With Twitter on the brink, users try to domesticate Mastodon – with mixed success

Millions of Twitter users continue to flock to an alternative Mastodon social platform to see if and how it is different. While many think it’s preaching a new kind of microblogging, others are not impressed – to them, Mastodon is precisely too old-school.

As chaos reigns at Twitter, and its new owner Elon Musk even raises the possibility of bankruptcy, it’s highly likely users will simply have to choose a new microblogging platform – the old one might be transformed out of existence soon enough.

There are quite a few alternatives. But some, like Mastodon, stand out as more interesting options. And yet, many Mastodon newbies admit they’re confused about the platform: even if it looks like Twitter, it’s also different and, for some, a tad too difficult to use.

“We've been trying to pick a new social media platform to restart our social media marketing efforts on, and we've abandoned the idea of using Mastodon entirely,” Allia Luzong, editor at the “A Little Bit Human” magazine, admitted to Cybernews.

Others, though, remain optimistic they will get the handle of Mastodon. Many new users of the platform sincerely want to learn the ropes – and quickly – because Twitter is simply not an option for them anymore.

Lesley Carhart, the Director of Incident Response for North America at the industrial cybersecurity company Dragos, who already has around 5,000 followers on Mastodon, already saw her circle of fellow cybersecurity professionals quickly expand.

Professionalism will follow

Mastodon is a microblogging site that a German programmer Eugen Rochko began creating in 2016, dissatisfied with Twitter. The platform continues to bill itself as a network “not for sale” – a site where people build communities and moderate themselves.

In many ways, the two platforms are quite similar. Like Twitter, Mastodon allows users to share a few sentences of text and photos, follow each other, and like the posts of other users.

But that’s where it gets complicated. Twitter and Facebook are controlled by a single authority – a company, but Mastodon, named after an extinct breed of mammoth, is installed on thousands of computer servers.

The servers, called “instances,” are largely run by volunteer administrators who join their systems together in a “federation.” That’s what Rochko wanted – a public sphere beyond the control of a single entity.

That means that no company or person – a Musk type, for example – can impose their will on the system as a whole or shut it down altogether. Besides, the huge number of servers have many content administrators who can easily censor extremism and hate speech.

The idea is now paying off – in a way. There are over six million Mastodon accounts, growing by half a million a week, and although these numbers still pale in comparison to Twitter’s 238 million daily active users (DAU) and Facebook’s 1.98 billion DAU, it’s only the beginning.

Mastadon. Image by Shutterstock.

Besides, more and more brands are picking Mastodon up – even if the platform still seems a bit helter-skelter, potential corporate sponsors might bring more money in, which should potentially increase the quality of service.

“Costs will rise quickly with the exponential adoption I'm seeing, and with that will come corporate sponsors and increased professionalism of the service, somewhat like what Gmail did for email,” William Gunn, who runs communications at Quora, a social question-and-answer website, told Cybernews.

“Of course, journalists and other writers will always want to be where the biggest audience is, and they'll need that increased professionalism of service.”

“Makes you feel special”

Gunn also said he didn’t find it too difficult to use Mastodon, even though most complaints are related to usability issues.

“I was able to just pick it up and start using it right away with minimal learning required. You do have to pick a server, but it's not a hugely impactful decision. Just join one of the popular ones, and you can switch to another one if you want,” Gunn said.

Unlike on Twitter, users can edit posts, use customized emoticons, and enable an option to auto-delete posts. There’s also a 500-character limit. And the troubling changes at Twitter have pushed many to try out the alternative.

“All of these changes at Twitter made me want to take a look at Mastodon by myself. First thing I have to say is, despite all the obvious similarities in both design and operation, Mastodon and Twitter differ tremendously in terms of functionality,” Garrett Yamasaki, Chief Executive Officer and founder of WeLoveDoodles, a website dedicated to dogs, told Cybernews.

Yamasaki, as many others, especially likes the idea of Mastodon’s servers, or “instances,” because he enjoys the idea of selecting the server he feels most comfortable in while retaining access to a larger network.

“I really like this 'my server, my rules' thing that Mastodon offers users since, unlike Twitter, where all rules apply to everyone, every server in Mastodon is a whole different world and the community has its own sets of rules, which truly makes you feel special,” Yamasaki told Cybernews.

“It's true that the user interface is a little overwhelming and confusing at first and that you'll find servers occasionally going down due to the high number of users migrating to the platform every day. But I still think Mastodon can be as huge as other famous social networks, especially if people continue migrating from Twitter and it doesn't end on a simple passing fad.”

Threats to leave may not materialize

Apparently, though, the aforementioned user interface confuses many – if not too many. It really is harder to find people to follow in Mastodon’s system, and it takes way too much time.

The nature of the platform actually pushed Allia Luzong away. “Decentralized nature of Mastodon makes it unappealing since it leaves communities mostly isolated in their own little bubbles. Also, it's kind of hard to go viral and pass on your business by word of mouth on a platform that's resistant to it,” she told Cybernews.

“What’s happening now is definitely a wake-up call for many microbloggers, so that they can start exploring other platforms, but I wouldn’t write off Twitter just yet,”

Max Kraynov

Of course, the so-called Twitter migrants should probably not hope to recreate the exact same experience – it’s only natural for an alternative platform to be a bit different. However, some say many users will still come back to Twitter.

Max Kraynov, the Group Chief Executive Officer of FunCorp, a mobile entertainment app development company, told Cybernews he thought many threats to leave Twitter for good might be exaggerated.

“I’ve been on a company side – albeit on a smaller scale – when something similar happened to one of my previous businesses. What actually happened is that more than 90% of people who publicly threatened to leave stayed and kept using the product. As long as the value to the author remains or even increases, most threats turn out to be empty,” Kraynov said.

What’s more, according to him, it is entirely possible that after the changes Musk is trying to implement – however erratically – the users, who left Twitter long ago precisely due to its content moderation and amplification policies, will come back.

“What’s happening now is definitely a wake-up call for many microbloggers, so that they can start exploring other platforms, but I wouldn’t write off Twitter just yet,” Kraynov said.

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Apple to spend $450m on emergency satellite texting

EU aims for a block-wide cyber defense to fend off Russia

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