Have you tried Mastodon, a distributed social media app?

Mastodon is the latest social media app that is making waves bigger than most of its siblings. That's for some valid reasons.

Before I come to Mastodon's features, which right now are slightly confusing for users of popular social media apps (Facebook, Twitter, etc), let me highlight where the app differes greatly from them. That is: it is a community-owned app, not owned by a commercial organization. To be more specific, it is 'open source'.

Federated microblogging: heard this?

In Mastodon, you don't opean your account on Mastodon's server. You choose one of the servers from the thousands that you see when you first open the app. Each server is like a node in a big network of servers. Each one of them is called an instance. So, if you open your account on XYZ instance, you become part of its local community and bound by its rules. In addition, you are free to interact with millions of other users on whichever server they might be. So, it is a decentralised way of social media in which thousands of server-owners moderate their own communities.

Since it is an open-source system, thousands of codes are available on the web in places like GitHub. If you own a server on the web, you can host your own instance for free and write your own code or use one available free on the web for sprucing up its features.

How instances network across Mastadon
The servers on Mastodon network use a protocol called ActivityPub that allows servers to communicate within the network. If you care, the server-side tech used in this network is Ruby on Rails and Node.js, and front-end languages are based on JavaScript (React.js, Redux).

Mastodon is a micro-blogging platform, like Twitter. The character limit here is 500, and some instances allow even bigger number. Meessages are toots here, parallel to tweets on Twitter.

Web media that is social, not commercial!

We have had many instances of big social platforms selling our data to analytical and other agencies, not keeping data safe and private, and serving us based on what serve their interests not ours.

Unliket them, Mastodon claims to be much safer. One, since each instance-owner moderates his community and there also are all-encompassing checks, trolling and abuse are less likely to occur. If they do occur, the platform is programmed to react faster and more in the interest of the community. Two, each message has a variety of privacy options, which allows the user a much bigger control on one's privacy than on Facebook etc.

There are no advertisements. In addition, what is served on one's timeline is non-algorithmic and not based on the platform's commercial interests.

Mastodon can be quite useful for organizations as they can have their own instances on which they can have internal communication in a social way.

Can Mastodon challenge Twitter, etc?

The platform was created in October 2016 and started operating with first few instances in 2017. In nearly 3 years, its membership has gone up to 2.2 million. That is a good critical mass but nowhere near the numbers of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter etc. It is reported that a large number of Indians angry with Twitter's features have joined this network in 2019.

Mastodon has come up with many mobile and desktop apps. Some of these apps are available in local languages - giving it the opportunity to penetrate populations not comfortable with English. It has been coming with new features every few days thanks to voluntary contributions.

But is that enough to switch from other social media apps, say Twitter or Facebook? Frankly, unless you have people - whom you will like to interact with and/or follow - on the same platform, you might not like to make a switch. In addition, for a Twitter or Facebook user, Mastodon's feature of joining a particular (unknown) instance and the way they communicate look confusing.

However, the platform has its own merits as mentioned above (particularly privacy), and you might like to experiment with it.

My own take is that it is difficult for any platform to dethrone the big social media platforms becasue they come out for very interesting and useful features now and then. People get hooked to these features and demand more. So, however public-spirited and safe a new platform may be, people would not join it by abandoning the big ones. TikTok, even with a big Chinese company behind it, has not been able to dethrone any video-sharing sites; in fact, all the text+image sites now offer video. Whatsapp and Facebook have added e-commerce and money-transfer features in addition to many other. Telegram offers much bigger group size and claims to be safer than Whatsapp but the latter rules the chatting app arena.

However, some of the big social biggies are likely to collapse in the years to come (due to their size, legal issues or what?), and the time would then be ripe for open-source systems to flourish. In the meantime, such apps - including Mastadon - will create a niche for themselves, and would spring when their time comes. Well, if they do not become extinct like the elephant-like creature called mastadon. Haven't we actually witnessed many mighty apps wither away: GeoCities, Squidoo, Orkut, MySpace, Google Plus...

mastodon social media app
Mastodon screen on desktop app