How I ended up on Mastodon
Although I have always loved the idea of social networks, I had withdrawn from pretty much all of them because I felt the decisions made by each to maximize their revenue resulted in a worse and worse experience for the users of those networks.
As I was following the news of all the problems at Twitter since Elon Musk bought it, I became aware of a microblogging platform named Mastodon. The more I read, the more I thought that this has the best promise of becoming what I think a social network should be.
Apparently, I am not alone. Although Mastodon launched in 2016, by October 2022 it had acquired only a few hundred thousand accounts. But with the chaos at Twitter and subsequent news coverage, it has since grown to over 14 million accounts across more than 17 thousand independently run instances since then. And Mastodon is just part of a larger community which is usually identified by the term Fediverse containing platforms for not just microblogging, but full blogging, picture sharing, video sharing, friend/community networking, and more.
What makes Mastodon (and the Fediverse) different, and why does it hold promise? Most social networks are single instances managed by for-profit entities. By single instance, I mean that you have exactly one address to enter, such as Facebook.com or Twitter.com. Because these entities want to make lots and lots of money, they do things that work well for them, but not necessarily for you. The two most noticeable are paid placement (ads) and engagement algorithms.
Paid placement is what you think it is. Much of the money is made by selling ad space. An advertiser decides what audiences they want to target (which may or may not be things you are interested in) and pays money to force their posts into your feed or stream. Not all ads are for goods and services either – they may be political ads targeting you because of your religion, race, gender, or other aspect of your life that the platform has collected and categorized about you, with some platforms bragging to have hundreds of thousands of data categories they can tag you with.
The other big thing (and in my opinion, the most dangerous) is the engagement algorithms. A platform can't collect data about you and show you ads if you aren't there. These platforms have massive AI engines that try to determine what you are most likely to engage in, and force those posts into your feed and at a higher placement.
Notice I said “what you are most likely to engage in,” not “what you like to read.” These two things may overlap, but they are not the same. It is well known that it is easier to get people acting if they are scared, angry, incensed, or offended, then if they are happy. These algorithms only learn what works – they have no morals. (Sometimes a platform will temporarily dampen posts about a hot issue, but this isn't learning, it's more of a topical whack-a-mole.) Study after study shows that continued exposure to this information flow correlates to increased likelihood of depression, anxiety, poor self-image, and even violence and suicide. Yet these algorithms do so much to bolster the bottom line, they persist.
(For more information on the engagement algorithms, I recommend the book The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World by Max Fisher)
So how is Mastodon (and other parts of the Fediverse) different? There is not one owner of the network, it is comprised of thousands of independently owned and managed servers. Similar to email, your identity consists of a user name and an instance name. With no single owner, there is no single entity that can decide how the whole Fediverse operates. Don't like the way your Mastodon server is managed? There is a process to move your account to one you like better.
Mastodon has no ads, and does not collect/harvest personal information to use or to sell. Of course, it costs money to run these servers. Many (most) servers ask for donations, either one time or on a subscription basis. Others may charge for usage if they want. Again, if you don't like the way your server gets money to keep things running, just move to another one.
If you are interested in learning more about Mastodon, there is a really good article at https://tidbits.com/2023/01/27/mastodon-a-new-hope-for-social-networking/.
Mastodon and the Fediverse really are different from the for-profit behemoths we are used to. They look different, they feel different, and to find your way around, you will need to think different.
It’s about time.
Find me on Mastodon