What is Mastodon and why is it better than Twitter

Mastodon is a Twitter alternative that recently released version 2.0 and has been steadily growing over the past year. It’s also a project that I’ve been dedicating an inordinate amount of my time to since last April – helping write the software, running my own instance, and also just hanging out. So I’d like to write a bit about why I think it’s a more humane and ethical social media platform than Twitter.

Much of the discussion around Mastodon centers on the fact that the flagship instance explicitly bans Nazis. This is true, and it remains a great selling point for Mastodon, but it also kind of misses the point. Mastodon isn’t a single website run by a single company with a single moderation policy. It’s a piece of open-source software that anybody can use, which in practice means it’s a network of independent websites that can run things however they like.

There is no company behind Mastodon. There’s no “Mastodon, Inc.” Mastodon doesn’t have a CEO. The code is largely written by a 24-year old German dude who lives off Patreon donations, even though he’s a very talented web developer and could probably make a lot more money if he joined the industry. He works on Mastodon because it’s his passion.

What this means is that if someone wanted to take Mastodon’s code and build a competing service, they could do so trivially in a matter of minutes. And they do. The original instance, mastodon.social, isn’t the only server – in fact, it’s not even the biggest one anymore. There are over a thousand active instances, and it’s become easy enough that Masto.host can even create one at the click of a button.

In practice, though, these Mastodon instances don’t compete with each other so much as they form a giant constellation of interconnected communities. Users from any server can read, follow, and reply to users on another server, assuming neither of the two servers is blocking the other.

The closest analogy is email: if you use Gmail, you can still communicate with someone who uses Outlook.com and vice-versa, because they both rely on the same underlying system (email). Through its own underlying systems, Mastodon (as well as compatible software like Friendica, GNU Social, and postActiv) forms a network of independent sites referred to as the “fediverse,” or federation of servers.

Why this is better than Twitter

The problem with Twitter is that its incentives are completely misaligned with those of its users. Twitter makes its money from advertising, which means that its goal is to keep your eyes glued to the screen for as long as possible, and to convince you to interact with ads. Its goal is not to keep you safe from harassment, or to ban dangerous extremists, or to ensure your psychological well-being. Its goal is to make advertisers money by selling them an engaged audience.

This is why Twitter will never #BanTrump, even though many have called for it after he began threatening North Korea on the platform. From Twitter’s perspective, Donald Trump increases engagement. Donald Trump gets eyeballs. If Donald Trump started a nuclear war on Twitter then hey, all the better, because Twitter would get a massive boost in traffic, at least right up until the point the bombs started raining down. Twitter even uses Trump in some of its advertising, which gives you an idea of how they feel about him.

Mastodon, by contrast, isn’t run on advertising. Well, instances could add advertising if they wanted to, but I’m not aware of any that do. Most of them, including the flagship, are run on donations from their users. Others get a bit more creative: cybre.space, for instance, allows free signups for one hour each day, but if you donate you can get an instant invite. capitalism.party is an interesting experiment where every signup costs $5. social.coop is run as a co-op. The possibilities are endless, since the underlying code is open-source.

What these instances all have in common is that they’re not driven by the insatiable appetite of marketers for clicks and engagement – instead, their goal is to make as warm and hospitable a place for their users as possible. The incentives of the people who run the platform are aligned with the incentives of the users.

Ultimately, this is why Mastodon instances can implement the kinds of moderation policies that their users clamor for (including banning Nazis). Most instances only have a few dozen to a few thousand active users, and they’re often organized based on shared interests, languages, or nationalities. This means that each instance tends to be small enough and like-minded enough that they can have fairly nitpicky moderation policies (or policies that adapt to local laws and customs), and it’s not too overwhelming for a small group of sympathetic and highly-motivated admins to handle.

