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Mastodon Monday! Some thoughts on the new social network

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In the wake of multiple reports of Twitter failing to curb harassment, I’ve been hungry to find a decent social network alternative. So last month, like thousands of others, I dove back into the new social network Mastodon to see if it might fit the bill. So how’s it gone so far?

Overall, I dig Mastodon! The default interface is pretty reminiscent of Tweetdeck, which is familiar enough. The community vibe is great — as is often the case with a new social network, folks are cheery and happy to be poking around, willing to be a bit more goofy and earnest than they sometimes are on Twitter. The biggest usability knock against Mastodon right now is its system of servers or “instances,” which takes a little effort to wrap your head around. So let’s get that out of the way first…

Mastodon is actually a set of software tools rather than a centralized social network. So different people can run their own “instance” of Mastodon the same way folks can install and run their own WordPress blogs. You can generally follow anyone on Mastodon regardless of what instance you or they have registered with. But when you join Mastodon, you’re actually joining a single instance of Mastodon, which is administered by the folks who set it up.

You need to put a little thought into choosing your instance. The administers of each instance set their own rules, so if you want a Nazi-free environment, make sure to read the terms of the instance to make sure of its policies. And it’s worth considering the fact that if the administrators of your instance get bored or overwhelmed and abandon the service, that instance might get deleted and your posts and contacts could vanish. (I’ve found tools that let you export your follow/block/mute lists, but not your posts. I’ll update if I discover a way to do this.)

I joined the mastodon.social instance, which is run by Eugen Rochko, aka Gargron, the developer of Mastodon. I figure that instance will probably be around as long as Mastodon itself exists. And mastodon.social has a strong anti-harassment and anti-Nazi policy that seems to be enforced.

If you just want to use Mastodon as a Twitter alternative, now all you need to do is follow a bunch of people and start posting. The posts of people you follow will end up in your “Home” column and their posts and follows to you will show up in your “Notifications” column. But Mastodon also gives you a “Local Timeline,” which shows all the posts of everyone in your instance, even if you’re not following them directly. And it gives you a “Federated Timeline,” which shows you all the posts of everyone that people in your instance follow. In practice, the “Local Timeline” is pretty cool for small instances, like comicspace.masto.host, which only has 257 users right now. But the Federated timeline can be overwhelming, particularly for big instances like mastodon.social, which has 116,000 users.

My advice? If the “Local” and “Federated” timelines confuse or bother you? Ignore ’em! Otherwise, poke into ’em from time to time to find new users to follow or conversations to join.

The next question you’ll probably have is whether you need to join multiple instances. Many of us comics people initially joined mastodon.social — you can find me there at mastodon.social/@gregpak. But then folks started the comicspace.masto.host instance, which is moderated by @ladyvader99 and Ken Lowery. I joined that instance as well and I like popping in there to see what’s going on. But I do most of posting from my mastodon.social account, where I have the most followers. I don’t love the fact that you can’t register a single username with some central Mastodon authority and use it globally across all instances — that would make the whole experience much simpler than having multiple usernames and logins. (This one issue may be what keeps Mastodon from ever getting the kind of mass influx of users that could make it a real Twitter killer. For now, I’m not letting it bother me too much — I’m just using the service in a way that makes sense for me and enjoying it.)

Onward to bullet points!

WHAT I WANT FROM A SOCIAL NETWORK AND HOW MASTODON STACKS UP

1. Strong, enforced anti-harassment and anti-Nazi policies

The instances I’ve joined at Mastodon have such policies, which is fantastic. But it’s worth noting that each instance is run by private administrators who may or may not have the long-term time or ability to enforce their policies. Harassers can be very effective at dog-piling and overwhelming when they put their mind to it. But at least administrators can declare their policies and have the tools to enforce them. And if a bunch of harassers are coming from a specific instance, administrators can block that entire instance. For what it’s worth, right now the vibe at the instances I’m part of is great.

2. Twitter-like layout with a timeline of many short posts rather than a Facebook-like timeline of longer, blog-like posts.

Mastodon delivers here. The posts can be up to 500 characters, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming at all. Mostly seeing quick, short posts.

3. Strictly chronological timeline — most recent posts appearing first.

Yes! Thank you!

4. Decent interface, usability.

It’s fine, particularly if you’ve ever used Tweetdeck before. If you want a more Twitter-like interface, you can log into halcyon.social with your Mastodon username and you’ll get a very familiar layout. For iOS, I’m using Tootdon, which is fine.

Here's what my mastodon.social account looks like when I log in via halycon.social. Pretty familiar, huh? Some glitches, still -- including the note encouraging me to follow myself. :-) But not bad!

Here’s what my mastodon.social account looks like when I log in via halycon.social. Pretty familiar, huh? Some glitches, still — including the note encouraging me to follow myself. 🙂 But not bad!

5. Privacy and security.

My biggest caveats about Mastodon right now involve privacy, security, and long term viability. Since the instances are run by private individuals/administrators, there’s no global control over privacy and security. Depending on your perspective, you could see this as a bonus. But I’m unclear on whether administrators have the ability to view private messages, for example, so I’m not using that feature at all. (I’ll update this later if I learn more about how private messages work.)

I also can’t find a button to delete my account. Presumably, I could delete all my individual posts. But that could take a loooong time, depending on how much I’ve been using the system. And if I’ve joined multiple instances, I’d have to repeat the process for each instance. [UPDATE: Mastodon user slipstream has notified me that you CAN delete your account — go to Settings > Security and there’s a link at the bottom of the page!]  One good thing — I was worried whether deleting a post in my instance would also delete its retweets or “boosts” in other instances. But I just tested it, and deleting a post seems to delete it across instances, which is great.

6. Tons of people.

Here’s where Mastodon suffers. Lots of people signed up in April when the service got its first big wave of publicity, and a bunch more signed up last month when Twitter made a few big harrassment-related mistakes. But right now my Mastodon timeline feels pretty slow. Come play!

7. Other wing-dings like the ability to display gifs & video.

Mastodon doesn’t currently play gifs automatically, and it doesn’t have a built-in gif selector. Gifs are fun, so that’s unfortunate, but not a dealbreaker. [UPDATE: Eugen contacted me on Mastodon to let me know that gifs CAN autoplay — you just have to enable that in Preferences!]

Mastodon also doesn’t display a preview of pages you link to or playable videos. Again, it makes things a bit less fun and less likely to get clicked on or shared. But not a dealbreaker at the moment.

Mastodon doesn’t allow for quote-tweeting, which is something that I’ve gotten accustomed to using on Twitter. But I just did a quick Q&A on Mastodon and used the good 0ld fashioned manual RT method to show the questions, which is fine for now.

OKAY, SOUNDS COOL. WHO SHOULD I FOLLOW?

Glad you asked! Lots of fun comics people and writers are goofing around on Mastodon right now — here are just a few pretty active folks to get ya started! (I’ll add to this over time.)

Steve Lieber – https://comicspace.masto.host/@stevelieber

Trungles – https://mastodon.social/@Trungles

Wendy Xu – https://mastodon.social/@angrygirLcomics

John Scalzi – https://mastodon.social/@scalzi

Chuck Wendig – https://mastodon.social/@chuckwendig

Amy Chu – https://mastodon.social/@AmyChu

 

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