When people obsess about numbers, it looks like either success or failure must be imminent. So it is at the moment with Mastodon, the much talked-about potential alternative to Twitter as the latter continues its path through turmoil towards an unknown future.
By some accounts, the bubble has burst on the rapid growth in people signing up for a Mastodon account in recent months. Has it, though?
Mastodon the company (a non-profit organization) was founded in 2016, but it’s gained signficant growth since Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter completed in October 2022. According to the Guardian, the number of people opening accounts between the end of October and end of November took the overall active users number from less than half a million or so prior to Musk’s closing the deal on Twitter to more than 2.5 million thirty days later.
There’s no evidence to show that significant numbers of Twitter users closed their accounts when they opened accounts on Mastodon. There is evidence, though, that user growth for Twitter has been strong in recent months, mainly in the US, although overall it’s a complex picture.
As the simple graph above shows, user logins on Mastodon at the end of November/start of December were a high point from which a gradual fall happened until mid January where it appeared to be settling at about the 1.75 million mark.
Does the gradual fall suggest a bubble that’s burst? I don’t think so.
Data from @MastodonUserCount, a useful bot that reports on user growth and activity on Mastodon, shows continuing increases in user numbers and activities. Note this includes actual accounts on Mastodon, more than 9.2 million, not user logins to those accounts, suggesting that just over 18% of users log in to their accounts per the Guardian’s figure. I doubt that’s especially surprising really, mirroring activity data from other social networks
And see this statistic on joinmastodon.org today – 1.4 million monthly active users on 9.7 thousand servers.
What looks quite clear is that, following the acquisition of Twitter, many people signed up on Mastodon in a flurry of “let’s get out of Twitter while the going’s good” in response to much of Musk’s capricious if not destructive acts at Twitter. This includes his firing employees in a way that will probably be a primary case study at business schools in how not to run a business, and allowing back in people with extreme opinion and anti-social behaviour who’d previously been banned.
There’s also much continuing confusion for brands and other advertisers that does not bode well for Twitter’s future financial stability given that the majority of its revenue is from advertising.
Add to that a reality factor where people often don’t do what they say they’ll do.
Everybody went and signed up [on Mastodon] and realised how hard it was, and then got back on Twitter and were like, ‘Oh, that’s, that’s hard. Maybe we won’t go there.’ It’s like the people that said ‘I’m moving to Canada’ when Donald Trump was elected. They never actually moved to Canada.Meg Coffey, social media strategist, quoted in the Guardian
There’s truth in what Meg Coffey says above where many people fall at the first hurdle when they see that Mastodon is anything but easy to use when compared to Twitter. After all, Twitter and apps have been developed, added to, refined and evolved over a 16-year period to the extent where everything, more or less, just works and is good (with some recent post-acquisition exceptions).
And rarely do we see the modern equivalent of Twitter’s original fail whale these days. We do see Mastodon’s equivalent quite a bit, just like with Twitter in its early days.
While the basics of a social network similar to Twitter are in place at Mastodon – timeline of messages, mentions, likes, hashtags, private messaging, etc – that you interact with via an app on your mobile device or desktop/laptop computer, not every element is actually functional or functions well.
There are two huge differences to Twitter, differences that many including me see as outstanding features – 500 characters with which to write your posts, not 280; and an edit button!
And there are many apps you can use, all developed and created by different people. Unlike Twitter, there is no centralized setup where one company or group does everything.
Instead, Mastodon is “decentralized social media” where there are many different Mastodons you can join that, collectively, comprise part of what many people refer to as the fediverse (read more about this topic as it relates to Mastodon).
Understanding that Mastodon is not a single place but rather a collection of independent places (servers or, in Mastodon talk, ‘instances’) with each running Mastodon software, will help you grasp a major difference between Mastodon and Twitter, where the latter is a centralized social network wholly under the control of a single for-profit organization (or, as it seems at times, a single individual).
Let’s consider the User Experience
Which brings me to a point that I think is key to user growth for Mastodon – ease of use. Compared to Twitter, Mastodon isn’t easy to get to know yet, and use effectively.
While there is a growing number of apps for Mastodon as I mentioned earlier, most of them leave much to be desired in the user experience (UX). Clunky interfaces, steep learning curves in some cases, functionality missing, or not working well, or sometimes not at all. It adds up to a sense of work-in-progress, unreadiness, with a user waiting for something better and, well, experiential.
