Mastodon Lets You Run your Own Twitter — Or Join Theirs

By J.J. Ulm

Over the last few years, Twitter has become a cesspit. The once-small community of people who enjoy the challenge of squeezing their thoughts into 140-character blurbs has exploded into a mess of algorithm-based ads, corporate accounts, and Literal Nazis. (Not to mention the sadly newsworthy outbursts of our Tweeter-in-Chief.)

But where else can you go to chatter with dozens if not hundreds of people you sort of vaguely know about whatever everyone else is chattering about that day? Tumblr is too obtuse, and Facebook has your mother. Every so often some open-source alternative comes along and goes viral, but none have caught on. (Remember Ello? Remember Peach? Remember Disapora?)

This year, though, with the Tweeter-in-Chief emboldening the people behind that account with an avatar of Hitler calling you a cuck and with the people in charge of running things more willing to silence trans activists than people spewing hate speech, an alternative is needed more than ever.

So will this new Mastodon thing the kids are talking about be the hoped-for Twitter Killer? And just what is it, anyway?

Mastodon's friendly logo

Mastodon's friendly logo

Mastodon is very Twitter-inspired, and there’s a lot that feels very familiar and comfortable about that. In fact, it looks distinctly like Tweetdeck, Twitter’s professional platform. It gives you a whole 500 characters per post to play with, but otherwise it functions the same — though Retweets are called “Boosts” and Likes are called “Favourites”. With a U.

It’s not a web site, though, it’s a software platform that anyone can install on their own servers and run according to their own rules. Mastodon’s developer runs a flagship instance at mastodon.social, and that one is likely to be as close as it gets to a single Mastodon service. But there are already hundreds of others, each run by its own host with its own set of rules. Instances that choose to can be federated with others, and the platform offers a Local and a Federated timeline.

One of the big appeals of mastodon.social is its strict “No Nazis” policy. The developer is German, and he wants no part of this American idea that hate speech should somehow be protected instead of treated like the incitement to violence that it is. His rules forbid "content illegal in Germany and/or France, such as holocaust denial or Nazi symbolism" along with racist, sexist, and homophobic content. To many, that’s exactly what they want in a social network, and something that corporate-run social networks seem unwilling to give them.

The confusion of multiple instances may be what keeps Mastodon from going mainstream. But it might be perfect for activist and fan communities, where individual sites can set up instances and federate with instances run by similar sites — like message boards with a twist. These communities have gotten by on centralized social media platforms, but they thrive on their own.

So should you join? As of this writing, mastodon.social isn’t accepting any new registrations until it stabilizes from all the new traffic, so it might be best to wait until it’s open again. Mastodon.cloud is a good alternative until then, or you may find one that’s run for a community you’re interested in. (Unsurprisingly, there are already several for furries.)

But let’s be honest: You’re either a person who signs up for every new social network the moment people start jumping on, or you’re a person who waits to see if it’ll really catch on, and that’s all the answer you need.