#110 What Is Mastodon?
How does it differ from Twitter?
Mastodon is the social network currently sweeping the tech world. In this episode, we'll explain what it is and how it differs from Twitter. Welcome to Copec Explained Software, the podcast where we make computing intelligible.Speaker B:
This week we're talking about Mastodon. Let's start with what is Mastodon?Speaker A:
Mastodon is an open source Federated social network. It was started in 2016, and in 2021, it was incorporated as a German nonprofit.Speaker B:
What do you mean by Federated?Speaker A:
Federated means that there's not just one central server. Instead, there are multiple servers that communicate with each other.Speaker B:
So if I had a Mastodon account, it would only exist on the one server?Speaker A:
That's actually true? Yes. When you register for an account with Mastodon, you register with one particular server within the Fedaverse, and then other Mastodon instances are able to transfer data to your Mastodon server and vice versa. So people on different Mastodon servers can follow one another, can communicate with one another, but your account exists only on one particular server.Speaker B:
Why is that good?Speaker A:
Well, different servers can have different content moderation policies, can have different rules. And also it means that it's hard to take the whole network down. Even if one particular server went down because of technical difficulties or because of legal issues, the other servers would still be up. So it's not like there's just one central point of failure like there is in the case of a Twitter or a Facebook.Speaker B:
Is that why Mastodon is so popular?Speaker A:
Mastodon's really grown in popularity a lot over the last couple of months as a result of all the controversial things that have been going on at Twitter. I don't really want to get into the politics or the details of the Twitter situation. I'm sure most listeners are aware of them, but basically, Elon Musk purchased Twitter in the year 2022, and a lot of people don't agree with the ways that he's been taking Twitter. Now a lot of people agree with it too. So I don't want to take a side one way or the other, but the people who are unhappy with the way Twitter has been going are a lot of the people who've been switching over to Mastodon.Speaker B:
So is there like, a mass exodus from Twitter? How big is Mastodon right now?Speaker A:
According to Mastodon's own statistics, in January 2023, mastodon has 1.5 million active monthly users.Speaker B:
Compare it to Twitter and Facebook.Speaker A:
Yeah, we've found some data that I'll link to in the show Notes from January 2022 that said that Twitter has 436,000,000 active users. It's probably more than that now, and that's probably true for all of these. These numbers usually only go up over time. Facebook has 2.9 billion monthly active users, and there are multiple Chinese social networks with more than 500 million monthly active users. So even with all this excitement about Mastodon and the tech community over the last couple of months, mastodon is still very, very tiny. Actually not even 1% the size of Twitter.Speaker B:
So how do Mastodon and Twitter differ from each other? Or what distinguishes it from Twitter?Speaker A:
Yeah, the user interface is actually pretty similar. So I've been using Mastodon myself the last couple of months alongside Twitter, and so I've really been able to see side by side how they compare. And I'd say what you're used to in Twitter, which is basically posting statuses, replying to other people's statuses, being able to message somebody else, having a profile, all those things exist in Mastodon. So in some ways, it looks a little bit like a Twitter clone. What really distinguishes it is more what's beneath the surface. And I'd say there's three important things that I want to go into. One is that it's open source. Two is that it's run by a nonprofit. And three is the Fediverse, which we started to discuss earlier.Speaker B:
So let's start with open source.Speaker A:
Yeah. So one of the big complaints about Twitter and other social networks is that we don't know how their algorithms work behind the scenes. For example, the algorithm that is behind the newsfeed and Facebook, or the algorithm that is behind the timeline in Twitter. That's what brings posts to your attention. And some people feel there are certain biases within those algorithms. There may be try to make you angry to get more engagement. Or maybe the algorithms are designed in such a way to just keep you on the site as long as possible to the detriment of the rest of your life. By being open source, we know exactly how the algorithms behind Mastodon work, and anybody can go and inspect them. So there's complete transparency here in terms of how your data is being used, in terms of how content is being presented to you. So I think that's a real positive for Mastodon. Next thing, Mastodon is run by a German nonprofit. And if you go look at their sponsorship page and their patreon page, not with a lot of money. It actually seems like less than $100,000 a month is actually going into funding this nonprofit that is the head of Mastodon. Although each of the individual servers are run by other entities, so the central nonprofit doesn't run all of the Federated servers. I'm not even sure if it runs any of the Federated servers. So that's a very different model. And by not having a profit motive, there might be less incentive on Mastodon to just keep people doom scrolling through social media posts forever. It more becomes a utility instead of just a way to capture people's attention and show them advertisements. In fact, because it's nonprofit, there are no advertisements on Mastodon, and this is.Speaker B:
How Mastodon markets itself. Is this alternative, less commercial experience.Speaker A:
