Ever since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, it has been nothing short of a dumpster fire, with regular reports of disruptions and even talks of a complete shutdown. Companies and advertisers have been moving away following Musk’s decision to sell the verified blue tick to anyone willing to pay $8 a month.
This made for a big meme fest on Twitter with people creating fake verified accounts of various companies with one impersonating Eli Lilly, a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical company, declaring “insulin is free,” causing the company’s shares to plummet drastically.
The biggest winner amidst all this is Mastodon, an open-source and decentralized version of Twitter, with the platform seeing an unprecedented increase in its user base, consisting mostly of Twitter refugees.
Mastodon has been posited as the alternative to Twitter. It’s open-source, so you know the algorithm isn’t shady, and it’s decentralized so you don’t have to deal with any Musk’s taking over.
However, the one edge that Twitter has over Mastodon is the sheer difference in their user base, with Twitter having approximately 100 times more users. It’d be excruciatingly cumbersome for a decentralized platform like Mastodon to manage 238 million Twitter users and even if it can somehow manage to do so, I don’t believe that most Twitter users will quit using the platform so easily.
Twitter has been around for more than a decade and has established itself as a leading social media platform. It has never been as popular as Facebook or Instagram but was – and still is – the preferred social media platform of celebrities and governments. Mastodon needs to work a lot harder to gain currency among people if it wants to be the new Twitter.
Mastodon feels like a cross between Reddit and Twitter. Overall, the experience isn’t much different from Twitter, albeit the user interface seems a bit lacking at first. The process for signing up is simple enough, with one major difference: Mastodon doesn’t have a general feed like Twitter, which shows you content from around the world. Instead, it has instances. Instances are like subreddits or servers on Discord, geared towards a specific theme like technology or sports.
Your account is specific to an instance. For example, a user named John on mastodon.social (the most popular instance) would be named John@mastodon.social. If you want to change instances, you have to back up your account first and transfer data from the previous instance. This might seem cumbersome (which it is) but this is by design.
Each instance is managed by a different individual or group, so every instance is its own little world with its own rules and quirks, similar to a Discord server. However, you can follow people across instances.
There are two types of feeds: a local feed with content from your home instance and a “federated” feed with content from people you follow, regardless of instance. If all this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. This is just one of the hurdles Mastodon has to overcome.
To me, Mastodon’s case seems eerily similar to other applications that have been presented as alternatives for other popular applications such as Vimeo or Dailymotion for YouTube, DuckDuckgo for Google, and Telegram or Signal for WhatsApp.
All these are excellent apps and address valid criticisms of popular ones, primarily safety and censorship, but never became mainstream. It requires a great deal of personal effort to switch to alternative platforms. To leave the familiarity, usability, and popularity of a mainstream app to the unknown world of alternatives.
Overcoming this mainstream is the toughest feat for an app. I’m guilty of this too.
Even after multiple data privacy violations and data leaks, I continue to use Google and WhatsApp, mostly because everyone else uses them. Getting people to shift away from their cozy abodes to new apps is a feat few can achieve. And I’m not fully convinced that Mastodon is there yet.
Mastodon’s rise is a welcoming trend, as more and more people are moving from a centrally controlled corporate social media network to a decentralized and open-source one. Twitter’s downfall demonstrates how fragile the things we take for granted are. Twitter, once the world’s “town hall,” is now in complete disarray.
Nevertheless, I’m afraid that alternative platforms will remain exactly that — alternatives. There have been a lot of innovative and high-quality alternatives, but they have rarely caught up to their mainstream rivals. Even though I’m all for alternative apps and platforms, I’m afraid for the time being this is little more than wishful thinking.