About 4 min reading time

During November this year, Elon Musk took over as acting CEO of Twitter. It was a horrible event: it felt like the end of the world, and ideological users left or set up alternative social media accounts for themselves. It became totally normal to tweet your contact details with “Find me at X” (as I’ve would go through all those tweets and follow people on Instagram/Tumblr/what-have-you) like the service would shut down at any given time.

Now, the (Twitter) apocalypse didn’t come. It might still do, because Elon either kicked or caused thousands of employees to leave. But I think a non-trivial blow was caused against the OG social media giant, since people like me actually got off of their asses and created Mastodon accounts. I recommend skimming through the Wikipedia page for Mastodon (huh, it was started as recently as 2016, I didn’t know that).

I’ve loved Twitter from all the way since I joined in 2008. I recall my “final exam” project in high school was a Twitter client built in Java and Swing. Twitter has enriched my digital life with knowledge, joy, random banter, news, and true sense of “we” during major events. Sentimentally, like a big ol’ family. However, I’m totally aware of the problems of the platform when it comes to harassment and the likes. Also, I’ve heard the product itself (the web UI and mobile apps) isn’t among people’s favourite things to interact with. Non-linear timeline, suggestions, seeing tweets from people you don’t follow, ads, etc. etc. I’ve had non of that, since I’ve used the Tweetbot clients for Mac and iOS for years. That’s how I’ve kept sane during all this time. I urge you to try out a 3rd party client too.

Speaking of 3rd party clients leads me into this interesting topic: openness and ownership. At certain points in time, Twitter took measures in severely limiting their 3rd party APIs so that app developers couldn’t provide all the features you’d get with Twitter’s own apps. This sucks for us users, obviously, but from a bUsIneSs pErSpEctIvE it makes sense: Twitter is a public company with obligations to their shareholders. I get that. (Even though they still don’t do well financially.) In Mastodon world (“the fediverse” — Federated Universe), this could never happen, because there’s not a single entity in control over the APIs. For an “internet enthusiast” as myself, steeped in 90s/00s open software culture and with a gradual dissatisfaction with centralised companies in Silicon Valley owning my shit, Mastodon is really lovely.

Mastodon is:

  • open source, so you can fork the source code and run it on your on server
  • maintained by a German non-profit (not an American organisation for once! *tears of joy)
  • ad-free, backed by supporters
  • Supporting W3C’s ActivityPub protocol for talking with other services
  • decentralised, anybody can boot up their own Mastodon instance and connect to the “federation”

The last point is of course not something regular users will do. This quote comes to mind:

People don’t want to run their own servers, and never will.

Moxie Marlinspike

This is just an implementation detail, but I like that you can do this. But I won’t. Instead, I trust the instance I’m registered to at the moment. But if I wanted to, I could just take my stuff and migrate to another instance. This is really important, since it lowers the anxiety of picking an instance when you sign up (they should front this more in the onboarding).

The “how to pick an instance” part of Mastodon is probably their biggest UX challenge at the moment. I’m at Hachyderm, which is run by a great engineer at GitHub. The instance is well maintained and has sane server rules. How did I find it? Via @mislav on Twitter, in his good intro thread to Mastodon.

I’m kind of torn on the subject of “Twitter vs Mastodon”. One one hand, I love the hacker ethics of Mastodon. On the other hand, I love the original attitudes of Twitter and my timeline. I don’t want Twitter to fail per se, but at the same time, I’m happy that Mastodon got an influx of users during the Elon Musk takeover. But the takeover was, to me, completely unnecessary. They did not have to sell to Musk. Now, a month later, a bunch of great engineers — some of the best in the world — have left the company. Twitter may have suffered from the ordinary big-co Silicon Valley bullshit when it comes to policies, investors, management, and so on, but I’ve heard their engineering team is really, really great. So I’m sad for them having to leave their work and code due to the rich asshole barging in.

Now when the dust has settled a bit after the Twitter doomsday frenzy, I appreciate Mastodon a lot. It’s so cosy checking out my timeline there, since it feels like Twitter felt in the beginning, before the harsh reality of profit making got on them. The hacker feel of the system also brings out nostalgia. Even though I’ve been guarded from most of Twitter’s bad product decisions thanks to the aforementioned choice of 3rd party clients, the feel of Mastodon is something special. Maybe it’s just a feel of starting over. But it creates a fuzzy feeling knowing that the project is based on attitudes and philosophies I can get behind. Does it have the same reach and scale as Twitter? Of course not, that’s not the goal. Most Twitter users whose tweets I enjoy the most are on Mastodon anyway. Is it annoying checking two apps? A bit, yes, but the content also vary in that Mastodon posts (“toots”) feels more well written and have higher quality.

Mastodon certainly isn’t perfect. It surely has or will have its problems and scandals or whatnot. We’ll see. For now though, I’m just happy to have discovered a new project and technology I like for myself.

Now I’m just waiting for Tapbot’s Ivory client to land…

(I’m @[email protected] on Mastodon by the way!)