Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk bluntly renamed it “Masterbatedone,” its popularity skyrocketing to one million monthly users last week, and its followers believe it can be an antidote to misinformation and hate online. What is Mastodon, this little-known network until recently presented as the potential substitute for Twitter? Five questions to understand.
Posted yesterday at 8:00 am
Where does Mastodon come from?
This social network was created in 2016 in Germany by a developer, Eugen Rochko, in response to rumors at the time of the acquisition of Twitter by the controversial Peter Thiel. The interface looks like two peas in a pod for Twitter, with “toots” (“pouets” in French) containing videos, images, and up to 500 characters, rather than tweets limited to 280. The basic principle is the same: we see appear on our news feeds the “chirps” of those to whom we are subscribed. There the similarities end.
How does it work ?
Even his defenders admit that Mastodon’s operation is complex, even unpleasant. “It’s complicated, isn’t it? Easy to use, it is decentralization that causes this, summarizes Nellie Brière, lecturer and consultant in digital communication and social networks. It feels like Twitter in its early days, there’s no algorithm, I really feel like I’m reliving 2009.”
First of all, Mastodon is made up of around 4,100 servers, called “instances”, created by as many communities with their interests and location. There is at least one instance in Quebec, called jasette.facil.services. Each one is responsible for moderation, in accordance with the fundamental principles dictated by Mastodon, and manages the traffic according to the power of its server. You have access to your users’ information, which you can prohibit. We opened an account on one of these servers, which confirms the registration in a very variable time, between 3 seconds and 1 hour 12 minutes in our three tests. You can subscribe to an unlimited number of instances and switch between them by exporting your messages and subscribers.
Communications and searching for subscribers is easy between members of the same instance. Things get complicated when you want to subscribe or find “chirps” on another server, but interactions are still possible. Basically, there are three news feeds: the “local public feed”, with the most recent messages published on the chosen server, the “global public feed” of the other servers and the “home”, where the messages of the users are published. to which we are subscribed scroll. Everything scrolls in chronological order, no algorithm gets to soap up the most popular content, and no ads appear.
What are the benefits of mastodon?
For Nellie Brière, “the big difference is that it is open source, free, decentralized”. “I invite people to go there, it costs nothing and it is an essential learning to envision the future of digital. It doesn’t go well with GAFAM, and we don’t have to suffer the tyranny of Elon Musk. »
For Laurence Grondin-Robillard, a doctoral student in communication at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM) and a professor at the School of Media, grouping users according to their interests, by “instance”, is one of the strengths of Mastodon . “Being in a community of interests in an app that shares knowledge, no filters, no ads, that’s great. »
The limit of 500 characters instead of 280, the ability to edit messages, different emoticons depending on the server, “sensitive content warnings” and the ability to effectively filter your subscribers are some of the charms of Mastodon.
But surely there are downsides…
Yes, and there are many. First, some very popular servers, like mastodon.social, are terribly slow, especially with the explosion in popularity over the last week. The absence of an algorithm means that messages scroll without any hierarchy: the “chirp” of an obscure trader in a Texas town will be as important in your feed as the newspaper headline. The world. Mastering the interactions between different servers is so complex that an article here would not be enough to expose the subtleties.
And the proliferation of decentralized servers and unknown moderators carries a very real risk of slippage. “I haven’t seen any so far, but each instance with its ground rules could decide to troll however it wants,” says Laurence Grondin-Robillard. Also, at the beginning of Mastodon, it was a free-for-all game, everyone had their own rules and that led to a lot of problems. »
Nellie Brière doesn’t see why a decentralized moderation would be more problematic than one that would only be the responsibility of a single private company like Twitter.
“It is not by leaving this in the hands of big tycoons that we are going to solve the problem. If there are malicious servers on Mastodon, the other servers won’t let them stay. »
So could Mastodon replace Twitter?
Even a supporter like Nellie Brière is reserved on this issue. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s going to work, people aren’t digitally literate enough. I would like to believe it, I invite people to go there. »
Laurence Grondin-Robillard has one main piece of advice for those who want to understand Mastodon: “Try it, get started! Like Twitter in its early days, it takes time to understand Twitter, its code and interface, and find the most interesting accounts, she says. “It really isn’t perfect. It is a nested application, which requires a little more technical knowledge. I don’t think it will replace Twitter. »