Would I be the person I am today had I not spent hours and hours on the Internet as a young teen in the mid to late 2000s scrolling through sites like Myspace and Tumblr? I honestly do not think so! Having the opportunity to effortlessly interact with people my age from all over the world was wild! That time online genuinely broadened my imagination & I will always think fondly of my online experiences during those formative years. However, it feels like this experience is out of reach these days - and I don't think it's only because I'm older. Social media networks have grown exponentially and with sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it’s become a far lot less about connecting with others than it has become about raking in revenue. While my desire to use these platforms has diminished, my desire to connect with my friends and other people I share interests with has not. I would just rather my data not be owned by corporations who are trying exploit that data in order to meet financial benchmarks.
(We are not talking about the metal band Mastodon here).
Mastodon is an open source microblogging project that wants to put social networking into the hands of its users. Similar to apps like Twitter and Tumblr, users share short messages called toots & follow other users to read (and boost) their toots. Dissimilar to apps like Twitter and Tumblr (and really any other huge corporate social media platform), Mastodon is not a central hub - rather, it is a network of connected servers, referred to as instances.
It is during the signup process for Mastodon that you select (or apply to) the server you want to be a member of; each server transparently lays out its purpose + values + guidelines, making it easy for new users to find their place.
Once you are a member of a server, you’ll be able to pick and choose the other folks on your server you’re interested in following. You’ll be able to see their toots, of course, but because each Mastodon server can communicate with other Mastodon servers, as mentioned before, you can be signed up one server and still easily interact with users on other servers.
This configuration fits into the federated model of decentralization (hence, Mastodon’s belonging in the Fediverse), and this model can be best explained by a comparison to email. Because all email servers use the same protocol to communicate, it ultimately does not matter which email provider you use. I can have a Gmail account and send a message to someone with an AOL account (my mom, probably) and it will go off without a hitch because those providers speak the same language.
A very similar thing is happening in the Fediverse. Mastodon, and other federated platforms, communicate using ActivityPub which defines how servers handle new user posts & how they can be interacted with. Any platform or application that implements ActivityPub is accessible to you on your Mastodon server. Imagine being able to log into one place and have your Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Twitter feed all in one place. That’d never happen because of corporate greed, but with the Fediverse you can do that. ActivityPub allows users to configure their experience on Mastodon (or any federated app) to not only interact with users on other Mastodon servers but also to include content from video platforms like Peertube and Funkwhale, image hosting platforms like Pixelfed, and blogging platforms like Plume or Write.as.
So what happens if you nose around on Mastodon and don’t find a server that suits your particular needs and desires? Well friend, head on over to the Mastodon code on Github and fork that baby down. Set up a new Mastodon instance to your preference & then define the vision and rules of that instance. Invite your friends, invite your family, invite your neighbors! Update your fork with personalized custom features. You are the leader - even if only temporarily - here; build/help build a meaningful community.
It is worth noting that setting up your own Mastodon instance is not a zero cost project. If you limit the size of your server, it is not an insanely expensive endeavor but do keep in mind that running a Mastodon (or any other ActivityPub app) instance comes with the cost of running and maintaining servers. Purposefully not generating ad revenue is pretty crucial to the premise of decentralized social networks; the operating cost of a Mastodon server is usually crowd funded by its users.
While Mastodon and other apps in the Fediverse are likely to never replace to the huge social media giants, I think I’m ok with that! Whereas Facebook has over a billion users, Mastodon only has about 2 million users spread out over 6500 instances worldwide; clearly this indicates that there’s an interest for something else and more community driven and & you can count me in that number. I’m looking forward to exploring Mastodon once I find myself with some more free time (coming soon!) and I’d encourage you to do the same.
I’d also like to shout out to Darius Kazemi and his moral + approachably technical guide to setting up your own social network on Mastodon, which is where I was introduced to this subject. You can (you should!) read that here.