Many are looking for an alternative to Twitter and are considering Mastodon, an open-source social network that was founded in 2016. There are now well over one million users, up from 381,000+ active users less than two weeks ago. Mastodon is a federation, or a collection of independently operated servers referred to as the fediverse. This is a decentralized approach to social media. As Joanna Stern wrote today in The Wall Street Journal, “Thousands of smaller networks or servers take on the task of onboarding users, setting the rules and making sure things run smoothly.” Mastodon “elders” have been helping newcomers understand and adjust to, not only the technology, but also, to the culture.
I spoke with tech insiders and Edelman’s digital experts for some insights on Mastodon. They shed light on the possibilities, risks and challenges of both the platform and decentralized social media broadly. Here are their thoughts:
- Journalists Flocking to Mastodon—They are connecting with one another and to the communities they report on. There is a collegial quality to the discussions.
- Academics are Making Themselves at Home on Mastodon—There are servers, also called Instances, for general science, for specific disciplines, and universities, like MIT, have set up their own Instances. On Mastodon, an affiliation with an Instance makes it easier to trust.
- Governments Using Mastodon—Bund.de is the official German Government portal for doing online, government related paperwork. Social.bund.de is an instance that contains official accounts. This makes it possible for citizens to interact with public officials.
- This is a Time to Experiment—Longtime Internet denizens such as, Stephen Fry, are joining to try out the service. I myself am in the process of joining the platform. The same goes for brands; Mashable on Mastodon is now offering shopping deals. Large news organizations are beginning to set up their own servers to post content on Mastodon. A large retailer could use the platform to convene or join a conversation across business, academia and NGOs around sustainability. A video gaming brand could create a server to speak directly to gamers. In building these communities and community guidelines brands would also contribute to the overall health of the decentralized ecosystem.
- As Organizations Onboard it will be Crucial to Respect the Culture—Twitter and many other social networks have turned into free-for-alls, compromising trust and lacking civility. On Mastodon, respect and sensitivity to the culture and norms of each Instance are key. As the popularity of Mastodon rises, networks of people who are more accepting of certain behaviors will join and form influential connections between their Instances.
- Not Much Corporate Activity yet—Smart companies will observe for a month or more before participating and vet the Instance to determine if this is a space they want to engage with. It’s vital to watch and learn the mores of the community.
- Brands Must be of the Community—Just like any other social network, Mastodon is not a broadcast channel. Brands should aim to add value, build community, and drive participation. Where they do so, they will find their Instance is popular with users. Users want authentic participants who are not just promoting their stories.
- Content Warnings on an Instance Level—Some communities will have warnings on different pieces of content. This was put in place to let community members know that they can skip the post. A group of political journalists took to Mastodon last night to opine about the election. They were blocked quickly by longtime Mastodon users.
- Proceed with caution—The platform does pose challenges for companies considering a presence there. Filter bubbles may be created within the structure of decentralized communities. There are brand safety concerns to consider as there is no central authority to ban spreaders of hate speech given it’s a fragmented network. And currently, there is no way for a brand to reach scale as it relates to advertising.
Jonathan Haidt wrote eloquently in The Atlantic, “Three forces collectively bind successful democracies. Social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three…It is not just the waste of time in magnifying and weaponizing the frivolous. It is the continual chipping away of trust.”
The conversation, early community and promise of Mastodon feels akin to the early emergence of Twitter and other social networks, when the potential of connection and conversation was an inspiring call to participation rather than a cause for concern. First mover brands with strong foundations in digital, social and community should contribute authentically and optimistically to Mastodon and other decentralized social media platforms to build back trust, eliminate hate speech and create safe spaces for both brands and users alike. Business has an important role to play, not just in the fabric of society, but in the fabric of social media.
Richard Edelman is CEO.