BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. At the base of the Statue of Liberty, there's a poem that bears some famous lines. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless tempest tossed to me. Today, they could easily address a distinctly different huddled mass in search of a more specialized refuge. That refuge could be Mastodon. Originally created by a German programmer named Eugen Rockko in 2016. While the two platforms share a general resemblance, the similarity is merely skin deep. For example, what we think of as a tweet button on Mastodon is called a toot. Although, as of this week, Toot has been retired, being too easily employed in double entendres. So the button now just says publish. And also what you post can be a lot longer. And to join Mastodon means joining a group that acts as your home base. That group is called a server or an instance. There's no universal group with all users. Plus, Mastodon's original source code is publicly available and changeable. All this because Mastodon just doesn't want to be like Twitter. But why? I hear you cry. Does any of this matter to those of us who really couldn't care less about Twitter, much less Mastodon? Well, Clive Thompson, tech journalist and author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, Offered in Medium a kind of explainer.
CLIVE THOMPSON We're accustomed to a social network being just one site that you go to. And this is not like that. These are all thousands of sites that are, quote unquote, federated. They can kind of talk to each other. You know, anyone on any server can generally more or less talk to people on other servers. The other piece of lingo is they call this the Feder-verse the Federated Universe, right. There's actually a bunch of things out there in this federated universe, Mastodons, only one piece of software. But because it's so much like Twitter, it's kind of the one that's taken off recently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The federation aspect of this is one of the big differences. Each server or instance makes its own rules.
CLIVE THOMPSON You're exactly right. They'll each set up rules saying, Hey, guys, here is what we consider to be good behavior. You can't be a racist idiot. You can't say stuff that we consider to be misogynist by the people on this community. If you do that, we have the right to kick you off the server and there are other servers are like, yeah, we don't have any rules, you can kind of say whatever you want. So it's almost like belonging to a neighborhood where there's neighborhood rules, right? But the really interesting thing is that if someone comes to me and starts harassing me in DMS or in replies to me, I can mute or block just that one person. And I can also decide, Hey, you know, the server that person is on is filled with dirtbags. So I'm going to block that whole server. I don't want to see anything they do. I don't want them saying what I said. And that's great. But there's this extra layer where an entire server could decide there's a bunch of other servers over there that are just filled with terrible people. Let's put a block from our entire neighborhood to there. So nothing that anyone does on our server can be seen by them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote an article explaining that Mastodon is compared to not just Twitter, but almost all other social media sites. It's explicitly anti-viral. It prioritizes friction. Twitter, Instagram, YouTube. Tik Tok. They want big viral surges to push things to get more popular. How does Mastodon push against virality and why.
CLIVE THOMPSON If you think about Twitter, a lot of the way it's architected is designed to sort of encourage massive joint attention of millions of people on some hot meme or joke or person that has just blowing up right now. Millions of people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE –trending, trending
CLIVE THOMPSON It's trending –exactly. It's like we're all looking at it. We're all talking about it the way that Twitter does that is it has a couple of tools. It has an algorithm that says if a tweet is starting to take off, let's push it to the top of other people's feeds. It's a rich get richer phenomenon. And there's other things like the, quote, tweet button, you know, allows me to go. Someone just said this saying, here's what I think about it. Now, neither of those things exist in the traditional Mastodon software. For example, the feed, it's just ranked in reverse chronology. So whatever you're looking at is just what happened at this moment. And it goes backwards in time, downwards.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But not allowing, quote, tweets, that's pretty controversial. I still don't understand why.
CLIVE THOMPSON Well, the creator of Mastodon and the early community of users thought that, quote, tweeting on Twitter had led to too much negative, quote, tweeting of the form of like, wow, would you look at this stupid crap? This person just said.
BROOKE GLADSTONE By sardonically pointing to it, you're actually promoting stupid crap.
CLIVE THOMPSON Adding to the like nasty, corrosive quality of a lot of Twitter discourse. That's how they saw it, right? And so they were like, let's just not do that. Early users of Mastodon were often people that sort of fled Twitter because they were being harassed there. And they regarded a lot of these viral surges as being related to the harassment that they'd seen. So where Twitter tries to make things go fast, the design of Mastodon and kind of the norms of the community were to make things go more slowly. But it can be quite weird for someone to come from Twitter and look at what's happening. I've literally had journalists show up on Mastodon and ask me, who are the Musk followers? You know, where's the hot conversations? I'm like, guys, you know, there really aren't any. There are definitely are people that have more followers and others, but they don't loom large in people's feeds the way they do in Twitter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But are there conversations? Can you learn lots of stuff.
