Saturday, September 08, 2018

Mastodon: somewhere between Twitter and FriendFeed

Now I forgot who told me about it (sorry!), but I started looking at Mastodon last week. Mastodon is like Twitter or Whatsapp, but then distributed and federated. And that has advantage: no vendor lock-in, servers for specific communities. In that sense, it's more like email, with neither one point-of-failure, but potentially many points-of-failure.

But Mastodon is also very well done. In the past week I set up two accounts, one of a general server and one on a community server (more about that in a second). I am still learning, but want to share some observations.

First, the platform is not unique and there are other, maybe better) distributed and federated software solutions, but Mastodon is slick. This is what my profile page looks like, but you can change the theme if you like. So far, pretty standard:

My profile page.
Multiple accounts
While I am still exploring this bit, you can have multiple accounts. I am not entire sure yet how to link them up, but currently they follow each other. My second account is on a server aimed at scholars and stuff that scholars talk about. This distributed features is advertised as follows: sometimes you want to talk science, something you want to talk movies. The last I would do on my account and the science on my account.

However, essential is that you can follow anyone on any server: you do not have to be on to follow my toots there. (Of course, you can also simply check the profile page, and you can read my public toots without any Mastodon account.)

This topic server is a really exciting idea. This provides an alternative to mailing lists or slack rooms. And each server decides on their own community norms, and any account can be blocked of violating those community norms. No dependency on Twitter or Facebook to decide what is right or wrong, the community can do that themselves.

BioMedCentral could host one server for each journal... now that's an idea :)

Controlling what you see
OK, let's look at a single toot, here about a recent JACS paper (doi:10.1021/jacs.8b03913):

Each toot (like tweet) has replies, boosts (like retweets), and favorites (like likes). Now, I currently follow this anonymous account. You can do the normal things, like follow, send direct messages, mute, and block accounts:

You can follow toots from just the people you follow, but also follow all tweets on that particular server (which makes sense of you have a server about a very specific topic), or toots on all federated servers (unwise).

The intention of Mastodon is to give the users a lot of control. You should not expect non-linear timelines or promoted toots. If that is your things, better stay on Twitter. An example of the level of control is what options it offers me for my "Notifications" timeline:

Other stuff I like
Some random things that I noticed: there is more room for detail and you have 500 chars, URLs are not shortened (each URL counts as 20 chars), animated GIFs are animated when I hover over them. Cool, no need to pause them! You cannot edit toots, but at least I found a "Delete and redraft" option. Mastodon has solutions for hiding sensitive material. That causes to part of the toot to be hidden by default. This can be used to hide content that may upset people, like medical images of intestines :) The CW is short for Content Warning and is used for that.

There is a lot more, but I'm running out of time for writing this blog post. Check out this useful An Increasingly Less-Brief Guide to Mastodon.

So, who to follow?
Well, I found two options. One is, use Wikidata, where you can search for authors with a (one or more) Mastodon accounts. For example, try this query to find accounts for Journal of Cheminformatics authors:

Yes, that list is not very long yet:

But given the design and implementation of Mastodon, this could change quickly.

Well, some of you are old enough to remember FriendFeed. The default interface is different, but if I open a single toot in a separate page, it does remind me a lot of FriendFeed, and I am wondering in Mastodon can be that FriendFeed replacement we have long waited for! What do you think?

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