Mastodon—The free software, decentralized Twitter competitor

No free or open-source social network has really taken off. That could change with Mastodon, which is generating buzz on tech sites.

Mastodon—The free software, decentralized Twitter competitor
Credit: Bryan Lunduke/IDG

My life is filled with conundrums.

One of those conundrums is the fact that I spend a huge amount of my time promoting and advocating free and open-source software. Yet in order to reach a large audience with that advocacy, I end up needing to use social networks (such as Twitter and Google Plus) which are—not free software.

If I'm going to be speaking at a conference about GNU, Linux and other free software-y topics, I announce it on Twitter. And, perhaps rightly so, my freedom-loving friends toss a little (usually good-natured) mockery my way for doing so.

Over the years, a few social networks have sprung up that are a bit more free software-based—or, at least, open source. Yet none of them has really captured the interest of the broader public—something necessary for what I do. Diaspora is a great example of one that showed great promise but never really took off. (It still exists, but without the audience numbers and/or growth that is needed.) 

Then along comes Mastodon, which describes itself as the following:

"Mastodon is a free, open-source social network. A decentralized alternative to commercial platforms, it avoids the risks of a single company monopolizing your communication. Pick a server that you trust—whichever you choose, you can interact with everyone else. Anyone can run their own Mastodon instance and participate in the social network seamlessly." 

Open source (and up on GitHub—using the AGPL license), check. 

Decentralized, double check. 

And the web UI is actually quite nice looking. Simple, peppy and column-based. In my short testing time thus far, I'm finding Mastodon rather enjoyable to use. 

As of this writing, there may not be millions and millions of users, but the number appears to be growing quite rapidly. Articles on this little, up-start social network seem to be popping up on tech websites far and wide. 

Using Mastodon

Getting started with Mastodon is fairly simple. Check out a page showing some of the various instances of Mastodon that are running—pick one that seems good to you, and sign up. Most instances can talk to each other seamlessly, though to my understanding, some can choose to talk only to people on your own instance server. 

Then start looking around for some friends to follow. Feel free to take a look at who I currently follow in case any of these folks interest you as well. (Or just start by following me—I’m downright delightful.) 

As far as mobile clients go, many folks seem to be using an Android app by the name of Tusky. I tried it out briefly (I have only one device that uses the Google Play Store), and it seems to work pretty well. However, it would be nice if such an app were available on F-Droid (or directly from the developer website) so I don't need to rely on the Play Store. 

Will Mastodon take off and become the next Twitter? Will it fall short of that but still build a significant enough user base to keep itself useful and active? Who knows. But the design looks solid, the approach something I can support. So, I sure hope so.

And, at least for the time being, I'm going to be using it.

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