Mastodon is in the news again after Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Twitter users are up in arms about how they think that Twitter is doomed due to the change in management. Since everyone is predicting this as “the end” of Twitter, they’re looking for an alternative.
Mastodon has been a popular alternative that’s been around for several years already. Mastodon is part of the “fediverse”, which is social media without the centralized companies. With the fediverse, you can enjoy a Twitter-like platform while allowing anyone to host their own instance of it on their own server.
The problems of social media are no secret. You got banned from Twitter? You can create your own Mastodon server where you can say whatever you want. Don’t like the creepy tracking and selling of your user data? Mastodon is free and open-source, so you can verify that it’s not collecting your personal data.
When Mastodon was new, everyone inside the free and open-source software community was going crazy over the new alternative to social media. Social media without all the bad stuff? Sign me up! Masses of FOSS enthusiasts defiantly deleted their Twitter account and joined Mastodon.
There’s just one problem with the entire idea, and the reason why I never signed up.
Mastodon is still social media!
A lot of people seem to think that the main problem with these platforms is the fact that they’re “centralized”. While it seems like a good thing that these self-hosted social media platforms don’t treat their users as products to be sold to companies for advertising, it doesn’t capture the bigger picture in my opinion. Social media is useless at best and actively harmful at its worst. In my opinion, there has never been anything of value to be found on social media. I know, because I used to use Twitter before I finally closed my account—but not before wasting countless hours scrolling through it.
Specifically, I’m going to be talking about Mastodon and Twitter in this post, but much of it applies to other fediverse social media. I don’t care about Facebook or Instagram fediverse alternatives, either. But since everyone’s talking about Mastodon, let’s talk about Mastodon.
The dark patterns are still there
Probably the most common complaint about social media is how addictive it is. In the past few years, more and more people have come to realize how difficult it is to simply not compulsively check social media. This is no accident. Social media companies like Twitter have a very real financial incentive to keep you on their platform for as long as possible. The longer you stare at their website or app, the more advertising dollars they get. The designers that work at these companies know this, and they intentionally make these platforms as addictive as they can.
Features that are now ubiquitous on the web, like infinite scrolling or notifications with a bright red badge were specifically created to make users spend as much time as possible on the app. Despite this, Mastodon copies the vast majority of their UI from Twitter, keeping the addictive dark patterns for without even thinking about it—there are no advertisers to sell to, but the site is still designed to keep you on it as long as possible!
Social media isn’t “social”
It’s become almost a meme at this point, Mark Zuckerburg getting up on stage to tell everyone how his product is “bringing people together”. Everyone knows it’s a lie, but he still likes to pretend this is true.
Social media has never done anything but bring people further apart. Now you can get the dopamine of social interaction without actually going out in real life and talking to anyone. It feels good at the moment but you end up even more socially isolated and depressed in the end. The people who spend the most time on social media should be the most “connected”, but everyone knows these people are the most neurotic and anti-social in real life.
Even getting a surface-level update about someone in your life pales in comparison to the smallest “real” action. Actually calling a friend or relative on the phone is so much more meaningful than “liking” a baby photo.
Mastodon doesn’t solve this problem.
The medium is the message
Twitter makes minutiae the method of communication. Twitter is exclusively for short-form content, and makes it nearly impossible to publish any meaningful content. There’s a reason why Twitter and, by extent, Mastodon, is constantly obsessed with current events. Suddenly, political drama and celebrity gossip become the most important things in the world. Everyone has an opinion, and you can share it with just a “tweet” (or in Mastodon’s case, a “toot”). These insignificant issues simply aren’t important enough to turn into a full-length idea (for example, with a full blog post). The Twitter format removes the need for the type of critical thinking required to convert a fleeting thought into something more substantive.
Due to the nature of the platform, Twitter don’t reward insightful takes. Since you’re forced to write short-form content, the most reductive posts are the majority and clear-headed thoughts are few. Mastodon doesn’t solve this problem. Pleroma, another fediverse Twitter clone removes the character limit, but since the layout is the same as Twitter, the short-form medium remains the same.
The network effect makes everything seem more important
Twitter has a way of making the smallest things seem like life-and-death issues.But the fact is that if most thoughts posted to Twitter were posted somewhere other than Twitter, no one would care. The only reason posts on Twitter matter is because likes and retweets artificially give these thoughts more importance than they really deserve.
As an example, look at anyone who has ever left Twitter (or been kicked off) and then gone on to create their own microblog on their own website. Donald Trump tried it and instantly realized that nobody cares about the short-form content he writes on his own website. That’s because most content written on Twitter is complete nonsense. The only reason people read it is because Twitter gives you an endless stream of nonsense that serves as a way to pass the time. If Donald Trump really had anything of value to say via microblogging, the deplatforming wouldn’t have hurt nearly as badly as it did.
I’ve seen other public figures “get fed up” with Twitter, make an angry blog post about it, create their own “microblog” website, make a few posts on it, and then give up and go back to Twitter, because nobody cares about their own microblog.
Every once in a while, there’s someone who almost manages to use Twitter for good. A while back, the Twitter user Naval Ravikant got Twitter-famous as a “guru”. He created a huge tweet thread on “How to Get Rich”. This was a first for Twitter—actually useful information in tweet format! It was a little pithy, but it had some good advice. This tweet thread gathered a lot of attention, and over the next few months and years, he published a podcast, gave interviews on a lot of popular podcasts, and even had a book published compiling his tweets and essays. The thing is, all of these mediums are better ways to consume his information! In his podcast, he goes over all of his “How to Get Rich” tweets in much more detail. I learned much more listening to a single podcast interview he gave than I ever learned from reading his tweets, even if his tweets are more thoughtful than most. These days, he has some pretty good “quotables” on his Twitter but not much more.
Mastodon doesn’t solve this problem.
You don’t have anything important to say.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but most people don’t have anything important to say. And Twitter, rather than “democratizing” media by giving anyone a voice, just gives a platform for people to blurt out the first thing that pops into their mind. Since most people don’t have any unique or interesting thoughts, they just end up repeating what the crowd says. There’s a reason why the “NPC” meme originated from Twitter. By lowering the barrier to entry for people who want a platform, you’d think that it would allow everyone to share their own unique voice. But as it turns out, most people don’t have anything unique to say. So most people end up just “going with the flow” all while deluding themselves into thinking they have something important to say.
Mastodon doesn’t solve this problem.
So what do we use instead?
If you really wanted a good “decentralized platform”, the best way is to create your own website. That’s why I have my own website, so I can write my own thoughts the way I want to.
Social media forces you to think in a very specific way, and has ultimately been a total failure at doing everything it set out to do. And no, creating endless “new” social media platforms won’t fix the problem because the very idea has been bad from the start.
That’s why I’ve never cared about decentralized social media, because it has never addressed my main issues with the entire idea. Most of the people who have been around since the early days of the internet know that the internet these days is much worse than it used to be, but they’re still trying to “fix” social media instead of jettisoning the entire concept.
Miss the old internet? Create your own website, create content that you would like to read, and amplify others who are doing the same. It’s that easy! The real “decentralized” internet will be around long after every social media disappears.