Love it or hate it, Twitter and other social networks are very hard to shake due to the fact that so many people are there already. The open-source, decentralized social network Mastodon, which works like Twitter, isn’t really trying to rebuild that company’s scale—and that, perhaps, might ensure Mastodon sticks around. Community pros should take note.
I remember the first time Twitter really made me mad.
It came in 2012, when the company had announced moves to lock down its application programming interface and limit its ability to work with certain kinds of tools. (In layman’s terms: It was limiting access to third-party apps in the name of building its advertising business.) It was a move that the company announced with a blog post in which it split up the four kinds of applications that developers created for its platform—three kinds Twitter would encourage, and one kind it would not.
The company’s moves weren’t unexpected, but they represented a harsh break from the past. By this point, Dalton Caldwell, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who didn’t like the way things were going, had 1) spoken out against Twitter’s change in direction and 2) announced his own competing platform, a for-pay social network called App.net, which put a focus on the developers that had been discarded by Twitter, encouraging them to build new ideas around his platform. It launched with much notice and attention. (I even paid for it!)
Unfortunately, the pull of Twitter’s inertia, even given the anger and frustration I and others had with its change in direction, proved far stronger than the fundamentally good idea Caldwell had—and the network shut down earlier this year. (Caldwell is still doing good for the startup community, however, as a partner with Y Combinator.)
“Unfortunately for everyone, the network just didn’t make money,” TechCrunch recalled. “By the time App.net got off the ground in 2012, Twitter already had six years of momentum and user growth.”
The Mastodon Lives Again
It’s in this light that I look at a more recent attempt to take on Twitter, a network called Mastodon.
If Mastodon’s more narrow communities, with their own approaches to moderation, each succeed on their own terms, then the network is a success.
Unlike Twitter or App.net, it doesn’t really have a profit motive at all: An open-source project, its primary developer’s costs are being covered by a Patreon page, not by subscription fees or advertising. It’s not even looking for millions of dollars to maintain the network, like App.net was, because it’s totally decentralized—anyone can run a Mastodon instance and customize it for a specific set of users, and people can talk to one another across instances. As opposed to a single-name username, you have a handle with a domain attached, like an email address—which ups the complexity factor some but moves away from the more centralized approach.
Mastodon’s mascot, who knows a thing or two about holding a smartphone.
Mastodon received a lot of buzz around the beginning of April, as a lot of fast growth showed itself. But the internet’s been down this road before, as pointed out by the fact that Mashable published a piece propping up the network a day before publishing another one knocking it down. From Diaspora to App.Net to Ello to Peach, the public has a tendency to get buzzed about new social networks before they even have a chance to succeed on their own terms.
But I think Mastodon shouldn’t necessarily be put in the same category as those older networks for one reason: It doesn’t appear to be aiming for the same heights. If it were, it would be tapping on the door of a venture capital firm instead of nudging folks on Patreon. If it succeeds, it’s because it has built some strong, narrow communities that can talk to one another.
If Mastodon’s more narrow communities, with their own approaches to moderation, each succeed on their own terms, then the network is a success—if not the kind of world-realigning success App.net wanted to be.
This Mastodon May Survive
And that’s something I think that anyone who runs an association community can learn from.
Large social networks can often seem impossible to compete against when you’re starting fresh. I can like what a smaller network does on a technical or a philosophical basis, but if I can’t find value from that network that’s compatible with the original network, then I’m inevitably stuck using both. And if my time is limited, eventually the original network is going to win out.
Let’s face it: Every news outlet, politician, and many of my friends are on Twitter. I can have complaints about its technical structure or its poor handling of abuse claims, but the network is ultimately made up of people, and in many cases, the community will keep us there.
So the only way you’re going to compete with a larger network is to do things that it can’t. You can either do this by creating a brand new way of communicating (see Snapchat or Instagram), or, more easily, by putting a stronger focus on a more narrow community.
Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other social networks have no incentive to treat a community of civil engineers any differently than a community of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans. You, on the other hand, might—and you can offer something more nuanced that makes for a unique value proposition. Mastodon, by focusing on smaller, self-hosted communities, allows for that.
None of this is to say that Mastodon is that solution for associations—your mileage may vary with open-source platforms—but it could inspire new ways of thinking about what a narrowly focused online community could be.
The mastodon, as an animal, has been extinct for thousands of years. But Mastodon, as a social network, is built in such a way that it could theoretically live forever, as long as some inkling of interest is there.
For associations, that’s the kind of network you want to build.