- Originally posted on 07.12.2022
- Update 15.12.2022: Journalists are now being banned from Twitter
- Update 14.01.2023: Revised the text based on feedback. Also: the Deutschlandfunk show Breitband just released a great podcast episode about the same topic.
The Twitter exodus is real. From what I could tell, a lot of people moved to Mastodon. I think this is great and I am going to tell you why and why it's not enough. Yet.
The Problem with Centralization
Centralization and radicalization seems to be a common pattern within social media. I lived through the elimination of the “VZs” in Germany. It did not take long for Facebook to replace different early social networks completely and centralize the user base. Myspace, Geocities, ... not even Google could compete. and I am refraining from further snarky comments. The network effect is very strong. It eliminates competition quickly.
At some point during the 2000s, Twitter reached Germany as well. I opened my Twitter account in 2010. I am a geek after all. But for me, Twitter never clicked. It always felt like it was a platform to shout into the Void; or rather: read other peoples shouts.
The focus on engagement as the main metric of success together with the algorithmic serving of content propels people with the loudest shouts to the top. These are not necessarily the most sensible. The world is complex and 140 characters often do not accommodate gray areas.
Rooting Social Media in Decentralized Technologies
Because Twitter is centralized and private, nobody but Twitter themselves can do something about radicalization on their platform. Centralization puts a lot of power in the hands of a few. There is a reason, why Germany is a federal state. Federalism is one of the pillars in the German constitution to avoid concentration of power.
Mastodon is decentralized. There is not only one company providing service, but many. Even an individual could be a Mastodon service provider. Decentralization at its core implements federalism within a technology. And with mastodon, every single provider can partake in the system and owns a share of the power.
Centralization vs Decentralization is a very complicated topic by itself. Attaching other aspects such as technology makes it even harder to discuss. This fundamental discussion is out of scope of this post.
However, I personally think, decentralization is the way to go for the future of social media. The major services of the internet are built on decentralized technology, namely the web and email. And it has been working well for a long, long time now.
In my opinion, the centralization of social media is a temporary aberration driven by the engagement metric. And that's why I am writing about Mastodon.
I had an account since at least 2020, but I never really used it. During the downfall of Twitter in 2022, I decided to give it a shot again. And I like it!
I think Mastodon is in a position to be fulfill a similar role to Twitter, while at the same time embracing federalist values: its core features are the same as Twitter's, but the infrastructure is decentralized. This choice of technology enables a more heterogenous communication system and distributes power more evenly.
Mastodon is a piece of software that can be run on a server and interacted with through a web browser. It implements an protocol called ActivityPub. A software that uses this protocol can talk to other software that uses the same protocol. Any instance of Mastodon can talk to any other instances of Mastodon (or other ActivityPub software) running on different servers.
Side note: Software that implements ActivityPub can talk to other software that implements ActivityPub. This also means that you don't have to use Mastodon to participate in this network. You could use alternatives such as Pleorama or Pixelfed. You can even follow this blog directly on Mastodon! Just search for the handle „@firstname.lastname@example.org“ in your app.
Because Mastodon is decentralized, the sign-up process is not as straight-forward as it is on Twitter. There is one extra layer to understand: Before you can sign up, you have to pick an instance. The Mastodon project website has a list of available servers that you can join. However, it is important to note: Joining one server does not limit you to the media of this particular server!
This concept is called Federation and makes it possible to have a decentralized social network.
Federation allows you to follow anybody on any other instance just by referring to the by their full handle. A handle is the username combined with the users server. For example: My user name is felixfoertsch and my Mastodon instance is Fosstodon. My handle is therefore @email@example.com. Search for that handle on any other ActivityPub instance and you will find my posts!
This is conceptually the same as it is on Twitter — every Twitter user can follow any other Twitter user. However, there is a technical difference. One Mastodon user might follow another on a different server or a completely different ActivityPub implementation. That's what decentralization is all about: Freedom, choice, and putting power in the hands of the many.
And, even more amazingly for the user, this choice virtually impacts only one thing: the local timeline. Each server has their own stream of posts. If your instances is mainly concerned with technology, its local timeline will be different from an instance that is mostly concerned with art. Everything else is and behaves the same, completely independently of your instance.
If you want to join Mastodon and are asking yourself which instance to pick: look through the list and feel free to join any! You could even have multiple accounts on different instances, if that's your jam. My personal recommendation: pick one that generally aligns with your interests and branch out from there. And if you are indecisive and want to talk Mastodon, reach out. It's a great discussion topic. 😉
Federalization and Government
What has always been confusing to me is the fact, that a lot of politicians chose Twitter as their mode of communication. Twitter is an American company. European Politicians are using an American-run platform to communicate with their constituents living in Europe. Does this feel weird only to me?
Mastodon — or more generally the Fediverse — could be a way out of this conundrum. The Fediverse refers to the part of the Internet that takes Federalization seriously and builds interaction upon it. The concept aligns well with the federal nature of some governments or supra-national organizations. Each level of government could literally own their own social media platform and still be part of a greater social media network. Communication could be more local, more direct, and more real.
And the admins from the European Union gave me hope. I stumbled upon this site: social.network.europa.eu. The EU is running an official Mastodon instance. And everyone can follow them from their own instance server. Trusting this channel is easy, simply by association with the Mastodon instance.
I think this is how it should be. And I hope the German government takes note and follows suit. It's not enough for people to leave Twitter. People have to do something differently. Participate in change. Communicate about the change.
Reclaim the digital public space for the better.