I am now on Mastodon, the open source social media software. It’s not a platform like Twitter or Facebook. It’s just software and I am on an instance of it called Mastodon.world. I have not left Twitter nor do I plan to. But, like LinkedIn or Google+ or other platforms I’ve looked into, I’m curious about whether there is community there that I might join.
Social media is like a garden for me. It is one I regularly weed. Each plant has its own benefits and demands. Some I can tend to, or reap, and some I can’t. For example, I have created and deleted multiple LinkedIn profiles. It’s still a platform I find almost entirely useless.
And I mention LinkedIn for a reason. It has a reputation that I haven’t found to be accurate, as a place for finding jobs. I’ve been contacted by people who I don’t think are real, about jobs that do not match to my expertise, experience, or education. I keep the profile because it’s of value to some others and is a potential way to connect with people who have found greater value there. But it’s not a place for me, even as others find it useful for themselves.
Mastodon is an alternative to Twitter only in the way that two newspapers are alternatives to each other. Different people contribute different content. They aren’t the same thing and I don’t look to Mastodon to fulfill or recreate the experience of Twitter. If anything, I’m curious about exploring and connecting with people who weren’t on Twitter, people who are new to me or who I may know but use Mastodon for different communities.
And I experience Twitter through a very small community, one of many on the platform. Only in the discussions of how people use or experience Twitter have I found how different my experience: almost no ads, no harassment, not a breaking news or local news source. I found this piece interesting for discussing what happens when large groups move from platform (tumblr) to platform (twitter). I’ve already seen some of this behavior, for example:
Some of these communities are unperturbed by changes on Twitter. Some can’t live with them now, but may decide – for exposure, for missing friends – they want to return in the future. And so even as people try out Mastodon, Twitter will remain a platform. Just as MySpace and LiveJournal continue to exist despite many people transitioning to newer software as their communities and needs changed.
One of the interesting things to see people work through is how to join Mastodon. Because it’s not a platform. It’s not a place. It’s a bunch of instances or servers. It’s called the fediverse because it’s federated and you can join in from anywhere, even adding your own instance for greater control. The software allows them to be federated, like so many of our library search tools. Just as you’d use your search to plumb data in your law firm contact or customer management tool, your file servers or SharePoint, and your other data stores, you can connect to many or all of the instances from any other Mastodon instance.
One of the interesting things to watch will be to see which instances grow and which instances appear. There have been some interesting suggestions that, to solve the identity validation or verification issue, corporations spin up their own instances. This makes a lot of sense to me.
Because it is so much like email. Why wouldn’t your university have a Mastodon instance if it has an email server? In many of our organizations, we have moved away from serving our own email. We use Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace. But we still have our @domains.
The lack of federated search has become an issue for findability, especially for people who have experienced Twitter. Search is deprecated because it creates negative activity and engagement. You can find things if posters use hashtags – you can even follow a hashtag or create lists of people. But finding people and topics takes effort that people may not have expended before.
And even though we use different email software on different servers, we can still communicate. In fact, our domain name often validates who we say we are. I can’t email you as easily as I can email staff at my library, on the same server. I need to know your email address – your username, and your email instance name.
The same goes for Mastodon. Unlike Twitter, where you can just search for another person, you may need to know more about the person you’re looking for. But I’ve found people on other instances using keyword searches within Mastodon’s tools. And people are trying to bridge this issue by creating crowdshared lists, like this one of journalists and another of law-related folks (law professors, law journos, researchers) #lawfedi.
If you aren’t joining a corporate instance, though, you may not be able to determine its stability. Is it just a hobbyist who had an instance for 500 users using free web hosting or self-hosting and is now hosting 500,000? Who will pay for that? Who will administer that?
I don’t use Twitter or most social media in a way that exposes me to a lot of awfulness. I don’t follow many people. But the last few weeks – years? – have sometimes felt quite grim. It has been interesting being on Mastodon for all the positivity. I’m curious to see if it lasts after a few weeks. There have been spikes on other social media alternatives when they first started – thinking of Parler and Truth Social – but they’re hard to maintain if the community doesn’t exist.
