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By all honest accounts, Twitter has been rapidly disintegrating in the short time since shitposting billionaire Elon Musk officially took the reins of the social media platform. After laying off half the company’s staff and threatening advertisers who decided to jump ship, Musk spent most of his first week as Chief Twit doing what many suspected he would do after buying the site for $44 billion: posting Nazi memes, banning people for making fun of him, and generally tweeting through it—even as it becomes obvious to all but the most annoying Musk stans that he’s completely out of his depth. Musk also rolled out his much-hyped plan for $8 paid verification checkmarks, which, surprising virtually no one, has been a complete disaster.
Amidst all of this nonsense, there has been a mass-migration of users to Mastodon, the text-based social platform that is often described as a decentralized Twitter alternative. Many people have complained that Mastodon’s decentralized network makes it difficult for average users to get started. As someone who grew up on IRC, I can see why this adjustment might be daunting for many Twitter users. But at its core, Mastodon is extremely different from Twitter—and there’s a case to be made that that’s ultimately a good thing.Mastodon is not new by any means, but Musk’s chaotic and constantly shifting plans for Twitter—along with his apparent cluelessness on how the website he just bought works—has clearly sent loads of people searching for greener digital pastures. It’s still unclear whether people are migrating away from Twitter permanently or merely preparing for the increasingly likely event that the site falls apart. Even so, it’s clear that current events have made people thirsty for something new, and Mastodon is the platform that rose to the occasion.
Since creating a new account last week, I’ve seen a quickening stream of users trickle over to my own little corner of the Mastodon network, which is called the “Fediverse” because it’s composed of thousands of independently controlled, interconnected servers. According to Mastodon founder and CEO Eugen Rochko, the platform reached 1,028,362 active users on Monday, and over a thousand new Mastodon servers have been added to the network since the previous week. The numbers were apparently significant enough to rattle Musk, who on Monday tweeted (and then deleted) multiple comments disparaging the decentralized platform.
Joining Mastodon is undoubtably more complicated than starting a Twitter account. There are a huge number of servers to choose from, and while the network lets everyone communicate across different servers, the platform’s reliability is entirely dependent on which one you sign up for. My server of choice, mastodon.lol, went offline for hours on Monday to perform upgrades after a massive influx of new users, and has been loading sporadically at the time of this writing.There are also various tools you’ll need to make assimilating into the Fediverse less painful, especially if you plan on continuing to use Twitter. Services like Twitodon and Debirdify help you rebuild your social graph by finding all your Twitter follows on Mastodon. Other tools can be set up to automatically cross-post your tweets to Mastodon’s “toots”—the platform’s name for text posts, which is objectively very cute and funny.Some users have tried to define what makes Mastodon different from the hellsite it supposedly replaces. Unlike tweets, Mastodon’s toots have a much longer character limit, for example, which ostensibly means less compulsive over-sharing and more nuanced conversations. Its decentralized nature also means that individual servers can unite people with similar interests or backgrounds, and that the network as a whole is more resistant to censorship—and shitposting billionaire demagogues.
Even with all this, Mastodon is extremely messy compared to its shiny, centralized predecessors. But if so many people are expecting a Twitter-like experience, maybe it’s time for us to question our expectations about what social media is, what it can do, and whether we even want it in the first place.Whether or not it survives, Mastodon and smaller services like it represent an alternate future for the social web—albeit in a familiar format. The last decade or so has been defined by centralized social platforms designed from the ground up to capture and exploit behavioral data and incentivize engagement, all for the benefit of corporate advertisers. Caught in this hyper-reactive, doomscrolling loop, we’ve rarely stopped to think about what social platforms could look like if they completely eschewed the designs and norms that led us to this status quo.It’s becoming clearer than ever that platforms where human thoughts can be instantaneously posted and virally replicated at dizzying speeds—while addictive and sometimes fun—are simply not desirable. Faced with Twitter’s ongoing implosion, isn’t it worth considering that this entire mode of communication—frictionless and fleeting, algorithmically engineered for engagement at any cost—is ultimately not sustainable? Instead of simply mirroring what came before, what would it look like if we completely re-engineered our digital spaces around concepts like community, privacy, and mutual care, instead of ad impressions and profit? Would the quality of information on these networks improve if posting took a bit more effort and determination? What if the communities on that network built their own spaces, for themselves, instead of those spaces being built for and defined by ad buyers? Mastodon may not be the platform that answers these questions, but it at least points us in their general direction. It’s never easy to adjust expectations, especially when so many of us are now Extremely Online. But with the ongoing collapse of Twitter and Facebook parent Meta, we may not have a choice. Good riddance.