Mastodon Is the Dreamwidth of Twitter

Here we go again. Twitter is once again being awful and clueless—to the point of paralysis—about it now being the last safe harbour for online harassers, trolls, Nazis and other bad actors, and a good chunk of its user base is sufficiently fed up about it to threaten a mass walkout.

But walking away from Twitter is difficult, because social media is pervasive and addictive for a reason: it solves a problem. Human beings crave connection, and social media makes connections practically frictionless. Problem is, it’s pretty damn hard for users to connect when they’re subjected to torrents of abuse and harassment by bad actors, especially when Twitter not only refuses to deal with said bad actors, but seems to think that the existence of abuse and harassment is a feature rather than a bug.

Okay, so what about switching to another social media platform, one that doesn’t seem quite so keen on deep-throating Nazis? Apart from the questionable logic that the solution to social media problems is even more social media, other platforms are either problematic in their own right (Facebook), irrelevant (Google+, Tumblr, the new social platform of the week that gets the same few early adopters at launch, such as Ello or Vero), or Instagram.

And then there’s Mastodon, a decentralized, open-source and surprisingly well-designed alternative to Twitter that has measures to combat toxic behaviour built into its design. I’m on Mastodon. I like it. But in the same way that Dreamwidth is not the solution to LiveJournal, Mastodon is not the solution to Twitter.1

Part of the reason for that is the usual faff about network effects and first-mover advantage. New social networks come and go all the time; they’re not going to get anywhere in the face of established players if they don’t offer something both better and unique. Google+ being like Facebook, but not like Facebook wasn’t enough. Twitter but without the Nazis, sadly, won’t be either. It’s not enough to be a better execution of the exact same thing.

Part of the reason is that setting up a Mastodon server—an “instance” in Mastodon parlance—is computationally expensive: social media, it turns out, takes a lot of computing power. Paying for that computing power is tricky when Mastodon is resolutely non-commercial: no advertising or data-mining of the users, no clear return on investment. A federated network of Mastodon instances is nice in theory, but if setting up an instance is out of reach both financially and technically for most people, there will be limits to Mastodon’s growth.

And part of the reason is interoperability, by which I mean the ability of the service to talk to other services. Being able to post one service and have it picked up by other services, such as the way this blog post ends up on Twitter, Google+ and Tumblr when I hit the publish button,2 is objectively awesome. When Ello came out I argued that the key to any new social network’s success is interoperability, that Google+’s failure to thrive may have had something to do with the fact that it doesn’t play nice with services outside the Google ecosystem, and that Ello’s success would depend on whether it closed itself off from other networks, and their network effects. That was four years ago. Now I can autopost new blog entries to Google+ (since I’m using WordPress), but Ello has gone nowhere. And I can’t help but notice that Ello’s IFTTT support only involves sharing posts from Ello, not to Ello.3

Fortunately, Mastodon isn’t making Ello’s mistake. But its interoperability is pretty embryonic right now: I use a WordPress plugin for my new blog posts and Moa for my Instagram photos. That actually covers the bulk of the online activity I’d need automated, and the two services make Mastodon much more viable for me. But I’m not sure these services won’t break: the plugin has stopped working for me in the past, and I worry that Moa might not scale very well. And a lot of the other options require running Python scripts on a server somewhere—again, a barrier to entry.

To be honest, Mastodon is pretty hackerish right now. Its unique selling proposition is hard to explain to people who aren’t übergeeks. Right now it mainly appeals to tech-comfortable Twitter users who are highly (and rightly) pissed off at Twitter. Mastodon is therefore Twitter-in-Exile: it exists mainly as something to walk toward when Twitter users walk away from Twitter—just like Dreamwidth is to LiveJournal. From what I’ve observed, we tend to stop using Mastodon and go back to Twitter when our anger cools down. If Twitter ever gets its act together, I’m pretty sure that Mastodon’s raison d’être will vanish, but really, how likely is that to happen?


  1. Dreamwidth is a LiveJournal fork set up by ex-LiveJournal employees that largely serves as a residence-in-exile for longstanding LiveJournal customers who have left the original service for various reasons.
  2. But not, due to Facebook API changes, on Facebook, so now I have to post it there manually.
  3. Every social network, it seems, wants to be your primary destination—the one every other social network receives content from.