My first thought about Mastodon’s app was that it looks like a cutely designed game.
The second was that it seemed quite overwhelming.
The third was, “Why is my email confirmation link not coming through?”
The last point was quickly explained when I, 10 hours later, got the link and was able to log in. Mastodon was having tech issues, its developers were “tooting” (Mastodon-speak for tweeting) early on Tuesday.
Hundreds of thousands of users have joined the platform since Elon Musk took over Twitter. His reign has so far been characterized by mass layoffs and a series of changes to content moderation and the verification process. Reports have also emerged of Musk considering putting all of Twitter behind a paywall.
Mastodon itself is a decentralized, open-source network, that, according to its website, comes without an algorithm or ads and doesn’t sell user data. On its website, it describes itself as “radically different social media, back in the hands of the people.”
User reports, however, show the network isn’t without problems.
Toots, servers and the fediverse
Toots aren’t the only complicated bit of Mastodon.
To make a Mastodon account, you first have to pick a server — the source of my initial feeling of overwhelm. Some of the questions I had were: What are servers? What do they mean for users? How are you supposed to choose?
Some research helped. Servers, also known as “instances,” are effectively mini-networks or communities. Their name becomes part of your username (in my case, @firstname.lastname@example.org), they all have different rules, and some require you to apply to them. They’re centered on topics like art, living in or being from a certain country, music genres and more.
Anyone can set up a server, and then control it — you can moderate content in it or even delete it. You can, however, communicate across them. Mastodon refers to this setup as a “federated” one. They’re also part of the “fediverse,” or “fedi” for short — which simply means the sum of all servers.
Content across the fediverse can be found on the “federated timeline,” while toots from your home server are accessible through the “local timeline.” The homepage shows content from just the people you follow.
Anne Bailey, research strategy director at cybersecurity analysis firm KuppingerCole, said this makes it hard for the network to gain and maintain users.
“Mastodon still looks too technical for the standard user, which will pose challenges to adoption,” she told CNBC’s Make It.
The user experience isn’t entirely smooth either. Toots complaining about pictures, videos and messages not loading or being delayed have increased, an issue Mastodon developers attributed to the surge in activity on the platform.
The app’s login button still sends me back to the sign-up server page. When I was able to log in, Mastodon opened in my phone’s browser rather than in-app. On my desktop, the website often refuses to accept my username and password — even when they’re correct.
Mastodon did not reply to a CNBC request for comment on this article.
Stronger community feel and more control
Long-term users praise the app for making it easier to build a community, have open and friendly discussions without pile-ons, and the autonomy it gives server hosts and members.
User autonomy is linked especially closely to the decentralized nature of Mastodon, according to Nishanth Sastry, director of research in the computer science department at the University of Surrey.
“The decentralisation means that users are not beholden to the whim of a platform and its owners (like Twitter/Musk or Facebook/Zuckerberg). They can decide what they are comfortable with. E.g., if one instance want to ban Trump, it can,” he said.
That brings another benefit — user data isn’t accessible or controlled by a major organization, Sastry added.
Diana Zulli, an assistant professor at Purdue University whose research focuses on media and technology, raised the same point.
“Mastodon is an excellent example of how you can have a flourishing social media network while avoiding some of the negative aspects of corporate social media, such as monitoring user activity, selling user data, and centralized control,” she said.
But Mastodon doesn’t come without risks. Choosing a server can cause longer-term issues, said Gareth Tyson, a computer science researcher from the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology.
“The person operating your chosen server might run out of money and need to shutdown, or they may have very different perspectives on moderation practices to the ones you desire,” he said.
There are also broader risks associated with the open-source nature of Mastodon — anyone can access and replicate the software it runs on, no matter their intentions. White supremacist group Gab, for example, uses parts of Mastodon’s software.
Could it really replace Twitter?
Experts are still split on whether Mastodon will replace Twitter. Tyson argues that its growth makes it promising.
“It already has a very active userbase. Thousands of servers already exist and they’re growing day-by-day. At the very least, I see that Mastodon can become a clear competitor over the next 12 months,” he said.
Zulli added that Mastodon is likely to benefit from its similarities to Twitter. “Because Mastodon replicates many of Twitter’s features, it can be (and is) a welcoming haven for those dissatisfied with Twitter,” she said.
Others, including Bailey, argue that Mastodon needs to go through changes before it becomes widely used.
“Being a true alternative to Twitter will require massive momentum,” she said. “Some could find that Mastodon still looks a bit technical. Adoption would require an easy-to-use app for the broad masses.”
As for me, I haven’t quite decided how much I’ll be using Mastodon. How Twitter develops might play a role, as well as what my friends and colleagues ultimately do with their social media usage. For now, I’ll keep getting to know the app — but I won’t delete my Twitter account.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that social media posts on Mastodon are known as “toots.”
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