Right. It's not about taking your data and selling it to advertisers. It's just about providing a social utility. And then I think this Fediverse point that we started getting into earlier is very important too. Because it really means that each individual Mastodon server can have its own personality and can also have its own policies for something that's allowed on one server might not be allowed on another. And this could include everything from not safe for work content to advertising type content. Like if you want to self promote to different kinds of hate speech. Some servers could be a free for all and other servers could say you know what, we're really not allowing this kind of content and users get to choose. This is the server that most matches my ideals, this is the server that most matches the kind of community that I want to be in. But at the same time, the servers are still interoperable with one another. I was reading a little bit about the history of Mastodon and a couple interesting points about talking about more freeforall networks and how they can be connected to Mastodon. There's two conservative networks. One is called Gab and it was actually built at one point as a fork of mastodon and it could intercommunicate with mastodon instances and some mastodon instances didn't like that. So they banned Gab from being connected to them. Because you have this multiparty system, you can actually have some party say, hey, I don't want to communicate with those parties. And you get to choose which server you want to be a part of. In fact Donald Trump's social network. Now, Truth social is also a Mastodon fork but not an interoperable one. But they're using some of the same source code as Mastodon. So they took some amassed on source code because it's under an open source license and we're able to reuse it as the basis for truth social. So those are the three points I think are really important and distinguish Mastodon from Twitter. It's open source, it's nonprofit and the Fedaverse.Speaker B:
So Mastodon is interoperable, which means that other networks or other things can access the feeds, is that right?Speaker A:
Yeah, that's true in two different ways. One cool thing about Mastodon is everyone's timeline. So their individual posts are actually published as an RSS feed. RSS is the same open standard that's used for publishing podcasts and blogs. So you can actually take a blog reader and subscribe to somebody's Mastodon feed, which I think is pretty cool. Another open standard that Mastodon supports is called activity pub. And this is a protocol for different social networks to actually be able to access one another's data. And so you could think of a non Mastodon social network actually being able to communicate with Mastodon through Activity Pub. An Activity Pub is an open standard that's actually being supported by the W three C, the Worldwide Web Consortium, the same folks who do a lot of the open web standards that we've talked about in previous episodes. So Macedon is truly open, that's pretty unique.Speaker B:
And as we think about ourselves as consumers of social networks, it's really nice to have some different kinds of options out there.Speaker A:
Absolutely. But we should talk about some of the downsides. So one thing is social networks have what's called the network effect, which is the more popular they get, the more valuable they are. It's going to take a while for massive on a snowball if it keeps growing the way it's growing, and become truly as valuable in the sense that all the people you want to talk to are on it. Within some niche communities, like within the tech community, they're it's already started to snowball and there's a lot of people to communicate with, but the folks you went to high school and college with, they might not yet be on Mastodon. And if you want to communicate with them, you're going to get a lot more value still out of using Facebook or Twitter, right? Because they're just not there on Nasodon. So that's one big downside. Another downside is this Fedaverse model doesn't always have as good search as a centralized server does. I've noticed this myself. When you're looking for something very in particular and you're searching on Mastodon, you'll get a pretty good search on your own server, but you might not always be able to reach every server instantly out there on the Fediverse network. So search is a little diminished. And the third thing is it doesn't have all of the advanced features that Twitter and Facebook have. For example, you can't do a live audio show like you can in Twitter spaces on Mastodon yet. Maybe you'll be able to do that in the future. But right now it doesn't have those kind of cutting edge features that Facebook and Twitter do. So there's still some downsides to Mastodon. The biggest one, again, is just that it's such a small network. Still 1.5 million people is not even the same ballpark as Twitter and Facebook. But people have to decide they want this for it to grow. And so I'd encourage everyone listening to try it out. Doesn't mean you have to stay if you try it and you don't like it or it doesn't add any value to your life. But I do think it's interesting. I'm personally not all in. I'm still using Twitter and Mastodon at the same time, but I'm interested to see where it goes. Do you think you're going to sign up for an account, rebecca I'm going.Speaker B:
To look into it. There might be some servers that I like.Speaker A:
All right, thanks for listening to us this week. How can people get in touch with us on Twitter?Speaker B:
We're at Copec explains K-O-P-E-C-E-X-P-L-A-I-N-S.Speaker A:
Thanks for listening, and we'll see you in two weeks. Bye.
Mastodon is a social network currently attracting significant buzz in the tech world. A lot of its new users are part of an exodus from Twitter. But how does Mastodon differ from Twitter? It's open source, run by a non-profit, and uses a federated model. We explain why this matters and some of its downsides in this episode.
- Mastodon on Wikipedia
- Most popular social networks worldwide as of January 2022 via statista
- Episode 71: How Does Facebook Make Money?
Follow us on Twitter @KopecExplains.
Theme “Place on Fire” Copyright 2019 Creo, CC BY 4.0
Find out more at http://kopec.live