What is Mastodon & why so far it’s a clunky alternative to Twitter

Lately it seems like something called Mastodon is on the minds of many a Twitter user.

There is a wave of people tweeting “let’s dump Twitter and go to Mastodon now that Musk has taken over!” However, so far I don’t see Mastodon as a solid alternative to the admittedly annoyingly musky Twitter.

I do think we need an alternative. Elon Musk’s first few days of owning Twitter have been really bad.

But there are 4 key problems with Mastodon at this point. As a result, overall, I don’t see science social media or more specifically stem cell social media developing over there very easily. Maybe Mastodon can drastically change or improve? It doesn’t seem too likely, but I’m going to keep trying out Mastodon.

Here’s my account over there: @knoepfler@mstdn.science. I’ll still be on Twitter too @pknoepfler.

Mastodon vs Twitter
I’m not leaving Twitter for Mastodon anytime soon because of big clunky problems with the latter. We’ll see what happens in coming weeks.

What is Mastodon?

Mastodon is a six-year-old social network like Twitter or Facebook, but it works differently. While it has some Twitter-like vibes, it is set up in a really different way.

Mastodon is structured with a grouping unit called servers. It’s decentralized by definition, which is annoying.

There are more than three thousand servers and often they are extremely specific. For instance, I’m a biologist who also does genomics and genetics research. I also focus on developmental biology and cancer, but there is no server that covers all of those topics.

Some have said that it doesn’t matter which server you belong to, but I’m not so sure yet. For instance, certain types of searches only look for results within one server. The server in which you are currently active.

The decentralized nature is a big part of the challenge with Mastodon. It feels like trying to use a slide rule or something, not that I ever did that.

The site is also unfamiliar and will need some getting used to in coming weeks or months. Will people stick with it?

Mastodon headaches

My initial experience on Mastodon has not been very positive and fits with negative feedback from other Twitter users. Elizabeth Bik has helpful threads on her experiences over there and she notes some of the same issues I later found. A HT to her.

Here are the main issues I see.

Mastodon is sometimes very slow, which could be resolved if they continue to grow and can direct more resources into speeding up. For now, it is so slow that is at times almost unusable. It needs to be consistently speedy.

Searching on the site is a bad experience. I tried searching for “stem cells” and for many minutes nothing seemed to happen. At some point it seemed like the search gave up and I got no results.  I had a similar bad result with other searches like “stem cell” (singular) or “CRISPR”.  It’s also not a great experience when you are searching for other users on the site. It needs a powerful but simple universal search tool.

No organized moderation and unclear privacy. The site also seems to have no organized entity moderating posts. The BBC reported finding instances of abuse and it seems up to servers to try to deal with that kind of thing. It’s not clear how well that’ll work. As Mastodon grows, it needs robust and logical moderation.

I’ve also heard that DMs on Mastodon are not necessarily private. In the Musk era, it’s not clear what the status of DMs is on Twitter though. Previously I had assumed they would be confidential. Maybe we’ll have to pay $8 to keep our DMs confidential on Twitter?

Then there is the server structure. It’s a problem too and I’ll discuss that more next.

Note, see a Tweet thread below with Mastodon tricks and tips.

About all those servers

Mastodon is more like a network of social media entities rather than one thing unto itself.

This explains all those servers, which are entirely independent. Some servers seem to function much better than others. Certain servers also have more problems. It seems that many servers require applying to be in them, which seems weird to me.

The decentralized “structure” makes things clunky and messy.

The overall network doesn’t necessarily have coherence or consistent policies.

There is no easy way to search for specific servers either. I ended up Googling to find the “.science” server. I don’t even know yet if I like .science and I could switch. For instance, I just realized that .science is more focused on microbiology.

Dr. Bik tweeted that her account over on the .scholar server was suspended for cross-posting on Twitter and on Mastodon. Ouch. That makes no sense.

The servers issues also sets up a roadblock to people even signing up for Mastodon. It took me almost a week to decide what server to pick and until you pick, you can’t sign up. I’m not even sure I like the server I picked yet, but switching is possible it seems.

I don’t see a workable solution to the decentralized nature of Mastodon.

Looking ahead

To be fair, Mastodon is entirely new to many of us. Maybe we’ll get used to it. Over time, for instance, we may get the hang of searching better.

The site now has no ads, which is nice, but they do have sponsors.

For the time being, I’m not quitting Twitter and switching entirely over to someplace else. There’s no way I’m paying Twitter $8 or anything unless somehow I undergo a radical change of heart or Musks leaves.

I guess part of me hopes and predicts that Musk will give up on owning Twitter sooner rather than later.

If Mastodon is not the solution here, is there another social network that’s a better alternative to Twitter?


4 thoughts on “What is Mastodon & why so far it’s a clunky alternative to Twitter”

  1. Not exactly wrong points on Mastodon, but to add some perspective—

    Mastodon is built on an open protocol (ActivityPub), so users can migrate their data beyond Mastodon instances—they can migrate it to other platforms entirely. And the level of decentralization or centralization on any given instance can be different—instances can function as their own centralized networks, for all intents and purposes. So while your points may be true for Mastodon as it stands currently, or for your instance, it’s important to consider that Mastodon is ingrained in a larger network of ActivityPub platforms (commonly called the Fediverse).

    Again, not exactly wrong. But the beauty of Mastodon is there are open doors everywhere—whereas social media giants lock your account onto their platform as soon as you get through the door.

    1. I would like to see Mastodon improve, so I appreciate the points you made! I just think it’s important to also consider the concept of the Fediverse, more broadly.

  2. Inga Andersdotter

    I’ve been happy so far with Tribel. LinkedIn is not my idea of social media. A lot of people feel it does do well with business networking specifically. For better or worse, that isn’t social media.

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