As we bury Twitter, it's time to dig up Mastodon

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When asked, I give Twitter a 50-50 chance of survival. Current Chief Twit Elon Musk is riding his dwindling staff hard while tweeting joking memes about the 16-year-old platform's demise. It's time for me - and you - to take Mastodon seriously.

The distributed social media platform is not Twitter and, to be honest, it's almost unfair to compare it to the beleaguered social media platform. I should know. I tried.

In 2017, when Twitter was still riding relatively high and showed no signs of slowing down or suffering a billionaire-sparked implosion, I started checking out Mastodon. It was, like Peach before it (remember that?!), a bit of a viral sensation.

The open-source, widely distributed microblogging service was what you'd build if you wanted something that cut out everything you hated about Twitter, like overbearing curation algorithms, character limits, hate speech, and an uncontrollable firehose of information.

People got very excited about it...until they used it. I predicted that the distributed nature and difficulty of finding much of anything - including other people - on the platform would spell its doom. I was wrong.

However, Mastodon has stubbornly refused to change much at all which is why it's managed to operate under the radar for so many years and why Twitter refugees are now rediscovering all its joys and frustrations. 

After the most recent Twitter meltdown on Twitter (Nov. 17), in which Musk delivered an ultimatum that may have resulted in a huge number of employees walking, froze the code, and reportedly locked the doors of its San Francisco headquarters to protect the systems from disenfranchised employees, many on Twitter feared the worst and wondered if Twitter would even survive into the morning. It did, but many started arriving at Mastodon like disoriented explorers, stumbling in from the wilderness.


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It's a vaguely familiar platform on the Web, with Toots (instead of tweets) in a middle column and a large box on the left featuring your handle and avatar and asking in very Twitter fashion, "What's on your mind?" There are Direct Messages, searchable Hashtags, Bookmarks, and Lists. But there are also confusing elements like the name of your chosen server on Mastodon (I chose "Federated" because it was the most general). And there's the main feed, which is less of a "feed" and more of a bulletin board.

Mastodon is, at the moment, like a giant Twitter commiseration board and one that is struggling under the weight of all these newbies.

There is, occasionally, an air of 'I told you so,' on Mastodon, which I find annoying.

As Richard Littler wrote on the platform: "People grumbling that #Mastodon is slow at the moment... You just turned up with 1 million people in a tiny, rural village and you're complaining there's a queue to get into the only tearoom..."

The platform - if you can load it - is filled with Toots talking about what went wrong on Twitter and trying to explain to the new arrivals why everything is so strange on Mastodon.

One of the biggest differences between Twitter and Mastodon is that while Mastodon has an "Explore" tab that aggregates popular toots from various servers, most of what you get on the platform is a push-and-pull model. Meaning that, unlike Twitter, there is no steady flow of posts. It can make the whole thing feel more static.

Mastodon also engenders a different mindset. If you're used to leaning into your computer or phone screen and Tweets decrying the end of Twitter flowing in fast and furious, you can lean back with Mastodon and read five or six lengthy and possibly thoughtful posts on Mastodon - about the same thing.

There is, occasionally, an air of "I told you so," on Mastodon, which I find annoying. Twitter didn't have to implode. It has great bones and a truly devoted user base. It just needs better leadership and a real plan, not random poorly thought-out tests that undermine its credibility and business.

Mastodon is not fundamentally better, but it is surviving and now thriving. Former and new users are digging up Mastodon from its deep freeze of neglect (or indifference). They're finding that, like the wooly mammoths discovered under the tundra, it's remarkably well-preserved and unchanged.

The new attention may be slowing it down now, but I think that it could lead to some rapid changes that allow, for instance, a more reliable mobile app and more Twitter-like ways of finding content, and people. There may be some monetization options that can help fund better servers.

This is Mastodon's moment to raise its trunk and roar. I hope we're ready for it and that Mastodon is, too.

Lance Ulanoff
US Editor in Chief

A 35-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, Fox News, Fox Business, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.