Essays on Technology and Culture

Mastodon: A Different Way to Think About Social Media

Hey, have you heard about Mastodon, the Hot New Twitter Alternative that All The Kids Are Using™! Perhaps you’re interested in giving it a try, either because Twitter’s recent product changes have you feeling grumpy, or you’ve heard about Mastodon’s low-tolerance towards Nazis and other troublemakers, or maybe you just want to secure a username for your brand on a new social platform before someone else does.

Well, if you have heard people talking about Mastodon, ignore it, save for Sarah Jeong’s excellent piece. And certainly don’t register an account for your brand to avoid username pollution—it won’t work. Right now, many tech writers, chief among them Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff, are completely missing the point of Mastodon. Lance thinks it’s going to fail because you can’t monetize it, it’s decentralized, and William Shatner doesn’t like it, and had trouble deleting his account. Obviously, a lack of Shatner is the kiss of death for any social network.

Never mind that it’s way too soon to assume an open source project run by a handful of unpaid contributors and admins that hasn’t even existed for a year is going to be as fully-featured as Twitter. Or even has the same goals in mind. What Lance, and so many others aren’t getting about Mastodon is that it’s not meant to operate on the same scale as Twitter. Despite being named for a band that’s named after a large, extinct land mammal, being small is Mastodon’s strength.

Part of the problem with Twitter, and why so many people are frustrated with it, is that it’s too big. There’s too many people on a platform that was designed with too few barriers keeping them from each other. The fixes Twitter’s rolled out to ameliorate the problems are generally weak sauce as well. A giant network of unrestricted access to every user—unless they lock their account down to only approved followers—is not sustainable. Twitter’s twin failures of community management with its ongoing harassment problem, and inability to monetize are both symptoms of this.

That anyone can create an Mastodon instance keeps it from suffering the same issues of community management at scale that have turned Twitter into such a cesspool. Mastodon doesn’t need to be the new place for brands to connect with social influencers to be a success. If anything, Mastodon becoming a place for brands would mark it as a failure. Instead, Mastodon is about communities—a network of small, decentralized groups of real human beings (and fursonas) that communicate and share with each other.

I joined Mastodon.Social’s flagship instance back in January, when news came out that App.Net would be shutting down. I didn’t know what to expect, but I found the community on there to be welcoming, and entertaining. It leaned, and still leans, as far as I can see, heavily queer, furry, communist, and focused on open source— of which, only the first applies to me, but I stuck around all the same. While communities like this exist on Twitter, they’re both subsumed by the larger mass, and risk harassment as an effect of any sort of visibility. No wonder they’re the first to jump ship.

The influx of attention, despite temporarily crippling Mastodon’s flagship instance at, at least has the benefit of letting other disgruntled Twitter users know that there is an alternative. Plus, it’s put Mastodon on a more solid financial footing. Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s creator, is now pulling on over $2k a month in support on Patreon for developing the platform. This is great for a platform that’s not even six months old. New instances are popping up, and according to, the total users across all of them is about 100,000. That’s a long way from Twitter’s 302 million users, though it may be closer if you don’t count all the spammers and Russian Troll Bot accounts.

And yes, there’s growing pains to come, and growing pains happening now. Eugen and other Mastodon admins are figuring out how to manage these new communities, deal with federated harassment, and just get the software up to snuff. (Yes, Lance and Bill, account deletion is an open issue.) I have confidence these issues will be addressed, and that the network of Mastodon, and other federated social networks like will help us rethink social networks as something that can be on the scale of a neighborhood instead of a planet.

Let a thousand Mastodon instances bloom! In fact, I might just spin up my own instance, if I can bring a few friends along for the ride. We’ll see how that goes. I do have a free Heroku account I’m not doing anything with… A world of decentralized, community-run instances of Mastodon may never replace Twitter or Facebook, but their mere existence proves that there’s another way. I want to be part of it.

You can learn more about Mastodon and how to set up an instance on the project’s GitHub.