Mastodon

Thoughts on Twitter, Mastodon, and owning your data

A Mastodon app called Ivory

I first wrote about Twitter (née twttr) just over 16 years ago. Over the years, Twitter’s place and impact in the world has become clear. It’s not just a place to hear about breaking news, keep up with celebrities or see what your politicians are saying. It’s a place where communities are formed and thrive. It is the global town square.

But that’s all been changing daily ever since Elon Musk took over. This has become the tipping point for many to reconsider their reliance on big tech companies with closed platforms and to be in control of their data. This whole Twitter/Elon saga sucks, but maybe it’s just the kick we needed.

And with that, I’m starting to spend more time on Mastodon, and I’ll tell you why. Follow me on Mastodon: @stammy@stammy.design (you’ll have to search for it on your Mastodon server).


Twitter quickly became a core part of how I used the internet, made friends, learned things, kept up with the world, killed time, and so much more. I eventually went to work at Twitter for nine years. Twitter, the company, had lots of ups and downs, but the people behind it cared so much about the platform and its place in the world. It’s the critical conversational layer of the internet. Creators have active social media accounts elsewhere online, but they always relied on Twitter to truly connect and have conversations with their community. It was the vital hub.

Well, it’s a different bird site now. I don’t intend to summarize the series of events and drama that have unfolded ever since Elon Musk took over Twitter, nor do I have the energy for that, but if you’ve seen even a portion of all the headlines, you get where I’m coming from.

Seeing the company's culture get slaughtered so quickly was hard. It was a culture woven around caring for coworkers, caring for people that used Twitter, and caring about the good of the service.

A few weeks ago was the last straw for me. Reputable accounts were randomly banned, and Twitter announced that people could no longer Tweet links to other social networks that were deemed competitive. Then more people were banned for saying they were leaving. And then, suddenly, this big policy suddenly vanished.

I lost a lot of hope and confidence in Twitter and how it is being run. I still think Twitter will be around for some time, but I’m not sure how much I want to continue investing in it as much as I used to.

I had seen some folks migrating away to alternate services in recent months but didn’t think much of it. Twitter was here to stay, right?

Fool me once...

The Twitter/Elon saga has a silver lining that I can appreciate. It shows us that we’ve all become too comfortable with just a few large tech companies amassing our info, controlling our data, and what we do with it.

If you’re the typical user of internet services from large companies, you probably haven’t had too many issues. Sure, maybe you got locked out of your Google account once, and it took a long time for support to help you out, but for the most part, you didn’t have to think about it. The big companies were mostly staying in their lane and not doing anything too egregious (aside from miscellaneous privacy dramas). But they could have been.

This Twitter drama is a perfect example of what can go wrong and how quickly it can go wrong. It’s too much. I’ve invested a lot of time into Twitter (thanks to the 53,000+ of you that have been following me there).

I no doubt expect Elon to reverse some of his decisions from the regular backlash from users and press, but there’s no trust anymore. Even if a new CEO or a new owner is announced, I don’t know if Twitter can ever be truly trusted again. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me..

All this to say, I think it’s time we take more control of our data. I’ve been trying to reduce my reliance on Google accounts and services already. I’m sure I end up moving on to Proton or elsewhere in 2023.

This does all make me a tad nostalgic for the early 2000s. We were all just running our own little blogs in a corner of the internet and keeping up with each other with RSS readers. Social media was just our own little websites. Why can’t we just go back to that?

Mastodon

A decentralized social network built on an open protocol

The Mastodon server I use, stammy.design, though most Mastodon sites looks like this.

I’ve started spending more time on Mastodon, open-source software for running a decentralized social networking service that’s not somewhat similar to Twitter. It’s decentralized in that there’s no single website or company running the show. It’s not a single platform.

Instead, Mastodon is comprised of a network of independent servers, which you may see referred to as Mastodon instances. Each server is run by a different person that manages and moderates it. You can sign up for an account on any server you want, and you can follow people on any other server just like you would on Twitter. (There are exceptions, like if one server blocks another server—defederation).

Mastodon was first released in late 2016 by Eugen Rochko, who wanted to create a platform not controlled by a single company or person. Mastodon was developed as a non-profit, and the platform is ad-free. It has made specific design choices to reduce harassment and give users more control over their experience and create a safer environment.

