One thing about me is that I am an avowed hater of change, by which I mean I am a baby, and that my phone – which has not seen a software update since 2017, thanks for asking – regularly carks it when I try to do things like send an email or message a friend or press any button. My feelings towards downloading a new app are the same that others might have towards skydiving: a fear of leaping into the unknown, and also death.
Unfortunately, the other thing about me is that I am masochistic, which is how I find myself downloading Mastodon – the platform that has been touted, to varying degrees of certainty, as the replacement for a slowly crumbling Twitter now owned and micromanaged by the world’s neediest billionaire.
Despite its name, which makes it sound like a dating app for either metalheads or palaeontologists, Mastodon went viral last month. On Twitter, as staff numbers dwindled and advertisers left in droves, a mass panic set in. People bid adieu to each other in dramatic posts broadcasting all their other social media accounts. There was a real end-of-days vibe – the likes of which I hadn’t seen since the night before 21 December 2012, which is the night I decided to pack an emergency bag of muesli bars in case the apocalypse actually happened the next day and I got hungry.
Enter: Mastodon, the muesli bar to the Twitter apocalypse – a social network promising an experience driven by users, not dollars; a network without algorithms or ads. And people bought into it. An estimated 3 million have joined in the past month alone.
It takes me a few weeks to sign up. Many times, I get close – only to be derailed by two hours of stalking my nemeses on Twitter and shaking my fist at their successes. When I finally tap on the app for the first time, it opens on an illustration of cartoon elephants (sorry, mastodons) that makes me think I have accidentally downloaded Neopets.
The first thing it does is tell me to join a server. This is because Mastodon is a fediverse, which sounds like something to do with fedoras (m’astodon) (sorry), though it actually just means it’s made up of individually moderated groups who can communicate with each other. Anyone can start a server, and they’re mostly centred around geographical locations or interests; the app encourages me to search through them using a series of headings: art, music, journalism, activism, etc. I note that there are no servers under “art” or “journalism”, though there is a server for furries.
I spend about 30 minutes on this choice, only to find out later I had been overthinking it: you can freely see and talk to people from other servers, though only posts from your own community will show up in your feed.
I contemplate going with the generic Mastodon group, which, at 149,000 users, seems to be the most popular. But at the last minute I waver. My first and only streak of patriotism runs through me: I join an Australian server called aus.social, which makes me feel as though I’m joining a swingers party or a year 11 formal.
Phew. Tap. Next screen.
It’s a page of rules – similar to those you might see in a Facebook group, with different rules across different servers. “Do not break the law (Australian),” this page says. OK, loser, I think.
At last I am in – and, within seconds, the app has started glitching: reloading at random intervals as if designed to torture me. The cartoon elephants mock me with their stupid gleeful smiles. Please, I pray, if you stop freaking out I promise I won’t make fun of your ridiculous terminology any more. On cue, it stops glitching – and then I realise its equivalents of tweets are called “toots”. I want to toot toot chugga chugga outta here.
The next morning I return to an empty feed and immediately begin following people. There is no easy way of finding your Twitter mutuals on Mastodon but I am voracious. I follow people until I am sure I have an RSI. Editors, colleagues, friends, even – to my horror – politicians (see above, filed under masochism). I follow people I hate. I follow people who hate me. I follow George Takei.
As far as I’m concerned Mastodon is a tabula rasa and all social relations are reset to zero. I feel high after my following spree.
Days pass. The high passes with them – and is replaced by a brutal comedown. I have now spent hours on this app and the only things I have seen are pets, waterfalls and George Takei reposting hundreds of toots a day with dense blocks of text that make me miss character limits.
I flick over to the explore tab, which features popular posts across Mastodon. “This one makes me laugh every year,” someone has written above a Christmas meme that I am positive has never made anyone laugh.
It all feels a bit … stale? The more I scroll, the more a pang of longing blooms within me for the unbridled insanity of Twitter: the last haven for those of us (me) who want to spend their time watching people tell on themselves in devastating fashion; the only real home for the internet’s worst dregs of discourse; where cooking is fascism, having a coffee is classist and playing fetch is animal abuse.
Perhaps Mastodon will soon be corrupted too; for the sake of all its users who are there for earnest discussion (yuck), I hope it remains unsullied in its vision: a utopia that feels nothing like Twitter, and everything like the halcyon days of early Facebook chatter, with cat photos existing alongside personal screeds that bear little consequence.
I click back to the home screen for one last glimpse, and – like clockwork – it glitches and freezes.
Michael Sun is Guardian Australia’s editorial assistant for features, culture and lifestyle. Twitter @mlchaelsun Mastodon [redacted]