The hot new thing in social media has some big problems.
William Shatner couldn’t find me on Mastodon.
I couldn’t even find you https://t.co/keNUC3IOYd
— William Shatner (@WilliamShatner) April 5, 2017
This was a problem.
Mastodon stomped onto the scene this week instantly generating some buzz as the anti-Twitter. It looks and feels like Twitter. but is not a part of it.
Mastodon is a free, open-sourced messaging platform that’s decentralized in the extreme (more on that later) and, since it lacks an SMS heritage, does not have a 140-character limit — 500 characters are just fine. It also offers public accounts, lots of post-level privacy controls and fully chronological timelines.
Mashable tech reporter Jack Morse declared that all the cool kids are joining. So I, being neither cool nor a kid, decided to dive in.
I registered on the upstart social media platform using, as I always do, my full name: “LanceUlanoff” to protect it from potential social media identity poachers (they’re everywhere).
Actually, I’m not sure where I registered. Mastodon is so popular right now that it can’t support all the potential users on one platform, so there are dozens of them, all interconnected. When I registered, I scrolled to the middle of the list hoping that others might choose from the top instead and found Mastodon.cloud. After that, registering was pretty easy, as was figuring out the simple, if clunky, mobile-web-based interface.
There is nothing intrinsically wonderful about Mastodon aside from the fact that it’s not Twitter.
What I failed to realize was that I registered in what is, in truth, a closed-off room in the rapidly growing Mastodon house. At this moment, it’s unclear if people in one room, or instance, can see people in other instances of Mastodon. That’s why Shatner’s search for me turned up nothing.
There is nothing intrinsically wonderful about Mastodon aside from the fact that it’s not Twitter and, more importantly, is not a part of a public company that needs to make money.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that people started talking about Mastodon on the same day that Twitter lost its huge NFL live stream contract to Amazon (they don’t even have a social network). It’s a tough moment in Twitter’s ongoing quest to pivot to on-air-all-the-time media streaming service (with 140-character tweets still pumping along in the background).
Twitter has grown about all it ever will and is struggling to please investors and drag its stock price back up out of the basement.
But it’s still our Twitter and when looked at in comparison to Mastodon, it looks good.
Let’s look at everything Mastodon gets wrong.
1) Terrible name
Mastodon implies large, slow, frozen, and dead for thousands of years. The logo is cute, but the service right now stinks almost as badly as a thawing woolly mammoth.
2) There is no single Mastodon
In trying to satisfy a spike of new users, Mastodon broke the cardinal rule of social media: it separated them into silos and made it hard if not impossible for them to all socialize. This unfortunate design makes Mastodon feel more like a bunch of chat rooms rather than a cohesive, growing social network. The Federated Timeline helps, but it’s not the default view.
And I get that having a decentralized social media platform, Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko’s big idea, helps create safe zones from groups and topics, but it’s really a terrible approach that will lead to a stagnant growth and way more opinion bubbles, which is the last thing we need.
In trying to be the anti-twitter, Mastodon’s Rochko chose the dumbest and most ridiculous post name possible: Toots. This too-cute take-off on Tweets literally hurts me every time I say and do it on Mastodon.
4) Handles are meaningless
User handles do show up in Toots (blech!) but not in the URLs for users’ Mastodon homepages. Giving users numbers (mine is 995) instead of identifiable website addresses makes Mastodon feel amateurish.
5) Where is everyone?
If you can’t find people by name, then how can you follow them on Mastodon? Someone in one local Mastodon timeline may not appear in another (Sorry, Mr. Shatner). To see everyone (at least I think you see everyone), you have to troll the Federated timeline, open a Toot (blech!) and add them there. Twitter and other social networks already have this stuff figured out. Why is Mastodon better? It’s not!
6) Apps feel like a science project
I started using Mastodon in Safari. It was not a good experience. At least there’s an app…or apps.
There is no one app called Mastodon. Instead, you can find a Github list of apps for the open-source project. Apps like the iOS-based Amaroq let you log into any of the many Mastodon “instances” by typing in the name. Nope, there’s no list of instances because I don’t think anyone knows just how many Mastodon instances are out there.
The Internet is a big place — universe-big — so there’s room for another social media platform, but the Internet can also feel like a very small place, one that targets the weak and consumes them quickly.
Mastodon cannot live on hype alone.
Mastodon has potential. It can be easy to use and there are clearly a lot of people trying it right now. But its weaknesses are glaring. It’s more project than product. Unless someone buys the code off Rochko today and consolidates this mess ASAP, it can’t survive.
And, no, Mastodon cannot live on hype alone.
Remember Peach? It, too, was a fun social network that let you keep track of friends and share funny images. It was a crappy version of Snapchat without all the sexting.
Peach enjoyed a solid two weeks of being the hottest thing on the social media planet. Then, as I predicted, it fizzled. The last time we talked about Peaches and technology was when Apple changed the peach emoji so it no longer looked like a butt (and then changed it back). No one even mentioned the now mostly forgotten Peach social network.
I was already ready to move on. So was Shatner.
I suspect thousands of other Tooters (blech!) will soon do the same and Mastodon will lay down beside all other other fossilized social media platforms and fade from existence.
@WilliamShatner Peach! I totally forgot about Peach. Now it’s just back to being that naughty emoji. 🍑
— Lance Ulanoff (@LanceUlanoff) April 5, 2017