‘Social networking, back in your hands’ is what it promises.
“Follow friends and discover new ones among more than 2.2 million people. Publish anything you want: links, pictures, text, video. All on a platform that is community-owned and ad-free,” and this, in short, is how Mastodon, the latest Twitter alternative that has become quite a talking point in social media, introduces itself on its website, https://joinmastodon.org/.
So, what is Mastodon? Well, that is what a majority of those who are on the platform, too, are still trying to figure out – slowly, steadily. Mastodon, which derives its name from the prehistoric cousin of the elephant with the same name, is an open source platform which has a federated nature, which means learning how to navigate through its timeline of toots (the Mastodon version of Twitter’s tweets), is going to take some time for most new users.
But then, Twitter was also initially a little bit of Greek and Latin, just like Facebook continues to be for many, who are yet to get the trick of using @ to address/tag someone and keep posting ‘Happy Birthday’ on their own walls, thinking the birthday boy or girl will see it.
Mastodon, according to an article in Wired.com, “has created a diverse yet welcoming online environment by doing exactly what Twitter won’t: letting its community make the rules.”
As for the basics of Mastodon, apart from toot, a retweet is a ‘boost’ while a like is a ‘favourite’. And yes, Twitter’s earlier-140-now-280 character restriction is thrown in the dustbin here, where the limit is 500, apart from options for privacy for each one of your toots. There is a little earth icon, which on clicking will give you a drop down menu for Public, Unlisted, Private, and Direct. This is apart from being able to keep your account completely private, just like on Twitter and Instagram, where you have to approve each and every follower.
Mastodon runs on its user-created networks, called ‘instances’, each with its own laws. Users choose for themselves which instance they want to join. Mastodon instances have two timelines, a local timeline and a federated timeline. Local is that exactly, posts from those on that particular instance.
The federated timeline is a little more complicated. Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko, known online as Gargron, in an interview with Medium.com, likens federation as a whole to email.
“It means that users are spread throughout different, independent communities, yet remain unified in their ability to interact with each other,” he says, or, in other words, it is like sending an Outlook email user a message from your Gmail account.
Mastodon.social is the flagship instance, moderated by Eugen himself, while there are several others, like photog.social for photography enthusiasts, writing.exchange for writing, socel.net for animation lovers, comics.town, wandering.shop and so on. You can follow the admins using your [email protected], or sign up for each of these instances (that is how we have so far understood, there might be easier ways which practice will help us learn!).
Whether Mastodon will survive, which it has with 2.2 million users in three years so far, is another question, but what is sure is, unlike on Twitter, you can go to that old way of starting to write, “Dear diary…”, without the fear of being trolled or being attacked by right or left or middle wing extremists, the police or any snoopy Big Brother or being banned or threatened by some self-possessed name hiding behind a ‘handle’.
The Mastodon exodus
So how did Mastodon, which has been around for more than three years, suddenly shoot into the limelight? Why is everyone writing, tweeting, posting and yes, tooting and boosting, about Mastodon now?
There is an exodus of sorts from Twitter to Mastodon, though the latter still has only about 2.2 million users, compared to Twitter’s 300 million. But, that 2.2 mn is growing, with an apparent surge that has its epicentre in India.
The surge, according to media reports, was prompted by the suspension of the account of Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde twice.
The first time, according to a report by BBC, was when Hegde retweeted a 1936 photograph of Nazi Germany in which a German national, August Landmesser, refused to perform the Nazi salute, which Twitter said violated its rules on “hateful imagery”.
After a public outcry, the account was restored, but Twitter, according to Hegde, emailed him a notice to take down a tweet from 2017, in which he retweeted a poem that protested against the hanging of two revolutionaries.
The incident triggered a discussion on how Twitter moderates its content in India, with many saying that the platform tolerated rhetoric against minorities, and also that it was biased in many ways, apart from allowing right wing activists to bully anyone who spoke out against the government.
There were many, like All-India Progressive Women’s Association activist Kavita Krishnan, who repeatedly complained to Twitter on some users who abused and threatened her on the microblogging site, but Twitter apparently wasn’t responsive enough. Many tweeted saying Twitter had a ‘highly inconsistent stand’ on issues like hate speech.
Announcing on Twitter, denouncing Twitter
The declaration that they were fed up with Twitter and were shifting to Mastodon, was, interestingly, made by many on Twitter itself.
Here’s writer Nilanjana Roy’s tweet, on Twitter, announcing she had joined Mastodon:
“Mastodon is quiet like Ancient Twitter; we’re all early(ish) adopters. It’s so civil and so free of haters that it’s a shock to the system. A reminder of how abuse on socmedia has been normalised, like pollution. @[email protected]” (sic)
Publications too are announcing their presence on Mastodon, like this:
The Wire is now on #Mastodon! Check us out at:
The Wire (@[email protected])
And some described the experience, comparing it to, hold your breath, a resort!
Gautam Bhatia (@gautambhatia88):
Have spent a few days on Mastodon. A softer and gentler world. Pleasant conversation. Feels almost like relaxing in a resort. (sic)
Bhavika Kapoor (@BhavikaKapoor5):
Dear Friends, Twitter is showing symptoms of “Godi Media”, and ” Manusmriti” so I have decided to use Twitter infrequent and to use #Mastodon actively to express myself freely I encourage you to create ur #Mastodon instance and join me on mastodon. @[email protected] (sic)
Some have added their Mastodon profiles to their Twitter handles.
Harini Calamur (@[email protected])
What I miss about the twitter from a long time ago — the fact that we were able to talk about things like Music, films, stories, books, growing up, families – with those we disagreed politically. that has gone. (sic)
What Twitter has to say
Twitter, meanwhile, has denied these charges. Here are Twitter India’s tweets on the issue:
“There’s been a lot of discussion this week about Twitter’s perceived bias in India. To be clear, whether it’s the development of policies, product features, or enforcement of our Rules, we are impartial and do not take action based upon any ideology or political viewpoint.”
“Twitter’s commitment to inclusion and diversity is fundamental to who we are and crucial to the effectiveness of our service. Voices from across the spectrum can be seen and heard on Twitter and we are committed to the principles of openness, transparency, and impartiality.”