As a long-time Twitter employee, I had heard of Mastodon many times (as well as a predecessor, diaspora) but never took much time to dive deeper. It always felt like a rudimentary platform 10 years behind Twitter. In hindsight, it was foolish to think of it in terms of features rather than protocols. That was the real innovation with Mastodon, not whether it had certain product features.

Mastodon servers communicate with each other with open-source software using a standardized, open protocol called ActivityPub for sharing updates. There are quite a few other open-source projects using ActivityPub, such as Pixelfed and Pleroma, but Mastodon is the most popular. You can even run your own Mastodon instance all by yourself if you want.

You may also see it referred to as a federated social network and fediverse. There’s also a bit of nuance here when it comes to federation. It’s a form of decentralization, but not every instance needs to connect with another instance. A Mastodon instance itself can be entirely self-contained, with users on it following each other only (though not common). While a huge benefit, federation also leads to some product constraints.

Federated, like email

Federation also means that you not only have to know someone’s username but also their server. This leads to email-like usernames, such as mine: @stammy@stammy.design. You need both bits of information to follow someone, which makes it a tad harder to use than a centralized service. Someone can always just search for you with your username only, but it’s not reliable for various reasons related to how the federation is done.

This also means your username can’t really be taken. It could be taken on a particular Mastodon server, but you can always use another server or self-host Mastodon on your own domain. It also leads to there being no such thing as verified accounts on Mastodon. There’s no central authority deeming which account is verified or not.

And it’s growing.

Mastodon is having a bit of a moment right now. The non-profit that runs Mastodon even turned away multiple VC investment offers. With all that’s happening at Twitter, people have been longing for a more stable product, one where their data could be more trusted, one that’s ad-free, supported by communities, and moderated by communities. One where terms and policies don’t change daily.

Mozilla announced they will be launching their own instance—Mozilla.social—next year in pursuit of building a healthy alternative to today’s social media platforms. Even the Washington Post wrote about how to get started with Mastodon.

"While there is no shortage of social media platforms new and old, this is a radically different approach to social media that offers something traditional social media cannot. This may be one of the reasons why Mastodon has recently exploded in popularity, jumping from approx. 300K monthly active users to 2.5M between the months of October and November, with more and more journalists, political figures, writers, actors and organizations moving over."

Mastodon

Getting started with Mastodon

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

Now that we’ve got a basic grasp of Mastodon, how it’s federated like email but similar in functionality to Twitter, it’s time to give it a try.

But maybe a bit of a heads-up first. While Mastodon may feel comparable in look and functionality to Twitter, it’s probably best to approach Mastodon with the mindset that it is a new platform rather than trying to view it as a Twitter clone. There are key differences that will take some getting used to, and it will be a bit harder to get started.

The first challenge is signing up. You can’t just go to the Mastodon website and create an account. You first need to pick where you want your account by picking a Mastodon server you wish to call your home.

Pick a server, follow anyone on any server

The concept of Mastodon servers ends up being a confusing part of the Mastodon onboarding and usage experience. Even after you have an account on one server, you can’t just log into any other Mastodon server. You always have to log into yours. But you will be able to follow anyone on your own server, even if they’re on a different Mastodon server.

So how do you find and pick a server, and does it matter which one you pick? There are several schools of thought on this, but I’ll try to explain it as best I can.

  • The argument for picking any server: You can easily change servers later on if you want. Just pick a server that looks interesting and go for it. If you already know other Mastodon users that you want to follow and don’t need too much assistance with discovering content and accounts, you’ll be okay.

  • The argument for carefully picking your server: Picking a server is like deciding where to live in a city or what subreddit you want to frequent. You’ll more easily run into the same people and content if you pick a server that’s relevant to your interests. You’ll also be more likely to find people who are interested in the same things as you.

    This is especially important if you are new to Mastodon and don’t know of many other people you’d want to follow that are on Mastodon.

    With Mastodon, in addition to your typical Home timeline comprised of people you explicitly follow, you also get two bonus timelines: a local timeline comprised of people on your specific Mastodon server and a federated timeline of posts from people your Mastodon instance knows about (not a full firehose of all Mastodon posts, just the one your instance subscribes to via relays and from people the instance follows).

