Given all the recent disgust with the big social networks, you may have heard some people talk about an alternative social network that is run by thousands of individuals and not ruled by one single, big company – a social network that is decentralized and split across thousands of independent servers all over the world. Here’s the low-Earth-orbit view.
Mastodon, the Fediverse, and …
Of them all, Mastodon has the most name recognition. It’s very Twitter-like and very feature complete. It has a Tweetdeck-like web-interface, but there are also phone apps and desktop apps available for it (see below). But it is only one of the many platforms in this broader thing called The Fediverse. If you want to know more about the entire ecosystem, see this article A Quick Guide to The Free Network.
Mastodon for a Twitter User
As a user, there are a few really important things you should consider when using Mastodon:
People on Mastodon “toot” (as in through a horn), not “tweet”. They also refer to Twitter as “the bird site”.
Picking a Mastodon instance will help determine your enjoyment of the network, as many instances are geared toward communities of interest. But it’s ok if you decide to have accounts on multiple instances – it’s like having multiple Twitter accounts. If you have multiple accounts, there are clients to help manage them such as Amaroq for the iPhone, Mammoth for Windows, or Pinafore for any web browser.
You can’t delete your toots. Well, you can but things that travel across the Fediverse could potentially not be deleted. It is best to assume that it is like email… once sent you can’t unsend it.
Don’t be fooled: nothing you put on the Internet can be restricted, and Mastodon and the Fediverse are no different. If you want to know a bit more about the technical aspects of privacy in the Fediverse, read this.
Lolicon, Nazis, and Furries. OH MY!
The Internet has a lot of objectionable content, and the Fediverse is no different. Many server operators forbid certain types of content, even going so far as to ban entire Internet domains. Still, Mastodon and the Fediverse are no place for the timid and children… but that’s also true of Twitter and Facebook.
The Fediverse, and especially Mastodon, do have a large Japanese presense which brings along an accepted Japanese subculture known in the West as Lolicon. It’s not child pornography (that’s illegal in Japan too), but it is sexualized depictions of children that many in the West, especially in America, find offensive (or atleast just weird). Ethan Zuckerman, the Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, has a fairly interesting and academic blog article on the subject.
Don’t let this scare you off. It’s perfectly easy to use Mastodon without seeing Lolicon, especially if you choose an instance that does not allow it. But, as I said, this is not for children.
The Breadth of Mastodon
Unlike commerical social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, nobody really knows how many users there are in the Fediverse because instancess come and go all the time and some instances are completely private. The Mastodon Monitoring Project does attempt to track this information, and as of this writing says that there are 1.2 million users on 3,841 known Mastodon instances. While the biggest user bases are in Japan, France, and the United States respectively, even The South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands near Antarctica have an instance with 2 users on it.
This time last year there were only about 313,000 users, so the network has grown by almost 1 million users this year. (Update: the estimate for April 2019 is now 3 million users).