For a long time, I couldn’t understand the hype around Mastodon, a decentralized alternative to Twitter. After some struggling, I finally made an acdount — and then realized its immense charm. However, it’s far from what its developers intended.
(Note: The following article contains messages which contain a plethora of naughty no-no words. I do not condone the messaging in these posts and use them primarily as examples of batshit insanity. You have been warned.)
To start off, I don’t think Mastodon could ever become a replacement for Twitter. It’s just not even close. The sign up process is much too obtuse, and requires a lot of thinking and strategy (strategy!) that the average social media peruser isn’t going to care about. That fact is combined with the idea that the platform is (likely on purpose) designed to be as unappealing to advertisers as possible, and that alternative forms of revenue have no way of coming in. No revenue means little funding, which means little growth, which means a small userbase. Looks like those “Musk Rebellion” dreams are dashed.
But there’s a good side to all of this. Mastodon really ought to stay small, because the majority of its charm comes not from being a Twitter alternative but from becoming one of the last “wild west” bastions left on the internet. In order to elaborate on that idea, I want to detail you my journey into signing up on Mastodon.
I’ll be honest, when I first went to check out Mastodon it was a total pain in the ass. Multiple times I got to the point where I was just about to quit, chalk the app up as some stupid obtuse piece of technology, and go on with my day. Fortunately, that did not happen.
The way Mastodon works is that when you register, you do not sign up for Mastodon itself. Rather you sign with a server, or a team. Your team is always part of your Mastodon account, and serves as the second part of your username (for example, someone’s username might be “email@example.com”, similar to an email address). But a team is not simply a handle, which is why I use the term “team” to refer to it. This is where Mastodon gets complicated.
Each host decides how much “access” to give to the rest of the Fediverse, or total list of Mastodon hosts. This access decides whether or not you can view, like, and follow others on different hosts. For example, a server dedicated to cybersecurity might allow you easy access to follow other servers related to technology, while blocking you from interacting with more unsavory servers.
Because of this, I needed two things. First of all, I needed a domain that was not something hokey like “gamedev.biz” or “technology.social”. Second of all, I needed something that could preferably give me maximum visibility to all of the Fediverse — I could always block people myself if necessary.
The problem I quickly ran into is that, if you’re just looking at “official” Mastodon servers, your choices are pretty limited. All of them have outrageously goofy URLs with sanitized, boring conversations. At first, I thought this was just the reality of Mastodon — that the decentralized social media was not really that decentralized at all, but just a handful of closely knit websites that resembled moreso spammy BBS forums of years past.
Then, I discovered The Mastodon Wars.
Introduction to The Mastodon Wars
In order to find good, niche servers, I decided to take an alternative route: looking at what servers were blocked. Part of it was just out of curiosity — how does one become so bad that you get isolated from a decentralized platform? Well, I noticed a few things about these blocked lists: chief among them was that, excluding the obvious spam servers, was that they all seemed to have the same set of offenders…
These offenders happened to be allied with each other, meaning that they could easily view, follow, and engage with one another. However, they did not reciprocate blocking these more popular servers, making them ideal targets if I wanted to see the full scope of the Fediverse.
I realized in my search that these were mostly offshoots of Kiwi Farms and 4chan. The former had just recently gotten their website smited off the Internet, while the former did exist but had no suitable social media variant. It was at this point I found out that the original Mastodon developers — hardcore leftists — had, seemingly by some Act of God, not thought about their decentralized social media being hugely popular to the recently deplatformed hardcore rightists. Sure, Mastodon expected bad actors — most of this blocking of servers and filtering had already existed at the start — but they did not expect this many people. There are no official numbers (lord knows Mastodon would like to keep it that way) but it appears that the majority of Mastodon users might just be these good old /g/-using right-wing nuts.
Remember back at the beginning of my Mastodon journey, when I was so confused as to why there were so few servers? This was an attempt to purge the 4chan users — Mastodon essentially made it so that, if you were going through official channels, you could only find servers that were “vetted” and approved by Mastodon themselves. This allowed them both to control their image as well as direct people to servers more “fitting” of their own tastes. So much for decentralization, huh?
That being said, all the strange and interesting characters appeared to be in these 4chan servers, so naturally I was more interested in signing myself up on that side of the fence. The naming scheme of the domains here were also a lot more… “colorful”, presumably to keep out normally functioning people. They consist of names like “freecumextremist.com”, “gangstalking.services”, and “genitalia.observer”. And, while I do admit these are all quite funny, I did realize I had to pick one that would cause the least damage to my public image. I ended up going with “cawfee.club”, a relatively innocent server whose name is in reference to a show about anime girls running a coffee shop. This server had a good mix of not having too many “extremists” locally (aka on the same domain) but still had a wide gate open to view most of the goings-on of the other servers.
Battlefield and Casualties
After I got used to using the app, I noticed something interesting — there are certain “battlefield” servers in the Mastodon Wars. In other words, there were servers on the left-leaning, traditional side of Mastodon who had not yet configured their “firewall” (or perhaps just really like arguing with people) who the right-wing 4channers could still interact with. These battlefield states are where the most “unique” conversations happen, as they are essentially no-holds-barred Twitter arguments (imagine the sort of shit people say when they aren’t moderated by a central neutral party…). Another interesting thing — perhaps the most interesting of all — was permadeath.
Think about the way Mastodon is architected for a moment. These are independent servers, all downloading the Mastodon software and connecting to the other Mastodon servers via a network. But if the server were to go down, all the users would have their accounts essentially wiped. This is because, while accounts can interact between servers, the storage of data such as follows and posts are all local.
This means that you have some personal stake in the success of each server — or, like I said before, team. This also makes the battlefield dynamic much more interesting. If you have hardcore beef with another server, wouldn’t you have some incentive to take it down by nefarious means?
To be fair, I don’t know if such battleground arguments have gone that far — I haven’t been tied into the Mastodon drama for long enough. But it does prove, like our redditor friend says, that server choice matters. Just like how picking Alliance or Horde decides your faction loyalty for life (flipfloppers DNI) you have a lot of stake in making sure your server stays alive and active, and preferably that your enemies get shut down instead.
Mastodon is not fun because it is social media. Mastodon is fun because it is social media PvP with permadeath enabled. It is a sort of weird, “hardcore” version of social media, where there is a high barrier to entry (understanding how the servers work, picking the right server, etc.) and a sort of server loyalty and “us versus them” mentality, mostly playful and competitive (just like real PvP) but can sometimes spiral out of control. Mastodon obviously cannot replace Twitter, and I don’t think it was designed to do that. They probably didn’t even consider Mastodon a “true” Twitter clone until it became profitable to do so (even then, to the credit of the original developers, it appeared they did not try incredibly hard to jump on the bandwagon — most of that was done by users themselves).
I also don’t think I would ever be more active on Mastodon than I would on Twitter. Mastodon is easier for casual conversations (meeting new people, engaging in small talk, having internet fights, etc.) but not as conducive for finding interesting things (finding art bots, people who post insightful content, people who post shitpost garbage, etc.). For my social media, I only care about the latter — that being said, I know there’s plenty who enjoy the former. And even then I don’t plan on uninstalling the app or anything — even now, about two months after the start of writing this article, I still check in on occasion. It’s just a matter of knowing what you’re getting into.