Review: Mastodon Offers Privacy Benefits At A Steep Cost

The decentralized network is too socially awkward to compete with traditional social media

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Photo by Jordan Harrison on Unsplash

A server hums with activity. Decentralized servers offer a healthier alternative to traditional social media, but are much less populated.

Jeneta Nwosu, Copy Editor

Your data is not yours.

Social media companies register your clicks, your inputs and your activity to use for their own purposes. Sometimes, it’s to advertise to you. Sometimes, as we saw in the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, it can lead to more disturbing outcomes.

Your content is not yours either, at least not on traditional social media.

Private corporations are the publishers, and they have the final say on what is posted on their site. You can be censored and shut down without a second thought.

There is another model of social media that puts power in the hands of individual users instead of a centralized entity.

They’re called federated or distributed social networks, and their proponents claim that they solve common social media problems with privacy and censorship.

The main reason why is because one entity is not in charge of your content. Federated social networks are typically open-source and built to be duplicated. Functionally, this means that the code for the website is freely available and people can set up their own servers based on the original software. These servers make up the social network and are both independent and able to communicate among themselves.

Another unique feature of the federated social network is that often separate platforms can interact with each other. Twitter users cannot comment on YouTube, but users of Mastodon, a distributed microblogging network similar to Twitter, can comment on PeerTube, a federated video-hosting network. 

They share the ActivityPub protocol, and all networks that share this common system of rules in its code can interact with each other, even as separate platforms. The same goes for other platforms operating on other protocols. This complex of federated social networks all feeding into each other is commonly referred to as the “fediverse,” and the website fediverse.party has an extensive list of them.

It’s like email. You can be on Gmail and a friend could be on Yahoo, and both of you still have the exclusive features of those platforms while also being able to email each other.

Mastodon is the most prominent decentralized social network, boasting more than 4.4 million users according to their website. For this reason, I’ll be trying out Mastodon to discover the benefits of this platform as well as distributed social networks as a whole.

Joining Mastodon

Joining Mastodon is a bit more complicated than other traditional platforms, as Mastodon is not one site, but a collection of them. Mastodon’s website, joinmastodon.org, has a list of communities, or “instances”, but only ones they say are committed to “active moderation” against hate. The site instances.social holds another, larger list of Mastodon communities.

One of the largest of these is a community run by the developers of Mastodon, mastodon.online. This was the one I joined at first, but Mastodon claimed that you could easily move your account to be hosted by a different community if you wanted to, which I was eager to try out later. Your account name shows what server hosts your account, with the format @[email protected]

When I first made my account, I got an explanation of the different timelines that would soon appear on my screen. The home feed would be populated with people that I followed, the local timeline with people in my same server (mastodon.online), and the federated timeline would have posts from other servers of the fediverse.

Then, the tutorial explained the functions of Mastodon, which are the same as Twitter with different names. Likes are favorites. Instead of retweeting tweets, you boost toots. I found it a little infantile, but thinking objectively, probably not much more than the Twitter terminology we somehow all accepted without second thought.

User Experience

The first thing I’m greeted with on my home feed is just all the toots from Eugen, a Mastodon developer. This is because I haven’t followed anyone yet. 

The problem is that Mastodon organizes toots in a chronological stream from random users, as opposed to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter which curate their feeds based on algorithms. You can filter out certain words and languages, but not much beyond that.

You can only find people by happening to see their toots in your local or federated timeline, which makes it a lot harder to find people to follow. Until you follow people, your home feed is just Japanese cat videos boosted by Eugen. 

Mastodon.online is a huge instance since it’s the closest thing to a default community Mastodon has, and so the local timeline is filled with a large volume of disconnected musings and incoherent spam, much of which is not in English. This isn’t exactly a conducive environment for finding your next favorite account.

Luckily, many instances, including mastodon.online, have a profile directory. There is also a small third party directory that helps with this problem somewhat. Once you find an active user either through the timeline or the directory, you can usually find others through them.

At this point though, I was tired of trying to find engaging content in the vast, dark and lonely sea of mastodon.online. This was compounded by the literally dark default design, which I quickly changed to the still-dark but easier on the eyes “high contrast” option.

