Join the anti-capitalist social network.

Mastodon might be tiny compared to Facebook, but it’s laying the foundations for a post-corporate social internet.

What is Mastodon, and why is it promising?

Over the course of April, there has been a small exodus of Twitter users to a new social network called Mastodon. The phenomenon attracted a bit of attention from the tech press, including multiple features in Wired and Motherboard. On April 1, Mastodon had about 20,000 users; by May, there were over 500,000 (although some are surely bots). It is especially popular in Japan and France.

Mastodon has two main distinguishing features that set it apart from other social networks: it’s decentralized and open-source.

Decentralization: a network of networks

Instead of one big social network, Mastodon is a network made up of smaller networks called instances, each hosted by a different administrator. You choose one instance as your home base but you can communicate seamlessly with anybody on any Mastodon network. You can also create your own instance.

Decentralization empowers users. Let’s say the instance you joined one day threatens to add advertising into its feed. It would only take you a minute to export all your connections, join a new instance and re-import them. And if many users did this together, they can easily destroy and reconstitute an entire social network. By facilitating social network migration, Mastodon allows users to exercise their collective power, and gives them leverage to ensure administrators remain accountable and democratic.

The endless possibilities of open-source

Mastodon is also open-source, meaning that all of its source code is visible, and that we know “what’s under the hood” (or at least those literate in programming languages do). This also keeps the network accountable to the user.

“Mastodon isn’t built for selling your eyeballs or analytics to advertisers. Allowing anyone to inspect its code and submit improvements means that it’s built for people, by people, under the scrutiny of people .”— Eugen Rochko (creator of Mastodon)

There is also already a sizeable community of volunteer programmers working on new features and other improvements. If you’ve got the skills, you’re welcome to get involved and contribute.

Open source also means that every individual instance can be customized to tailor that community’s needs or whims. So for example, in witches.town they use witchy custom icons and have renamed a few things:

If that kind of customization seems superficial, keep in mind that Mastodon is at the very beginnings of its development. In the future, the sky’s the limit. Instances are free to try whatever experiments they want, as long as they remain able to interact with all the other Mastodon networks.

Wait, didn’t you say this was anti-capitalist?

I’ll be honest, that sensational headline was partially clickbait. Here’s why it was necessary.

Although Facebook often declares that their mission is to “connect people”, one of the main sources of its profits is selective disconnection. In order to create space in the newsfeed for ads, insufficiently popular posts are hidden. Users have little control over their newsfeed and little knowledge of how it is ranking the posts they see, and certainly have no way of signalling to the algorithm that a particular status update is of particular importance. This arrangement is an extremely profitable one for Facebook, but it does come at a cost for the user.

Rather than anti-capitalist, it is more accurate to call Mastodon a nonmarket social network. It decommodifies the social internet by giving users ownership and control over their connections. It doesn’t seek to maximize profit by means of selective disconnection in the newsfeed, and always lets people see the posts of those they follow. It empowers marginalized users and underfunded organizations by ensuring that they can distribute their content without paying to advertise it. And finally, it makes it very difficult for instances to profit off of their users, because they can always exercise their option to leave, and without disrupting their social media lives. (Sounds kind of dignified, doesn’t it?)

A thriving Mastodon could even have an immediate impact upon the corporate networks, whose valuations rest in part on a shaky foundation of user complacency. If users change their habits and demonstrate that their loyalty can’t be assumed, it will put future profits at increased risk, a development to which investors would not react well.

Late last year, a Guardian editorial recommended that Twitter users band together to purchase the troubled network and run it themselves for their own benefit (a cool idea!). It can be taken a step further, even: if enough Twitter users temporarily left the platform for Mastodon, they could collapse the stock price and be able to purchase their own network for far cheaper. After all, a social network is worthless without the people that compose it.

Thriving, eh? Easier said than done.

I hear you. Social networks only start getting fun and interesting once they’re already populated and successful. Facebook got there first, has fended off every challenger, and it’s naive to think any new network will fare differently.

But we built Facebook, brick by brick, connection by connection. Yes, it took a while. And if we want control over our social media destinies, we’re going to have to do it again. Mastodon might be small now, but it’s growing quickly.

There’s no better day than today to create a profile. You probably have some friends that have also been itching to be a part of a new social media future, so tell them too. You can choose an instance to join from the master list here, or start your own. (I started torontomusic.cloud, which might be of interest to musically-inclined people in Toronto.)

Mastodon seems worthy of our time and trust. And if it ends up failing or otherwise letting us down, in the end we’ll still own our connections and can decide where to migrate next.