But as we move forward in 2023, we’re starting to see innovation in app development emerging where more choices are now apparent with apps that look good, look familiar if you’re coming from Twitter and, generally, offer a much better UX.
I discovered one just the other day in a tip from Andy Piper, an app that now is my preferred interface with Mastodon, on the Windows 11 desktop and Andoid mobile, and all that goes on.
It’s called Elk and, boy, does it look and feel very familiar and Twitter-like as the screenshot below suggests. It’s a pleasure to use, something others note as well. It’s still in testing and the developer doesn’t recommend it for prime use yet as development work continues. But I am using it, and it does remind me of app development from Twitter’s early days where you took your chances bugs and all.
The Elk app is simliar to many apps today that are designed to run in a browser on any platform. You don’t download a file that installs software on your phone or computer – you just go to the app website in your browser where you either use it in the browser, or you install the app from within the browser as a browser window that runs just like a normal app.
Another one I’ve seen being talked about a lot at the moment is Ivory, an app for iOS devices from Tapbots, developer of the popular Tweetbot third-party app for Twitter. Tweetbot shut down a few days ago following Twitter’s banning all third-party apps.
Users like it judging from some of the posts on Mastodon I’ve seen. It’s worth noting that Ivory is a paid app, not free.
Some people feel strongly that migrating from Twitter to Mastodon should also mean not having apps that look and feel like apps for Twitter. I disagree: a big benefit of using such apps is the comfort of familiarity where the learning curve is far less and the enjoyment is far greater than if you spent ages tryng to figure out how to use the app.
So consider the landscape now, almost three months after Elon Musk closed his deal to buy Twitter. We’ve seen a stream of tweeters heading to Mastodon, some staying and others not. We’re still seeing turmoil and FUD at Twitter with no end in sight of that.
And we’re seeing the Mastodon infrastructure developing nicely with new features, bug-fixed features, better interfaces, nice apps, and a growing number of people setting up home or shop in a decentralized, ad-free place online. It offers a much more pleasant welcome than the place that Twitter is today with its data manipulation, intrusive too-frequent ads, polarized political ranting, and some pretty nasty people showing up daily in your timeline – an environment that looks worse than it was pre Musk.
To me, all of this – developing infrastructure, great features and apps, no ads, many choices of which Mastodon you like the look of, people so far like you and me – suggests that Mastodon offers a personal experiential experience and is a better place. (But I still stay active on Twitter as well.)
Is Mastodon a replacement for Twitter? I think that question is up to users themselves to answer. Do you see it as a replacement, never mind what mainstream and other social media have to say? If you’ve done your due diligence and concluded that you do, then Mastodon will likely be a good place for you.
[Edited 29/1/23:] I’m adding a link to a really good post I read today that is well researched, well constructed, and well done. It takes you through a good explainer of what Mastodon is and how it differs from Twitter. It explains how to set up an account and how to use it effectively, and talks about apps especially Ivory that I mentioned in my article.
- Mastodon: A New Hope for Social Networking by Glenn Fleishmann / TidBits, 27 January 2023
Well worth a read if you want greater detail about Mastodon and how it presents a landscape that’s currently a pleasant place to be. The first paragraph will draw you in:
Cast your mind back to the first time you experienced joy and wonder on the Internet. Do you worry you’ll never be able to capture that sense again? It’s worth wading gently into the world of Mastodon microblogging to see if it offers something fresh and delightful. It might remind you—as it does me, for now—of the days when you didn’t view online interactions with some level of dread.Glenn Fleishmann in TidBits
On the topic of apps, I should have mentioned a really great one I’m using alongside Elk – Mastodeck, a name that will sound familiar if you’re using Twitter and TweetDeck on which it’s based look-and-feel wise. I’ve been a huge fan of TweetDeck since it’s very early days in 2008-09 when developed by Iain Dodsworth, before he sold it to Twitter in 2011.
Mastodeck’s a web app like TweetDeck so should work in browsers on Windows and Macs. Its similarity with TweetDeck makes it a great choice if you’re coming from Twitter and want a multi-column interface that is already familiar. Take a look at this screenshot:
The usual caveats apply of course: this is a platform and apps in development and things sometimes don’t quite work as expected.
Just like Twitter in its very early days, in fact, all part of that throwback experience Glenn Fleishmann describes.
- Twitter’s chaos may help decentralized alternatives like Mastodon gain traction (14 November 2022)
- Turmoil engulfs a Twitter in transition (6 November 2022)
- Escape planning in case Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition succeeds (1 May 2022)