Elon’s Twitter meltdown and the rise of Mastodon arrived at an unusual time for me.
I read Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism this fall and it really resonated with me. I spend too much time on my phone and I have for years, suffering the physical and mental consequences as many of us do. My habits started changing through the pandemic when I realized I just couldn’t take the never ending stream of doom and everyone’s hot takes about it any more. I started to discover what happens when I just opted out, removed apps, spent far less time on my phone, and focused on what’s actually, tangibly, right in-front of me in my life. It helped me cope a great deal, but over time I drifted back with only slightly better habits.
Newport’s book hit home the way social media companies relentless pursuit of engagement is at odds with my goals in life. His book proposes ideas for drastically reducing the digital services in our lives down to only those that truly provide value consistent with our goals, starting with a month long complete digital detox.
I was about half way through my detox in when Twitter became a billionaires plaything and I caved, I wasn’t sure there would be a Twitter to come back to, and I didn’t want to miss a good dumpster fire.
I soon signed up for Mastodon and started using it. (another social media app on my phone, digital detox going great)
Very quickly: Mastodon is a decentralized microblogging platform. It’s open source software anyone technically savy enough can use to run an instance. Users join an instance to host their account, and then you can follow people on any other instance. Think Twitter, but like email. The instances are paid for by admins and donations/sponsors.
I’ve been there for about a month now and it’s been an interesting experience. It’s explosive growth is a pretty astonishing thing to see after years of watching open source projects try and fail to unsettle established social media mega-corps.
No ads, no tracking, no algorithms determining what you see. It’s a refreshing experience that helps keep your time spent with it in a box, if so desired. I see content from those I follow, and what they boost, nothing else. No endless scrolling, I can catch up quickly and then I’m done. This assumes you don’t read the local timeline (everything posted to your mastodon instance) or the federated timeline (everything on your mastodon instance and all the content they follow). These are a terrible idea if you’re trying to keep social media in it’s place in your life. Also a good way to be exposed to things that are probably not healthy to subject yourself to repeatedly day after day after day.
Mastodon’s web UI has pretty rich filtering options that help me avoid doomscrolling, politics and obnoxious celebrities.
Mastodon has largely become a replacement for Instagram to me. I enjoy photography and by following tags like #LandscapePhotography, I’ve been exposed to and begun following lots of other photographers. I now see content I’d never be exposed to on Insta where everything has to be an oversaturated sunset mountain vista banger. (just kidding of course, they wouldn’t promote anything but reels… because engagement) It’s a decent way to share your photos, though I am struggling with how to balance with Pixelfed, a more photography focused Instagram replacement which uses the same underlying federation as Mastodon. (you can actually follow someone’s Pixelfed account from your Mastodon account, which is incredibly cool)
Is it all sunshine and roses? Well no, there have been some growing pains. Volunteers and developers are working way too hard trying to handle the exponential growth so users can get a solid experience. The first few weeks were rough, but much better lately.
It’s slightly more complicated to use. You need to figure out what instance to sign up on, and to follow people on other instances, you need to know to search for their user tag from your app/instance. It’s not bad once you’ve done it, but it is one small extra step people are not expecting after traditional centralized social media.
I suspect there will be challenges ahead with moderation. Users can mute/block/filter accounts as they wish. Admins can choose who to remove from their instance, but what about accounts from other instances someone might follow? I don’t fully understand how it works but there does appear to be lists of recommended instances mastodon admins should hide or block entirely. There will be challenging discussions and controversies ahead on what instances go onto those lists and for what reasons. I’ve seen a lot of folks talking about how Mastodon is, and must remain, a welcoming inclusive place for all. I suspect this belief is going to clash hard with the nature of a decentralized platform, but it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Since I started, CIRA (Canada’s .ca domain registry non-profit) has partnered with mstdn.ca, essentially creating a quasi-official Canadian Mastodon instance. Flickr and Tumblr are talking about joining the Fediverse. Mozilla will be launching mozilla.social in early 2023. Dozens of major news sites are posting guides to getting started with Mastodon.
Mastodon seems to have reached a tipping point, I believe it has become a viable alternative to traditional social media and their ads, tracking and algorithms. I’m losing interest with Reddit. Twitter is rapidly becoming pointless for me. There are still a couple Facebook groups I can’t get away from but I’m working on it.
I’m hopeful this will be the only social media app on my phone soon.
You can learn more about getting started with Mastodon here.