CLIVE THOMPSON Oh, my goodness. Yes. In fact, in the last kind of week that a lot of people have flooded on to Mastodon, it has really transformed. I'm getting much better quality conversations on Mastodon than I am on Twitter and that maybe I've had on Twitter in years, frankly. And I think it's do a little bit to some of these differences in the way things work. People are more encouraged just to sort of talk about ideas and not as incentivized to say something that is, you know, going to go viral. One of the things about antiviral design, once people sort of orient themselves and go, well, this space is not exclusively for sort of self-promotion and trying to make things take off. It kind of changes what you want to say in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So even with all these features designed to prevent Mastodon from becoming what Twitter is and has been at its worst, can Mastodon really immunize itself against the plagues of traditional social media, like harassment and hate speech and trolls?
CLIVE THOMPSON Yeah, it's a really good question. There was this famous moment when a bunch of common Nazis decided that all these early adopters of Mastodon came from Twitter because they wanted to get away from racial harassment. There was a lot of queer and trans communities that were trying to get away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So the trolls said, 'Let's just follow them over there.'
CLIVE THOMPSON Exactly. Exactly. And what the trolls discovered was that once they got up in people's grills, a couple of servers said, all right, we're blocking you and the people running those servers. They talk to each other, right? I'm a participant in helping run my server. And we will talk to people that run other servers to find out how are things going, what problems you're running into. We'll sort of trade stories of terribly behaved other servers, and we will jointly block them all. And this is exactly what happened to the influx of Nazis was that very rapidly they discovered that every other server had just unilaterally blocked them and they were sort of in the corner of the Feder-verse just talking to themselves. But, you know, there's a lot of vulnerabilities, too. Twitter had some of the world's top engineers working hard on security. If you have thousands of people who are kind of like me or only slightly more technically sophisticated than me running their servers, the security isn't going to be nowhere near as good. And so there is probably going to be, I would imagine, a lot of trolls and even nation states hacking into Mastodon instances if they think there are people on those servers whose information they want to steal or they want to screw with. When I saw that there's a journalist instance, I thought, Well, that's great, but it's also kind of a honeypot.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wait a second. Is Mastodon collecting data that can be hacked into? Or are we just talking about the substance of people's posts?
CLIVE THOMPSON Well, direct messages, one person to another on Mastodon, which are putatively private but could easily be stolen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Most people wouldn't say who their anonymous sources are in those contexts.
CLIVE THOMPSON You would hope so. But people say a lot of stuff in DMS and then there's just, you know, login information, passwords, stuff like that could be reused in other places.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So tell me more about the downsides then.
CLIVE THOMPSON There are some big downsides to this kind of anti-viral culture. One of them is that, you know, for all of the sort of bad stuff that we've seen from big viral surges on Twitter, there's also really good stuff, right? Like some of the biggest issues of our day, like Black Lives Matter or MeToo. These are issues that have been ignored by the mainstream media for a really, really long time. And it was these mechanisms of virality that a lot of these issues came to the fore, to the mainstream. Right. I don't think there would have been as robust a conversation about misogyny in the workplace, about the treatment of black Americans by police if it weren't for these viral searches. There's also some fantastic black academics who have been thinking about the problems that are caused by not having something like, quote, tweets, for example. Jonathan Flowers just wrote this fantastic series of tweets and series of posts on Mastodon saying, look, black Twitter was incredibly important for black communities all across the world. And in America. It relied heavily on, quote, tweeting, because that tapped into this sort of call and response culture that was generations old.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I know that there's a real push to get Mastodon to do, quote, tweets or quote toots
CLIVE THOMPSON Quote, boosts. And one of the problems is, of course, because it is federated, because I'm running a copy of Mastodon on my server and there's thousands of other people running them. The only way to get everyone to have quote boosts would be for everyone to update their software in exactly the same way. It's not clear that everyone would want to do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE However, Twitter, though a dumpster fire is not dead, nor are all the other virally driven social media platforms. I mean, they're still there. Does Mastodon have to be one?
