Twitter is either going through a death spiral or some temporary turbulence. Liz Halliday looks at making sense of potential long-term Twitter rival Mastodon.
With Twitter rapidly losing trust under the iron whims of its new CEO, many people – and advertisers – are walking away. But where are they going?
The maxim “go where the audience is” guides a lot of our practice as communications and PR professionals so learning where people are heading to is important. The Brandwatch State of Social, October 2022 report talks about fragmenting audiences and the use of smaller social media platforms.
So now is a critical time to do a social media audit for your organisation and explore where your audiences are preferring to hang out. That way you can advise on where to focus your organisation’s social media resources, and what to do if or when Twitter’s fail whale returns permanently.
For a project I run in my spare time I ran a poll on Twitter last week. I asked where people were planning to go if they left. Instagram was a clear winner, but over the course of the week I saw Mastodon go from a distant third to beating Facebook into second place. You’ve probably seen Mastodon starting to get headlines as an alternative ( the BBC, Guardian and Telegraph have all provided guides in the last week).
What is Mastodon, and what do you need to know about it?
At first glance Mastodon is confusing and technical. But so was Twitter in 2007. I remember when users created hashtags as a concept, and you had to type “D” before someone’s handle to DM them. (I also remember telling a boss in the 1990s that email might have a future.)
On Mastodon, you join a server and start following people on it. The different servers are federated to form the full network (known as the Fediverse). Friends on other servers can share their name (for example, I’m @firstname.lastname@example.org) so you can find and follow them – it’s a bit like swapping email addresses. You can also follow hashtags like #CatsOfMastodon (because of course there are cats). You have three feeds:
- Home are the people and hashtags you follow directly
- Local are posts from people on the samer server as you
- Federated are posts from people on all the servers your server is connected to.
You can learn about getting to grips with Mastodon in Francis Beaudet’s humane guide to Mastodon. There’s also an account called FediTips who explains things like how verification works.
The federation is what makes it a safer experience for users: the server I’m on can and will block entire servers posting lots of hate speech so I’ll never see those posts. Servers are generally run by individuals, who pay the running costs of activity on their server. Many are crowd-funded, and the admins are currently trying to increase stability as the influx of users slows server time – the same scaling up problems Twitter had in the 00s.
This decentralized model is also what makes it harder for organizations at the moment. There are two reasons to wait and see from an organizational perspective.
What are the comms challenges?
There are no metrics. Since measuring reach and engagement are essential for comms and PR the lack of an analytical dashboard means there’s no proof of value. There’s also no algorithm reward for getting lots of likes, and no ‘trending hashtags’. You also can’t buy space in people’s feeds as there are no ads or sponsorship. It’s unclear if Mastodon will ever introduce metrics. It’s designed to work against users who are chasing #numbers on the grounds that any such chase incentivises toxic behaviour.
No third-party schedulers support posting to Mastodon. Yet. There is a scheduler interface, but you cannot attach images. That makes it difficult to simply switch Twitter content to Mastodon content. My workaround is scheduling text-only posts then using the ‘delete and re-draft’ function to add the images but that is incredibly labour intensive and is not a reasonable ask on social media managers. Rumour has it that Buffer might investigate adding Mastodon as a channel they support.
What is the comms potential?
There are some organisations already exploring how to use Mastodon. The Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information in Germany (BfDI) set up its own server on Mastodon back in April 2022. The only accounts on their server are German government authorities, but anyone can follow any of those accounts. That means any user handle that is @[name]@social.bund.de is, by default, an official German authority account. It also means they do not need to worry about a server folding. The EU also has its own server.
This model could prove valuable for public sector organizations. I can easily imagine a gov.uk server which all national and local government have accounts on. Or a publishing house could host a server for all its authors, or the BBC could host one for all its journalists. Obviously, it puts the costs of running the server onto the organizations, but it also means verification that is not subject to the whims of a man- child.
What to do now
Mastodon may never be the solution for advertising as it does not care about capitalism. But it could be ready for public sector, media and arts organizations. It’s unlikely to be the whole answer to “what replaces Twitter?” but it has the potential to be a new tool for communicators. It also has the potential to be a lot safer for brands, with less risk of share prices being tanked by an activist with $8 to spend.
Anyone working in comms and PR should be getting up to speed on Mastodon, if only to explain to senior leadership why not to move to it just yet.