Thoughts on using Mastodon
April 11, 2022
9 minute read
Following the news that one of SNL’s worst hosts bought their way into Twitter, I joined the Fosstodon instance of Mastodon last week. If you’re not familiar with Mastodon, think Twitter but user-hosted and each instance can be connected together, and users can follow each other across instances. It also has almost twice the character limit (500), and the desktop web interface is inspired by TweetDeck.
They call this network of instances “The Fediverse”, but the whole ‘verse thing is so overused these days. I will just call this ’the network’ or simply, Mastodon.
Update 5-2-22: Multiple readers would like me to clarify that Mastodon is not the Fediverse, but rather just one part of the Fediverse. Here you can see the major projects that currently make up the Fediverse.
This is my second attempt at using Mastodon. My previous attempt was in 2017, about a year after the project launched. There was a ton of activity at the time, but I didn’t stick with it because nobody I knew was using it.
This time is different — several of my new friends I’ve met through blogging are on Mastodon, and indeed, the instance I’m on is run by one of them, Kev Quirk. As a result, I’ve been having a lot of fun using Mastodon, but it’s also caused some reflection on my Twitter usage.
The obligatory ‘Twitter is bad’ manifesto
Most posts I’ve read from people who have made the switch spend a good 2-5 paragraphs on how bad Twitter was for them, and there won’t be an exception here, but I will say that many of the same problems that affect Twitter can very easily affect Mastodon, if we let it happen.
I’m burned out on Twitter, and I think it’s just a result of being active on the service for too long (since 2010). Outrage over this and that, sometimes warranted, sometimes not, sometimes just outrage for the sake of outrage. All of which is amplified by the algorithmic timeline that they added in 2015, and keep forcing onto their users with “accidental” removal of the chronological timeline.
This has resulted in multiple year-long Twitter breaks for me, and using a third-party Twitter client (Tweetbot) to fix the issues I had with the official experience. Tweetbot has a chronological timeline, I set up a filter to hide retweets and quote tweets, I can pick any of my lists as the primary timeline, easier muting of terms with regex. I stopped retweeting anything several years ago because I don’t like seeing retweets from the people I follow.
And timeline position sync has become crucial for me, as it shows how many unread tweets are in my feed and helps me curb my usage once they’re all read, instead of compulsively scrolling and refreshing all the time.
I took a step back a few weeks ago and realized I have to do a lot just to be able to use Twitter and keep my sanity.
Mastodon is good, for now
It’s most likely due to the instance I’m on, but I haven’t seen anything near the amount of vitriol I’ve seen on Twitter. Most people seem eager to interact in a way that reminds me of Twitter in 2010-2013. I’ve found myself reblogging/boosting posts (retweeting). Mastodon has an auto-delete feature you can set up, which I’m a big fan of.
Very few of the people I know on Twitter are on Mastodon, and that hasn’t been a big issue. There’s multiple Twitter bridges available, which are instances run solely to copy public Twitter profiles and tweets over to the network, so I can still keep up with tweets even if I can’t easily interact with them. But I haven’t felt the desire to follow any of those mirrors yet.
At first I had some decision paralysis when joining, because there are so many instances, but in reality, it doesn’t really matter which one you join because you can easily migrate your account to another instance later. The only thing that doesn’t come with you when you migrate are your posts, but your following list, followers, mute filters, block lists, and bookmarks all come with you, and you can set up a redirect on your old account.
I don’t really mind the lack of posts migration, as I have auto delete turned on anyway. I like that posts seem more ephemeral on Mastodon than on Twitter, which I guess makes posting easier for me? Maybe it’s just the novelty of it.
My particular instance is focused on free open source software and technology, which aligns with what I like, but there are other instances that might be better if you’re more into other things like art, or just talking in general. The local timeline shows all the public and unlisted posts on your instance, and can be a lot of fun to read and find new accounts to follow. Many of the instances in the official directory allow you to view the local timeline before joining, so you can get an idea of what the users are like.
And if you’re in doubt about which one to join, just join the official one to start out, though the local timeline is going to be almost unreadable due to the instance’s large population and no language filtering.