    Having a high-quality local timeline gives you an opportunity to more easily discover great content related to your interests, helps other people discover you, and vice versa. This is important for a lot of reasons, the leading of which is that it’s harder to discover people to follow on Mastodon. There is no algorithmic timeline injecting relevant content you may like into your timeline, and searching on Mastodon is not great.

    So that’s one part of it. The other part is maybe more important: picking a server is also like picking your landlord. Do you trust the admin of the server to host your identity? Do you think they have the technical know-how to maintain and secure the infra as needed? Are they making backups? What if they get lazy, and you’re stuck on a 2-year-old version of Mastodon lacking all the new features? Do they have a plan for financially supporting the infra? Or are they running an overloaded server that is extremely slow?

    And finally, each Mastodon server has its own set of rules in place. The rules give you an idea of the type of community you would be joining. People that don’t abide by the rules can be actioned on by the server’s moderators and admins.

Finding your server

If there are already a lot of people you want to follow on a particular server, that’s probably a good place to start. Examples of Mastodon servers I come across often include ones like mastodon.design, front-end.social, hachyderm.io, infosec.exchange, indieweb.social and more.

An easy way to find where your friends are on Mastodon is by using Debirdify or fedifinder. You authenticate your Twitter account, and it will tell you where people you follow on Twitter are on Mastodon if they’ve made Mastodon accounts. It’s an easy way to get an idea of Mastodon instances you may want to use.

Debirdify, Fedifinder and Move to don

You’ll quickly notice that not all servers have open, public registration. Some may just be entirely closed or require an invite and are meant for a smaller community. Others require approval by the admin before you can join. And others may only be temporarily closed, so the admins have time to upgrade their servers to deal with the influx of new users, and you may just need to try again later.

You can, of course, just browse yourself and see what’s out there. Tools like instances.social, MastodonServers.net, FediDB, and the official Mastodon servers page can help with that.

I’m on macaw.social, a small private Mastodon instance created by former Twitter employees meant for former Twitter employees and friends stammy.design, my self-hosted Mastodon instance.

If this is all a bit confusing, you can always just pick from one of the huge Mastodon instances like mastodon.social, mas.to, and mastodon.cloud. However, since most of these are getting a ton of new users now, they are more likely to feel slower until they scale up their infrastructure.


Self-hosting your own Mastodon instance

A bit more than meets the eye

Of course, the beauty of the Fediverse is that you can just host your own instance, own your data, and have complete control of your Mastodon identity! If you know that this is what you want to do, there are a few routes to take.

  • Managed hosting: There are a few hosting companies that specialize in hosting Mastodon servers, such as Masto.host among others, though at this time some have paused new signups due to high demand.

  • DIY hosting: And then you can just do it all yourself following the official guide on any server where you can set up Postgres, Redis, Ruby, and Sidekiq. You’ll need to have an email host so your Mastodon instance can send emails to you, and you’ll likely want some cloud storage, such as S3, for your media and files. You’ll also want to have a system in place for regular database backups. Here’s an article I found outlining someone’s experience setting up their instance on AWS.

    Running a server yourself is a bit more involved than setting up a simple static website or WordPress install. And depending on how many relays you set up (more on that later), you may find yourself tuning the Sidekiq background job processor config so it can run faster. If you still want to DIY but prefer a bit of assistance, the hosting provider DigitalOcean has a "1-click" setup for Mastodon. It’s still not a walk in the park, but it saves you quite a bit of work in the command line.

But with great power comes great responsibility. By hosting a Mastodon instance, you’ll be liable for the content on your server created by your users and anyone you follow as well as what they boost (boosts are like ReTweets).

Yes, you read that right. The way Mastodon works, everything you view on your Mastodon account, including media, is actually hosted on your server, even if the Mastodon user you follow is on another instance. Their instance just sent that post to yours, essentially. So any text or media in their posts is now hosted by you. And if your instance has any relays setup, you’ll have a lot more content being cached and served from your instance.

This goes down the path of needing to register a designated DMCA agent if you want to be careful. The EFF has a detailed article on the topic: User Generated Content and the Fediverse: A Legal Primer. This a long thread and accompanying blog post also outlining some of the legal ramifications of hosting your own Mastodon instance.

So until you’re 100% sure you want to take on that commitment and liability, maybe start off by joining an instance hosted by a seasoned admin and donate to help them manage infra costs and things.

