Mastodon is a social network that doesn’t work like other social networks. Its sudden rise in popularity—thanks to Twitter’s drama—has made people take notice of the trappings that can make social media so toxic. What makes Mastodon different?
Long-time social media users may remember when algorithms didn’t dominate the landscape. Every timeline and feed was in a simple chronological order. When one of your friends posted something, you saw it. Food tasted better, the air smelled sweeter—okay, I’m getting carried away.
That’s not how social networks operate anymore, not by a long shot. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok are dominated by algorithms with one purpose—keeping you on the website/app. They use your content to keep others engaged. You are the product.
When you “like” a post on Facebook or a tweet on Twitter, it gets shown to other users. The social network makes sure everyone knows that you liked it. The “like” button is not just a simple “good job!” to the user, it’s a megaphone that tells everyone “HEY I LIKE THIS!!” Now other people are seeing something they didn’t sign up for, and this is used to keep users engaged.
Mastodon doesn’t have any Facebook or Twitter-style algorithms that manipulate what you view. When you “like” a post, that’s literally all it does—tell the user that you like it. The post doesn’t get shoved in the feeds of your friends, and vice versa. Your feed is only content from accounts you followed. No ads, no Reels, just the stuff you signed up for.
You Are in Control
Another way in which Mastodon doesn’t use you as the product is in how search works. On most social networks, you can simply search plain text like “Michigan,” and you’ll find any post or profile that includes that text. That’s not how it works on Mastodon.
Mastodon search only works with hashtags, and this is for an important reason. It allows users to decide if they want their posts to be found. That means you can say “#Michigan” if you want people to find the post in search, or keep it to just “Michigan” if you don’t.
In addition, you can’t “Quote Tweet” posts on Mastodon. That’s when you re-share a post and add your own comment. It’s popular on Twitter, you can do the same thing on Facebook and other social networks. Quote Tweets invite toxic “dunking” on people with insults and generally don’t add much value. To do that on Mastodon, you have to screenshot a post first and then share it with your own two cents.
No Fake Internet Points
The other thing social networks do is gamify the experience with popularity points. Likes, shares, retweets, views, followers, etc. The numbers go up and make you feel good; the numbers go down and make you feel bad.
Many Mastodon servers don’t even show likes and boosts (retweet) counts on posts in the timeline. That means when you see a post, you’re not being influenced to interact with it based on its popularity. This contributes to an atmosphere that isn’t so obsessed with making content go “viral.” Your post with 1,000 likes can easily be scrolled past, just like any other post.
The content warning/spoiler feature plays a part in this as well. Mastodon allows you to hide the contents of your post unless someone clicks on it. That’s almost the opposite of the goal on most social media, which is to get as many eyeballs on a post as possible. Mastodon literally lets you shield people’s eyes from your posts.
Toot, Toot, All Aboard
You can see why some people feel very disoriented on Mastodon. The usual pitfalls of social media aren’t really present, and that’s a strange feeling. You sorta have to rewire your brain and think about social media in a different way.
Mastodon is a lot like how social media used to be, and that’s a good thing. Social media used to be about community, keeping up with your friends, and sharing what’s going on in your life. Algorithms and the constant need for growth have changed that.