19 Jan 2021 · 6 min read

A Look Into the Trending Decentralized Social Media Experience: Mastodon

Following recent news that the outgoing US President Donald Trump was suspended on major social media platforms, or that Facebook wants to gather more data about Whatsapp users, the conversation about censorship on social media, personal data privacy has escalated. While a few platforms have offered themselves up as plausible alternatives, none have managed to capture as much attention among the Bitcoin (BTC) community as Mastodon.

Source: A video screenshot, Youtube/Mastodon

In this article, we will explore Mastodon, how it works, its advantages and disadvantages, and how you can participate.

What is Mastodon?

Mastodon is a federated microblogging architecture that allows users to create communities on social media. However, the technology has a few key differences from legacy social media giants. The most glaring of these is its decentralized nature.

Federation refers to a form of decentralization where users have access to multiple services instead of just one central service.

An example of federation includes email services where we have plenty of email providers, all of which are interoperable. This means you can send an email from say Gmail to Outlook with no issues, so long as you have the right email address.

Mastodon works similarly. Users can communicate with each other across a host of integrable websites, even if they are not Mastodon websites. This is because Mastodon leverages an open-source software that allows it to execute federation, called ActivityPub.

As Mastodon explains: “Any software that likewise implements federation via ActivityPub can seamlessly communicate with Mastodon, just like Mastodon websites communicate with one another.”

This collection of websites that communicate with each other across ActivityHub and the World Wide Web is colloquially referred to as the “fediverse” (federated universe).

In addition to all Mastodon websites, other sites in the fediverse include platforms like the microblogging engine Pleroma, a federated image sharing platform called Pixelfed, and PeerTube, which lets you upload videos to channels among many more. There are also personal or private websites interoperable with Mastodon via the tech.

Access to the fediverse is a marked advantage. Mastodon further explains:

“In practical terms: Imagine if you could follow an Instagram user from your Twitter account and comment on their photos without leaving your account. If Twitter and Instagram were federated services that used the same protocol, that would be possible. With a Mastodon account, you can communicate with any other compatible website, even if it is not running on Mastodon. All that is necessary is that the software support the same subset of the ActivityPub protocol that allows for creating and interacting with status updates.”

Due to the ActivityPub software and the decentralized nature of the World Wide Web, Mastodon websites are independently owned by their creators. These websites are run by servers whose owners pay for. Funding the server can be done by individuals privately, a crowdsourced group effort, or by an organization. Server owners have the right to dictate the rules of their websites. Mastodon does not implement any strategies to monetize its software and its development is crowdfunded via campaigns on sites like Patreon and OpenCollective.

Finally, Mastodon allows users to have access to its source code, keeping with the open-source spirit. Users are allowed and encouraged to make any alterations or modifications to the source-code to best fit their needs so long as they guarantee open-source freedoms for their versions. These versions are referred to as software forks.

Popular software for this is glitch-soc, which helps users alter their software forks with a number of experimental features.

Why so popular?

  • Despite its sophistication, Mastodon is seemingly easy to use. The sign-up process is familiar as it is similar to what happens when you pick an email provider. Once you find the right community for you, you sign up. That community or website becomes your service provider and will host your account, profile, and home feed.

    Similar to emails, Mastodon usernames have two parts like [email protected] When addressing parties on the same server or community as you, Mastodon allows you to skip the second part of the user name. However, when sharing a Mastodon address, it is important to give the right server name or any communication would not reach the right person.

  • Mastodon works just like popular social media sites, eliminating a learning curve and encouraging the entry of new participants with its pleasant user experience.
  • Mastodon has no monetization strategy. It is completely crowdfunded and based on open-source software. The ad-free experience is unmatched in today's social media landscape. The home feed is also non-algorithmic and chronological.
  • Mastodon is not a single website, rather it provides access to thousands of websites and their users via a seamless social media experience. It is important to note that you can move your profile from one community or website to another without losing your followers.
  • There are currently around 12 popular broad topics on the platform with a few topics having many sovereign communities globally. All server owners agree to uphold Mastodons’ code of conduct, called the Mastodon Server Covenant, regarding tolerance.
  • Moreover, users have a plethora of superior tools they can leverage to protect themselves from interacting with unwarranted content. There are a number of user-level actions that go a long way in protecting individual rights. It is possible to even block an entire server. These features result in a safer social media experience for the 4.4 million Mastodon users globally.
  • Mastodon cannot go bankrupt, cannot be sold or completely blocked/censored by a state due to its crowdfunded, crowd-owned, and federated nature. Due to these features, Mastodon is gaining popularity within the crypto community.

Setting up a Mastodon instance

Since Mastodon is simply a set of programs that can be used to build a website, anyone can choose to create their own website by setting up a server. Creating a server is referred to as setting up a Mastodon instance.

Due to the open-source nature of the tech, anyone can create an instance and have control over the community, creating their own sets of rules. Currently, most instances are crowdfunded not financed, with people coming together to create spaces for issues they like. Some are privately-owned while the remaining are owned by organizations leveraging their existing resources, such as server companies.

Running a Mastodon instance/server/website has a few key benefits. Since the server is yours, you can control your voice and data over the web. Furthermore, you can interact with the entire fediverse. Finally, you can control sign-ups on your server.

It is, however, important to note that running a Mastodon instance can become a time-consuming undertaking if your community grows because you will have to actively engage in moderation per the Mastodon Server Covenant.

To set up your own Mastodon instance, you need:

  • a domain name;
  • a virtual private server;
  • an email provider;
  • and an optional object storage provider.

You can choose to do all these things manually when setting up the server, however, there are a number of dedicated Mastodon hosting providers already in existence. These service providers can do all the setup for you, though you will have to purchase the domain name first. Examples of these services include Masto.host, Spacebear, and Hostdon.
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