Twitter is in turmoil and Mastodon is the next social media thing – maybe.
But, if you are a brand or influencer, should you make the leap to Mastodon?
… and can it help you?
If you don’t get started with Mastodon today, you can always start tomorrow. This isn’t urgent (Mostly…there are some near-term possibilities that may go away). You can set up a personal or business account. You can move it around. Play with the platform. See if you like it and if it works for you.
Watch and see if Mastodon takes off and you want to get more serious about its possibilities.
But first, some bad news.
The (big) bad news
Mastodon won’t give you explosive discoverability and virality for you or your content.
Our modern, major social media companies have been accelerating away from creating extended “social networks” towards delivering algorithmic “social content discovery” – feeding our feeds to maximize action and stimulation…
We’ve become addicted to the dopamine hit of our “likes” and “follows”
….both as creators and consumers.
Mastodon doesn’t deliver that. It is old school. It is simple. It is a federated social network platform. If it becomes successful, it is likely to remain so for a long time.
There is real power in being the home of a person’s “social graph” (as Facebook once knew).
There are some other risks and downsides for Mastodon which I’ll cover later.
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a network of independent, interlinked servers which host microblog users and posts that other users can comment on or repost (https://joinmastodon.org/).
Alternatively, imagine if Internet Relay Chat and early WordPress had a baby and were given a 21st-century interface (and a more sophisticated backend messaging system based on ActivityPub – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ActivityPub – and WebFinger- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WebFinger)
Discoverability and Virality – Mastodon Style
Unlike a traditional blog, Mastodon content is distributed and discovered via time-sorted feeds as well as limited search:
- The Main feed of those you follow and other posts they “boost” (share).
- A Local feed for all the posts and re-posts from users on the server where your account lives.
- A Federated feed of the latest posts from all the servers and accounts which are connected to your local host.
- Hashtag search – search based on #hashtag markers which users add to their posts
- User/Profile search – by account name (@accountname@server) or handle (“Whatever You Want”) which isn’t necessarily unique.
Likes, Favorites, Bookmarks, Clicks, and Views – aren’t a factor in Mastodon’s feeds or search results.
And time marches on, so old posts just get old unless they are boosted or republished.
Getting old sucks in Mastodon.
If you want to play the social media fame game of follows and likes, you are going to have to do the work yourself. Connect with others. Deliver content (hopefully valuable, and repeatedly, but not so much that you annoy people).
NOTE for Twitter Refugees: There are several tools to allow you to export your Twitter Followers/Follows into Mastodon if they happen to have an account – see the Resources section at the end of this article.
Hashtag Search Engine Optimization (HSEO)
As a lot of people don’t regularly use hashtags because of convenience, there is the potential to drive visibility with aggressive and consistent use of hashtags. This is probably going to play out like meta tags on web pages and be abused quickly – but still survive in the long term because it is convenient. It will be curious to see when or if full text search across servers arrives.
Social Media Sovereignty – Mastodon and Rented Land
One of the good things about the federated open-source model is that you can host your own Mastodon server, even if it is just for yourself (there are a couple of service providers now and I’m sure we’ll see an avalanche of these offerings from ISPs in the coming weeks and months).
This has a lot of potential. You can ensure that you aren’t banned (see the Dangers below) and can also host and manage a community (or your organization or business) as you see fit.
The Mastodon Application Ecosystem – not yet (and this is a problem)
It is very early days for value-added services for Mastodon. There is an API and the source code is available, so, if you are up to it, you can do what you want (it is written in Ruby and PostgreSQL, though there are API libraries for a number of other languages – https://docs.joinmastodon.org/client/libraries/).
There isn’t (yet) a market for plugins and themes (as with WordPress), so you are going to have to roll your own. It could be exciting to see how this evolves with value-added components both for individual users and server operators.
Full-text search is available on a server-by-server basis (if you run your own server) and you can tunnel Mastodon over Tor.
Features that it would be great to see (please contact me as these and others are implemented):
Webhooks and Zapier Integration – to connect Mastodon more easily to other services, for example, if someone registers on your Mastodon server, they get added to an email list.
Closed Communities – where user posts do not necessarily get distributed beyond their host
Encrypted Posts – only accessible to authorized users (though this would likely require a whole security infrastructure for identity and cryptography).
