You know the story: Elon Musk (self-described “free speech absolutist” unless you’re talking about him) nearly joined Twitter’s board, tried to buy controlling stock, and ultimately purchased Twitter outright on Monday, April 25. Rather than solving world hunger for $6B at the UN’s recommendation, he’s purchasing the social media network for $45B. Priorities.
Anyway, a lot of my contacts have started exploring the other options: Slack, Discord, Reddit, and Mastodon, and then some. The latter is similar to Twitter in many ways, but it’s also designed by open-source software coders so the interface may not be intuitive (to understate it) to the general internet user. I’ve tried reading through the how-to’s of getting started with it, but these also feel like you have to have an understanding of Mastodon before you read the beginner’s guide, or at least they don’t make sense to me.
However, now that people I know are signing up and we’re trying to connect, I’m learning more about the structure of the instances/servers, so I thought I should record my rudimentary thoughts and discoveries to explain it all in a different way than has been done by smarter, more experienced people.
Mastodon is the open-source software. You don’t join Mastodon, you join instances using Mastodon. Think of Mastodon as the laws of physics in a universe, and the instances are planets within it. What Mastodon calls “instances” are servers, and when you get started, you start an account with a server. The two most common I’m seeing my contacts find are mastodon.social and mstdn.social. I’m using the handle “cwwilkie” and to find me, you need to know that I joined mastodon.social. If you started an account through mstdn.social and searched for my handle, you won’t find me until you include my server/instance. If we’re on the same instance, yes, then you’ll find me easily.
As you can see, the instance you sign up with can be considered part of your ID. If I wanted to, I could run around and create “cwwilkie” accounts on mastodon.social, mstdn.social, mastodon.online, counter.social, &c. That would indeed secure my handle over all those instances, but then I have to keep track of all those passwords, too. And if someone wants to add me, now there are several “me’s” out there (defined by the server I chose), so which one’s my main one? I don’t want to run multiple accounts.
Does it make a difference which instance/server you start up with? Not if you’re not paying attention. You can join an instance if you like their topic, but there are several instances that have no central theme.
Home, Local, Federated
These are how you read what people are posting. Home shows you all the posts of the people you’re following, regardless of what instances they’re on. That’s the most like the Twitter timeline, right now.
Local shows you all the posts happening in the instance you signed up in, and Federated shows everything in your instance, but also everything posted in all the instances of all the people in your instance. That’s how you meet new people, I guess.
If you wanted to start your own instance, you would have control over what other instances it can connect with (you can ban those that allow forms of bigotry) and who can join. There are a few international companies that will host your server, but they have liberty to jack up the price based on how many users have joined. Spacebear charges $17/month for only ten users, and $29/month for 50 users. Masto charges nearly $10 for 20 users, $20/month for 100 users, though their numbers fluctuate based on how many are actually active (as opposed to starting up an account and forgetting about it). Is it worth it? Think about how many people you follow on Twitter, how many friends you have. How much would it cost for you to host them all? To say nothing of learning the technical aspects of running a server.
It’s free to start an account with any Mastodon instance, follow all your friends, and then your Home timeline will only show you what they’re saying. Not very useful if they’re all being silent, of course…
That’s what I know for right now. As of hitting Publish on this, I’ve got 21 followers, and I think that’s a good start. I’ve been aware of Mastodon for years, but I’ve learned more about it today than ever. And maybe nothing will come of the purchase, whatever the purchase means. It can go three ways: things improve, things get worse, or things stay more or less the same with Twitter.
I have my guess as to where it’s going to head. I think it’s going to go badly. I can’t envision how it could improve. A lot of users are getting ready to leave, and a lot of users are vowing to stay and fight. But criminetly, that’s not what I come to social media for, to endlessly fight against teeming hordes of slavering, coal-hearted conservatives for dubious victories.
If it goes badly, then there are three questions to consider: 1) Can I tolerate the right-wing shitshow of unmoderated abuse, to stay connected to whomever remains? 2) Am I up to the intellectual labor of searching for, assessing, and acquiring a new interface for a new social media channel? 3) Do I even need to be on social media, at all, anywhere?