Privacy and respect for the user

There are a lot of other benefits to Mastodon’s lack of an advertising model. For one, as a Mastodon user you’re not subjecting yourself to the adware, spyware, and bloatware that we’ve come to expect from much of the modern web. To see what I mean, here’s a screenshot of my instance, toot.cafe, compared to Twitter.com.

creenshots of Twitter vs Mastodon, showing Twitter loading 3.48MB of JS vs 990.84KB on toot.cafe

Besides the refreshing lack of advertising on the Mastodon site (and toot.cafe’s charming purple theme), you might observe that Mastodon is loading less than a meg of JavaScript, whereas Twitter loads a generous 3.5MB. A lot of that extra heft is probably just standard web bloat, but if you have an ad blocker or tracker blocker installed, then you can see another dimension to the story.

Screenshot of Ghostery showing 4 trackers blocked on Twitter.com vs 0 for toot.cafe

According to Ghostery, Twitter.com is loading 4 separate trackers, including Google Analytics, TellApart, Twitter Analytics, and Twitter Syndication. (Those last 3 are all owned by Twitter, so who knows why they need 3 separate trackers for each.) Whereas on the Mastodon site, Ghostery found 0 total trackers.

Screenshot of uBlock origin showing 14 requests blocked for Twitter vs 0 for toot.cafe

Looking at uBlock Origin, we can see it needed to block 14 requests on Twitter.com, or 9% of the total. On the Mastodon site, though, uBlock didn’t need to block anything.

Beyond the lack of ads and trackers, though, these privacy benefits accrue to the data you share with the website itself. On Twitter, you’re handing over your tweets, browsing habits, and photo metadata to a large VC-funded company that makes no bones in its privacy policy about all the various ways it feels entitled to use and sell that data. The terms of service also make it clear that once you post something, Twitter can do whatever it wants with it.

Screenshot of https://twitter.com/en/tos#usContent starting from "By submitting, posting or displaying Content..."

A snippet of Twitter’s terms of service.

Now compare this to Mastodon. On Mastodon, image metadata is stripped by default, links show up as (wait for it) actual links instead of tracking redirects, and some instances even go so far as to specify in their terms of service that you’re not relinquishing any copyright over your content and your data will never be sold.

Screenshot of mastodon.art's guidelines, saying "All content is ⓒ each artist & cannot be distributed or used without prior permission by the respective Mastodon.ART artist."

A snippet of mastodon.art‘s terms of service.

It’s such a far cry from the way we’re used to being treated by online services, with their massive legalese-laden EULAs stripping us of the right to do anything beyond gripe at the rough way we’re being manhandled, that using Mastodon can almost feel like browsing a web from a parallel universe.

So Mastodon is a paradise, right?

I’m not going to pretend that Mastodon is devoid of moderation problems. Yes, the flagship instance bans Nazis and other malcontents, as do most of the other large instances (including my own). There are plenty of instances with their own policies, though, and there’s nothing in the software to prevent them from doing so. So if you want to use an instance that harbors Nazis, or even just libertarians or free-speech advocates, then you can certainly find them.

As you can imagine, though, a right-wing instance that brags about its tolerance toward fascists is not likely to get along with a left-wing instance that bills itself as “anticapitalist”. Thus you will find lots of instances that block each other, creating a situation where you might discover vastly different content and vastly different people depending on which instance you sign up with.

This goes beyond straightforward disagreements between the political left and right. Every so often in the Mastodon community, a serious conflict will arise between instances. Often it starts because two users on two different instances got into a fight with each other, the admins got involved, and they disagreed on how to resolve the dispute. Sometimes it’s the admins themselves who started the fight. Either way, the admins end up criticizing or disavowing each other, the public timeline gets filled with debates on who’s right or wrong, and ultimately one group of instances may decide to block or silence another group. We call this “the discourse.”

“The discourse” tends to flare up every month or so, and when it does there’s usually a lot of moaning about how much drama there is on the fediverse. This lasts for a day or two and then things go back to normal, albeit with a slightly more bifurcated community than we started with.

