What Makes Mastodon different from corporate social media?

I recently had the opportunity to “pitch” Mastodon to a couple wonderful friends of mine, and in doing so, got them excited about Mastodon and the fediverse. It caused me to reflect on what really excites me about Mastodon and the fediverse at large. There's a few things that specifically jump out at me.

Let's look at each one in more detail!

Your service provider is not a corporation seeking to exploit you

Mastodon is a piece of software that enables anyone to create a social network. While a corporation could create such a network, most of the social networks that have been created within the fediverse have been created by individuals or small groups of people dedicated to serving a small community. Instead of a source of income, mastodon serers are typically paid for by their community or by the generosity of their administrators.

Corporate social networks and messengers like Twitter, Facebook, Discord, Instagram, etc. are designed to provide users with a free service in exchange for using their personal information to make money. Whether this is through advertising, selling products, or whatever, the intention is to make money. Frequently, these services wind up modifying the content users consume in order to increase their interactions with that service. This can lead to emphasizing emotionally arousing content, such as descriptions of people being awful to one another, etc. inadvertently skewing user's perception of the world and the people in it.

Mastodon based social networks typically don't engage in this behavior. While there's nothing stopping them from doing so, leaving a mastodon social network that is misbehaving is super easy, which leads us to our next benefit.

You own your relationships

One of the biggest problems I have with Facebook in particular is the fact that it holds your relationships hostage. If you don't have a Facebook account and follow their rules, you cannot interact with the people on there. If Facebook begins to engage in behavior you don't approve of, leaving Facebook involves leaving those relationships behind. Given the degree to which Facebook inserts itself into the social interactions people have with one another, this can result in such extremes as entirely losing contact with friends outside of Facebook, if social events and communication were predominantly done on Facebook.

(Twitter and some of the other social networks aren't as bad, allowing people without accounts to read public posts from users of their social network. But the problem still exists.)

This isn't the case when using Mastodon. As a decentralized collection of interoperating but independent social networks, for the most part if you don't like the policies or choices of the individuals that run your local server, you can move and bring all of your relationships with you. As long as you are using a social network that is compatible with Mastodon, you can talk to anyone that is using Mastodon anywhere in the fediverse.

For example, If you make a lot of friends on coolkids.chat, you could move to radfolks.city and still follow and chat with all of the friends you made on coolkids.chat. For the most part, there are no restrictions on who you can talk to. There are even tools for exporting and importing the lists of people you follow so that you can easily migrate to a new server.

Your relationships and friendships are never limited. You don't have to choose between your friends and your values if you don't like the values of the people running your social network. You can just leave and keep chatting like nothing ever happened.

(It is true that some servers fully block other servers in the fediverse. However, nothing stops folks from having multiple accounts with different server wide block lists, or finding servers that don't block the servers you want to interact with.)

The Fediverse is diverse

Sometimes when I first describe Mastodon to someone, they complain about the confusing nature of decentralization, asking “Why do they have to make it like that?” Lately, I've been wanting to turn that around and say “Why does the fediverse have to be Mastodon?”

Mastodon is NOT the whole of the fediverse. It's one piece of software for running a twitter like social network. There are many other free social network platforms out there that folks can get and use to run their own social networks. And the best part about those platforms is that they interoperate with Mastodon and every other piece of software that uses the common “ActivityPub” language.

Here are a few examples of other pieces of software, and the social media networks you can create with them.

Even better, if you start on one platform and migrate to another, you can still follow and read all of the content being published by the users to used to follow on the previous platform. They're all (more or less) completely interoperable. If you prefer an instagram style interface, join a Pixelfed network. But you can still see videos posted by folks using PeerTube and “toots” by Mastodon users and long blog articles written by Plume users... All from within your Pixelfed account!

And more platforms are showing up every day!

The fediverse has locality

On many corporate networks, there is a single social network on which all of the users exist. All are subject to the rules and regulations of the single, centralized administration team. Discovery of new users to follow is done by following people you already know and seeing who they follow, through algorithm controlled high level recommendations, or through discovering off site, such as finding the social media accounts of celebrities.

While it's true that within the fediverse, any user can follow any other user anywhere in the fediverse, and could theoretically discover the fediverse addresses of public figures off site and follow them.... The fediverse has something else going on that creates some richer experiences.

Instead of being a single large pool of users, users are all located in smaller social networks that interoperate. This creates various levels of discovery. There is no central algorithm recommending users to people. Instead, you can use the local timeline to see users that are using the same server as you, and you can use the federated timeline to find users that are using servers that your server knows about.

That federated timeline can sometimes be hard to explain, so let me spend an extra paragraph on it. The federated timeline is a composite of all public posts from users follows by people on your local server, as well as all public posts from servers that share any relays your administrators have subscribed to. Put simply, it's all public posts from everyone “nearby” to your server.

This means that one server in the fediverse might have one kind of perspective on the larger fediverse, while a different server has a completely different perspective. In a sense, there are real “neighborhoods,” that you “live” in, and each neighborhood might look and feel entirely different.

Most importantly, each individual server in the fediverse is independently moderated. What kinds of speech, behavior, and content are acceptable on each server is completely determined by that server. There is no central authority to make decisions about what kinds of content are permitted overall.

Moderators on large corporate social networks apply a broad brush towards everyone, frequently disenfranchising marginalized groups of people or indirectly influencing political situations by banning certain kinds of speech. In the mastodon compatible fediverse, you can always find a server that will permit the kinds of content you want to talk about. At worst, you could theoretically create your own with your own rules.

The fediverse having locality means that different social network “neighborhoods” within the fediverse have different kinds of content. In one “neighborhood”, you might see radical folks arguing for violent revolution, but not allowing erotic content. Another “neighborhood” might encourage erotic content but not ban highly charged political content. Another “neighborhood” might be dedicated to free unfettered speech, while another might ban anyone that even remotely engages in bigotry or hate speech.

What's probably the most amazing about this is that servers can exist “in between” these neighborhoods. Even when two servers refuse to talk to one another, you can talk to them both so long as you don't run afoul of their rules of who they will and won't talk to. Perhaps you're a server dedicated to open source conversation and don't want to get involved in political arguments. Your users could theoretically follow users from servers dedicated to leftist dialogue as well as conservative dialogue, despite those two servers perhaps blocking one another.

Locality allows every server in the fediverse to make its own decisions about who it wants to interact with, instead of requiring everyone to adhere to a single arbitrary set of rules provided from on high.

Note

I've used the term server and social network interchangeable above. Outside of this post, people sometimes refer to these as instances. I am referring to the independent social networks that are created when a user runs their own social network software. In other words, a single mastodon server is its own independent social network interoperable with other social networks that run compatible software.