Thank God for Elon Musk!
Elon has been shaking things up lately.
Especially for Twitter users.
Many people had gotten used to thinking of Twitter as a sort of public space, a digital town square where every reasonable person could find their own soapbox, and perhaps even a few people to stop and listen to them once in a while.
And this sort of fuzzy thinking was possible because the service was operating behind an institutional facade, a murky corporate veil that served to shield the average user from the details of how or why Twitter worked the way it did.
But then Musk came along.
And by purchasing Twitter in its entirety – lock, stock and barrel, as they say – and then making (and often quickly unmaking) a whole string of idiosyncratic decisions about how to run it – Elon has revealed Twitter for what it is now, and indeed always has been: a fragile and largely ungoverned digital communications service serving up its users for whatever purpose suits its overlord, and following few if any rules other than the ones it makes up for itself.
And at the same time this purchase has revealed our American society for what it has been for some time now: a billionaire factory, designed expressly for the purpose of funneling boatloads of bucks to relatively few individuals, making them rich enough to do whatever they want, to buy whatever they want (including at least one national political party), and to drag us along on whatever fantasy may be occupying their addled little brains at the moment.
Some of us may find all of this a bit disturbing, and even shocking. That’s good! We can thank Elon for waking us from our dreaming slumbers, for pulling the wool from our eyes, for allowing us to see a little bit more of the reality that’s going on around us. Because it’s only when we see the things around us accurately that we can become empowered and take effective action to make the world a better place, for ourselves and for others.
So now that we have had this knowledge thrust upon us, what do we do with it?
Well, one of the things we can do is move from Twitter onto another microblogging service, perhaps one running Mastodon.
Mastodon is like Twitter in some ways, and different from it in others. At first, some of these differences may seem like disadvantages. But the more we think about it – especially considering what we’ve now learned from Elon – the more we may begin to see these differences as advantages.
So how is Mastodon different from Twitter?
1. Branding is Not as Attractive
“Twitter” is kind of a cool name, and it’s cute that users “Tweet,” and the bird icon is rather fetching.
By comparison, “Mastodon” is a bit ungainly, and “tooting” is a poor alternative to the image of “tweeting.”
I don’t think these are critical considerations, but it’s probably best just to acknowledge these concerns up front, before moving on to other more significant issues.
2. Anyone Can Run Mastodon
The Twitter service runs proprietary software that is only available to the Twitter company, and so only runs on its infrastructure (servers and whatnot), and can only be found at its singular web domain name.
Mastodon, on the other hand, is open-source software, and so can be run by anyone with the resources necessary to purchase a domain name, install the software on a server, and connect it to the Internet.
So if you want to use Mastodon, then the first thing you need to do is visit JoinMastodon.org, click on the
Create Account button, and then pick a server.
Now each server is run a little bit differently, and many of them are unabashedly run by individuals. For example hachyderm.io says, on its About page:
Our community is governed by a single dictator: Kris Nóva. She operates closely with an open inner circle of trusted colleagues, family members, administrators, and moderators. This inner circle is relatively open and can be easily joined/departed via building trust directly with Kris Nóva. We follow diplomatic and anarchist rules where applicable. The rest, we make up as we go along.
Now here’s where, once again, we need to give thanks for Elon Musk. For if we had read this description a few months ago, we might have been scared off, reluctant to throw our lot in with a community run by a single individual who is making it up as they go along.
But now, of course, if we’re on Twitter, then we know that we’re already part of such a community! And so what have we got to lose by switching to another community that is at least a little bit more forthcoming about its intentions!
So it’s worthwhile poking around a bit to find a community that you feel at home with. And while having all these choices can feel a bit uncomfortable, sometimes freedom is uncomfortable. Welcome to the new world.
3. No Hidden Algorithms
As we all know, with Twitter, and other social media platforms, it’s possible to like a post from another user. And then the platform is able to take those likes into account when deciding which posts to show you, and in what order.
With Mastodon, you choose those you want to follow, and then you see all of their posts, and all of their boosts (similar to a retweet or a share) in chronological order.
So, no manipulation of your feed, using secret algorithms to boost engagement.
Once again, as with choice of a server, you’re in control, not some monolithic business behemoth.
4. No Advertising
Mastodon does not rely on advertising for funding. So no random ads, which means no creepy tracking to determine which ads might be of interest to you.
5. A Variety of Funding Models
Although there’s no advertising, someone still has to pay for software development, hardware, server administration, etc. None of this comes for free. So the owner of each Mastodon server decides how they want to fund their instance. Some rely on donations. Some provide tiered user levels, with higher tiers of payments providing some level of recognition, or some ability to invite others to join.
So this is another thing to investigate when shopping for a Mastodon community.
6. Federation Rather Than Consolidation
Mastodon allows the various servers running its software to federate with one another, which means that, even though they have separate lists of users, and separate domain names, and separate databases, they can all talk to one another and exchange information. This means that a user on one server can easily follow users on other servers.
This also means that a user who has initially signed up on one server can later move to a different server.
Again, a little more thinking is involved, because you have a little more freedom than you had before.
We Twitter users have gotten used to thinking that we were part of some sort of libertarian digital utopia, run for our benefit by a benevolent corporate entity. We were innocents, running through our digital fields of rye, thinking that there would always be some new CEO, some new funding model, that would catch us all before we plunged over the edge of the adjoining cliff.
Well now we know that there’s no wonderful wizard ensuring that we can all continue skipping together down our yellow brick road.
Elon Musk has helped us see Twitter, and other similar social media services, for what they are: manipulative corporate beasts focused on serving their owners and more than willing to keep us engaged so that they can sell ads to other corporate beasts.
Well, there’s a new beast in the jungle, and he’s playing by different rules.
Even if you’re not ready to switch, you owe it to yourself to learn a little bit more about Mastodon.
The worst the journey can do is to make you a little bit smarter.
And when you’re ready to join the herd, feel free to follow me at @firstname.lastname@example.org.
December 17, 2022