CLIVE THOMPSON This is really on point. A lot of people have been arguing long before me that Mastodon and the other services on the Federverse are not even supposed to be replicas or substitutes for Twitter. They have an intentionally different way of encouraging conversation. Personally, I hope that Twitter doesn't go anywhere. Sure, it's a dumpster fire, but it has some amazing, amazing things that come from shoving everyone into this one room and having these weird range of conversations. I think that's powerful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, part of the reason traditional social media promote engagement, which is often expressed in ugly interactions, is that those interactions prompt clicks and views that drive up ad revenue. How does Mastodon make money?
CLIVE THOMPSON It doesn't make money at all. It is software that individuals run to provide a service for themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is it like Wikipedia? Can you contribute to Mastodon?
CLIVE THOMPSON Mastodon again, is just software that I and a bunch of friends run. We have a bill for a server every month and we have to cover that bill. And so we just sort of pass the hat and we have a Patreon. There's much larger servers that have it more formalized. They're like, Okay, if you want to be part of the server, you kind of have to kid in this amount, you know, a month so we can pay not just for the server cost, but for someone to run it and make sure it works very, very different from a regular social network like Twitter where there's a central place that has to pay for employees. This is like the little, you know, anarchist gatherings. And I say anarchist in the positive sense, like not lack of rulw, but self-rule.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm curious why you got on Mastodon. You said it prioritizes friction. The producer of this segment, Becca, had a great phrase. She said it's like old school communication using just a quarter cup of Silicon Valley to make it palatable. Do you think people will enjoy it?
CLIVE THOMPSON I originally got a mastodon because, you know, I was interested to see what this new Federverse was like. And I joined, like, a server filled with open source software nerds. Okay, this is cool. Like, we can go really deep in nerdy without me bothering my Twitter followers who have no interest in hearing me talk about Linux drivers for antique webcams. I was attracted to the idea of this sort of self run non-corporate world, and I could see that people were behaving differently and I wanted to understand why. Now the question is, is this attractive to enough people that a lot would want to do it? If you'd asked me three weeks ago before Elon Musk started driving people in a panic away from Twitter, I would have said, I don't think a lot of people are going to want to interact in the way that, you know, Mastodon's, community and technological affordances allow you to do. But lo and behold, there are just tons of folks now who've joined Mastodon that I'm following, and they're from every walk of life. Someone posted something on Mastodon saying, I don't know, man. People keep on saying Mastodon is hard to join. But I just got a note from my retired mother saying, Oh, yeah, I just followed you on the elephant site, you know?
BROOKE GLADSTONE But let's acknowledge that Twitter isn't even close to the most popular social media site. It's now Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat. That said, why do you think a migration from Twitter is worth paying attention to, even if you've never used Twitter and will never use Mastodon?
CLIVE THOMPSON It does matter for the following reason. Twitter has, for better and for worse, become kind of a fulcrum for various aspects of civic discussion and civic debate. It's designed to be really fast. It's designed to be really easy. It's text heavy. There's definitely pictures and videos, but Twitter is fundamentally one of the last big social media that heavily prioritizes text and writing. That gives it scalability and speed. That's why Twitter has had this outsized force in public debate. Partly also, you know, there's a lot of journalists, there's a lot of celebrities there. But I honestly think it's because of this text based discursive format. And I'm not the first person to point this out. In fact, there was a great tweetstorm by Taylor Lorenz of The Washington Post a while ago saying exactly this.
So even if you don't use Twitter, that's why it matters, because it has that outsized influence. The really interesting thing is that the long term users of Mastodon on the Federverse are not entirely thrilled with this new migration because they're kind of like, Look, guys, we had this kind of quiet space that was working really well for us. And now there's a ton of new people running around with very different cultural assumptions vary from behaviors. They're a little worried that the conventions and the culture of Twitter, including some of that thirst for morality, will be injected into the DNA of the culture of people using Mastodon. Because, of course, it isn't just technology. It's culture how people want to behave and spaces change when people's cultural expectations change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Clive, thank you very much.
CLIVE THOMPSON I'm glad to be here. That was a lot of fun.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Clive Thompson is a tech journalist whose work appears in the New York Times magazine, Wired and Smithsonian. His most recent book is Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.