tl;dr for users: Mastodon is like email but for social networks. You sign up for an account with a server, and then you get a username@server, which you use to follow and be followed. Don’t overthink it - just go ahead and sign up for a free account today with mastodon.social, mas.to or find another hosting provider.
tl;dr for developers: Mastodon (the software) is Good Enough(tm), but there are a LOT of places it can be improved. There is a need for virtually every part of the ecosystem that exists today for both email (e.g. spam, antivirus, moderation, servers, clients, etc.) as well as all of the existing social media tools but for Mastodon & other ActivityPub implmentations. Servers, clients, spam/virus/phishing protection, moderation services, on and on. We need all of that ASAP or else Mastodon may suffer the same fate as other open-but-unmanagable systems such as USENET. Remember: Mastodon is fundamentally a hosting business, not a closed, proprietary ad network business.
Most of the services we use on the Internet are based on hosted servers and clients. We use servers to host our websites and send and recieve our emails. The biggest exception to model most people encounter is modern commerical social media. (The other exception would be mobile device app stores, but that’s another topic).
If I said to you “hey, I’m starting a new email hosting service, but you can only email other people who use the service” you would justifably think that was… a bit insane.
Oddly, we do that every day with our social media. Facebook/Meta and Twitter are closed ecosystems. They offer free software and hosting to users, then sell ads and user data to make money. They rely on the fact that the power of the network will keep you locked in until you get so sick of it you switch to something else. Or until the growth slows down, the stock market loses interest, and the site gets put into maintainance mode as users slowly drift away. The hardest part is moderation - proprietary networks that sell ads have to offer both brand safety and a (reasonably) safe environment or advertisers and users will eventually leave.
This kind of proprietary network has existed many, many times. In no particular order, off the top of my head: CompuServe, Prodigy, AOL, eWorld, LiveJournal, and Friendster all serve as examples of commercial, proprietary networks with similar models. A few even charge[d] for access AND sold ads!
I would add LinkedIn, Facebook/Meta and Twitter to the list as once might proprietary networks that is nearing the end of the road. Sorry, Elon, but I think you may have just replicated Time Warner buying AOL.
I think part of the reason the end is near for proprietary networks is the sheer exhaustion most people face at the idea of rebuilding their entire social network again just because of corporate mismanagement.
To make this very explicit: anyone with a large presence is on Twitter is (justifiably) concerned right now. If Twitter shuts down (or enough users quit in frustration) they are screwed. For example - let’s say that you are a small musician who relies on your 10,000 Twitter followers to sell albums and swag and book enough seats to tour. If Twitter vanishes, so does your income. Anyone who just, say, migrated their network off of Facebook a few years ago and is now looking at rebuilding everything again on Twitter? Ugh.
Enough. Just as you own your own email account, you should really own your own social network presence. Enter Mastodon.
To get started just sign up with one of the bigger Mastodon hosts and start playing around with it. The obvious picks are mastodon.social and mas.to. If you want to try shopping around for another hosting provider, go for it. You can use tools to migrate your existing Twitter followers/follows if you want, or you can just add your Mastodon username@server to your Twitter profile for now.
If you decide to switch to another Mastodon hosting provider, it’s pretty easy - it’s a built-in feature in Mastodon. Imagine Twitter or Facebook making it easy to switch.
Oh, and check out some of the clients available for Mastodon for your phone. As of this writing, there are several for both iOS and Android. Have fun checking them out.
Ok. So now that the non-developers are off signing up for accounts, we need to talk. I’m assuming you have created a Mastodon account and played around with it a bit.
Next, here are some links you’ll want to at least skim first:
Most importantly, Mastodon is just a server that happens to implement the ActivityPub protocol. The server itself is written in Ruby and React, and it uses Redis and Postgres for persistence. If you are a developer, this is pretty vanilla stuff (although of course you probably already have opinions about the correct server and client side frameworks, ahem).
There are other ActivityPub implemenations out there, but right now the one that’s Good Enough(tm) and getting traction is Mastodon.
You don’t have to use Mastodon very long to start to see that there is a LOT of room for improvement. Here’s my short list of ideas to get you started:
- Enterprise grade, more hosting friendly versions of the server software
- Anti-spam, anti-virus services.
- Moderation-as-a-service. Some combination of automated & manual verification. Perhaps even an option for a local server karma system (along the lines of Slashdot or Stack Overflow)
- Much, much richer moderation tools for users. Especially vulnerable users. Perhaps even a paid manual moderation service. You might think that’s not authentic, but then again you probably aren’t dealing with a deluge of death threats, etc. either.
- User verification
- Better clients! Just like email, there is always a market for a new client!
- Domain specific servers/server addons. For example, government focused (e.g. archiving & approvals), education focused, and of course support and/or commercial focus.
- Other domains publishing/journalism, wiki-integrated commentary, etc.
- Verified identity specific. Imagine a reasonably credible organization will only support verified accounts - celebrities, government officials, etc. This organization will only grant accounts to those individuals.
Now, if that’s not enough to inspire you, go ahead and browse the open issues on GitHub. There are massive numbers of suggestions and feature requests - as of this writing, there are roughly 2.7k open issues and almost 5k closed issues. I’d bet that a bunch of those closed issues are “won’t fix” for whatever reason and might be an interesting opportunity.
I do think that it’s going to be interesting watching as Mastodon becomes more popular and Serious Actors start to get involved. Mastodon is a very attractive target for certain government agencies, both domestic and foreign. As the user numbers spike, the interest from bad actors will rise.
Right now the vast majority of Mastodon instances are maintained by individual or small communities. I genuinely don’t know how sustainable that will be in the long term, but to a certain extent I’m not sure how much it matters. Perhaps owning and running your own instance will be so easy, popular and common it’s just not an issue. I do worry about the mental health of unpaid maintainers dealing with the insanity that, say, email providers have to deal with around spam/etc. What happens when those providers start to have to deal with incoming legal requests? This is the sort of thing that large hosting providers have had to deal with for decades now.
A few other ideas: an ActivityPub implemenation specifically targeting businesses trying to provide customer support & announcements. Watching companies trying to provide support via Twitter is… painful at best. I know that’s not really what Twitter is for, exactly, but people dash off tweets all the time looking for support.
In particular, if you just got laid off at Twitter, I hope some of these ideas inspire you to make your own software and services. I suspect that for some of you this might be even a bit personal. Good news - there’s already a Mastodon server for ex-Twitter employees.
Good luck, and if you have any more ideas, let me know at @firstname.lastname@example.org!