IF YOU ever want to hear a sad story, accompanied by the tiniest violin in the world, ask a social media manager about "the algorithms," the digital balancing that popular platforms apply to posts and the way they are viewed.
Facebook may be the most rapaciously obvious in its commercialisation of its user content, but it has built a massive community of contributors. And building the critical mass of users and posts that drives exponential growth is one of the hardest things for a social media platform to do.
When I joined Twitter in 2007, it was a ghost town. It took almost a year for enough like-minded people to join and begin posting before a Trini-Twitter began to take shape, fuelled by a few in-person meet-ups.
But nothing is forever, particularly on the watch of Elon Musk, who now owns the platform and is reshaping it into…something.
That's led to an exodus from the platform, both staff and users, and for anyone who enjoys the river of commentary that Twitter provided, the alternatives aren't obvious.
Mastodon is one alternative. It has a similar feel to Twitter – posts were originally and ill-advisedly known as "toots," for instance – but the architecture of the platform is completely different.
For one, there is no single Mastodon server; in fact, there are more than a thousand. The open-source platform is available to anyone with the technical know-how and the bandwidth to create their own server, which links to others in what is known as the "fediverse," servers that can exchange information with each other.
Each Mastodon instance can create its own rules, bans and limitations. Most tend to be organised around specific interests.
Any special interest group with a broad enough audience, technical know-how at their disposal and general interest potential can create a server instance and gather there to chat and post. Several Mastodon servers have already appeared and disappeared.
There is no gathering of user data and no central oversight or control. Anyone can start a social media platform using this technology.
The contentious Gab now uses Mastodon's software to organise its ultra-right-wing, hate-fuelled discussions and some users have pushed administrators to ban content completely (individual servers have instituted their own bans on content from Gab and third-party apps have also banned access to it).
I started on Mastodon World, a core server in the fediverse, so my url there is @email@example.com.
Messages can run to 500 characters and users can repost or boost posts that they find valuable. If you sign up with one instance of Mastodon, you can follow a user from another, unless they have been blocked or banned by the administrator of your home server.
There's a useful tool at movetodon.org that lets you find people you follow on Twitter on Mastodon. Just 13 of mine's seem to have made the jump, so it's definitely early days still.
Mastodon is the old man in the room, founded in 2016 by Eugen Rochko. Other Twitter alternatives are even more recent. Hive Social was created in 2019 by 24-year-old Raluca Pop who seems to have just wanted an old-school chronological social feed again.
Hive has experienced hiccups since its recent Twitter migration boost. I couldn't create an account on the service for days after it was taken down to address security issues.
It's rare for a social media service to shut down for days to fix problems, though Twitter's "fail whale" period was even more annoying and unpredictable. There is no web access to Hive and apps are only available for iOS and Android.
Hive is very reminiscent of an early Twitter, but interested users should bring their own crew to populate their feeds. I'm @macmark there.
Post.news, created by Noah Bardin, former CEO of Waze, was hustled into service at the end of November, a direct response to the chaos enveloping post-Musk Twitter.
The platform is in limited beta testing as the backend gets worked out and is still finding its role in the social media space.
The potential for micro-tipping contributors for stories struck my fancy, but my overall impression of the platform this early is of a general effort to lift the tone of discussion above the mire that Twitter often descended to.
If you can get in (the backlog of users is thousands long), I'm @technewstt on Post. Someday soon I'll get through exploring and actually begin posting on all three.
Mark Lyndersay is the editor of technewstt.com. An expanded version of this column can be found there.