What's the big deal with Mastodon?

| Nov 8, 2022
A picture of the Mastodon branding.


So, if like me you happen to be a regular Twitter user, you may have noticed a number of people recently talking about this ‘Mastodon’ thing. But what is Mastodon, and should you move there? Let’s discuss.

Note: If you would prefer to watch this in video form, there is a video version available here:

Where has this come from?

A screenshot of a headline reporting the purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk for $44 Billion.

Hi folks - I’m Ash. As you’ve probably seen, recently Elon Musk purchased Twitter for just over $44 Billion dollars (with a B). As part of this purchase, he has made several decisions that have ultimately culminated in a number of users questioning whether or not they want to stay on the platform.

A screenshot of a headline discussing Twitter's potential paywall.

Attr: The Verge

A screenshot of a headline discussing Twitter's layoff of 75% of it's workforce.

Attr: NPR

And of course, the next logical question is - where to? Enter Mastodon.

The Mastodon Logo.

Attr: Mastodon gGmbH

What is it?

Mastodon is a social media platform built on the concept of ‘decentralization’. If you’ve never heard the term before, it’s the concept that powers the backbone of Bitcoin and other Cryptocurrencies - but in simple terms it means that no one entity has full control over it.

An entity could be an individual, a government, a foundation etc - basically, anyone who could potentially have full authority over the system or service.

How does it work?

When you ‘join’ Mastodon, you’re choosing a particular ‘server’ or ‘instance’ to join. Then, you can use your account from there to read content, follow users or ‘boost’ (the equivalent of retweet) content from any other server.

That’s right - you are not limited to only interacting with those on the server you joined. How does that work? Well, works on the principle of The Fediverse'.

The Fediverse

The Fediverse Logo.

The Fediverse is just a different name for the collection of all servers. The name comes from the fact that this is a ‘federated’ network - which in layman’s terms just means they’re all inter-connected to each other.

A diagram showing how Mastodon servers inter-connect.

So wait, who controls the servers?

If you’ve spotted the strange part of that last section, well done!

“If it’s ‘decentralized’, who runs the servers?!”

Mastodon servers are hosted by individuals (or in some cases, companies) and as such, you are restricted to those entities rules for that one instance. So - that begs the question; won’t that mean that each server has it’s own ‘Elon’. And yes, you would be correct.

Mitigating the issue

For most users, they’ll most likely stick to one server and use that - effectively using that one server as a ‘replacement’ to Twitter. The most likely for this is mastodon.social, which is an instance hosted by Mastodon gGmbH - a non-profit in Germany and the developers of the Mastodon service.

A screenshot of the Mastodon 'About' page.

Attr: Mastodon gGmbH

But for users who are worried about the idea, there is nothing stopping you from creating multiple accounts on different servers.

Proving your identity

The next logical question is then - how do you prove you are who you say you are?

As you know, you can set up an account on any server - bob@mastodon.social may not be the same as bob@mastodon.online - so how do you make sure people know who you are?

At the time of recording, Twitter just published a new update to Twitter Blue (their subscription for Twitter) to allow anyone to get a ‘blue checkmark’, so the concept of being verified is due to change a lot in the near future anyway.

A screenshot of the Twitter iOS app update changelog.

Attr: Apple Inc.

For Mastodon, it doesn’t have the concept of ‘Verification’ like Twitter does. Instead, you can add a link to your website or blog and add a specific tag to their page to ‘cross-reference’ the link and show that you are the owner of that link. For a personal website, that’s great, for other sites, not so much.

A screenshot of my Mastodon profile with verified links.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that this only applies to that profile - so if you make a profile on another server, you’ll need to add your links there as well.

What is it not?

So we’ve talked about what Mastodon is, but let’s talk about what it’s not.

Mastodon is not the perfect solution to the issues affecting Twitter. As we’ve already discussed, technically speaking it’s entirely possible to have the exact same situation happen where one person is in control and ‘goes rogue’, so to speak. The only difference really, is that you are not locked out of the platform as a whole.

For some, this is a no deal scenario, and that’s fine. For others, that’s a requirement. That’s fine too. Ultimately, the decision to move to it or not falls down to the following questions:

  • Are you willing to start a social media profile ‘from scratch’?
  • Are you happy with the fact that anybody can host a server to run an instance of Mastodon?
  • Are you okay with the idea that a smaller server may eventually stop running and/or redirect to something else in the future?
  • Do you care if all the people you know now move there or not?

These are all important questions that you need to consider.

What did I choose?

Now - I want to talk about what my choice was and what yours might be.

As some of you are possibly aware, I’m quite involved in the Twitch/Content Creation sphere on Twitter.

A screenshot of my Twitter profile.

A lot of creators are not going to move away from Twitter just because somebody else is in charge (even if they make objectively horrible changes to the platform). This is the same reason that ‘influencers’ and ‘content creators’ still use platforms like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok etc.

A screenshot of Hank Green's TikTok profile.
A screenshot of Sydeon's Instagram profile.

All have major issues when it comes to data collection, privacy just to focus on a few.

But ultimately, that’s also where the largest audience is - and still will be, even as Mastodon grows. So, do you care more about the issues with how it’s being managed, or do you care more about the potential for interaction amongst an already established audience (either yours, or Twitter as a whole).

In the end, I chose to keep posting on Twitter, but also post on Mastodon. That way, I don’t feel like I’m “missing out” on anything. As more people join Mastodon, I’ll have more people to follow on there. But in the end, the decision that’s best for me is to… well, use both - at least for now.