Migrating from the bird to the elephant?

Mastodon, and sites like that, are part of the federated universe, what the original internet was supposed to be – a bunch of servers, interlinked and interoperable – that cater to different interests and needs

Harini CalamurUpdated: Saturday, November 19, 2022, 04:09 AM IST
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Named after an extinct elephant, Mastodon is the social networking site that everyone is talking about.

I joined Mastodon in 2019. It was a quiet and sleepy place. Multilingual. With mostly tech conversations. Extremely polite. And terribly boring. It also felt that I had gone back 30 years to newsgroups and discussion boards – with the same level of complexity to access and interact. I kept my account, visited occasionally – but continued on the Twitter, as it descended into worse behaviour. When Musk took over, I checked out my account on Mastodon – it was still there. Operating it had become simpler. And in the intervening years, a community had sprung up and talked about things more than tech.

Mastodon, and sites like that, are part of the federated universe, what the original internet was supposed to be – a bunch of servers, interlinked and interoperable – that cater to different interests and needs. Moderated, with a set of rules — in short, self-governing communities, rather than a centralised oligarch who made up the rules as they went along. They are not start-ups. They don’t have customer acquisition targets. They don’t have to make the sites edgy and toxic to get more people to enrol. They are not-for-profits, run as a passion for community. And they do maintain community standards.

One of the first few posts that I read when I got back was about an entire instance (a specific server with shared interests/geography) getting banned by the fediverse because its members were being racist, and its moderators doing nothing about it. For someone who has spent the best part of the last 15 years on Twitter, and seen the platform get increasing more abusive and vile, this was like a balm.

The first thing you need to understand about being on Mastodon is that you cannot be rude or racist or bigoted. You cannot abuse or be vile. It is not about the views you hold; it is about the way you express them. And, that does not make it left wing, though there may be a fair few from the left there. It means it is grown up. Mastodon does not tolerate ‘bullying’. The point is that in real life random people don’t stop us on the street to yell expletives at us, for the views we hold. Nor are there real-life troll farms that unleash mobs on us – on a daily basis – to shout us down. There is no reason for us to accept that in the virtual world. In real life, we live in a moderated world – with laws, and cops, and rules. There are things we can and cannot do. There are rules concerning behaviour. Associated with this are tools like content warnings (CW). It you are going to post very edgy content for example graphic details of murder or rape – then you would put a CW on it, so as to not trigger those who may be impacted by it. Many of the instances suggest that you label politics with CW, so that it doesn’t end up being a free-for-all slugfest.

So, if a moderated virtual world is somewhere you think you will be comfortable – then you may want to check out Mastodon. The first thing you need to do to get on to Mastodon is to find an instance or a server. I am part of mastodon.social. But there are other more specific servers. Eg.

·       Hci.social – that is inhabited by people who talk about human computer interactions;

·       genomic.social – people from the Genomic Science Community

·       journa.host – primarily journalists

·       mathstodon.xyz – for maths people

·       med-mastodon.com – primarily the medical community

and so on. Right now, I am not sure anyone knows how many such servers/instances there are. You can find many of them through instances.social. Many are open to join. Others need an invite. In yet others, you may need to tell the moderator why you want to be a part of it. On your own timeline, you will have a home button, that is the feed of all those you follow irrespective of the instance. And, then there is the local button, which is what people in your instance are talking about, irrespective of whether you are following them. And, there is the federated timeline, a cacophony of languages, topics, and interests across the open fediverse.

You can also follow groups, via a.gup.pe. I follow the books group, and the academic chatter group, without following everyone on it. It makes for a fascinating discovery of content, of views, and of the diversity that exists in the world.

Mastodon is not a Twitter clone. It is a nice place, not drive by algorithms that drive bad behaviour, rather it is a community that wants to get us talking. In many ways it is like the early days of Twitter where you could exchange ideas and have conversations with a diverse group of people without mass abuse and bullying.

Would I recommend it? I was going to pay $8 to Twitter for being able to stave of the bots and the fakes. Instead, I have paid up $10 a month to keep Mastodon running. So, yes if you want to have conversations come over. If you want to rant at others, twitter might be a better place. I will continue on Twitter – it is a familiar space, where I know many people. But Mastodon has become the first site I check in the morning.

The writer works at the intersecton of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur

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