Perhaps that is why the Mastodon experience has been so positive. As the instance I was on went from a couple hundred to more than 15,000, I enjoyed watching the #introduction go by. Just as with a discussion list, it’s common for people to introduce themselves to the community.
It was fun to see people describe themselves (and the very common self-deprecation as it starts). But also, with everything so fresh and new, just to start following random people who have hashtagged a wide variety of facets of their lives to share. To find people and be found.
I think Instagram uses a lot of hashtags for findability. Mastodon is similar – if you want something to be found, you need to hashtag it. For one thing, you can search on hashtags and you can use hashtags as timelines. I use the open source Sengi Mastodon client at the moment. You can see, below, that it looks a bit like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck.
While there’s no real right choice to which instance you join, you do want to know what the rules are. If you are tired of American First Amendment purity, you’ll find instances have tighter rules. The ones for the instance I’m on at Mastodon.world are simple. And, at this point, I have some hope that, if I were to report someone, the complaint would be taken seriously. People have said awful, untrue things about my brother over the past few years and it’s rare to have Twitter take any action.
Perhaps this is partly why things feel positive. Perhaps it’s because people who were already here, who built the culture, had already chosen to have somewhere in addition to or other than Twitter.
Will it last? I don’t know. Instances aren’t run by companies. They don’t have advertising revenue. It may be that we see consolidation, as some instances get funding to support the growth. Or we might see splintering, where more small instances arrive that can be run on the owner’s shoestring. Lots of Mastodon instances are now crowdfunding to try to create a sustainable future.
You can migrate your Mastodon account from instance to instance. You can take your connections – who has followed you and who you follow – with you. And I think this sort of flexibility is great and alien after so many years of being locked into Twitter and things like legal publisher databases. Open source, open standards, portability.
There is a bit of “wow, this is so much better than I expected” on Mastodon at the moment. Like people can’t believe that someone has figured out some of the issues that existed elsewhere. It feels a bit colonial to me, like seeing a neighborhood gentrified. And of course, there are the “why isn’t Mastodon more like Twitter” without always the reflection that Twitter wasn’t representative of a healthy social site for many people. As one article I saw put it, it had left social networking behind and had become a broadcast tool that enabled a lot of abuse.
One thing I thought was pretty slick, especially given the identity verification issues that Twitter faces, was profile link verification. If you add links to your profile, you can have them verified. It requires you to take a bit of code from inside your profile and put it on the service you own or administer. It’s not foolproof but you can put the code in your law library or law firm or law school web page and you’re good to go.
It’s new. And I’m enjoying it. I mean, my blog is called “Explorations with information and technology.” I’m a sucker for exploring new things that involve information and technology.
But it’s not an either/or choice for me. I’ll still be on Twitter. It may become Google+. I could also see its current owners decide that the financial outcomes are too poor to continue. The next owners might care more about the community aspect.
My use of Mastodon will also probably be very different from what it was on Twitter. I’m already interacting far more on things outside my professional interests – music, photography, dogs – than on anything to do with law or libraries. I tend to keep my personal and professional lives separate, as far as possible, and it’s nice to have a place where you know everyone is putting in the work to find and interact with you.
People are already engaging on multiple platforms: if you’re on LinkedIn and Twitter and Reddit and Stackexchange and Quora, you’re already engaging in lots of different communities on a variety of topics. Some people are leaving Twitter looking for the same thing somewhere else. Some people are leaving looking for something new.
And some people aren’t going anywhere. There are people on Twitter that I enjoy seeing information from, who are comfortable there. That community, regardless of the surrounding maelstrom, continues to exist. I mean, if you didn’t use a technology product whose CEO was making questionable moral choices, you’re really cutting down on your options. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to run into new people who, like me, are curious about what else lies out on the internet.