How social media should be…

In case you were unfamiliar with Elon Musk, you may know him as the Chief Executive of Tesla. He is also unable to comprehend “trains”, or that Mars is an icy dead rock that we can’t live on. Well, for some reason he decided to buy Twitter, fire most of its staff –particularly those in charge of accessibility, human rights, moderation and other things that make Twitter a slightly less awful place.

He then started selling those blue ticks normally reserved for the bigger accounts for £7.99 a pop. The ticks were a reliable indication that the account was genuine –sorry, they were a reliable indication. Shortly after he started banning accounts that changed their name to Elon Musk.

Musk, upon taking the helm of Twitter has made sweeping changes to the company, on Friday beginning mass layoffs across a number of sections – including marketing, product, engineering, legal and trust and safety.

Twitter layoffs raise questions about future of infrastructure and moderation | Twitter | The Guardian

It didn’t take long for people to buy up these £7.99 ticks, pretend to be brands, notable figures (including both the current and recently deceased Popes) and start playing with their reputations.

A number of us have seen the writing on the wall, so we’ve moved to Mastodon.

What is Mastodon?

Mastodon is a decentralised, open-source platform that to the end user at least, functions in a comparable way to Twitter. The software is maintained by a non-profit based in Germany, but is deployed on servers operated by anyone who wants to deploy it. You create “toots” in much the same way you would tweets, but now you have 500 characters to say what you need to. You can follow people, direct message people, and engage in conversations.

However, this is where the similarities end. Mastodon isn’t Twitter, but this is a very good thing.

Mastodon is structured in such a way as to make grief, pile-ons and harassment difficult. First off, there’s no single Mastodon server, but a network of servers maintained by volunteers and people donating money for their upkeep. These servers are then federated, so if you post a message from your account on Toot.Wales, it’ll appear in the feed of anyone who follows you from other servers. There is also a “Federated” feed where the latest posts from the many servers can be found as they happen.

However, if the server you are in is particularly bad at dealing with hate speech, spam, harassment or otherwise making life difficult for others, it risks being annexed or blocked by other servers.

The crucial difference to Twitter is that there is no algorithm and there are no ads. Part of the reason Facebook and Twitter became so toxic is because the algorithm prioritised the sensational and the clickbait over the boring old facts. Whilst chronological timelines were the default in the early days of these platforms, algorithms quickly came to turn all the world’s negativity into a metaphorical river of slime. This led to the wild proliferation of conspiracy theories and misinformation that have plagued society for much of the past five years.

On Mastodon, your posts are seen by those who follow you. Those who follow you can choose to share your post with their followers (similar to retweets), but otherwise they can ‘favourite’ your post or let it pass by. ‘Likes’ aren’t pumped into the feeds of people who follow you, nor are the people followed by people you follow. One problem with Twitter is if one of your chums follows someone objectionable, their objectionable tweets end up in your timeline. Yes, you can block them, but Twitter is awash with objectionables and this gets tiresome in a hurry.

It is much more difficult for the grievances of a typical day on Twitter to come to light on Mastodon. The ridiculous and the sensational will often be seen for what it is and pass by unnoticed. There are many servers meeting a variety of needs, so there is likely a server out there for you, whether you are from a marginalised group or have specific interests –there’s even a “toot.bike” if you fancy trying that one.

All you need to do is pick a server, get your account created (and secured with two-factor authentication, as you should with all online accounts) and start looking for your friends. I have two accounts currently –one is on mstdn.social for this site, but my personal account where I talk primarily about music and photography is on a Welsh server called toot.wales.

Toot.Wales is such a lovely place to hang out, have real conversations and not find yourself getting angry at the latest dead cat designed to distract and enrage people. The admin, Jaz, is great and will often share good posts and engage in discussions.

If your friend is on a different server, fear not, Mastodon is federated, so you can follow people on other servers too. The only real difference is that users on different servers will have the name of that server in their username. Cardiff By Bike will appear as “@cardiffbybike@mstdn.social” to someone on Toot.Wales rather than just @cardiffbybike.

Of course, if you felt the need to move to a different server, you can just go right ahead and backup your account, put in a redirect to the new server and pick up from there.

Good video by The Explorographer

There are iOS and Android apps too, obviously.

I’ve been on Mastodon for a few months now. In the past few days the servers have been filling up with genuinely smart, interesting people. Greta Thunberg has arrived, as has Stephen Fry, Ian Walker, Mike Galsworthy, Byline Times, Nation Cymru, and even Swansea Council. You’ll also find some familiar faces from the world of cycling as well.

The atmosphere is so very different. It reminds me of the early days of the internet –when we were all wide-eyed and on the internet because we really wanted to be. Before it became the thing that stalked us from morning to night and hooked us on dopamine and cat pictures. When the internet made loud squawking noises, tied up the phone line for hours and call charges were in the hundreds (ok, that part wasn’t so good). When Lycos was the search engine of choice and Netscape Navigator the browser. It is incredible.

The trick is to unlearn everything you’ve learned from being on Twitter. Have real conversations with the people on there and reconnect with all that is still good in the world. I’m particularly enjoying not having a timeline full of close pass videos and arguments with taxi drivers, it’s so refreshing.

Hopefully it will stay that way, but whatever happens to Facebook and Twitter, there’s a great alternative ready and waiting. I don’t think I will be checking back in with Twitter in a hurry. It has already started to resemble the looting stage of those end-of-the-world movies and frankly, life is far too short for that.

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