A noob’s guide to Mastodon and the Fediverse.
So, with Twitter having been bought over by a seemingly capricious billionaire, the future of the Twitter we’ve all grown to love and hate is up in the air.
Hundreds of employees have been fired without due warning, including the moderation and safety teams that at least try to keep Twitter on the path to civil discourse, however well you may think that they succeeded in the past.
As a result, a LOT of people are worried about the future of the platform, and as such are seeking out alternative platforms to keep in touch with their Twitter friends and communities.
One of the most prominent since the Twitter buyout has been Mastodon, a service that is very similar to Twitter in some ways, yet very different in others.
A Quick Primer to Mastodon
So, with that intro out of the way, how does Mastodon work exactly?
Well, unlike Twitter, which operates off a unified, centralised bank of servers and everyone’s accounts sit with the one service, think of Mastodon as actually operating more like World of Warcraft.
How so? Well, Mastodon is what’s called “De-centralised”, which means that it doesn’t work off of one single central “server” like Twitter (although it obviously operates off of several server farms).
Instead, Mastodon is sort of broken up into individual servers (called instances), which interconnect with one another.
Think of it in World of Warcraft terms: Before you can play WoW you need to create a character, but before that you have to choose a server to create your character on.
In this instance, the character is your Mastodon account, and the WoW server is the instance where you create your character/account.
Now, on your instance, you have a local timeline. Think of this like Trade Chat or /2 for example. A channel/timeline that’s specific to that server. You also have access to a federated timeline, but we’ll get to that in a sec.
So, on your server you’ll see and interact with the other people on your server. However, just like WoW you will be able to see and interact with people on other servers seamlessly as though they were on your server.
That’s how the various “federated” instances work. They’re individual, but they interconnect to allow people to interact and follow people on other instances.
All instances really are, are a starting point for your account. There are general servers where there is no overall theme for the community there, but there are also instances where there is a specific theme for the community: Art, Gaming, Sport etc. Albeit few (if any) instances will insist on your posts relating strictly to that instance’s theme.
As for that Federated Timeline? Well it’s a timeline featuring post from people on other servers including the one you’re sitting on. Think of it more like cross-realm Trade Chat *shudder*
Pros and Cons of Mastodon and similar services
Being de-centralised is both Mastodon’s greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness.
It’s a huge positive in that if one server gets taken offline, Mastodon as a service will stay up regardless, unless every single Mastodon instance on the planet were to get taken out. Much harder to take the entire service offline versus Twitter, which we have seen go down several times even in the last year.
However, the biggest weakness of Mastodon is that very same thing. Instances are more or less in the main privately funded and maintained. Any single instance could, at any time, get pulled and go down. Maybe the authorities have decided to take it offline? Maybe the admin grew tired of running it and pulled the plug without warning? There are multiple scenarios where a Mastodon instance could conceivably be taken offline, and with it your entire account and all of your posts, follows & followers.
Any single person can self-host a Mastodon instance, or pay a hosting service to host it for them (and the costs are excruciatingly high), so that could lead to a Wild West situation where you create an account, and several days/weeks/months later it could go offline, leading you to have to seek out a new instance to re-create your account again, and so on and so forth.
As Mastodon gains mainstream traction, I can foresee several mega-instances arising that people might feel more secure creating their accounts on.
Put it like this – How willing would you be investing hundreds of hours of your time into a World of Warcraft character, knowing that at any time your server might disappear and go offline forever? I guess that’s something that people playing WoW on private servers have to content with, but for Retail customers it’s never an issue.
The other big problem I have with Mastodon is speed. Twitter, for all its faults, is fast and responsive. Not so much Mastodon, which can be dreadfully slow at times.
As for me, I’ve created an account over on Mastodon, a new official server from Mastodon.
I’d at least encourage you to choose a server over at https://joinmastodon.org/, and create an account and have a poke around.
Just remember, any instance you join will very likely be privately run, so if you’re enjoying yourself, I suggest maybe making a donation towards server running costs for the admin!