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Could Mastodon take over from Twitter - and how do you join?

We explain why the decentralised social media site is now in favour, and what makes it different.

WHETHER IT LASTS or not, there’s a revolution threatening to take place on Twitter: thousands of users are signing up to rival social media sites, saying they want to jump ship. 

The motivation for the majority of them is the recent takeover of Twitter by South African billionaire Elon Musk, who has made a number of major changes since he became head of the company.

It was expected – and feared by some – that a Musk takeover would bring sweeping change, and he delivered on the expectation. He fired the Twitter board, and days later fired half of Twitter’s 7,500-strong staff, including some employees in Ireland. 

There’s more change to come. Musk very recently made the decision to suspend people who have set up Twitter parody accounts, after numerous people mocked him on the site. Now that he holds the power, he can deal with any petty grudge however he wants.

And as he’s also a prolific tweeter, people know within minutes what he’s done. That said, the decision to let go of staff did not have the same transparency to it, with questions raised about how it was done here in Ireland. 

As the new head of Twitter, Musk faces a raft of unenviable challenges. He has said many times he wants to reduce spam and bot accounts. In an effort to fix this, he decided to get rid of the current verification system and introduce a $7.99 monthly charge for Twitter Blue, which verifies accounts. Musk claims that prioritising verified accounts under the Twitter algorithm will reduce negative behaviour, but it’s not at all clear yet if that will work. 

What is clear, though, is that many Twitter users are hungry for a new way: they want to take what they loved about Twitter (a means of instant communication and connection, a platform for their thoughts) and leave what they don’t (huge volumes of negativity and trolling, a general feeling of Twitter being a hellscape, a billionaire making Thanos-like changes).

Over the past 15 years, social media has evolved from a hopeful place where it felt like people finally had a new way of connecting, to a place where darkness no longer lurked, but was welcomed in.

That darkness became manifest, appearing in the form of misinformation, disinformation, racist and phobic tweets, figureheads of alt-right movements able to spread their words widely, pile-ons, the Capitol insurrection, overwhelming and manipulative algorithms, and acres of ads. No wonder people wanted some sort of change.

The difference now is that as of this week, niche alternatives are going mainstream, and one in particular is standing out: Mastodon.

If you’re a Twitter user, you’ll have seen many tweets in your timeline over the past few days from people saying they’ve set up a new account on Mastodon. But what is Mastodon, how does it differ from Twitter, and what could be the impact of this move?

What is Mastodon?

Well, it’s an extinct tusked animal, an American metal band, and a decentralised, federated social media site. It’s the latter we’re concerned with here.

It’s a what now?

A decentralised, federated social media site.

To roll back a bit: Mastodon is around six years old. It’s seen as a left-leaning operation. It’s decentralised, by which we mean that it is made up of servers – which are called ‘instances’ in Mastodon parlance.

You know the way Twitter is one website which all users join? That’s because it is centralised. Mastodon works differently.

Think of each server as its own website. They are all distinct places with their own names and aims and, crucially, their own ‘owners’ who run them and fund them.

So on Mastodon, you don’t have a corporation or an individual running the operation as a whole. You do though, have power in the hands of those who run the servers, but when they sign up they have to abide by Mastodon’s covenant. Among the pledges are that the server will have “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia”. 

Where does this federated stuff come in?

It means that while the servers/Mastodon websites are distinct, they can all communicate with each other – you can mention someone who’s on another server in the server you’re in, etc. So the servers aren’t totally disconnected from each other. 

They’re part of what’s called a ‘fediverse’: a federated universe. These members aren’t all microblogging sites like Mastodon, they also include PeerTube, which is like YouTube. And even though these sites are different, as they’re part of the fediverse the servers can communicate with each other. And you only need one account to access all of this.

Here’s more information (written in a non-technical way) on how all that works, and why it matters.

To get a little nerdier, Mastodon uses an open web protocol called ActivityPub to let its servers ‘talk’ to each other. There’s more on that here.

So how does Mastodon work?

Mastodon servers are available via its app, and on desktop/touch (the Safari or Chrome app etc on your phone).