There’s bad instances, too, but the majority of them are blocked by the more popular instances, so it’s unlikely you’ll see their content unless those instances are just some user’s personal instance. I’ve only had to mute a couple of users so far, and no blocks yet (knock on wood). I don’t want to even think about how many accounts are filtered out on my Twitter account.
I also haven’t had the need to set up the vast array of muted words and terms I have on Twitter. There’s just not as much pretend money nonsense on my instance (I have personally seen none), no one is posting asinine threads because there’s no algorithm to game, and I have seen 0 promotion of speaking events, patreons (other than links in bios), or other kinds of peddling. I respect the hustle, but I don’t want to see any of it.
Instead, people are sharing interesting things, and instead of threads, they share blog posts, just as Bob intended.
I really like that you can set per-post privacy settings, such as public, unlisted, or followers-only. And content warnings are great too, most people try to be considerate and hide controversial things behind a content warning.
Mastodon could go wrong, but I doubt it
The ways I see Mastodon going wrong all depend on how popular it gets. More people = more problems. There’s already bad instance lists, but users could flood a popular instance or the main one if moderation can’t keep up with the influx. And with most, if not all instances, community run with volunteer moderators, it’s not hard to see this happening at some point if popularity goes up.
It’s not a big stretch to imagine that I’ll have to rebuild my Twitter mute list in Mastodon at some point. Ultimately though, I think the tools Mastodon provides now can adequately handle a popularity spike in the future. You can set your profile private and only make selected posts public, and you can turn off notifications from people you don’t follow. One thing I might start doing is to post with the unlisted privacy setting, which keeps your posts from showing up outside your instance in the federated timeline.
Mastodon apps are lacking
There’s a ton of apps available for using Mastodon, and the project recently released an official iOS app. It’s a solid start, but it’s missing features like local instance timelines and in-app management of your muted terms. I have full confidence the team will improve it in the future. It’s also not bad on macOS, though there’s currently a bug where the text of the UI is tiny. I think they’re fixing that soon.
What I’m missing is a solid Tweetbot-like app, with timeline position sync across devices and polished interactions and animations. Toot! comes close, but interactions such as pull-to-refresh feel off, and there’s no equivalent desktop app.
Timeline sync seems like something that should be part of the Mastodon service itself, it’s an extremely handy feature for busy timelines. I remember there used to be a third-party service called TweetMarker that many popular third-party Twitter clients tapped into, built by the same creator who built micro.blog. There were even browser extensions for it that worked with the official website and TweetDeck.
I don’t see anything like that for Mastodon, and I’m not knowledgeable enough (yet) to build my own timeline sync project.
Less restrictive integrations and development
This is the part I’m most excited about, after years of Twitter cracking down on API features and aggressive rate-limiting to force users to their official app. Mastodon has none of that, and being able to fire up your own instance for specific things is very cool.
The open API has resulted in a lot of third-party apps being made, which is fantastic for user choice, even if none of them currently rival Tweetbot.
I’ve also seen some super cool integrations with Mastodon, like dedicated blog accounts on Write.as’s instance that other Mastodon users can follow, and Pixelfed, which is a fork of Mastodon (I think) that aims to be a federated Instagram alternative.
I’ve been on social media less
Becoming fed up with Twitter, combined with relatively low activity on Mastodon, has caused me to check both services less, which is a good thing. My feed on Mastodon can be caught up within a minute, and since the basic functionality is so similar to Twitter, it mostly satisfies the urge to check Twitter.
I haven’t deleted Tweetbot from my iPhone and Mac yet, I still interact with people I follow sometimes. And the web design community is predominantly on Twitter, though I could follow them using one of the Twitter mirrors on Mastodon.
At some point I’d love to delete Twitter and be done with it, just as I’ve done with Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and Snapchat, but I’m not there yet. I think it would only take one more big outrage about something they changed for me to do so.
When that happens, I’ll make a list of the accounts I want to see tweets from, and then try to find matching mirrors on Mastodon. I wonder if there’s an app that can do it for me.
If you’d like to follow me on Mastodon, I’m “tooting” (ugh) here: @[email protected]