Like most Twitter users, I have no intention of quitting the platform if Elon Musk’s $44 billion deal goes through. But it seems like a good idea to prepare for change. Musk thinks Twitter should open up its algorithms. Co-founder Jack Dorsey, who calls Musk the singular solution to the problems of Twitter, believes in the total decentralization of social media.
In an effort to figure out what they’re talking about, I’ve spent the past few weeks on an open-source, decentralized social network called Mastodon. I’m not alone. When Musk announced the deal on Twitter, Mastodon won more than 30,000 new users in a single day.
Juggernaut, or “Twitter without the Nazis” as Vice magazine put it, was founded in 2016 by a German developer named Eugen Rochko. He wanted to create social media that was not solely driven by profit.
It takes some getting used to. Like Twitter, you can create a profile, post messages, and follow other users. But there isn’t a single company that runs the show, collects data, or sells advertising. Mastodon is a non-profit organization with software that can be used to set up social networks. These are run on different servers by administrators who can set their own rules.
After watching the “What is Mastodon” video, I went to register and immediately hit a brick wall. To join Mastodon, you must join a server. But how to choose one? It took more googling to find out that Mastodon.social is a general purpose server suitable for beginners and run by Mastodon itself.
Things have a familiar Twitter feel, with a write-in box and suggested accounts to follow. The timeline shows a stream of memes, chat messages, and news comments, though I missed seeing the names I follow on other social networks. You can follow users on other servers and transfer your account to a new server, but you cannot join two servers at the same time.
Sound complicated? After years of having my hand held by Twitter and Facebook, it kind of is. In an interview last year, the developer of Mastodon Rochko described it as a throwback to what the internet used to be., when bulletin boards were popular. It helped me to understand.
Complexity can sometimes be a selling point. Snapchat won accolades from younger users because adults found it confusing. But to master a new platform, you need an incentive: on Snapchat, it’s seeing your friends’ content. On Twitter or Instagram, there is also the possibility of seeing publications by well-known personalities or a subject that interests you. Mastodon is much smaller, which means it doesn’t have the same traction.
For those who find the concept overwhelming but fancy trying out a new social media platform, there is a simpler alternative in the French BeReal app. Created at the end of 2019, it is sold as a way to share your life with friends, without artifice.
Every day, at a different time, the app sends you a notification to take a photo using your front and back camera simultaneously. Only one post per day, no filters and only two minutes to compose the shot. You can’t see someone else’s photos until you’ve shared yours.
BeReal has been hailed as the anti-Instagram. It has climbed to the top of the free app charts in the US this year (some of that popularity, as Tech Crunch points out, comes from pay university students to refer friends). Unfortunately, I’ll never know what BeReal looks like because a combination of decorum and vanity dissuaded me from posting daily selfies. I’ll wait and see what happens to Twitter instead.
Elaine Moore is the deputy editor of Lex of the FT