Mastodon is a microblogging site, so its servers work the same as on any forum or social media platform, really. You can post your thoughts, share pictures, communicate with people, or just read posts.

Your posts are called ‘toots’ (I know), but a staffer from told me this will soon be changing to ‘publish’.

You can follow people and have them follow you.

One thing that is a bit weird, though, is it doesn’t have an inbox. It can seem like you’re sending a private DM, but there aren’t ‘direct messages’ like on Twitter per se on Mastodon. Instead, the posts have their visibility set to only those who are tagged in them. So you’re best using a bit of caution here around what you post in such messages.

Also, there is a 500-character limit on Mastodon, just under double that of Twitter. So posts can be longer. Hence the ‘microblogging’ aspect. 

You might also notice that there’s no advertising on Mastodon. That is one of the most interesting parts of the user experience – how much we’ve gotten used to ads on social media platforms.

Any other differences?

Well, there’s no emphasis on virality, and the algorithm doesn’t follow the same rules as Facebook or Twitter. You’ll see it described as people being encouraged to build community rather than an audience on Mastodon servers.

The posts appear in chronological order. 

There can be ‘content warnings’ or ‘CWs’ applied to toots, which you have to click into to see. You can also filter topics for a certain length of time, and mute people temporarily.

How do I join?

It’s a little more complicated than Twitter, as you have to be approved. But I found that quite swift (though the scale of the new members means this might take a while on some days).

I signed up via as I had heard this was the Irish Mastodon site. I got an email asking me to verify my email. “Once you confirm your e-mail address, we will review your application,” said that email. Five minutes later, I got an email saying “Welcome to Mastodon”, with some tips on how to get started.

I then downloaded the app, and had to search for the Irish server in order to access it, but the site is also available on desktop via that URL above.

While there’s a lot of terminology to learn, it wasn’t that difficult to figure out how to use Mastodon. That said, I’m not really great for reading instruction manuals and tend to just dive in anyway. 

First impressions?

That it felt a lot like Twitter in the old days, without ads or viral posts, without bells or whistles. It got smoother to use as the days went on.

People were being very eager and informative, just like Irish Twitter was back in the day. I saw very little negativity, and no trolling on my visits. But it’s early days yet.

PastedImage-7799 Mastodon Mastodon

Can Mastodon cope with all these new people joining?

Not exactly, but it’s trying.

According to Karlin Lillington from the Irish Times, had 200 members a week ago. It now has 8.1k at the time of writing.

A post yesterday by the team who run said that due to the influx: “You may experience slowdowns, delayed emails, delayed notifications, and some lag on your timelines. This will improve in time.” 

Will people really leave Twitter?

The jury is out. In this reporter’s experience, the site is basically like Irish Twitter. Many of the same faces and names were on there as on my Twitter feed.

That makes sense given the people moving over, but it got strange posting to Mastodon AND Twitter, so I prioritised Twitter where I have a bigger following and reach.

If people have accounts on both sites, they might find themselves prioritising the bigger one over the smaller one, depending on the aim of their post. They might want the greater reach – or they might actually turn to Mastodon where they are less likely to receive the volume of negativity or criticism that Twitter has become known for. I can see people doing that with personal or sensitive posts.

There will undoubtedly be people who leave Twitter and stick to an alternative, but if not enough follow suit they might find Mastodon et al getting a lot lonelier in the future. Who wants to talk into a void?

So the key is whether people persist in posting on Mastodon (and the other alternatives), and keep their accounts active. Mastodon needs to reach a sort of critical mass in terms of enough members to make posting on there worthwhile.

Also, people will have to get used to a new way of approaching their posts, if Mastodon becomes an important Twitter alternative, as opposed to just another means of posting online. They might miss the global feel to it, the reach their posts have, and being on one centralised website. 

With so many new members, some Mastodon servers will undoubtedly run into moderation issues too. If you get a swathe of trouble-makers, it might be hard to deal with them compared to dealing with a few one-off incidents.

But unlike Twitter, which took a while to get outspoken on moderation, Mastodon servers are supposed to have a much more hands-on approach. That can get difficult when you have more users though, as this excellent post from content moderation expert Mike Masnick shows.  

So for now, we just have to wait and see what happens. Toot toot! 

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