggest contribution to the world of social applications is an increased awareness of the existence of GNU Social’s API, I think it will have done a good service. Using Mastodon has also illustrated another interesting point about social applications – the fewer the regular users, the better the content, regardless of how infrequently it may be updated. While this may lead some people to complain about the existence of too many social applications to try to participate in, I’m hoping it leads to more social applications that are more narrowly targeted to specific groups. Instead of everybody trying to interact on 1 social networking application, let’s get more narrowly targeted groups interacting in specific applications (or at least on specific instances of an application). The Internet has done a wonderful job enabling nichification, and it’s time our social applications followed suit.