How does Mastodon, presented as a “free” alternative to Twitter, work?

The acquisition of Twitter at the end of October by the South African-Canadian-American billionaire Elon Musk and his first announcements about the management of the social network prompted many users to consider alternatives. The name Mastodon comes up often: the interface and operation of the network seem to be very similar to Twitter. And the release, which is still relative, can be seen in the numbers: on October 22, a few days before the announcement of the acquisition of Twitter, the social network had 4.5 million user accounts. Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko announced on Monday (November 7) that more than 487,000 new users have joined the platform since October 27, bringing the total number of active “mastonauts” over the past month to over 1. million, in total around 6.3 million accounts on the platform. A figure that remains derisory compared to the 395 million accounts claimed by Twitter.

  • Mastodon, what is it?

Mastodon is a microblogging social network created in 2016. Users can post messages of up to 500 characters, and find many features that Twitter offers, such as the ability to subscribe to publications from others more accounts, but also message sharing.

If Mastodon differs from Twitter, it is through its philosophy. Mastodon’s source code is therefore free and “open source”: anyone can consult and modify it. Mastodon can be accessed through official applications or third-party clients for mobile or computer.

The network has also chosen a decentralized organization: unlike Twitter where all users use the company’s servers, when registering, you choose an instance (or server) out of several thousand according to your affinities or geographical that standard. . Each is managed by a different group or person. However, most of them talk to each other. In more colorful terms, if Twitter is a continent, Mastodon is an archipelago.

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  • Who is behind Mastodon?

The creator of Mastodon is Eugen Rochko, a 29-year-old German developer who is a fan of the eponymous metal band. asked by Time, he explained that he wanted to create a way to express himself on the Internet that was out of the hands of a large company like Twitter. Eugen Rochko himself is the curator of one of the network’s most popular opportunities, Mastodon. social, but anyone can open their own opportunity and decide their own moderation rules.

  • What are the differences on Twitter?

Twitter has two options for displaying its News Feed: a back-to-back display that only shows tweets from accounts the user is subscribed to as they are posted, and an algorithm -weighted display. Mastodon has three on its side: the classic feed with posts from accounts to which the user is subscribed, but also a local feed showing posts from other users of the instance and finally a global feed, showing all public messages exchanged on almost every instance of Mastodon.

Apart from this main difference, the Mastodon has no typical features “spaces” (voice chats) initiated by Twitter, or not allowing the quoting of another user’s tweet. Direct messages between users also don’t work the same way, and are actually more like Twitter’s “private account” functionality.

In contrast, Mastodon already offers long-awaited Twitter features, such as the ability to edit one of its posts afterwards.

  • What about moderation?

Mastodon’s decentralized architecture also applies to its moderation. Each instance decides its own rules. Some servers may choose to allow adult content, while others prefer to ban it entirely. And it is up to the instance administrator to apply this moderation, either personally or by selecting a team of moderators who can take care of enforcing the rules.

To make this ecosystem work on a larger scale, administrators can also choose not to connect to other instances, either because they find them problematic or because they prefer to reserve their instance for private use. For example, the instance managed by Eugen Rochko blocks the consultation of content shared with the rightmost instances.

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  • What should you keep in mind?

The secrecy of the correspondence is not total in Mastodon: even by reducing the visibility of a conversation to its only direct interlocutor, it is enough that a third person is mentioned there so that this one also has access to it .

Mastodon also doesn’t allow verifying a user’s identity using a “blue chip” type of functionality like (at least now) Twitter. Two mastonauts registered on two different occasions can even use the same pseudonym, the only difference then being the name of the server attached to the account. Another technical choice that comes from the organization of the network, but opens the way to possible identity theft and fake accounts.

Mastodon’s decentralized architecture also offers great power to administrators of different instances, power that, on Twitter, is the monopoly of a single company. With a little technical thinking, they can consult users’ private messages, hashed versions of their passwords, or delete/modify a user’s publications they don’t like – or even completely to block them.

Therefore, it is better to have confidence in the administrator of his instance (or mount himself).

  • What is “Fediverse”?

Mastodon is only the most visible part of a set of social networks based on free software, commonly referred to as “Fediverse” (abbreviation of English words federation and universe).

Started in 2008 by the GNU social service network and facilitated by the 2018 release of the Web ActivityPub protocol, the principle of Fediverse is to allow several social networks to communicate with each other. For example, with a few clicks, you can follow, from Mastodon, the publications of a PeerTube channel, a free alternative to YouTube.

This technology is also exploited by the far-right social networks Gab and Truth Social: technically, it is also part of Fediverse but in fact, many administrators of instances and developers have chosen to block the connection to these networks. The topic has sparked much debate within the community.

  • Will Mastodon replace Twitter?

Some were already asking the question in 2017, during the first exodus of users from Twitter to Mastodon – a departure from relative success at the time. A question that a crystal ball cannot answer. Despite their similarities, it is difficult to compare the two networks: ministers and large companies, for example, have no interest in posting only to Mastodon’s 6.3 million users when 395 million Twitter accounts interact with them.

However, we can see that six years after its creation, the network is still working and continues to welcome Internet users. For people who don’t want to suffer the mood swings of Twitter’s new CEO and don’t mind returning to a smaller community, Mastodon might be an attractive alternative.

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