I’m generally leery of new social networks — both general interest and community-specific — but similar to when Google Reader left a gaping hole in my digital diet, the slow-motion collapse of Twitter has had me poking around other platforms while I completely rethink my online presence moving forward.
I reserved my name on HIVE and immediately realized it was a non-starter for a variety of reasons — mobile-only and myriad security concerns among them, but especially its early appeal to marketers — while I didn’t even bother with Post News because micro-payments are a zombie business model that will never scale.
I’m still tweaking Feedly to become the Google Reader successor it could be, but we live in a very different world now where so many sites don’t support RSS feeds and/or produce too much daily content, still prioritzing chasing social media algorithms and rented audiences. I’ve settled into Substack, both for hosting my own newsletter and reading others via their very nice app, and I’m even testing out their newish Chat feature, while considering experimenting with the podcast tool. I’m also posting a bit more regularly on LinkedIn, similar to what I used to post on Twitter, but way more curated, less often, and slightly less snarky.
Mastodon is the new shiny, although this is technically my second go-round with it. I can’t remember what first drove me there back in November 2017, but I suspect it was Trump-related, the beginning of the end for me on Twitter. While I’m enjoying it so far, I’ve seen many people making the mistake of approaching it and/or judging it as a Twitter replacement, which I think is a terrible idea.
I see Mastodon as an opportunity to start over, returning to the old Personal Learning Network approach that made Twitter so compelling in its earliest days, before the brands, bots, and bullshit took over. It’s also an opportunity to re-evaluate your presence on these platforms and understand exactly what you’re looking for. If social media is primarily about building a marketing platform for yourself (or your brand), you’re going to have a very different experience from someone who wants to have the news delivered to them piecemeal through a variety of hot takes, or wants to connect with interesting communities and/or individual voices.
Mastodon is arguably the epitome of one of my favorite quotes from The Cluetrain Manifesto:
“Nascent Web publishing efforts have their genesis in a burning need to say something, but their ultimate success comes from people wanting to listen, needing to hear each other’s voices, and answering in kind.” Rick Levine
The biggest challenge I’ve seen for a lot of people with Mastodon seems to be picking the right instance. It’s something you don’t usually have to think about when signing up for a social network, but picking the right instance is both incredibly important for optimizing your overall experience, and arguably a waste of time in the very beginning.
I landed on mastodon.social back in 2017 without understanding anything about the Fediverse, but after a couple of weeks getting my footing there this time around, started researching and monitoring other instances to see if there was a better fit for me. While there was nothing egregiously wrong with it, its size, lack of focus, and becoming the default for so many people fleeing Twitter meant its local feed wasn’t terribly interesting to me. Plus, understanding that most instances are run, funded, and moderated by individuals and volunteers, I ultimately wanted one that I’d be willing and able to support financially.
After a few weeks of research, I chose zirk.us because it’s relatively small, and its stated focus was appealing: “Literature, philosophy, film, music, culture, politics, history, architecture: join the circus of the arts and humanities! For readers, writers, academics or anyone wanting to follow the conversation.” With currently just over 4,000 users, its local feed has been a nice complement to my own curated feed, with much less noise than mastodon.social, and way better than anything Twitter’s algorithm surfaced for me.
Other instances that piqued my interest during my search that I considered joining included:
“A small, intentional community for poets, authors, and every kind of writer.”
“The Wandering Shop is an instance initially geared for the science fiction and fantasy community but open to anyone. Our local timeline should have the feel of a coffee shop at a good convention.”
“Remember when you first heard about Black twitter and thought it was actually a separate website? Was that just me?”
“Fosstodon is an English speaking Mastodon instance that is open to anyone who is interested in technology; particularly free & open source software.”
“ohai.social is a fast, secure and up-to-date Mastodon server where everyone is welcome. Join us!”
Whether or not you’ve found the right instance for you, here’s a few things I’d suggest for getting the most of your early experience so you can decide if Mastodon is worth your time on its own merits, regardless of what happens with Twitter. As they say, your mileage may vary.
- Do NOT try to recreate your Twitter experience. Despite some surface similarities, it’s not the same by design.
- Read your instance’s About page, including its Server Rules and be prepared to follow them. If you don’t like the rules, look for another instance.*
- Check the instance Admin’s profile and see what/how they post. If you’re not feeling them, you’re probably not going to find a comfortable home there.
- Follow people judiciously. Don’t feel obligated to follow anyone back, or to follow the same people you follow elsewhere. Curate your feed to create the experience you want, knowing everything you know now about social networks.
- Build your feed slowly. It’s not a race to have the most followers; it’s an ongoing journey to curate your preferred experience. There’s no algorithm to blame on Mastodon.
- Unfollow people judiciously.
- Observe, read, favorite, and boost more than you post at first. Boosts are like Retweets, but Favorites are just between you and the other person. There’s no algorithm to drive visibility — for better and worse, but mostly, for better.
- Use relevant hashtags and take full advantage of the alt text feature for images to ensure maximum accessibility.
- Don’t get too comfortable; your first instance might not be your permanent instance, and moving to a new instance is pretty easy, although you can’t move your posts.
If you’re already using and enjoying Mastodon, I’d encourage you to write your own take on it and spread it around, because you presumably recognize its potential. Drop a link in the comments as I’d love to read it, too!
If you don’t like Mastodon, that’s cool, but please stop writing uninformed op-eds about it for media organizations that desperately need Twitter to survive because the Fediverse isn’t a good fit for their broken business and engagement models.
For more useful tips about Mastodon and the Fediverse, check out fedi-tips.
PS: There’s been an active discussion around instance moderation and how to define “political” content, which has led some Black users feeling particularly unwelcomed as they’re being asked to post their own lived experiences behind content warnings to protect the delicate sensibilities of other users. “Find a better instance” isn’t the right answer in that scenario, although it may ultimately be what happens because even the Fediverse is made of people.