‘Could this be Twitter without the toxic slurry?’ My week on Mastodon

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has left many users wondering if they should join its rival, which promises a ‘different kind of social media experience’. But how different is it? I decided to find out

Day one

How did I choose this as the day I would leave Twitter, already semi-destroyed by an “eccentric” billionaire, and migrate to Mastodon? Easy, stupid: it was the day after I had sworn never to move to Mastodon. About 230,000 people had flocked to the site in the first week of November. Eugen Rochko, who devised and first published the software that underpins the platform in 2016, promised a “different kind of social media experience,” chiefly one that had “stringent anti-abuse and anti-discrimination policies”.

Which all sounded great, but it looked too difficult. For a start, I didn’t like the fact that it was described as a “fediverse”, not least because I didn’t know what it meant. It turns out to be a portmanteau of “federation” and “universe”, to indicate that Mastodon comprises many different servers, also known as “instances”, which are interconnected. Anyone can set up a server, if they have the expertise. If the server you’re on gets too big, you’re encouraged to join another. All servers have their own ground rules and their own interests, though many of them are quite broad. They can talk to each other, and it’s quite easy to switch. It’s more like a virtual party in one huge house than hundreds of different parties.

I also didn’t like the word “toot” instead of “tweet”, nor “boost” for “retweet”. These are straight synonyms – I just don’t like change.

But then I found myself at a book launch – nothing fancy – with people who knew a thing or two: a tech entrepreneur (Ed Saperia) who had put seed money into Mastodon; a climate activist (Hamish Campbell) who ran two Mastodon servers. And they made it sound interesting, if no more comprehensible. But more than that, this was just an ordinary, open-to-all event, a civic space; so what if Mastodon is too? What if it’s the true “town square” – Twitter without the toxic slurry?

Day two

Stephen Fry crossed over from Twitter to Mastodon, and this was a big deal. He had been on the bird site since 2008, and had 12 million followers. Now he had a tribe of 56,000 on mastodonapp.uk, and everyone on Twitter who wasn’t taking the piss out of Elon Musk was talking about how they didn’t care that Fry had left (except they did). Everyone else on Twitter was talking about Mastodon, and one user (@ciaraioch@mastodon.ie) spoke for us all when she said: “Every Mastodon explanation is like, ‘It’s very simple: your account is part of a kerflunk, and each kerflunk can talk to each other as part of a bumblurt. At the moment everyone you flurgle can see your bloops but only people IN your kerflunk can quark your nerps. Kinda like email.”

It was time to move. I downloaded the app – my first mistake. It’s easier if you go in on the website mastodon.social – the original server (or instance, or community, or node), administered by Rochko, with 185,000 users – then you can roam around for a bit before you do anything stupid, such as commit.

But I was in the app, and had to choose my server. I wanted to join one that sounded full of anarchists, but I was offered a selection that sounded full of people who liked dogs. Whatever – I also like dogs. I became @zoesqwilliams@home.social, went back to Twitter to share my new handle, then back to Mastodon for 10 happy minutes, while I uploaded a profile pic and discovered that everyone on Mastodon was talking about Twitter. I logged out for a bit, then wham! Wrong password. Locked out.

This is impossible. All my passwords are the same (lololol). I genuinely don’t think it’s user error, as the reset email never arrived. And yet I am forcefully reminded of the earliest days of Amazon, where I failed so often that I ended up with 15 different accounts. “This will never catch on,” I said. “It’s too hard. I’d rather go to the shops.”

Day three

I gave up on that account, though it is still enjoying a tiny trickle of new followers who, poor simple souls, will never find out what I think about anything. My next feint was activism.openworlds.info, one of Hamish’s servers. I thought it might be full of anarchists, but that’s only because, in real life, he wears a hat. I need to get out more. I never got approved (some servers need to clear you before you can join), which is fair, as I am not very active. I texted my kid to come help me, and he said: “What’s mastodon? Is it an extinct elephant?” And I texted a sarcastic “LMGTFY”, and he replied: “You want me to help you with something and you won’t even tell me what it is? The audacity!” And I sent him a video explainer, which he didn’t watch, and a longer explainer, which he didn’t read. Why do I even need social media when I have people at home who can be rude to me?

No, that’s the old hellsite (Twitter users’ “affectionate” name for the site) talking. The community standards, on all the servers I’ve joined, are very clear on this: “Be nice to everybody, always,” is the third ground rule on my current server (@zoesqwilliams@mindly.social). “No hate speech, slurs” (fine, I never did those) “or directing negativity towards others” (wait, what?).

