Let’s time travel back to December, a time when Elon decided he didn’t care for journalists anymore and laid down the ban hammer on a wide swath of the press corp. There were headlines (ironically) about the death of free speech on Twitter and many cried foul from the roof tops as they scrambled to find alternate micro blogging services from which to promote their work. Mastodon became that safe haven for more than just a few reporters, along with others abandoning the bird shop once and for all. It felt like a watershed moment in social media as one of the sacred towers of surveillance capitalism seemed ready to give way to a free and distributed system.
Heady days. And then Elon changed his mind..
The Great Crawl
A lot of journalists started Mastodon accounts on the biggest instance they could find, announced their presence and expected the follower number to jump into the stratosphere. Unfortunately Mastodon doesn’t work that way, it was invented with organic interactions in mind not advertising. There are no large push mechanisms to manipulate, no algorithms to game, and it certainly doesn’t play favorites to celebrity. Believe it or not that’s exactly why it’s social media gold, but I’ll get to that later.
Our poor downtrodden scribes banished from Twitter landed in a world that must have looked like Dorothy’s Oz, and they weren’t in Kansas anymore. Their previous notoriety did not automatically translate to the new medium (mostly although some thrived) and they struggled to manage. There was also the ever present question of search, users spread across different servers sometimes have trouble finding each other (A problem that’s being addressed) and this presented a not insurmountable barrier, but a barrier non the less. With all that said momentum was starting to slowly shift in their favor, and for those that took engagement seriously Mastodon started to bear fruit. But that’s when it happened, Elon on one of his many whims un-banished the scribes. Even after they had spilled many gallons of ink deriding Twitter, they went back on bended knee to eat crow in exchange for perceived eyeballs and the comfort of familiar surroundings.
Despite the obvious hypocrisy one can hardly blame them, in those December days there was a lot of uncertainty and friction. They looked at their follower counts on Mastodon and their follower counts on Twitter and decided crow tasted just fine. When dollars are at stake decisions crystalize and ideals can sometimes fall by the wayside, especially when one has deadlines to meet and editors to please. If digital engagement can be done more easily at Twitter then so be it. But I don’t think anyone ever stopped to measure the quality of that engagement, sometimes numbers, especially follower numbers do lie.
Not everyone gave up on Mastodon, not by a long shot. There are several journalists and media types that have stuck around to develop a following on Mastodon, identifying, quite rightfully that Twitter is fiefdom not a democracy and that having your living dependent on the whims of the king isn’t a very good long term bet. For those that have embraced the platform they’ve found a wealth spring of genuine interaction from an audience well suited to consume serious news, especially electronic print media. Nowhere will you find a higher concentration of avid readers and activists. Even the sports fans have wondered on to instances catering especially to them.
With that all said its time to talk turkey and get to some numbers, albeit anecdotal but somewhat compelling. We’ll start with my own experience, although I was hardly anything that ever moved the needle on twitter, I was a very minor sports blogger that had accumulated 749 followers over about ten years. In it’s hay day I enjoyed a lot engagement with my fellow sports fans and managed to drive a few at least to my long form blog, things were good. Of course I didn’t have time to play games with the algorithm and eventually it along with the non chronological time line killed most interaction for me and I stopped writing my blog. Twitter became a place where the only things that showed up in my time line were professional Twitter users and some select reporters. Organic engagement dwindled to about 9 or 10 people that always managed to find each other in my timeline and that was about it. When I made the jump to Mastodon my time on Twitter had dropped to almost nothing. My digital media time had shifted to YouTube and long form blogs.
I started a Mastodon server on a whim (I’m a network engineer) and was amazed with the culture, feel, and genuine interaction. The idea of self moderated instances all connected to each other also really appealed to me. I was geeked out immediately. Not only that but it was now ok to actually follow people and they actually followed back freely. My follower count exploded and within 30 days I had surpassed my follower count on Twitter.
Now let’s look at that follower count on Twitter. At some point in December I decided I was going to shift entirely to Mastodon, and slightly obsessed with bringing my old crowd over I went through every single follower and sent them a DM inviting them to my Mastodon instance. Here’s what I found..
