Mastodon is harder than Twitter, and that's ok
The exodus from Twitter, ruined by Elon Musk, would be more intense if the main alternative emerging in this turbulent period, Mastodon, were more user friendly. Not that it’s rocket science, but the friction of using it, especially its onboarding, has disheartened some.
Mastodon exposes one of the two great assets of big tech: ease of use. One of the obsessions of Silicon Valley companies is to remove obstacles between their offerings and the users, even if this means compromising other important but “annoying” aspects, such as privacy.
Mastodon’s model is Elon Musk-proof. No billionaire would be able to buy the network because it’s decentralized and its code is open — it belongs to everyone and no one at the same time.
This huge advantage has, as a side effect, a slightly more complicated onboarding: instead of a central entity, which host the whole signing up process, content and everything else, Mastodon is a “network of networks” that communicate with each other. The first step, then, is to find one of these networks (instance, or server) that is accepting new users.
The concept is similar to that of email, although today this sector is quite concentrated in a few big players — Google and Microsoft, in particular.
When you create an e-mail at Gmail, you can talk to people on other “servers” such as Hotmail or Yahoo Mail.
By creating a profile on… I don’t know, masto.donte.com.br, you can talk to people on mastodon.social. (These are both Mastodon instances/servers.) The logic is similar to that of e-mail.
As I said, that ease of use is one of the trumps of big tech. The other is free (as in free beer). Almost every free (as in freedom) alternative will impose one or the other drawback, be difficult to use or requiring payments. Sometimes, both at the same time.
E-mail, by the way, is a great example of the Silicon Valley’s free advantage. It’s possible to get rid of Gmail and Outlook/Hotmail, two great free email offerings. Setting up your own mail server is very complex, hence the best way is to hire a managed service — which, unsurprisingly, will charge a monthly fee.
Fastmail, Tutanota, Migadu, Proton, Zoho: there are plenty of offers, all of excellent quality, all paid. Is it worth it? I think so, so much that I have been paying for my e-mail for more than five years. Is it for everyone? Not at all.
We live in a big tech world. Apart from all the problems that their predatory and careless business models generate, these big companies have changed the public’s expectations about digital services. They have hitchhiked services that were once restricted — by technical difficulties or financial barriers — to literally billions of people.
In this big tech owned world, there is still room for other ways of thinking, handling and exploring technology, but these will increasingly be seen as eccentricities.
It is significant that Mastodon has hit 1 million active users in the wake of Musk’s erratic decisions, but 1 million users is a drop in the ocean that is Twitter, with a quarter of a billion users. And even with that tiny base, specialized Mastodon instances and hosting services are overloaded.
Nevertheless, I’d like to end with a positive message: using Mastodon and migrating your email to smaller services are worthwhile endeavors. Vital, I would say, if we want to have the chance for a plural, diverse, open Internet — as it should always be. Hopefully, we will see more initiatives like Signal, which manages to offer an easy-to-use and free application, maintained by a structure with no for-profit or hidden goals.
For the rest, Mastodon will probably never become a Twitter — in terms of reach and influence — and this is fine. The important thing is that it and similar projects exist; that there are alternatives for those who, for whatever reason, crave healthier digital media.