Discourse and disintegration

I don’t enjoy “the discourse,” and I tend to agree with folks who argue that it could be alleviated if Mastodon had better tools for resolving inter-admin conflicts. I don’t think this problem can ever be completely eliminated, though. Human beings are just naturally inclined to seek the company of those they agree with and shun those they disagree with. This has the unfortunate effect of creating filter bubbles, but it turns out human beings also have a boundless appetite for filter bubbles, as evidenced by the churches, clubs, meetups, and political parties where we seek those who are similar to us and give a cold shoulder to outsiders.

I don’t believe it’s Mastodon’s job to correct the problems caused by the right to free association. But Mastodon could improve the process of communities splitting into smaller, more harmonious networks of people with shared values and mutual tolerance for one another.

Furthermore, a lot of these disputes boil down to a difference of opinion over what constitutes harassment, abuse, hate speech, etc. So in a way, “the discourse” can be seen as a testament to the seriousness with which these subjects are treated on Mastodon. Instance admins care so much about the well-being of their users and protecting them from disturbing content, that they routinely argue and even block each other over the best way to implement it.

Now compare that situation to Twitter. On Twitter, there’s one moderation policy, and if you don’t like it: tough. Whereas on Mastodon, if you don’t like your instance’s policy, you can always switch to another one. (And there’s work in progress to make that migration easier.)

Conclusion

Mastodon is not perfect. The software is still rough in some places, the underlying protocols (OStatus and ActivityPub) are still getting hammered out at the W3C, and the community devolves into tiresome bickering more often than I’d like.

But I still have more faith in Mastodon than I do in Twitter, whose user growth has flatlined and whose profits are nonexistent, and thus will have to resort to increasingly desperate measures to satisfy its investors, who are still waiting for a sweet return on investment for all those eyeballs they bought. I expect this will mean more promoted tweets, more ways to promote tweets, and ultimately less value for Twitter’s users, as they become increasingly drowned in a sea of brand accounts trying to sell them a hamburger, fake news trying to swing an election, and bots trying to do who knows what. Meanwhile the harassment problem will never be Twitter’s main priority, despite what their CEO says, because as long as controversy and conflict are good for grabbing eyeballs, they’re good for Twitter’s bottom line.

The main reason I’m hopeful about Mastodon is that it’s an opportunity to learn from Twitter’s mistakes and to experiment with fresh ideas for improving social media. For instance, how about disabling public follower counts, since they can make us feel like we’re living in a Black Mirror episode where everyone’s self-worth is determined by a single number? (In fact witches.town already does this; every user’s number is a cheeky 666.) Or how about removing the “quote-repost” feature, since we saw the nasty dog-piling it enabled on Twitter? Or how about adding features that encourage users to log off every once in a while, so that social media doesn’t turn into an addictive slot machine?

All of these things are possible in Mastodon, because the code is open-source and the servers belong to the users. We can even tinker with these ideas at the instance level, to test how something pans out at the small scale before bringing it to a wider audience. Instead of Twitter’s one-size-fits-all approach, we can tailor social media to fit the needs of every community, with local admins who are motivated to help because they’re moderating a small group of like-minded people rather than 300 million of them.

Mastodon can feel like a return to another time, when the web was small and it felt possible to actually have an impact on the websites we use every day. But it’s also a glimpse into the post-Twitter future that we need, if we want to have control over our data, our minds, and our public discourse.

Interested in Mastodon? Check out joinMastodon.org or instances.social for help finding an instance to join. If you’re not sure, I’d recommend toot.cafe (my own), cybre.space (cyberpunk themed), mastodon.art (for artists), awoo.space (focus on safety), or for general interests: mastodon.social, icosahedron.website, or octodon.social.

5 responses to this post.

  1. […] Lawson’s 23 October blogpost, “What is Mastodon and why is it better than Twitter“, Read the Tea […]

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  2. Great writing! 😺

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  3. […] What is Mastodon and why is it better than Twitter | Read the Tea Leaves […]

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  4. […] Nice read : What is #Mastodon and why is it better than #Twitter […]

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