Is Mastodon doomed to extinction?

The interest-focused platform is the new social media darling, but can it hold on for the long term? Marketers could make the difference—and find a new channel for engaging consumers.

There is much hyperventilating over Mastodon, the upstart social network du jour.

It’s easy to drop it into the same bucket as all the other presumed Twitter killers moldering in their digital graves, which is exactly what a lot of people are doing. Without even giving it a once-over, they remind their followers of Ello, Plurk, Jaiku and the long list of other social media hopefuls. Let’s not even start picking through the trash heap of Google’s various attempts.

I’m not ready to proclaim Mastodon a keeper. Odds are good that in five years, when the next startup hits the scene, the doubters will ask us to remember Ello, Plurk, Jaiku and Mastodon before getting amped up about the New Big Thing.

There’s something tugging at the back of my mind, though, insisting that Mastodon might, just maybe, find its place in the constellation of social networks.

What (besides a terrible name) is Mastodon?

If you want details, you can find them. One of the best offerings is by Qina Liu, digital engagement editor at The Buffalo News. There are other good introductions here, here and here.

Or just watch this:

Mastodon is a network of social networks that all use the same software created by a German developer named Eugen Rochko. It uses GNU social, a free open-source microblogging server that has been around since 2014. As Wikipedia puts it, “GNU social seeks to provide the potential for open, inter-service and distributed communications between microblogging communities. Enterprises and individuals can install and control their own services and data.”

Anybody can set up and run an “instance,” which is Mastodon jargon for a server. The people who join that instance can communicate with one another. They can also communicate with people on other Mastodon instances thanks to federation, in which each Mastodon instance is connected to all the others. (Well, sort of. More on that in a bit.)

As Dan York put it, it’s a bit like email. Your email account is on an email server. It could be Gmail or Hotmail or SBC Global or your company’s server or your own (like mine at holtz.com). You can send and receive email with people who have accounts on the same server as yours. You can also communicate with people whose accounts are hosted on other servers.

It also reminds me of the old FidoNet, which fueled community messaging back in the old bulletin board system (BBS) days. According to the Big Dummy’s Guide to FidoNet, that platform is a “a loose confederation of bulletin board systems which stretches around the entire world. Each BBS belongs to a local NETWORK. Each Network handles its own operations more or less independently of other networks in the world. Each Network belongs to a larger REGION, and each Region belongs to a ZONE.” You participate locally but get the benefit of what others have posted through their local BBS.

Of course, Mastodon isn’t exactly like either email or FidoNet.

First, there’s the interface. If you’ve ever used Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, it’ll seem comfortably familiar. One tab is for writing and sending your messages (called “toots,” which have a 500-character limit, allowing you to write a standard paragraph). The next is your “Home” tab, where you’ll see toots by everyone you follow, along with toots that reference you. The home tab also features toots from people who—well, I haven’t yet figured out why they show up.

The notifications tab is where you get toots that include your username. The final tab lets you select from a variety of options, including the local timeline (chronological toots from everyone posting to your instance), the federated timeline (the toots from people who are followed by you and other users of your instance), the toots you’ve marked as favorites, your preferences and more.

Finding people on other instances is no easy task (yet); to engage with someone on another instance, you must include their account name and their instance (e.g., @SLHoltz@mastodon.social).

If all this sounds daunting, that’s one reason so many naysayers have proclaimed Mastodon dead on arrival. The same dismissal was aimed at Twitter back in 2007, though, and those who found value there figured it out.

Mastodon has a lot going for it. Rochko created it to limit trolling, avoid blatant commercialism, provide a true chronological timeline and promote privacy. None of that will make it thrive or even keep it alive. That will happen (if it happens) because of the federated model.

Federation? Like Star Trek?

Yeah, sort of, if you want to think of each instance as a planet with its own sentient race that lives together but communicates and trades with other races on other planets. Quina Liu likens instances to subreddits in that “each [is] moderated by a dedicated team of volunteers and each may have [its] own specific rules, interests, themes or cultures.”

Therein lies the potential. Mastodon instances have been created (as a Mashable article notes) for pizza fans, book lovers, people who attend Burning Man, and more. Podcasting’s podfather, Adam Curry, has set one up for people who listen to No Agenda, the popular podcast he co-hosts with John C. Dvorak. (Adam Curry is a hardcore geek.)

You could create one account on one instance and use it like Twitter to engage with people on instances everywhere. More compelling, though, is to have accounts on each of the instances that revolve around your specific interests, engaging heavily on the local scene and using the federation for related conversations.

The complications of maintaining several identities across the federation could be too much for most people. If Mastodon lasts long enough for late adopters to find a thriving instance populated by like-minded people sharing an interest, I suspect this single instance will be the gateway. A lot of people may hang out in their local instance; others might venture beyond.

This could also present an opportunity for organizations—not to hawk their products as they do on Facebook or Twitter, but to create a place for people with relevant interests to hang out.

Ford Motor Co. could launch an instance dedicated to Mustang lovers. Dell might create one for cloud engineers. My friend and former podcast co-host Neville Hobson suggested I set up an instance for everyone engaged with the FIR Podcast Network. Maybe I will, if I find the time.

We in the communications profession talk endlessly about building real relationships around substantive conversations in online communities. Mastodon’s model provides the foundation to do exactly that—and get it right this time.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, a lot.

To begin with, most of the instances created so far are run by hobbyists who could lose interest and fail to install updates, fail to enforce the rules, let the whole thing die or uninstall it altogether.

Then there’s the Twitter analogy, bringing people who expect to find Better Twitter. Yes, Mastodon addresses a lot of what’s wrong with Twitter, but it’s not really a Twitter clone. Frustrated, those people will give up quickly.

Rochko could do a lousy job at improving the interface, leaving only early enthusiasts and failing to attract new users.

It might never get easy to find an instance that interests you.

Marketers could flood Mastodon, presenting an insurmountable challenge to volunteer moderators and kill it with commercialism.

A spike in interest

Instances are cropping up everywhere. People are joining instances like crazy. A user count bot on Mastodon.Social—Rochko’s original instance—shows 50,364 accounts, 904 of which joined in the hour before I checked, 2,894 in the prior day and 7,353 in the previous week. Some other instances are experiencing equally impressive growth, but that doesn’t mean squat in terms of a long-term prognosis.

I do know I’m enjoying the hell out of it, more than I have enjoyed Facebook or Twitter recently. It has a more organic community vibe to it.

If I had to bet real money, I’d bet against Mastodon. I know the chances of an upstart social network’s succeeding are slim. They’re even slimmer when there’s no money behind it, just a bunch of hobbyists, but I hope it becomes something important. It could fill a sorely needed gap in the social networking world.

A version of this post first appeared on Shel Holtz’s blog.

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