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A missed opportunity of Mastodon, the Twitter destroyer

Mastodon is a new breed of social media, flagship planet of the fediverse, a decentralized open-source non-commercial putting-the-user-first alternative to Twitter. Founded by a then 24-year-old student Eugen Rochko, the platform has been up for two and a half years. It now boasts over 2 million registered users. Easy-to-follow explanations of how it works and what makes it different can be found here.

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TweetDeck? No, Mastodon.

I am glad this is still possible. We, the regular folks outside of giant corporations, can still create something on the Internet that’s worth talking about and hope to rebuild the web we lost.

Varying codes of conduct between instances along with community moderation is an interesting fresh take on dealing with abuse, probably inspired by Reddit’s playbook.

Hosting a Mastodon instance is like growing your own microcosmic Twitter. It is sure to be fulfilling and exciting in many ways.

Two million users. Not bad! If you and Twitter weren’t meant to be together, but you fell in love with it anyway, Mastodon may be the one for you.

But…

Twitter is still Twitter. It has issues, but this is to be expected. It is a large and diverse ecosystem. Scores of talented people are working hard to make it better. And they have money to spend.

There is not much to stop Twitter from adopting Mastodon’s practices or technologies if and when it makes sense. Except for the part about being ad-free and crowdfunded. That would be more difficult for Twitter, though perhaps not impossible. Mastodon, however, is also bound to face financial dilemmas as years go by and the tides of enthusiasm of its supporters subside.

What’s more, Mastodon appears to (surprise!) have issues that are specific to its populace, governing structure and contribution processes, and some say the platform is cracking under the pressure.

But the biggest problem is that

Mastodon is too much like Twitter

Mastodon’s similarities with Twitter are abundant as it tries to take on the role of “a better Twitter”. The stark example of that is “tooting” and “toots” — which is what you get on Mastodon instead of “tweeting” and “tweets”. While intuitive to an ex-twitterer, the “TOOT!” button is hardly a functional requirement of a microblogging platform any more than “RIBBIT!” or “NEIGH!” buttons are, but rather a constant reminder of Mastodon’s shortcomings in the department of originality.

Does it matter? Yes, it does.

It is not impossible for a knockoff to be better than the original. But if I were to happen to, say, design original handbags on par with Gucci in quality and style, let alone better, I would never brand my work as “Gutti” or “Gussi”. Not even if my name was Gutti Gussi. Because that would risk sending the wrong message. If you really are doing something differently, it’s a good idea to set yourself apart as much as you can. Why insist on being looked upon as a copy, or an offshoot — if you are good enough to be the real deal by yourself? Unless, of course, you aren’t.

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What the technically focused creators of social media lookalikes — federated or otherwise — fail to appreciate time and time again is that

social platforms are an art form

Interactive art. Participatory art. Living art. Evolving art. Transient art. You may or may not be able to improve on a mousetrap design, but you don’t copy someone else’s painting and “fix” it. You have to play your own music, sing your own poetry and give life to your own visions. Anything less is an homage, a pastiche, or a parody.

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Not all about technology

Mastodon is an Elvis impersonator. A Roy Orbison cover band. I am not saying this to be harsh, but to make a point. There is nothing wrong with paying tribute to “the King”. Mastodon really had — and perhaps still has — a lot going for it, a lot of potential. It ventured to explore new territories, to be different. Unfortunately, it did not go far enough. It could have been truly great were it not born a moon to Twitter’s sun, but shone in its own right.

Easier said than done? Of course.

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Woz: Computers aren’t paintings.
Jobs: Fuck you. I’ll say “fuck you” every time you say that until you either stop or die. Try it. Say “computers aren’t paintings” again.
Woz: …Computers aren’t p-
Jobs: Fuck you.
Steve Jobs (2015)

Biochemist. An architect of online environments. Writing for the aliens. Trying to change the world.

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