Why you should lean into Mastodon.
Mastodon will win. That’s a pretty dramatic statement, which should probably prompt a question. How can you be sure Mastodon will win? Let’s jump right to the answer:
Because someone will develop an app, that app change everything and it will be developed for Mastodon.
That’s a brash declaration, so let’s drill down and find out why I’m so confident.
Because it’s Open stupid
We can talk about the technical merits of platforms all we want but the real crux of the current social media platform war is walled gardens vs. open platform. Online social media in the beginning, before the dawn of the internet was walled gardens. These systems were designed to attract and trap users into an information silo so that they could be monetized with subscription fees. Walled gardens turn the user into the product by taking content generated by the user an turning it into a commodity that’s sold back to them. In the opening years of personal computing before the internet, CompuServe and later AOL took the idea of the online chat room and used it to craft the first social media experiences. They were the prototype of the modern walled garden, charging subscription fee’s to use their proprietary platforms. The introduction of the internet of course made commercial jailed applications obsolete by opening up and democratizing the online experience. Developers delivered applications built on open platforms that allowed users to participate in discussion groups, chats and forums without worrying about the constraints of closed system. Open protocols created an explosion of applications and innovation, users had choice and social media blossomed.
Competition and iteration honed the user experience and eventually consolidation took hold. Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter among many others won the race and promptly erected walled gardens of their own. The pendulum swung as the creators of these services rushed to monetize the user just as their predecessors had. One by one they’ve closed third party developer access to their applications and as momentum slows so does engagement. However innovation always finds a way.
Looking to solve this problem the developers of Mastodon wanted to find a way to re-democratize social media. Mastodon is a platform that’s designed to resist centralization by spreading out the heavy lifting of running a social media platform to several independent instances all using a common protocol. Each instance of Mastodon communicates with every other instance, doing for social media what the internet did for the networked computer, spreading out the load. In doing so it makes a resilient non monolithic engine for creating communities of people. The decentralized but federated nature of Mastodon once again opens the door to creative innovation and developers are rushing in.
Mastodon works on an open, mature protocol called Activity Pub enabling it’s federated capabilities but it also has an open API. The free and open API allows third parties to develop apps to not only exploit the capabilities of Activity Pub and Mastodon but also to extend them. In the closed walled gardens of Twitter and BlueSky this is something that is almost impossible to replicate. The only way any competitor can come close to offering the same opportunities is to open up themselves which of course means sharing in the monetization opportunities of the platform which is something none have seemed willing to do. As a not for profit entity, much like the creators of the foundational internet applications years ago and even today (think Linux foundation), Mastodon has no vested interest in how the platform is used and for the most part is agnostic to monetization. The stage has been set for what’s about to happen and what is already happening.
Someone will develop an app.
One of the biggest competitive advantages of Mastodon is it’s open architecture, which allows anyone to branch off of it, and also more importantly build client apps. If we’re equating right now in social media to the early days of the internet, SMTP and Mail are what Activity Pub and Mastodon are to social media are to social media. They’re the foundational pieces that are sparking a flood of behind the scenes development with creative minds developing client applications that even in this early stage are stunning. The open API and the nature of the federated protocols allow these apps not only to interpret the output from the engines that feed them, but also can extend features independently of their underlying systems, something that we have never seen in social media before. The app extending the engine is the undiscovered country of Mastodon and activity Pub. Competitors can’t yet conceive of matching these capabilities without jeopardizing their closed systems.
At some point some time soon someone, somewhere, somehow will develop an app that will change everything and it will be created in the fediverse, probably using mastodon as its engine. Book it.
All Things In Moderation
But wait… as they say… There’s more. As we drill down in to what social media is fundamentally we can identify the yoke around every single social media platform that exists today or has ever existed, moderation. Social spaces are as messy and unpredictable as the human species but people running social networks work in a continuing dualist quagmire, they need to make their patrons feel comfortable while at the same time giving them enough lee way to speak their mind. The two are not usually compatible as honest and open talk doesn’t integrate with feelings of comfort. Moderation is the problem that has been swept under the rug at many a shareholder meeting and is a dirty word when running decks at for potential investors. As we speak Twitter is imploding due to Elon Musk’s ignorance on the subject and others are at the very least sagging under the weight. Blue Sky, Twitters apparent successor is trying to solve the issue through automation and algorithmic moderation but even though it’s still in Beta with a very closed and highly curated user base these methods are not bearing fruit and require continuous human interventions.
Mastodon may not have solved the issue but it presents an better way. Mastodon delegates moderation across the fediverse to it’s federated instances and their administrators. If you use Mastodon you can essentially go shopping for your moderation style which has huge consequences within the social media experience. You can join an anything goes instance, a more balanced instance or a heavily moderated safe space instance. However the real miracle is that through federating all of these spaces you can still talk to and follow people on instances that are moderated differently than your own. Mastodon also gives users an extensive array of personal moderation tools that allow them to shape their own experience in a much more granular way than ever presented on previous commercial platforms. Social media sites that depend on algorithms and advertising have a vested interest in restricting the users ability to block content.
No other social media platform can deliver moderation shopping, granular user experience shaping or the width and breadth of client development that’s going on right now in the world of Mastodon. While most tech media are following the latest shiny thing in the blue skies above, they’re skipping over the innovation happening right now, because it’s so far out of their test pattern that they can’t see it.
Most popular social media sites today engage in algorithmic manipulation of the user experience. In some ways this can beneficial as it delivers curated content and discovery to a users stream but there’s also a very dark hand that manipulates the information presented to the user. Algorithms have been mostly employed as a monetization schemes to deliver targeted advertising, but there’s also been documented cases of manipulating large swaths of user time lines to affect political change, or in some cases to promote adversarial behavior between users. The latter a method to keep users online and engaged. These methods are also employed to suppress user content without their knowledge. Mastodon has no algorithmic manipulation of the users time line which on the downside forces the user to curate their own content but on a massive upside promotes genuine engagement with other users across instances. We’ve documented upward of 10X engagement on Mastodon instances as opposed to Twitter and this realization is slowly seeping up from the groundwater and into the top soil consciousness of content creators. These engagement numbers are only possible in an open well moderated platform. With engagement comes with eyeballs and eyeballs win.
Blue Sky’s Ahead
Mastodon broke wide open late last year as Elon Musk started dismantling Twitter and Mastodon was the only service that could expand fast enough to take that wave over the bow. As administrators and developers scrambled to add 10 million users in a little under six months just keeping the ship sailing became job one, adapting the user experience to expectations of those coming from a different space was until lately secondary. However, the large and still to this day steady influx of users is changing that condition rapidly as developers respond and take advantage of the open tools available to them. The core development team has also responded to user demand by adding the most requested features and more. The user experience is now on the front burner and of course the core competencies of the platform as we’ve learned cannot be easily matched. A long list of Mastodon killers have tried; Post, Counter Social, Hive, Parler, but none have gained the traction necessary to maintain escape velocity and none have challenged the walled garden concept or engaged third party app developers in the way that Mastodon has. No challenger has as of yet put together a model for moderation that matches the innovation of the distributed system, that while not perfect has saved Mastodon from sinking under it’s own weight as others are now experiencing. So if I’m placing my bet I’ll look backwards instead of forward and wonder how many bet on SMTP? How many bet on HTTP? If I’m using the past to look forward I’ll choose distributed, open and innovative all day long.
Mastodon will win.