A note about relays

I mentioned relays a few times above, so what are they? Relays are servers running specific software that can help supply smaller instances with content from other Mastodon instances. Why would you want this? To help you discover content and accounts.

Remember how I said that Mastodon comes with three timelines you can follow: home (people you follow), local (accounts on your instance), and federated? The federated timeline is composed of posts from any accounts anyone on your instance follows, in addition to anything provided by relays that the instance is subscribed to.

Unfortunately, I’ve found it challenging to find good relays with communities and content I would want to feed into my own instance. Many instances I would want to add as a relay don’t run a relay. There’s little incentive for them to add it anyways: more work for their server and more costs associated with that.

At the same time, adding random relays from unknown communities isn’t a good idea either. The content could be questionable, and you’ll be hosting all that media yourself, which opens you up to more liability and more hosting costs.

That’s one benefit of not running a single-user instance just for yourself. It’ll be a bit more work for you to discover new content and accounts you enjoy as you won’t have much of a local or federated timeline at your disposal.


How to find people to follow?

You’ve found a Mastodon server you like, created an account, and now you want to find out who to follow or how to find people you already follow on Twitter. There are a few great tools to help with this.

  • Move to don: This is probably the easiest way to get started. Connect with your Twitter account, and it just shows you people you follow that are now on Mastodon, providing you an easy way to follow them all or individually. You’ll want to keep checking it over days/weeks/months as more people sign up for Mastodon.

  • Twitodon, Debirdify and Fedifinder: I mentioned some of these tools earlier for helping you find instances, but they also help you find people to follow from your existing network on Twitter. However, at the moment, they are a bit manual and rely on providing you with an exported CSV file of user accounts for you to upload and import into your Mastodon instance.

  • Followgraph for Mastodon: This is another great tool, but unlike the others doesn’t need you to connect your Twitter account. Instead, you just provide it with your Mastodon handle (or anyone else’s), and it recommends other accounts to follow based on who your followers follow.

  • Fediverse.info: Another tool for helping you find people to follow. This one works by letting you browse by hashtags people have put in their bio.

Following Twitter accounts directly on Mastodon

And finally, if you’re devoted to Mastodon and don’t feel like checking Twitter all that often anymore, you can use some software called BirdsiteLive—an "ethical ActivityPub bridge to Twitter"—to follow people that are only on Twitter. It needs to be hosted to use, but you can find live instances of it on FediDB. Basically, you just type in a Twitter username, and it gives you a Mastodon username to follow. At this time, one example instance that’s online is Bird.makeup.

Cross-posting between Twitter and Mastodon

If you’re interested in posting to both Mastodon and Twitter at the same time, you can use a tool called Moaparty or do it yourself with IFTTT. However, as a word of caution, some Mastodon folks don’t appreciate this behavior and may even consider it spammy. I agree with that sentiment: treat Mastodon as its own thing.

Mastodon apps

And how developers have truly embraced Mastodon

Ivory, the upcoming Mastodon client for iOS and macOS, by Tapbots

Now for the fun part: exploring the world of Mastodon apps and clients.

There are several ways to interact with Mastodon. You can, of course, use the standard Mastodon web interface for your server, as well as the official Mastodon iPhone and Android apps to log into your server.

If you want a more advanced web experience, you can go to Preferences ’ Appearance and enable the "advanced web interface" to give you a multi-column layout reminiscent of TweetDeck (there's also Mastodeck). And if you would prefer a simpler web client, take a look at Pinafore.social. Update: it looks like Pinafore is shutting down but the Elk web client looks amazing.

But I’m not here to tell you about the official apps. I want to talk about the growing and thriving developer community that is fully embracing Mastodon and the potential of the decentralized protocol. To paint a picture of why this is such a big deal, you also have to understand how much of a hassle it has been over the last decade to build anything on top of the Twitter API. It was especially hard to see as a long-time employee.

Long story short, Twitter made it hard. Hard to even get an API key and get your app approved. Hard to get bugs fixed or new features accessible via the API. Hard to access the data developers wanted. Hard to not hit arbitrary constraints or limits. Things were always changing, rugs were pulled, announcements about new priorities and new rugs were made, only for them to be pulled again (read this, this and this).

