So apparently there’s this hot new app that just released called Mastodon, and everyone’s leaving Twitter to join that. It’s OK if you haven’t heard of it, it’s that new. Snark aside, people are stumbling onto Mastodon because they’ve been told it’s the biggest Twitter alternative (it probably is), which isn’t really saying much – there aren’t a lot of Twitter alternatives that anyone would really think twice about. It does a good job of replicating the basic Twitter experience, type some things into a box and click the post button to publish. But there are important, non-obvious (to general users) differences between Mastodon and Twitter, and people seem to be struggling with them.
The issues here all boil down to the fact that Twitter is centralized, and Mastodon is not. In fact, if you look at the reasons to join Mastodon, on Mastodon’s own site, decentralization is literally the first one listed under “Why Mastodon.” It was intentionally designed so that everything wasn’t on 1 set of servers. The intent was so that 1 site (or its operators) couldn’t control allowable discourse – if 1 site starts shutting off part of the conversation users could go to another server. It also provided a good mechanism for shutting out common sources of offensive content without dictating moderation rules universally. That approach has been how Mastodon overall has kept Gab isolated from the larger Fediverse (as the kids call it).
Mastodon’s decentralized approach has some very interesting applications beyond the whole “lack of centralized censorship” thing. It had a lot of potential to be a social application for smaller, focused communities (e.g. software development, card games, students at a karate dojo). Basically Mastodon could have tried to position itself as a full-service replacement for Facebook groups. In theory, you could run a small, private instance for just your close contacts, but that can be harder to keep running than you may anticipate.
Instead of 1 application where to see the content that made you interested in someone in the first place you have to see everything, whether you’re interested in it or not, Mastodon could have offered a way to see people’s posts on the topics you wanted to follow them for, and ignore everything else. Google tried to implement something like this with their short-lived social network.
The problem is that I’m proposing this in an age where Twitter and Facebook exist. People are very used to the idea of just logging into 1 site and seeing everything in 1 place. People aren’t going to want to check a bunch of separate, isolated, applications for updates. In fact, that ability to get every update from everyone you’re interested in hearing updates from is the main appeal of sites like Twitter and Facebook. That created a network effect that’s made it so difficult for people to quit their applications or launch effective competitors – people are already 1 place that already has everything. Federation was Mastodon’s attempt to solve that problem – sure you created an account on 1 site, but you can get everything you want from the other sites here too (assuming your server hasn’t blocked them).
Federation also creates unpleasant experiences for users. Just for fun, I searched for some software development-related and technology-related instances to see if there were any servers that looked like they had more support than “somebody running their own instance in their free time” (i.e. my previous experiences with Mastodon) and had some interesting content. Without fail, when I pulled up the instances, the initial timelines were flooded with posts about the latest Twitter drama, which at the time of this writing is the suspension/banning of some reporters and a new policy that says you can’t link to promote other social applications on Twitter. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure people aren’t signing up to the “AWS Community” instance for posts hot takes on Twitter policies.
Mastodon’s potential was always strongest as a private social application, where different instances covered whatever topic was listed in the description, and nothing else. That brings us back to the original problem with Mastodon – people don’t want to have to check multiple sites when idly checking to see if anything interesting is going on. So if federation doesn’t solve this problem, what does?
The answer is to change where aggregation happens. I stand by my original belief that social applications should publish to RSS in addition to their own pages. That allows aggregation to happen at the consumer-side, regardless of how many instances they join. Another option is to convert posts to email subscriptions, through services like Mailbrew. That one may be more appealing to people who aren’t in the habit of following blogs, but I’d just like to point out that a lot of RSS readers are free. This lets you follow people whose thoughts you find interesting or enlightening, on the topics where you value those thoughts and opinions, without the baggage of other takes on things you didn’t follow them for originally. It effectively solves the “bringing your whole self” problem.
Mastodon has shown us that decentralization doesn’t have nearly the appeal to rival established social applications. It’s also shown us that federation doesn’t solve that problem. Aggregation is a key component in making any application that relies on user-generated content successful. Twitter has shown us that being the site that does the aggregation leaves users subject to the whims of the people running that site. It’s also shown us that those whims are (and historically have been) arbitrary and capricious. I think Mastodon is closer to the “right” approach, but needs to abandon federation for publishing to RSS and letting users aggregate everything at their end. It simplifies moderation decisions on instances, keeps users on-topic, and gives people the greatest control over what they see and from whom.