Mastodon - a better Twitter?

Mastodon is, for many, a new term that surfaced on Twitter in the past week. A social media platform positioning itself as an alternative to Twitter, Mastodon has seen quite a few Indians join it recently, including AltNews founder Pratik Sinha, journalist Shivam Vij, author Nilanjana Roy, activist Kavitha Krishnan, musician Vishal Dadlani, and most notably, Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde.  

The whole affair began with Twitter's suspension of Mr. Hegde's account, along with some others, on the basis of a few users flagging their posts. This is in fact, the second time his account has been suspended, the first time being after he retweeted the famous photograph of August Landmesser, a World War II era German worker at a shipyard who refused to do the Nazi salute. Once he removed the image his account was reinstated, but shortly thereafter it was suspended again, and he was notified to take down a tweet he posted in 2017.

The post was a retweet of a poem which protested against the hanging of two revolutionaries, titled 'Hang Him'. Mr. Hegde believed that the title had "triggered some automated bots on Twitter's backend", but his account was not reinstated even after he contacted representatives of the company. Following this, he officially joined Mastodon, and has also served a legal notice to Twitter demanding a full, public apology and reinstatement of his account. 

Twitter bias
Several other users resolved to join Mr. Hegde and 'migrate' towards Mastodon, deciding to boycott Twitter for what they perceived to be a severe bias in in suspension and verification policy. Some cited a recent report from CPJ that revealed Twitter had blocked over 100 accounts in the country, and has removed nearly a million tweets, most of which was allegedly critical of the government's abolition of Article 370 and subsequent military crackdown in the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. 

Accusations have also been leveled against Twitter claiming the organization to be biased against marginalized communities and lower castes in the country, especially after the accounts of prominent Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi intellectuals and activists like columnist Dilip Mandal and tribal leader Hansraj Meena were suspended. Many also claimed that the verification process for leaders from marginalized sections would oftentimes be rejected, while people like Jay Shah received prompt verification and the blue tick that comes with it even though he never posted a single tweet. 


Mastodon logo (Picture credit: Mastodon)

Twitter has also received backlash for the lack of proper action it takes with regards to death threats and sexual harassment women receive on the platform, and for allowing problematic trends like #BoycottAllMuslims to continue. Twitter put out a statement denying any bias and claiming to be impartial and that it does 'not take action based upon any ideology or political viewpoint', but the damage had been done, and following Mr. Hegde's announcement, Mastodon soon became ironically a trending topic on Twitter. 

Mastodon, Instances and the Fediverse

First published in 2016, Mastodon is a part of a larger group of decentralised social media alternatives like Friendica and PeerTube, which together form the 'Fediverse' - a network of interconnected servers that can communicate with each other. It's founder, a German coder named Eugen Rochko, made the software of the site open-source, meaning the source code, or the blueprint, of it can be viewed by anyone, and changed and developed into their own website. 

The platform itself is ad-free, community-owned and decentralised, with no single authority or central server monitoring the posts or curating the feed. Instead, users can be a part of multiple servers called Instances, with each Instance having their own themes, moderators and their own rules and regulations for posts, similar to a Facebook group or a subreddit, but not entirely the same. A user needs multiple handles for multiple Instances but can leave any Instance if they disagree with the content in it. 

Users can also host their own server if they wish to, and all servers within Mastodon can also communicate with the other platforms in the Fediverse. Mastodon also has anti-abuse tools in place for users to moderate posts that are abusive, racist, or aimed at attacking any community, which makes it much more effective than Twitter's algorithm. 

Signing up for Mastodon is as straightforward as it gets, requiring one to enter their email ID, a username and a password of their choice in the website. Once their profile is created, users can follow others, post videos, images or messages with 500-character limits called 'toots' instead of tweets. 

Mastodon's version of a retweet is called a 'boost', while comments are known as quotes. The main timeline is chronological, with three tabs to choose from - Home, Local and Federated. Home shows a timeline with the user's posts ones from the users they follow. The Local tab shows posts from the Instance the user is a part of, and the Federated tab lists posts from across all instances (and is quite chaotic). 

Users also have advanced privacy options while tooting, with the ability to list it as fully public, unlisted (where it won't appear on the federated or local timelines), private (viewable by followers only), or directly accessible only by a particular recipient. If anyone gets reported, the moderators of that particular Instance review the case on the basis of the rules and regulations in the server. 

The end of Twitter? 
Mastodon theoretically does offer a safer space for healthy dialogue, debate, and discussion than corporate-owned social media today. However, the platform is open source and hosted on hundreds of servers, cannot be sold or blocked or taken down by governments, leading to the threat of possible creation of nearly untouchable spaces for extremist dialogue via its readily available source code. This begs the question of whether a complete lack of central authority or regulation from a development perspective will be beneficial in the long term. A far-right group already utilized it to create Gab, a platform for unfiltered hate speech, while reports have also revealed that ISIS attempted to dabble in creating their own version using the source code. 

The interface of the platform itself is fairly easy-to-use, but linguistic barriers are far more prominent, and although a 'local' tab exists to get a more relatable homepage, Twitter is far more grounded in that matter. Besides, this idea of a decentralized social media network has never gained explosive popularity in the past, as the 2014 facebook alternative Ello proved. 

Mastodon is also marked by a conspicuous absence of official media handles and other company handles, something many people solely use Twitter for. Besides, with 330 million users as opposed to Mastodon's current 2.2 million, Twitter has a ridiculously massive advantage in sheer numbers, and new Mastodon users don't seem to be deleting their Twitter accounts either, making Mastodon less of a prophesied Twitter killer and more of a niche Twitter alternative. 

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