No one knows this pain better than the team at Tapbots, makers of a popular third-party Twitter client called Tweetbot. I’ll be the first to say I did not like Tweetbot—not due to anything about the app itself; it was beautifully executed and well-built—I was just designing for the official Twitter apps. Tweetbot had nice details, but I never really used it much, though oddly enough, quite a few of the Twitter iOS engineers used it over the years, if that tells you anything.

Needless to say, the Tapbots team had to deal with all the ups and downs that came with building on top of the Twitter API. Twitter wasn’t necessarily fond of third-party clients that they couldn’t effectively monetize or control.

Mastodon brought the winds of change, an open web not controlled by any single entity. Mark Jardine from Tapbots wrote a thread outlining his experience building on top of Twitter, contrasted with their new focus on Mastodon:

“As much as Twitter has brought us success, it has also been extremely frustrating for the past 6-7 years trying to build something great with a nerfed API.”[…]

“Building an app for an open and decentralized social platform felt so refreshing. Inspirational! I haven’t been so excited designing something in a long time. With Tweetbot, we were always fighting with the API limitations while knowing in the back of our minds that someday the API could be taken away.”

“I didn’t realize it then, but that killed a lot of our excitement and enthusiasm. With @ivory, we are just ecstatic every single day. It’s just been a pure joy to make software again.”

@mark@tapbots.social

Tapbots is building a lovely Mastodon client for iOS and macOS called Ivory that is in development (in Testflight for now). But they’re not the only ones ramping up development on a Mastodon client. There’s also Mammoth, an app in development by iOS developer Shihab Mehboob along with his team. I’ve also been testing Mammoth, and if you’re used to the official Twitter mobile apps, you’ll find Mammoth familiar.

Then there’s Metatext, Toot!, tooot, Mastoot, Mast, Tusker, and Woolly, IceCubesApp, among others. Some of these are in Testflight and are best found by following the developers on Mastodon. The official Mastodon site has a list of public third-party apps as well.

Using Mastodon

Toots, boosts, and bad search, oh my!

So you’ve made it. You have an account, you’ve followed some people, and you have installed a lovely Mastodon app. Time to get to know Mastodon a bit better. If you’re coming from Twitter, you’ll pick it up quickly, but there are a few quick differences:

  • Tweets → Toots: This was the Mastodon word for a post for a long-time, but a recent software update renamed the "Toot" button to simply "Publish." Some folks still refer to posts as toots.

  • ReTweets → Boosts: Sharing a post on Mastodon is done by boosting, much like ReTweeting. If anything, boosting is encouraged and seemingly more common on

  • Quote Tweets: Mastodon has no equivalent of Quote Tweets. You can only boost a post. This was an intentional design decision meant to curb abuse and harassment. However, with the Eternal September of Twitter users flooding Mastodon, it is a bit of a hot topic and has come up often recently. Here’s some more thoughts on the topic from an engineer I worked with at Twitter who knows the problem space well. But they eventually find their way on Mastodon; the Mastodon founder recently expressed some interest in a version you can opt out of.

  • 280 character limit → 500 character limit: Toots are 500 characters! Enjoy the extra space to share your thoughts without easily getting misinterpreted. You can also reply to your own toots to create a thread, though the composer doesn’t have the built-in functionality to create a thread that Twitter has (and that I designed while at Twitter). However, since it is open-source software on top of ActivityPub, anyone running their own instance can modify this limit to be much larger.

  • Verification: As mentioned earlier, Mastodon has no concept of account verification, though some users add :verified: to their username and it gets rendered as a checkmark on their avatar in some Mastodon apps. Separately, links on your profile can get verified if you add a rel="me" link on your site.

  • Direct Messages: Mastodon doesn’t really have a concept of direct messages at this time. While you may see a DM tab in some Mastodon clients, they are really just toots with the privacy setting set to "only those mentioned." But the account you mention can mention someone else in their reply, and they will get added to the DM. It’s important to note that they are also not encrypted, so your Mastodon instance admin (along with the admin of any instance you're sending to) would be able to see it in the database if they really cared to look it up.

  • Lists: While both Twitter and Mastodon have the ability to create and follow custom lists of accounts, they work a bit differently on Mastodon. You can only add people to a list that you’re already following. On Twitter, you could add anyone to a list even if you didn’t follow them, which made it great for creating separate timelines you could hop between as you wished. However, I did see some chatter about Mastodon considering this, under the moniker exclusive lists.

