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I Want to Like Mastodon. The Decentralized Network Isn't Making That Easy

Commentary: It's not a simple switch moving from "the birdsite" to Mastodon. But will we have a choice?

The icon for the Mastodon social network, looking like both a pachyderm head and a speech bubble
Some Twitter users are fleeing to rival Mastodon in the wake of Elon Musk's acquisition.
Mastodon

Given the crisis Twitter is going through, I want to like Mastodon. But after a few days trying out the alternative social network, I expect mainstream Twitter refugees will struggle to make it a safe haven.

Mastodon is a microblogging site that German programmer Eugen Rochko began creating in 2016 because of dissatisfaction with Twitter. Some aspects are similar, like the ability to share a few sentences of text and photos with your followers. What's different is its "federated" design, with thousands of interlinked quasi-independent services instead of one single social site.

But one person's federation is another person's fragmentation. Mastodon is complicated to join and often a hassle to use.

Federation arguably offers some advantages in terms of choice and control. Indeed, Mastodon fans like this "Fediverse," which by the way extends beyond Mastodon. But I fear the complexity brought by this structure will baffle people who just want a quick way to share and follow like they're used to on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

And that's too bad. We need an alternative in case new Twitter Chief Executive Elon Musk doesn't learn fast enough that running a social network is different from building electric vehicles and rockets. There's a real risk he could turn my favorite social network into a free-for-all hellscape, or at least spook enough of Twitter's 238 million users that it's no longer as useful and entertaining.

If you want to try the top Twitter alternative for yourself, I recommend my CNET colleague Peter Butler's guide to getting started on Mastodon. For a preview of the hardships you'll face if you're looking beyond Twitter, here's a more detailed look at my thinking.

The first hurdle: picking a Mastodon server

The federated design of Mastodon imposes the first, worst difficulty: Which server should you join? The hassle stalled my own earlier excursions into Mastodon over the last few years.

It's the worst sort of problem. You have to commit to something important right when you're most confused about its complexity and ignorant about what you should do. It's like moving to a new city and having to rent an apartment before you know the neighborhoods, your commute or where your friends live.

Some servers are geared for a particular community, like people who live in the Netherlands, follow open-source software, care about the environment, attend MIT or like heavy metal music. That can be handy if you want to join a particular community without trying to figure out who to follow and find them on Mastodon.

Other Mastodon servers are for a general audience. I gravitate toward those, because I have many interests and follow people from all over. It's a bit more familiar for people moving from "the birdsite," as Mastodon users often call Twitter.

You can test the waters by opening accounts on multiple servers, with separate usernames and passwords for each. But it's a pain to maintain multiple incarnations of yourself or to switch your primary presence from one to another.

Read your Mastodon server's fine print

Choosing a server, also often called an instance, can be complicated because different servers have different rules. Expectations differ about when you flag posts with content warnings. Some have rules as specific as prohibiting posts that deny the Holocaust.

And the different servers can function differently. You'll get a different experience, like whether you're "publishing" or "tooting." Whether you can encourage or block Google from finding and indexing your posts also varies.

Some servers, like the Qoto server for science and technology students and professionals, let you quote posts the way Twitter lets you publish quote tweets that combine your words with somebody else's tweet. Rochko doesn't like quote posts, though, so often they're not possible (unless you use the loophole of taking a screenshot).

You may not get into the server you want. Some aren't accepting new users, and others require you to apply for membership. With the surge of people checking out alternatives to "birdland," I've seen several servers stop accepting new users, including mastodon.social and mastodon.online. Those two are operated by the nonprofit overseeing Mastodon technology "as a fallback option for those who don't know which other server to sign-up on," as Rochko describes them.

Perhaps in the coming weeks and months, Mastodon will settle down and users will find good servers to call home. I've seen several people I follow shift to new servers already. I worry that the existing signup process simply will deter most people from even giving it a fair shake, though.

More trouble: following and favoriting on Mastodon

For me, the downside of federation is most apparent when finding, following and favoriting.

A dialog box shows how Mastodon's federated design can slow routine social network interactions like favoriting a post

Want to favorite that post on Mastodon? If it's from somebody on a different server, you may have to jump through some hoops. Similar obstacles can slow down following someone or seeing what they've posted.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Many times, when I locate someone, I can't follow them easily. I have to copy their username, go back to my home server, search for that username, and then follow. That's a big hassle for one of the most basic operations of social media.

I get the same problem often when favoriting or boosting a post, the Mastodon equivalent of liking and retweeting, respectively. With web interfaces, some servers offer a pop-up window where I can type in my long username then follow or like from there. That's just a different kind of friction.

Searching for people I know I want to follow is hit or miss, though I've had better luck in recent days. Reproducing my full Twitter social graph -- I follow nearly 4,000 accounts -- is just not going to happen anytime soon, even with Twitter migration tools like Debirdify.

Opening a profile to judge by a person's posts if they're worth following often leads to a paucity of information and the following explanation: "Older posts from other servers are not displayed. Browse more on the original profile," the site suggests. 

Maybe Mastodon

Some of Mastodon's issues might be similar growing pains, so I cut the service some slack. I remember the early problems Twitter had with growth, showing us the failwhale when the site broke.

With 474,000 new Mastodon accounts in the last week, raising the total to 6.3 million by one measure of users across many servers, there's plenty of growth going on. More than a million people now use Mastodon monthly, Rochko said. Servers can struggle with new growth, and not every server is run by professionals.

But I see good points. To start, Mastodon already gives you an option to edit your posts. Capitalist overlords aren't always the best stewards. No ads cuts distractions and means no privacy-invading profiling.

Mastodon's attempt to head off online abuse from the start is laudable too. "Smaller, tight-knit communities are less prone to harboring toxic behavior," Rochko said in an early post about "learning from Twitter's mistakes."

Maybe he's right, and maybe Mastodon's differences from Twitter will curb abuse. But if only a minority of people can use it, it's ultimately not that effective a solution to problems of social media.