Rambling Thoughts from a Wandering Mind


Mastodon, diaspora* and wondering if there’s a need for both

A cartoon mastodon using a smartphone.
The Mastodon social network mascot

I recently joined Mastodon, a decentralized, federated social network that’s been getting a lot of press lately as a friendlier alternative to Twitter. Rather than explaining what that means and how Mastodon works (there have been several articles already, which I’ll link to at the bottom of this post), I wanted to talk a bit about Mastodon’s place in my online social networking.

I’ve been using Mastodon for about a week at this point (you can find me at ink_slinger@mastodon.network, among other places). In that very short time, it’s largely replaced Twitter for me. I will still occasionally pop onto Twitter to see what news is being shared but, for the most, I no longer actively use it. I prefer Mastodon for a lot of reasons, but ultimately it serves a similar purpose as Twitter. It’s a microblogging service for posting short thoughts, musings and the occasional link to a news story or blog post.

Having an open-source, decentralized alternative to Twitter feels great. It aligns nicely with my attempts to support a more open web by breaking away from the walled-gardens that have come to define the modern web. I’ve talked a little about this on previous posts, but never in much detail.

When I was first starting to get into free and open-source software, I looked into Twitter alternatives like GNU social (which is compatible with Mastodon, since they both use the OStatus protocol and can talk to one another with relative ease), but never really found one that worked for me until Mastodon came along. The big differences this time are that I prefer Mastodon’s user interface and there’s a critical mass of users due to the recent media attention (yes, there have been people using GNU social for a decade, but the network was relatively small and didn’t really align with my interests or, if it did, I wasn’t familiar enough with the software to find the right node).

What about Facebook?

OK, so I’ve found an open/free (as in speech) alternative to Twitter. What about Facebook?

You may, if you’re geeky enough, have heard of diaspora*. Like Mastodon/GNU social, diaspora* is a decentralized, federated social network. It was pitched as being a little like Facebook, but without the privacy concerns and commercialization of your personal data. I have long bemoaned the fact that diaspora* never really took off. I even recently posted about it on Mastodon.

Wilhelm Fitzpatrick asked how I’d use a Facebook-like system that would be different from the way I use the Twitter-like system of Mastodon, especially in light of the fact that Mastodon allows posts with up to 500 characters. I didn’t have a great answer. I still don’t.

The way I use Twitter has always been different from the way I use Facebook. For one thing, Twitter’s limit of 140 characters meant it was simply not possible to use the two networks the same way. But since Mastodon is more flexible, some of the necessary differences no longer exist. In many practical terms, there is less necessity for two different types of open networks.

So what am I looking for when I talk about a Facebook alternative? I think I’m looking for Facebook, more or less as it currently exists, but without the privacy issues, corporate overlording and selling of my personal data. I use Facebook largely for two purposes: to connect with family and friends (mostly people I know in meatspace) and to join groups. Twitter and Mastodon, by contrast, are spaces where I connect with like-minded (and not-so-like-minded) people from around the world. Most of my “friends” on these networks are people I’ve never met in person.

My Facebook groups could, in theory, be replaced by Mastodon instances that spring up around similar topics (politics, local agriculture, parenting, etc.). What can’t be replaced, at least not unless I can convince a whole lot of not-technically-inclined people to abandon Facebook and sign up for something else, is the network of family and friends that exists on Facebook. Ultimately, I guess what I want isn’t really diaspora*– it’s diaspora* (or Mastodon, or GNU social, or just about anything other than Facebook) with all of my Facebook friends.

Given the extreme unlikelihood that everyone I know is suddenly going to jump ship and abandon Facebook, I guess my options are to either:

  1. decide I value my privacy more than my network and leave, or
  2. remain on Facebook, despite my better judgement

For now, I’m staying. Whether that will eventually change is yet to be seen.

Recommended reading

If you’re not yet familiar with Mastodon, here are some helpful articles you may want to read.