There are also a few other features like following hashtags (though it has some limitations) and the ability to put a post behind a Content Warning (the "CW" icon in the Mastodon post composer). Aside from that, you get the expected functionality of being able to attach video, images, and polls in addition to being able to adjust post privacy settings.

There’s one more thing, and this one may take some getting used to. Full-text search of the contents of Mastodon posts isn’t really a thing. You can search for accounts, and you can search for hashtags. Searching for accounts works pretty well, especially when including the full @username@example.com format. Searching for hashtags is a bit more limited and will only surface results that your instance knows about from local posts and federated posts. But your server doesn’t instantly know about all posts on the fediverse, so you may not see all the results you expect. You can get some very limited searching for your own posts, mentions, favorites, and bookmarks if your server admin setup ElasticSearch.

Search could get better if someone made their own service dedicated to indexing, relaying, and searching the fediverse, but that is no small technical (and expensive) feat.

Isn’t it pretty bad that there’s no good search? Well, along with the lack of Quote Boosts, this is framed as a purposeful design decision (though it also feels like a technical challenge):

"Mastodon deliberately does not support arbitrary search. If someone wants their message to be discovered, they can use a hashtag, which can be browsed. What does arbitrary search accomplish? People and brands search for their own name to self-insert into conversations they were not invited to."

Mastodon

My thoughts on Mastodon

Vast potential mixed with non-trivial constraints

Mastodon brings a lot to the table with its federated model of sharing utilizing an open protocol. It’s easy for anyone to host their own instance and own their data while participating in a large network with many communities. It’s not owned by anyone, nor can it be. It’s an open-source project run by a non-profit. Anyone can fork the code and do what they wish.

But, it’s not easy for anyone to get started. There’s no question about it, you cannot come from a centralized and well-capitalized product like Twitter and expect the same of a decentralized, open-source project. Mastodon is very rough around the edges when you approach it from a mindset of the former:

  • Hard to sign up. Hard to find communities: Okay, so I just installed the app... I can’t just create an account? I have to pick a server? Even with the official Mastodon app providing a list of instances to choose from, it’s still confusing. How can I see an example of the content and people on each server to know I’m choosing the right one? What are the implications of choosing a server? Is it publicly facing? Can I change it later? Is it easy to change? Et cetera.

  • Hard to find people: Once you have an account, you’re still in for more uphill battles. How can you even find good, relevant, and interesting accounts to follow? You have to rely on word of mouth or third-party tools.

  • Hard to find content: It’s hard to continually discover the type of content you enjoy. There’s no algorithmic timeline to inject new content into your home timeline. You have to rely on... hashtags, people you follow boosting content from others, and remember to continually check the federated and local timelines of your Mastodon instance. Using hashtags started to feel so thirsty even years ago, but now it seems like a necessity?

Federation brings power. It brings constraints.

Challenge 1: Following accounts and engaging with posts not on your server

One early challenge you’ll run into with federation is simply around following people as well as engaging with posts you find on other instances. Let’s say I find a link to a Mastodon post externally (as in not something I come across while logged into my own Mastodon server). It could be a link on someone’s blog, from a chat app, and so on. By clicking that link, I am going to the post hosted on Mastodon instance that is not my instance. Even though I may be logged into my own Mastodon instance, this other instance doesn’t know or care about that. I’m just a visitor and have no account with that instance. I can’t favorite the post, reply, or even follow the author.

Instead, the onus is on me to find a way to that same profile or post, but within my Mastodon instance where I’m logged in and can carry out any actions I want to take. This is super annoying and happens all the time. For example, I can’t link you to my Mastodon profile @stammy@stammy.design and have you tap follow. That would only work if you already had an account on stammy.design. So you have to copy the username, then go to your Mastodon website or app and search for my account.

What’s the solution? Nothing great. A partial solution for desktop is to use a Chrome extension that redirects profiles to your own instance, but it doesn’t work for posts (you can't just reformat the URL as the ID of the post isn’t the same across instances). And I’ve seen some chatter about an intents/handler-style way to deal with this.

