Email is ubiquitous. If I want access to email, I can simply sign up to an email provider like Gmail, Outlook, iCloud or hundreds of other email service providers. I can also set up my own email server. I can use a service provider’s email domain (e.g. @gmail.com) or buy a custom domain. And because there are standard protocols for sending and receiving email, no matter which option I choose – I will be able to communicate with anyone around the world.
This wasn’t always the case. Before email reached ubiquity, we had walled gardens like CompuServe and AOL and Yahoo. The early versions of these platforms did not support email as it wasn’t needed (there was no internet). They had chat groups and forums; and looked a lot like the social media platforms (e.g. Twitter) of today.
Could there be an opportunity to evolve social media in the same way that email evolved? If so, could Mastodon be that catalyst?
Mastodon is a decentralized, open-source social media platform that operates on a federated model. This means that instead of being controlled by a single company or organisation, Mastodon is made up of many different servers, or “instances,” that are run by different individuals or organizations. Each instance has its own community and policies, and users can choose which instance they want to join.
One of the key features of Mastodon is that it allows users to have a social media “address” that could be likened to our beloved email address. This address, called a “handle,” consists of the user’s username followed by the domain name of their chosen instance. For example, my user name is “Hopthings” on the “southsea.social” instance and therefore has the handle “@firstname.lastname@example.org” (looks a lot like an email address right?).
In terms of functionality, Mastodon is similar to other social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook. Users can post short messages, called “toots” (I hate this name), which can be seen by other users who follow them. Users can also like, comment on, and re-toot (or “retweet”) other users’ toots (meh!).
One major difference between Mastodon and other social media platforms is that Mastodon uses a system called “federated timelines” to organize the toots that users see. This means that users can see toots from other users on different instances, as long as those users have chosen to “boost” (or share) their toots with the broader Mastodon community. This allows for a more diverse and decentralized social media experience, as users can see content from a wider range of sources than they would on a traditional platform.
Another key feature of Mastodon is that it is designed to be more privacy-focused than other social media platforms. For example, Mastodon allows users to specify who can see their toots, either by setting them to be public, unlisted, or private. Additionally, Mastodon allows users to block and mute other users, giving them more control over the content they see and interact with.
All of this happens with an open source protocol called ActivityPub.
ActivityPub allows for greater interoperability between different instances of Mastodon. For example, users on one instance can follow and interact with users on another instance, even if those instances have different policies or community guidelines. This allows for a more diverse and inclusive social media experience, as users are not limited to only interacting with other users on their own instance. This is how the different instances of Mastodon communicate with each other to make a collective whole that appear to the user as a single service like Twitter.
Recently, companies such as Tumblr and Flickr have announced that they are considering ActivityPub support in their own applications. Imagine how quickly this change would happen if WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram decided to add ActivityPub support too?
With its very “Web3” focus on privacy and decentralisation, I think that Mastodon (and more importantly, ActivityPub) could be a real catalyst for change, offering social media users an alternative to the traditional, centralised platforms that currently dominate the market. Imagine simply interacting with social media across the globe without being locked into any single platform. Imagine how competition will speed innovation in client apps/software?
Is Mastodon going to replace Twitter? No, probably not. But can it show the world a better future where a “social media handle” is as personal and transportable as an email address? I hope so.
We got past this notion that email is something that you did on a centralised platform once, perhaps it is time that we consider social media in the same way – decentralised, private, personal and ubiquitous.