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What Is Mastodon And Why Are People Joining It?

November 17, 2022

Curious to know what Mastodon is? You're not alone.

As Twitter continues to tailspin into an uncertain future, a few key platforms have emerged as potential alternatives. Perhaps one of the buzziest platforms you likely hadn't heard about before is Mastodon, which saw a huge spike in new users between October 28th (the day after Musk officially purchased Twitter) and November 7th. In that time, Mastodon went from under 400,000 users to more than 1 million.

Mastodon, which tags itself as "decentralized social media" and "social media that's not for sale," certainly has similarities to Twitter. But if you're looking for a Twitter replacement, will Mastodon suffice?

Twitter's Special Role For Creators

Twitter has a very special role for certain kinds of creators. It's easy for somebody not involved with Twitter to scratch their head at why this platform is so important to some people.

After all, Twitter has always been one of the smallest platforms. It's always been one of the hardest to grow on. And it's always been one of the hardest to gain consistent engagement on. 

Seriously, for some creators one like on a tweet is as good as 10 likes on an Instagram post. 

But Twitter remains incredibly consequential for certain types of creators. It plays a large role in brand identity for many journalists, authors, YouTubers, and Twitch streamers. It is the natural microblogging extension of these more medium and long-form content platforms. 

Twitter can take years to cultivate successfully, but it also creates an ecosystem and sphere of influence within your industry that can be hard to replicate elsewhere. Basically, Twitter continues to be this interesting confluence of networking, virality, thought leading, shitposting, brand building, and everything in between. It's one of the only places on the Internet where everyone can interact loudly and publicly, seemingly as equals. 

For a lot of creators it's their only "successful" social media platform because it allows them to thrive by directly interacting with their peers and fans in what at least feels like a more individualistic way. This is partially why it's so important to journalists, authors, and people whose notoriety may be niche to some, but massive to others.

That's why Twitter is special to a lot of creators and why they can't simply replicate its place on apps like Instagram or TikTok.

How Mastodon Is Similar To Twitter

So now we have Mastodon, which does have some similarities to Twitter. It's not hard to see why some people look at the platform and think, "Hmm, I could maybe replicate my presence here." 

But there are also some very, very big differences. 

Mastodon is kind of like an amalgam of Twitter, Discord, and, uh, Gmail? Let's start with how it's similar to Twitter.

Mastodon is, at its core, a microblogging site like Twitter. Users post "toots" (the hilarious and adorable equivalent of a tweet). Also like Twitter, toots can be something as simple as text, or as intricate as emoji-filled posts with media like gifs and video clips, polls, links, and more. You can tag other users with the ubiquitous @ symbol and you can categorize things with hashtags. 

You can "boost" a post (similar to retweeting — it simply reposts what that user said) and you can "like" (sometimes referred to as bookmarking) a post. You can see how many posts have boosts and likes, but only by clicking on it.

You have the ability to follow other users and there is some level of "verification." Unlike all other social media though, verification on Mastodon is a much more simple process that simply confirms you are who you say you are by copying and pasting some code to a website about you. There's no association of notoriety or fame involved. 

How Mastodon Is Different From Twitter — Servers

Mastodon was founded about 6 years ago and it started getting buzz as a potential Twitter alternative back in 2017. But the buzz was short-lived in terms of mass adoption and it continued to plod along as a niche site.

Now that Mastodon is back in the limelight, a lot of users looking for a direct one-to-one alternative to Twitter are, well, confused.

Basically, when you sign up for Mastodon, you don't just choose a username. You also choose a "server." Not a "server" necessarily in the Discord sense, but kind of like in the Discord sense. On Discord, a "server" is just a term for a unique space ran by a collection of individuals who let others in to interact with it. 

For instance, a band might have its own Discord server. Or you might be in a Discord server about, you know, soup recipes. Within that server you can have channels and threads and all kinds of other subcategorization. Like a subreddit! Yes, a Discord server is like a subreddit.

But on Mastodon, a server is like, a server in the technical sense. The platform has started referring to this as "a website" in some places, which may make it even more confusing. This is core to the "decentralized" part of the platform.

Essentially, you first pick a server, and THEN you pick your username. There are a few dozen public and open servers, so just browse around on Mastodon's site and find one that seems, uh, fine? Then create your username.

So if the server you joined is "random.server" and your username is "@stephanie," your full username would be @stephanie@random.server. So that's how it's kind of like your email provider, where you're stephanie@hotemail.com, not simply @stephanie. 

Don't worry though, the whole thing isn't as dire as it sounds. You can switch servers later once you've got a better understanding of the platform. 

More Ways Mastodon Is Different From Twitter — No Algorithms Here

One of the biggest ways Mastodon is truly different from Twitter (or other platforms) is that there's no algorithm for making content more popular or clogging feeds with suggestions.

Your Mastodon feed is a chronological feed of everything from people that you follow. Liking something won't make it more likely to show up to other users. Boosting a post will help it gain more exposure, but only to the extent your network reaches. 

This is what Mastodon ultimately means when it talks about being free from the grip of what corporations "want you to see." But it's also a lot like how Discord works. Nobody is going to necessarily get boosted by strange engagement gods. 

You build your community on the platform by contributing. And of course this isn't a new idea at all — it's pretty much the core of Reddit, too. But the idea of combining something so effortlessly usable like Twitter with something so uncontaminated by outside content is what Mastodon is banking on people loving. 

And as mentioned before, posts don't automatically show their engagement to other users (you need to click on it). Plus, there's no way to "boost" (aka retweet) a post with a comment. This, in theory, helps keep instances of shitposting down and means you're genuinely only boosting a post you endorse, versus something you want to call out as wrong. 

So Is Mastodon The Droid You're Looking For? 

If you're disaffected by everything going on at Twitter, Mastodon is worth a look. It is, at the end of the day, all about community. 

The platform does a  much better (though not perfect) job of limiting spam and trolls. It helps users better classify information and filter out posts that might be unseemly to some users but desirable by others. 

Ultimately, it's a community based platform. It's the co-op of social media. But it is still quite small in scale. The learning curve maybe less intense than something like Discord, but it's hard to see what exactly it offers content creators that they couldn't already find in places like Reddit or Discord. 

And perhaps that's by design. Maybe the whole point of Mastodon is not to help brand build, but to just be a genuine decentralized water cooler that doesn't have a Bud Light sticker slapped on it. 

If that's the case, though, it does make you wonder if it's the kind of place you want to spend a bunch of time. Not because you love Bud Light, but because there are plenty of smaller creators who are brands and deserve a place to grow. It just may be that Mastodon prefers to keep all forms of brand growth at bay. And as somebody who, in all honesty, doesn't have that much time to give and would probably just rather be creating, it's not wrong to want to spend your time on a platform that does have user growth as one of its tentpoles.

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