Challenge 2: Sometimes you just don’t see things

A recurring theme with federation and Mastodon is around how your instance only knows about things it knows about. It doesn’t automatically know about every post across every Mastodon server online. This can lead to some unexpected behavior:

  • Profiles you visit may be empty at first. They won’t have any posts if your server has never encountered this account before (and no one else on your server has followed or interacted with the account). Following the account will start to get new posts from that account, but don’t expect it to instantly fill it up with every historical post from that account.

  • Not all public replies to a post may be visible. This one is the most concerning. Your server may not know about all the replies to a post, and therefore you may only be seeing a slice of the conversation on a post. Simon Willison has a great dive into the issue in this thread on his personal instance.

  • You may not be able to see a complete list of someone's followers. Similar to the above, your server likely has a limited view into who follows that account.

  • Boost and favorite counts may not be accurate. Same story here; your server only knows what it knows about. If you want to get a real understanding of a post's true engagement, your Mastodon client may have an action in a menu for something like "open original post."

So, how can you get your Mastodon server to know more? If you’re on a larger instance or tend to mainly communicate with people on the same server, you’re less likely to run into these issues. There’s not much of a fix aside from the admin adding a ton of relays to ingest as many posts from the fediverse as it can, but that’s not ideal for various reasons.

Challenge 3: Moderation and incentives

And one last challenge I see is typically listed as a good thing about Mastodon: moderation. I’m annoyed with Twitter because it seems like they are continually changing the rules, banning people arbitrarily, and I didn’t want my identity held hostage. Well, the exact same thing can happen on Mastodon and more.

How do you moderate a federated network? You leave it up to the instances to moderate themselves. You just have to trust the admins of each instance to do the right thing, and the idea is that by picking your instance, you’re picking a community you embrace and feel part of, and everyone will follow the established rules. And if you’re doing all that, you shouldn’t have an issue, right?

This quote from Noah Smith in his article The internet wants to be fragmented sums up nicely why moderation is great:

"Community moderation works. This was the overwhelming lesson of the early internet. It works because it mirrors the social interaction of real life, where social groups exclude people who don’t fit in. And it works because it distributes the task of policing the internet to a vast number of volunteers, who provide the free labor of keeping forums fun, because to them maintaining a community is a labor of love. And it works because if you don’t like the forum you’re in — if the mods are being too harsh, or if they’re being too lenient and the community has been taken over by trolls — you just walk away and find another forum."

That seems fine, and if you don’t like it, you can find another instance or host your own. But what if you couldn’t move your account? If you don’t get along with your instance admin, it seems they can even block your move to another instance.

Okay but that’s like the worst-case scenario, right? Yea, that’s true. But there’s one more unpleasant situation. Running a Mastodon instance is a non-trivial amount of work. There’s technical setup and regular maintenance to keep on top of, there are real costs associated with hosting, and there’s legal risk as well.

Since there are no real incentives to host and moderate a Mastodon instance, you could end up on a poorly run instance. If you’re not on a well-run instance, best case scenario, sometimes your server is a little slow or isn’t always running the latest software, but it is generally okay. The worst case scenario is that, uh, your server goes down permanently, along with your Mastodon identity and all your data.

All this to say, choosing your Mastodon server is an especially important task. One thing that would make this better is if Mastodon had a more streamlined way to be able to donate to Mastodon admins to pay for server costs. I imagine seeing some Stripe link in settings and being able to set up a small recurring donation.

Here’s why I like Mastodon

While those challenges complicate things, they don’t overshadow the brilliance of Mastodon and the protocol for me. One of those reasons is that it feels more intimate, just a small place with the people I follow. No one or thing unexpectedly forcibly getting injected into my home timeline.

On Twitter, you have three groups of accounts: celebrities and other verified accounts, brands, and then just regular people. On Mastodon, you only have people (and with so many instances to choose from, no one can really squat on your desired username). No ads either. The Mastodon home timeline is always in reverse chronological order—not algorithmic or ranked like Twitter’s timeline is by default. This means your timeline is saner. It’s not filled with threads spewing the same nonsense that gets injected into your timeline by the algorithm. It’s not filled with ads.

And with the longer character limit, you can more easily converse with people or share your thoughts without losing much in translation or spending lots of time trying to reword things to fit logically in one or multiple posts.