I looked elsewhere, seeking an instance that was smaller and more human. I settled on koyu.space, which is a “nice community for chill people,” according to their description on the joinmastodon.org communities page. 

Koyu.space did end up being more human. Its landing page makes it clear that a team of people put care into creating this community. It also operates on a fork of Mastodon called glitch-soc that offers more features as opposed to being a straight up copy of Mastodon’s software. 

The local page no longer required any dumpster diving for interesting content. Instead, it was filled with people sharing snippets of their lives. It was chill.

I still felt like there was much left to be desired. There wasn’t much engagement or discussion, and it was missing some of the comradery that makes a community a true community. But it also felt like if I tried hard enough, perhaps it could be a place I could make friends.

The second account gave me the opportunity to try out Mastodon’s tools for moving accounts. The process of transferring my account data from mastodon.online to koyu.space was breezy and painless, but it did have its quirks. 

To start, I wasn’t allowed to do it again for another 30 days. This cooldown period means that you probably don’t want to formally switch over until you’re certain of which server you want to host your account on, and it also means that you have to make a different account for each instance you want to try out until then.

The process also only moves over your followers, along with people you’ve blocked or muted, and it deactivates the old account, making any links to it redirect to the new one. 

It works in two steps. On the account I planned to move to, I marked my old account as an “alias,” which is a reversible step. On the old account, I then input the handle of the new account and my password, which promptly deactivated the account and set me free of mastodon.online.

Closing Observations

Before getting into my personal rating of Mastodon as a platform, I have to clarify that my experience was not a universal Mastodon experience or a universal Fediverse experience. For one, I only looked at instances that were generalistic, because a lot of the more specialized servers either didn’t accept new members, were invite-only, or required prospective members to request an invite. The answer to my complaints about community and engagement could be that the truly active and tight-knit Mastodon instances were under lock and key.

Additionally, Mastodon is not the only Fediverse platform. Fediverse.party lists federated networks based on video-sharing, music-listening, blogging, podcasting and even decentralized GoodReads clones.

However limited my perspective of Mastodon is, it still brings me some conclusions that are clear as day.

Mastodon is awesome. It just is. There are zero ads, as each server is self-funded by the people who run it, often by taking donations from their members. The existence of a system where power balances towards individuals and not a corporation is a benefit that cannot be understated. 

It allows for innovation and customization, as in the case of glitch-soc, as well as for separate instances with their own moderation philosophies and vibes.

For example, the aforementioned instance list on joinmastodon.org and instances.social are filled with safe spaces for people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community, and that’s attractive compared to big social media companies that don’t have the means or the will to respond to hate speech in the same way small teams of active moderators do.

But for all the awesomeness that Mastodon has, it simply cannot compete with traditional social media. Its small active user base means there’s little community to attract people. Then, those who do come are faced with the difficulty of choosing a place within the multitude of instances. Within one instance, the struggle to find people to connect with turns even more off. 

This comes from intentional decisions Mastodon makes to be different. Almost every aspect of Mastodon avoids mainstream influencer-based social media culture. Favorites and boosts on a toot are hidden until you click on it. The “verified” blue check doesn’t exist, and since Mastodon doesn’t track your data, it can’t offer you content on a silver platter, much less celebrity gossip and hot takes from journalists.

Mastodon is trying to bring back the days of the early internet, when the internet was communal and not commercial, but those days are long gone. Now they have to compete with the most addictive form of social interaction. 

Mastodon is the equivalent of planting and cultivating carrots to eat as a healthy snack, while traditional social media is driving to the store for a box of cupcakes. Mastodon won’t gain any traction beyond an insular nerdy crowd because it’s too difficult and too boring. But for Mastodon to be a true alternative to Twitter and its ilk, it would need to gain that traction.

I’d recommend Mastodon if you’re deep into programming or IT because it is full to the brim with computer nerds. I’d also recommend Mastodon if you’re into the idea of federated social networks and have time to kill. It’s a fascinating and useful introduction to the Fediverse and how it works. But if you’re looking for a casual way to meet new people, I’d look elsewhere.