Individual User and Server Themes
User, Administrator, and Server Plugins
RSS feeds – by user, server, search term, hashtags – this could allow alternately structured access to information. RSS feeds focus on sources and content type, followed by time, while the standard social feed is primarily “time” based (or the algorithm of the provider).
What is your overall social media strategy and how does Mastodon fit in it?
As I noted at the top, you can set up an account and get a feel for the platform today and there is no real penalty as you can move your connections (but not your posts) to another server (including your own).
Own Your Mastodon Presence – You can fairly easily setup yourself or your organization with your own Mastodon server. It is not a big investment and does allow you to “own” your presence in the service. If you’ve run a modern website, you probably can run a Mastodon server.
If you have access to developer skills, you can customize your server to do what you want (re-post, customize visitor’s experience, create a chat bot, link with AI since everyone else is doing that this week, …)
Because it is a social network, hosting an online group in Mastodon is naturally “leaky” – content from your group will be shared to the Federated timeline as well as to the followers of the users on your site.
This gives a different, low barrier to sharing content to others – no need to click ”share” as your affinity group’s followers will see what your group members are up to.
Gateway Community / Fan Club – there are plenty of excellent membership community platforms. Mastodon has nothing on any of them – except that it is naturally “permeable” to non-members. Thus, a Mastodon server can help gracefully pull non-members into your community and amplify your content through your members.
NOTE: There is an interesting opportunity while Mastodon is relatively small to create “affinity servers” around broad topics that people self-identify with (e.g., plumbers.social).
Classic Social Community – why not host a social community for all of the traditional community reasons – your extended family, pickleball league, neighborhood association, etc. (or provide a service to host these types of communities)? It is what people used to use social networks for and a shared platform for members that also is open to people from other servers is pretty perfect.
… and finally some more bad news
If Mastodon gets popular, it is likely going to start having all of the abuse problems we’ve had elsewhere, but without someone to blame or hold accountable:
- Banning and account theft
- Protecting Kids
Spam – Efficient global(ish) content distribution will, no doubt, lead to spam and worse. It is likely that white list/black list systems will wind up being established (there is already filtering by server, but with more and more servers, this is going to be harder to manage).
Harassment – The directory system looks like it is public which may make targeting people a big problem (there is still the ability to control who you see and allow to follow you but the lack of control of identity may make it easier to circumvent those controls).
Banning accounts or account theft. You live at the discretion of your host server administrators. They can do what they will with your account. As many current servers are volunteer operations, things may get exciting.
Protecting Kids. As there is no control over how accounts are issued, business liability concerns such as targeting minors is also going to be a problem. You are going to be responsible and you won’t be able to transfer liability to Mastodon.
Open Social Networks or another generation of proprietary platforms – or both?
Blogs and podcasts were built on the backbone of open technology (RSS). The open standards for Social Networks haven’t really taken off. WordPress came to lead and dominate the market of blog platforms by providing a stable, free, open-source platform with a vibrant market for tools and services on top of it.
So far, we’ve had a small number of leading social network platforms with modest opportunities to develop value-added businesses and a large number of proprietary community platforms. Open standards have had little impact.
Mastodon, or someone else (or even a Mastodon fork), may have a chance to bridge that gap.
Resources and References
Getting Started on Mastodon
Mastodon Help – https://mastodon.help/ – a good overview of what Mastodon is, how it works, and what to do with it.
A beginner’s guide to Mastodon, the open source Twitter alternative – https://techcrunch.com/2022/11/08/what-is-mastodon/
How to search on Mastodon: Everything you need to know – https://nerdschalk.com/how-to-search-on-mastodon-everything-you-need-to-know/ – a good article on finding your way around.
Instances Directory – https://mastodon.help/instances/en
Trunk – https://communitywiki.org/trunk– help you jump start connecting with people and topics
Fedi.Directory – https://fedi.directory/ – curated list of accounts to follow in different areas.
instances.social – https://instances.social/ – help you find an instance to join
Help for Your Twitter Transition
Fedifinder – https://fedifinder.glitch.me/ – find and connect with your Twitter network on the Mastodon network.
Debirdify – https://debirdify.pruvisto.org/ – help you find the people you follow on Twitter on Mastodon
Mastodon Hosting Providers
From Mastodon – https://docs.joinmastodon.org/user/run-your-own/
Roll your own server on AWS – https://github.com/widdix/mastodon-on-aws