Mastodon feels like the early days of Twitter, with people just sharing thoughts, not worrying about how to optimize for engagement. It feels more intimate, authentic, and close-knit. My only advice for those starting out on Mastodon is to boost posts you think others should see to help with discovery, and also, you can favorite your heart out knowing it doesn’t do unexpected things like injecting the post into others’ home timelines because there’s no algorithmic timeline.

As I mentioned earlier, Mastodon’s open-source software, open protocol, and strong API without limitation (as compared to Twitter) make it a dream for developers. I’ve been seeing this flurry of excitement from developers building Mastodon apps. I’m excited to see what else gets built on top of, or for, Mastodon and ActivityPub.

The challenge will then be how the Mastodon project and broader community deal with the huge influx of new users. Will they develop efficient product development processes to deal with the flood of feature requests, complaints, and associated chatter in a principled manner? Will there be enough people to push for great design?

So far, everything on Mastodon feels like a page out of early Twitter. Nothing bad about that; it’s easy for people to join and generally understand how things work. But shouldn’t it evolve to best embrace the unique affordances and constraints of Mastodon? What will it mean for future functionality to look, feel and act like the decentralized network it is? People designing for the official Mastodon project need to think less about Twitter and more about what it means to be Mastodon. Perhaps third-party Mastodon clients and forks can lead the way before they get adopted.

An open web, owned by its users

Yes, another "bring back blogging and RSS"

This is the part where I talk about my growing desire to have more control over, and own, my data and my online identity. I want to move away from relying too much on just a few large centralized tech companies when they control too much of my data. I think about worst-case scenarios. What happens if I get locked out of this account for a day, a week, for good? It’s with that mindset that I need more control, access to the raw data, and more.

That way of thinking is often a bit overkill and can lead you down a complex path (have you ever tried hosting your own email??), but 2023 is the year I begin to detach myself from large tech companies like Twitter and Google. And for the services I do rely on, I expect encryption. And it was nice to see Apple roll out iCloud Advanced Data Protection recently. I love Signal and ProtonMail. It gives me comfort knowing that even if my account was compromised, the attacker would also have to know a separate encryption key to get into my mailbox.

I’ve been running paulstamatiou.com for 17 years. First hosted from a Mac mini in my dorm room at Georgia Tech. Starting this site and continuing to maintain it has been one of the best things I’ve done. It gives me a space to tinker, write, share thoughts, show work, and publish photos.

I miss the days when if you wanted to have a space online, you had to make it yourself. Personal blogs were their own communities. The comments sections were helpful and thriving. They were hard to discover, but we got by. We had feed readers, blog rolls, Technorati, and trackbacks.

Every day, I would be excited to open my feed reader and see if anyone whose feed I subscribe to had posted anything new. Seeing that unread count badge on a favorite blog was like a little present.

In those days, you followed people. Sure there were a few big publications you might keep track of, but you didn’t really follow "developer blogs" or "design blogs." It was always just people’s personal blogs publishing whatever felt interesting to them. They had their own take and personality.

We’ve seemed to have lost a bit of that personality and authenticity. We’re living in a world where it often feels like everything is carefully curated and polished just so for engagement. This was well before we became far too accustomed to busy feeds, videos, threads, gamification, listicles... the constant need to be entertained and get a serotonin hit. Personal blogs offered a glimpse into the real lives and thoughts of their creators.

In recent years, we made way for the rise of personal newsletters. It was only after my inbox had become unmanageable from Substack and other newsletters that I started using an RSS reader again. A modern one that could also manage newsletters and declutter my inbox. But the type of content I long for is not there. (By the way: you can just add .rss to any Mastodon profile or search URL and get an RSS feed).

I’m hoping that the recent interest in Mastodon will get people to start thinking more about taking control of their data and online identity. Mastodon has a great shot at recreating that feeling of community that personal blogs used to have. It can be your own space.

I only ask that you don’t think of it as a Twitter replacement but as a new thing. A new way to communicate, connect and build communities. A decentralized product like Mastodon will have some learning curves, no doubt. But it’s a start. And it’s a start that’s not owned by a billionaire.

If you’ve read this far, thank you! You can follow me on Mastodon by copying my full username and pasting it into the search of your Mastodon website or app to find my profile and hit follow: @stammy@stammy.design