You know that old joke about Edinburgh and Glasgow, where Edinburghers have hundreds of disparaging names for Glaswegians, and someone says to a Glaswegian: “What do you call them?” And the Glaswegian says: “We never talk about them”? Twitter and Mastodon are like that, except they’re both Edinburgh.

Day four

OK, I’m up and running. I have chosen my profile picture, which is, confusingly, the same as the one on my defunct account – a picture of me, though you can’t see my face as I am vaping.

The obvious way to find interesting accounts to follow is to hunt down your friends and follow who they’re following: it’s hit and miss, but hit enough. I found about 11 of the 30 people I know for sure are on there.

A more systematic approach is https://fedi.directory, a list of topics with accounts that post frequently and get a lot of traction on those topics. This is in its infancy at the moment: for example, if you click into UK politics (via “society”) the only named person on there is Mike Galsworthy, the guy from Scientists for EU. I think he’s great (I know him on Twitter), but this is not yet the blooming of 1,000 flowers.

Day five

OK, this is happening. My timeline is, in roughly equal parts: people complaining about billionaires; people complaining about Brexit; pictures of picket lines outside universities that I think are in the UK but are actually in the US; photos of dogs; musings. What I don’t see automatically are the toots of my compadres, because we’re all on different servers. I can talk to them directly, or I can search for them, but I don’t just see them. Some servers have a “federated” timeline, showing all the public posts from anyone followed by at least one person on your server. I don’t think mine does, or maybe I just can’t find it. So I don’t really know anyone. It’s like moving to a new school.

There are differences, however, and there’s a lot of side chat about those. Users are urging a different follow protocol – on Twitter, there’s a lot of status in your ratio; if you’re followed by 50,000 and only follow 500, that means you’re important. Mastodon, on my server at least, is trying to get away from that sharks and minnows culture, so that ideas can be exchanged between equals. For practical purposes, this means if anyone follows you, follow them back. I have no problem with that. My current ratio is 84:74.

Day six

There’s something missing. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Oh yes: where are all the arseholes? Where are the people who want dinghies full of migrants to sink into a freezing sea? Where are the people who call us libtards? Where, now I come to think of it, are all the Tory MPs?

OK, so this is quite complicated, because every server will be differently moderated, but, to get an idea, in 2018 there was a lovely back and forth between Rochko and a Mastodon user, who asked him: “Why do you silence ‘alt-right’ instances?” “Nazis are bad and I do not want to give them a platform for recruiting,” Rochko replied. “I get that you’re a smart sysadmin,” the user said, “but couldn’t you be a little bit sane? Nazis are gone a long time ago and not everything that is in the right side of politics is ‘Nazis’.” “That bullshit,” said Rochko, “doesn’t work on me, man.” This is the voice we needed in the “free speech debate” – the one that doesn’t instantly get bogged down parsing the subtle distinctions between your right to hate people and their right not to be hated, the one that just calls bullshit.

Which isn’t to say that the fediverse is immune from fascist troll armies, since how could it be? The far-right social network Gab (“champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online”) moved to Mastodon in 2019; “We had half a million nutters turn up when Gab joined,” Campbell remembers. Donald Trump’s Twitter clone Truth Social runs on Mastodon code. There are also plenty of hard-right instances; the other servers just don’t link to them, so they’re shouting into the void, or shouting at each other. How that will play out, long term, is anyone’s guess. My hunch is that hate speech and disinformation need a target; they need outrage, liberals to upset, real information to displace, real discourse to derail, since that’s where they get their energy. But if that’s true, how does 8chan survive?

Mastodon has also taken specific decisions to humanise conversations: for instance, there’s no equivalent to Twitter’s “quote tweet”, where you retweet someone else and add your own comment. “It usually doesn’t lead to anything good,” says the moderation guide. “When people use quotes to reply to other people, conversations become performative power plays. ‘Heed, my followers, how I dunk on this fool.’” I’ve done this! It’s completely true.

Day seven

I still have 84 followers, and I’m now following 94 people. Someone’s just posted a beautiful, if a wee bit Hallmark, photo of swans at sunset. Someone else just linked to a Guardian article about binmen and nostalgia that my Mr sent me a couple of hours ago. That’s my main complaint, in fact: previously, everything he sent me, I’d already seen on Twitter. Now, everything I see on Mastodon, he has already sent me. But that’s no biggie, a bit of domestic power shift. Come join us! (On Mastodon, I mean, not me and my husband, reading the Guardian; can you imagine how annoying that is?) I’m @zoesqwilliams@mindly.social. I’m more or less sure of that.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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