Mastodon Is Not the Next Twitter: Why It Is a Different Beast

Written on 2022-11-19 • conversation

Mastodon1 is a mostly functional, digital social network. People have called it home for the past decade or so. Today, people are looking to this network as a refuge from twitter, hoping to escape from Elon Musk and find something similar on Mastodon. I believe that is naive. It is vastly different in scope, reach, population diversity and incentive structure compared to twitter–and that is by design.

Twitter has an incentive to have as many users as possible: the revenue model works better when it’s larger. It brings people from wildly different backgrounds together on a single platform. Mastodon groups2 almost have the opposite incentive: big enough to have conversations with like-minded people, but not so big it becomes too hard to manage. User banning decisions, group banning decisions3 or server maintenance and costs make it a complex operation for any reasonably-sized group admin to manage.

What happens when a Mastodon group admin decides to block a prominent political figure? Or when an admin of a bigger Mastodon group decides that you cannot communicate with the entire European Green Party group? Twitter can’t do that. It wouldn’t fly. But who holds the Mastodon admin accountable for these actions? Users who disagree might leave that group to join another and those who agree will stay. The filter bubbles4 on Mastodon are very real because you can block communication with entire groups of people you think you disagree with based on which group they joined–which I believe is the whole point of the Mastodon network. And that’s fine. Sailing the global sea of opinions is not for everyone.

I think we cannot compare the way accountability works on both networks. Twitter is a global melting pot, Mastodon is a local vegan restaurant. They are, and should be held to different accountability standards. If you can’t handle Elon, all you have to do is block his account. But don’t let some group admin make that choice for you.

1 More technical: Mastodon is a service that uses the ActivityPub network standard to speak with other servers that use the same standard. If you’re interested to learn more, there is an excellent Wikipedia article about Mastodon.

2 For simplicity, I call Mastodon instances groups. A Mastodon instance is the server you choose to sign up on. It’s essentially like picking an @gmail.com or @hotmail.com address. You can, most of the time, communicate with other people with an e-mail address that ends differently than your own e-mail address.

3 Also known as defederation.

4 Filter bubble as I intend it here is “isolation from conflicting views” which, ironically, is not what happens on the larger social networks. Although they do struggle with polarisation effects.

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