I’ve already written a little bit about Mastodon (and Twitter) a few years back. Now, though, it seems like there is real interest in Mastodon, and I believe this will also expose interest in the larger Fediverse. That won’t be the subject of this post, though.
With all of this interest in Mastodon–whether that is genuine, or just because someone is looking for a Twitter replacement–is of little importance. There has also been a lot of confusion.
Most of the confusion comes from many people using centralized, commercial internet services, like FaceBook, Twitter, and TikTok for so long (or exclusively). On these services, you either download an app, or access a single website (“www.twitter.com”), register an account, and subsequently, use that account to sign in. Mastodon, on the other hand, is federated. Rather than running from one central site, Mastodon is made up of many separate servers acting as one.
You can think of a federated service much like the modern telephone network: no matter who your carrier is, you can still dial a phone number and connect with another phone, no matter which carrier provides it service. What many people have never experienced, is that much of the internet used to run this way.
IRC, NNTP, email, and even “the web” itself, are all really collections of servers giving the illusion of a single entity. (“NETSPLIT”, anyone?!?) Mastodon exposes this in the form of having to choose a server in which to initially register an account. Many words have been written about this, so, I won’t. Short version: just as it doesn’t really matter which email provider you have an account with, it largely doesn’t matter which Mastodon server you create an account with (kind of): you can still “see” all of Mastodon.
Now that I’ve had–and used!–an account for a few years, it’s been a wild ride to see the vibe change overnight. For me, my Mastodon feed went from a handful of posts a day–mostly about retro 8-bit computing and generative art, to, well, everything. I used to check my feed once-per-day, and now it’s tough to keep up.
This is both amazing and a little worrying, all at the same time. It’s a big change, and this is the case for all longtime Mastodon users. Change is sometimes scary, but all things change over time. It really does feel like the “scene” has shifted over to Mastodon. Certainly for InfoSec, and I’m seeing more and more Mac Devs and Mac Admins every day.
Remember that startup you joined, and it was 10 people? Everyone knew each other, there wasn’t much need for formal process, and you spoke face-to-face about issues without email or Slack. Then, some funding came in and more hiring started. It became 50 people–something a little different. The product started selling, so more hiring of Project Managers, Assistants, Product and Marketing. A new official IT department. Security. Now at 200 people. More formality (rightfully) creeps in. In another year, the company is at 600 people. It’s a different thing. By definition is has to be. It is unrecognizable from that time when the entire company could gather in one room, eat lunch, and talk about what’s next. It’s not necessarily bad, just different. Yet, some early employees dislike it because it’s too big now, and the resignations start. This company again becomes something a little different.
Never joined a startup? Ok…how about that conference that started up, and you attended in its first year: 40 attendees. (You see where this is going, right?) Over the years, more people hear about this amazing conference, and the organizers do want it to grow, so, the attendee cap goes up as well: 80 the next year, 250 the next year, until it’s a 600 person conference. It’s not bad, just different. The vibe completely changes when you can’t see everyone that you wanted to, and it may be difficult to get into a session.
That’s where we’re at with Mastodon. The vibe is changing as more people join and use the service. If you’re just joining, you should start in “tourist mode”: settle in, get the vibe, and understand the norms of this new-to-you place.
It’s a bit of a self-reinforcing issue: With more people joining, there will be more attention, which will cause more people to join, etc., etc. For now, many people are commenting on how using Mastodon feels like the early internet. They’re right! And why? Because it’s people powered. Right now, every post that I see is generated by a person, with no algorithm to re-order or choose which posts hit my timeline. There are no ads injected into the flow. This really is very much like IRC, Usenet, and other early internet social spaces. Will this change? To some extent, yes, of course! There are no celebrities yet (ok…this post was written over the course of a week, and in that timespan, we have the first few ‘celebrity’ accounts), no ads, very few brands, and you have to go out of your way to find bots. Yet, they’ll all show up in some form, sooner or later. Who/what will be the first million-follower account on Mastodon? Will we see commercial services start trying to federate? Will there be a horse_ebooks equivalent? Twitter certainly didn’t have this figured out in the early stages, either.
Figuring it out
If you were using Twitter very early on, you remember interacting with it mainly via SMS. Until somewhat recently, I actually still had one account that I followed that would generate an SMS message any time that they posted on Twitter. To send a direct message on Twitter, you would create a regular post, and start your message with a lowercase ‘d’. Calling a ‘post’ a “tweet” didn’t even exist yet! “@"-tagging someone? Didn’t exist. Nearly all early innovation on Twitter came from user/community developments and norms. I’d say that Mastodon and the community have some time to figure this all out.
In any case, if you’re on Mastodon, thank you/welcome/glad you’re going for the ride. If you aren’t yet, but are interested, there are plenty of people that would love to help you along, myself included. Hope to see you in the Fediverse!