My first thought about Mastodon’s app was that it looks like a nicely designed game.
The second was that it seemed quite overwhelming.
The third was “why is my email confirmation link not going through?”
The last point was quickly explained when, 10 hours later, I got the link and was able to log in. Mastodon was having technical issues, its developers “tweeting” (Mastodon speaks for tweets) early Tuesday.
Hundreds of thousands of users have joined the platform since Elon Musk took over Twitter. His reign so far has been characterized by mass layoffs and a series of changes to content moderation and the vetting process. Reports also emerged that Musk was considering putting all of Twitter behind a paywall.
Mastodon itself is a decentralized open-source network which, according to its website, comes with no algorithm or advertising and does not sell user data. On its website, it describes itself as “radically different social media, back in the hands of the people.”
User reports, however, show that the network is not without problems.
Twoots, servers and fedivers
Twoots isn’t the only complicated part of Mastodon.
To create a Mastodon account, you first need to choose a server – the source of my initial feeling of overwhelm. Some of the questions I had were: What are servers? What do they mean for users? How are you supposed to choose?
Some research helped. Servers, also called “instances”, are actually mini-networks or communities. Their name becomes part of your username (in my case, @email@example.com), they all have different rules, and some require you to address them. They are centered on topics such as art, living or being from a certain country, musical genres and more.
Anyone can set up a server and then control it – you can moderate the content or even delete it. However, you can communicate with each other. Mastodon calls this configuration “federated”. They are also part of the “fediverse”, or “fedi” for short – which simply means the sum of all servers.
Content across the fedivers can be found on the “federated timeline”, while the two from your home server can be accessed via the “local timeline”. The home page only displays content from people you follow.
Anne Bailey, director of search strategy at cybersecurity analytics firm KuppingerCole, said that made it difficult for the network to gain and retain users.
“Mastodon still looks too technical for the standard user, which will cause adoption issues,” she told CNBC’s Make It.
The user experience isn’t entirely smooth either. Twoots complaining that images, videos and messages are not loading or are delayed have increased – an issue that Mastodon developers have attributed to increased activity on the platform.
The login button in the app always takes me to the registration server page. When I was able to log in, Mastodon opened in my phone’s browser rather than the app. On my desktop, the website often refuses to accept my username and password, even when they are correct.
Mastodon did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment on this article.
Stronger sense of community and more control
Long-term users praise the app for making it easy to build a community, having open and friendly chats without piling up, and the autonomy it gives to hosts and server members.
User autonomy is particularly tied to the decentralized nature of Mastodon, according to Nishanth Sastry, research director in the Department of Computing at the University of Surrey.
“Decentralization means that users are not beholden to the whims of a platform and its owners (like Twitter/Musk or Facebook/Zuckerberg). They can decide what they are comfortable with – for example, if an instance wants to ban Trump, it can,” he said.
This brings another advantage – user data is not accessible or controlled by a large organization, Sastry added.
Diana Zulli, an assistant professor at Purdue University whose research focuses on media and technology, made the same point.
“Mastodon is a great example of how you can have a thriving social media network while avoiding some of the negative aspects of corporate social media such as monitoring user activity, selling user data and centralized control,” she said.
But Mastodon is not without risks – choosing a server can lead to longer-term problems, said Gareth Tyson, a computer science researcher at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“The person running the server you’ve chosen may be low on money and need to shut down, or they may have very different perspectives on moderation practices than the ones you desire,” he said. .
There are also wider risks associated with the open source nature of Mastodon – anyone can access and replicate the software it is running on, regardless of their intentions. The white supremacist group Gab, for example, uses parts of Mastodon’s software.
Could it really replace Twitter?
Experts are still divided on whether Mastodon will replace Twitter. Tyson says his growth makes him promising.
“It already has a very active user base. Thousands of servers already exist and they are growing day by day. At the very least, I see Mastodon can become a clear competitor in the next 12 months,” said- he declared.
Zulli added that Mastodon would likely benefit from its similarities to Twitter. “Because Mastodon replicates many features of Twitter, it can be (and is) a welcoming haven for those who are dissatisfied with Twitter,” she said.
Others, including Bailey, argue that Mastodon needs to undergo changes before it becomes widely used.
“Being a real alternative to Twitter will take massive momentum,” she said. “Some might find Mastodon still seems a bit technical. Adoption would require an easy-to-use app for the broad masses.”
As for me, I haven’t quite decided how much I will use Mastodon. The development of Twitter could play a role, as well as what my friends and colleagues ultimately do with their social media usage. For now, I’ll continue to get to know the app, but I won’t delete my Twitter account.
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