Technology

Ready to Try Mastodon (But Are Scared to Jump In)? Here’s What You Need to Know

The emerging social network Mastodon has been gaining interest as a Twitter alternative, which might convince association pros to dip their toes in. But a mix of cultural and technical differences make the shift a tad complex.

With the recent chaos on social media—specifically, Twitter—it’s natural for association professionals to start looking for a new homestead.

While a few networks have emerged as potential options—including Post News, Hive Social, a throwback like Tumblr, or even a retreat into LinkedIn—the one that seems to be pulling ahead is Mastodon, a social network driven by self-hosted “federated” servers that talk to one another in a loosely organized setup called the fediverse. (Mastodon is just one app that supports the fediverse, but it’s by far the most prominent.)

Before Elon Musk purchased Twitter, Mastodon was seen as something of a niche alternative to other social networks, built on open protocols and out of the mainstream. That has shifted in recent months, as millions of people have made their way to Mastodon.

I’ve actually been using Mastodon since 2016, and have even experimented with running dedicated servers. I wrote about it for Associations Now back in 2017, noting that, “If it succeeds, it’s because it has built some strong, narrow communities that can talk to one another.”

Here’s some advice for the Mastodon-curious among association pros.

Similarities and Differences

On the surface, Mastodon shares a lot of similarities with Twitter, in that it’s largely text-based and built around quick-hit conversations. It even has an interface that can be configured to look similar to the well-known power-user TweetDeck tool.

But the differences are notable, and require some adjustment. The key one is that you have to refer to people by both their username and server name.

Additionally, there are some features that are missing—in some cases, intentionally. Quote-tweeting, a popular tool on Twitter, does not have a Mastodon equivalent, and search is limited to just usernames, URLs to specific posts, and hashtags. (That means hashtags are much more important on Mastodon than on Twitter or LinkedIn.)

These differences, which are largely designed to encourage safety and privacy for users, reflect Mastodon’s roots as a social network that attracted marginalized communities (such as LBGTQ+ users) in its earliest days—and those users helped influence the technology’s design.

This reflects a spirit of inclusion and accessibility that has underpinned the network since its early days, and has created an environment that many people find engaging.

Where Should You Land?

One of the barriers for many potential visitors to the fediverse is that you’re forced to choose a server to join. This has been a challenge from a user interface standpoint, with many Twitter refugees commenting that it made the onboarding process confusing.

So what should you do? An approach worth trying: Start on a larger, more general server (mastodon.social, run by Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, is by far the biggest), spend some time scoping out the community, and once you find a group of people who share your interests, move over to a smaller, more specialized server—perhaps one dedicated to SEO, journalism, or your region.

Why would you want to switch servers midstream? Simply put, each server has two types of timelines, a local timeline and a global timeline. The global timeline is like Twitter, in that it covers most of the network. The local timeline is more specialized to the server and can focus on niche topics—which, based on your focus as an association pro, might mean you’re better able to target the people you hope to reach.

Stretch Goals

At this time, joining Mastodon makes sense for individuals, but it’s natural to consider the possibilities for your association.

There are a few reasons you might want to approach that decision with caution. First, there are few third-party applications available for community management or post scheduling, though it’s rumored that companies such as Buffer are looking into this functionality.

Additionally, consider cultural fit. Mastodon has taken on a lot of Twitter’s most talkative users, but it tends to have a more anti-corporate bent than other social networks, so some organizations might not feel welcomed at this time. But other associations may find fits, especially in areas such as the sciences, technology, and academia.

Finally, there’s the question of how. Do you just launch an organizational account on someone else’s server, or do you create your own? While it’s more work, some organizations, including the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Association for Computing Machinery, and the Internet Archive, have chosen the latter. With the right approach, it could even prove a good home for a private social network—though it’s worth remembering the maintenance costs that come with open source software.

Have you dipped into the Mastodon ecosystem? If so, what have you learned? Offer your thoughts in the comments.

(GooseFrol/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a senior editor for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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