10 X Engagement
As I was going through every single user manually I noticed about 25% were bots, a little high but not entirely surprising, but the next number kind of blew my mind. Of the real followers remaining about 40-50% hadn’t posted anything in a year or more. Some hadn’t posted anything in five years! A lot of these people were actively posting every day at the peak of our engagement but now had seemingly abandoned, or at the very least had become spectators on the platform. Twitter had never pruned any of these accounts, I mean really why would they, the inflated numbers make everyone happy. I’d estimate that about only 25% of my follower base was still engaged with twitter. Of that 25%, I’d say only about 10% still actually showed up in my time line and I’m sure even less were exposed to anything I posted.
Of course those are all estimates and I’m just one user but let’s take a look at the converse experience on Mastodon. I joined Mastodon on November 13th 2022 with a follower count of zero. By December 15th I had reached 749 followers. Of those followers 90% had posted to Mastodon within the previous 7 days. about 40% had posted within the last 48 hrs. That is an amazing rate of engagement. About 90% of my posts had elicited some measure of response whether it had been a simple like or a boost. About 60% had elicited a direct response from another user. How did I achieve that engagement? As the instance administrator I was very actively engaging others across the fediverse. However the administrator has no special check mark beside the account name, there was no super power afforded to me to gain followers. To everyone else on the fediverse I was just another user but the key is I was a very busy user.
In analyzing this I thought that I must be an anomaly, as that level of engagement is unusually high when it comes to most forms of social media. So i casually observed the activity in the local feed of our instance and noticed that active users enjoyed very high levels of engagement as well. To confirm things I polled a few smaller journalists that had stuck to Mastodon and actively engaged with their readership both here and on twitter. We found that the number was about 10X real engagement on Mastodon (If you’re active) compared to Twitter. 1000 users on Mastodon equals about 10,000 users on Twitter. Those are reach numbers you simply can’t get anywhere else.
UPDATE: Corroborating numbers
To bolster our claims even more, and possibly more dramatically, Martin Holland posted to Mastodon on February 9, 2023 his findings:
Martin uses a far more scientific method which seems to suggest our 10X engagement number isn’t as anecdotal as we first assumed. Scaling from 500 followers to 40,000 followers in about three months is amazing, getting as much engagement (and climbing) as a 240,000 follower Twitter account is spectacular!
Now that we’ve made some incredible statements about the powerful reach you can obtain on Mastodon, let’s talk about the hard stuff. In order to engage on Mastodon you can’t just show up, post your latest piece and then leave like a hit a run. You need to actively engage your audience and build your presence by, yes you heard me right, following people! You also have to post on non deadline days, I know the algorithms at Twitter usually did some of this work for you, but at what cost? What percentage of your follower base are bots and what percentage are zombies? Are you actually reaching readership there? Are you driving numbers to your work? Another thing to consider is that if you have a large enough account at Twitter, the gravity of that account will bring loyal followers over to Mastodon and leave the rest behind. That follower number as we know from experience with Twitter can be a phantom, but it’s also not a reliable metric of reach even on Mastodon. Your reach is measured in your engagement and quality engagement opportunities on Mastodon are far easier to come by.
The Bad News
You’ve heard why Mastodon is the best social media deal in town right now but now its time to explain why nobody realizes it. Twitter was built to advertise, it was and is a money making venture and as such Twitter needs to deliver tools to measure uptake and eyeballs. Mastodon was never built with any of this in mind, actually there are features left out to discourage counting likes and boosts. Mastodon was built purely to foster organic interaction and as such it’s a journalists gold mine, but there’s very few ways to actually measure it. As of yet there are zero analytics available for users to measure their visibility to other users. Consequently there’s no good number to point to when trying to define your reach. Engage on Mastodon though and you’ll see numbers rise on your primary platform.
Don’t Leave Money On the Table
We’ve seen the great crawl back to twitter and believe me I get why it happened, mouths to feed and all that, but if you don’t at least maintain a presence and stay active on Mastodon you’re leaving money on the table. There’s a rich well of engagement to mine on mastodon and any journalist or media person that ignores that fact does so at their own peril. Elon might not always be in a good mood, especially as he finds out his kingdom is built on bots and users that are long gone.