Joining the Herd: What’s it like to switch from Twitter to Mastodon? | Twitter

Mastodon looks like the old internet. “Welcome to Mastodon, where you can boost a toot from hellsite.site to mas.to, but remember CW policy and startup doxers or your instance might be defederated” is a phrase that will make sense eventually – but which probably won’t mean anything on day one.

Social media startups cost ten percent, but few are as proudly distinct from the competition as the countercultural network that gained millions of new users over the past week as Elon Musk sparks an exodus from Twitter.

Mastodon is not a site. Instead, it’s a protocol, a system of rules for running your own social network that can also interact with any other following the same code. Some of these social networks are large and of general interest: Mastodon.social, set up by Eugen Rochko, the German software developer who created the Mastodon protocol, has 169,000 users. Others are the opposite: hellsite.site, set up by Mastodon user @goat, has 440 members proudly “shitposting” and the slogan “be gay do crimes”.

On the surface, any given Mastodon site, or “instance” as they’re called, looks and feels like a slightly modified version of Twitter. Users make posts (affectionately called toots, not tweets) that are short (although typically 500 characters, not 280), re-shareable (“boosted” not “retweeted”) and replyable.

There are a few additional features, such as a Content Warning (CW) option that lets you hide posts behind a warning – as useful for movie spoilers or niche rants as it is for objectionable content or upsetting material.

But the operation of the network is radically different. Each instance can be linked to any other, and users are free to follow posters on their own instances or across the wider “fedivers”. Administrators create and apply rules on their own instances; on a bigger one it could be a full time job, while on a smaller instance it’s no more work than being in charge of an average sized whatsapp group chat. And the rules can be as strict or as loose as they want. Rochko’s original Mastodon example, for example, prohibits “racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or casteism,” as well as sharing “intentionally false or misleading information.”

If you wish, you can switch to another instance with more flexible rules, but be careful: administrators can ban users, but they can also ban entire instances, by “defederating” them. When the right-wing social network Gab switched to the Mastodon protocol in 2019, it brought with it a million users and was quickly defederated by almost every major forum, leaving users in a universe of bubbles where they could talk to each other. , but not interact with the wider social network.

As Mastodon grows, these differences in standards cause friction. Journa.host is an instance set up by former New Yorker Staff member Adam Davidson, who attempts to offer a form of verification for the platform, only allowing entries from journalists who prove they are who they say they are. But the instance has been defederated by nearly 50 others, according to a tracker, with reasons ranging from “privacy risk” to “mainstream propagandists” to simply “Journos.”

The service also suffers from more prosaic technical issues as its user base grows by millions every week: larger instances struggle to update posts in real time, admins watch the moderation backlog grow and costs rise for volunteer hosts who never expected to be absorbing a sizable fraction of traffic from a $44 billion social network.

But behind it all, the promise – of a grassroots approach to social media, where communities decide for themselves what they will and will not put up with, without thin-skinned billionaires taking load at will – enough to keep users sticking around. And eventually, the jargon will start to make sense too.

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