A Businessy Take on Mastodon

I was a late convert to Twitter. I dabbled about a year ago and then I discovered that Ukraine war news appeared there first. Everyone in the media, government and big business already seemed familiar with Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and the like. Everyone seemed to understand the tools and how to use them to entertain, learn, inform, advertise, and monetize.

It was all very good.

Then Elon Musk tore into Twitter and raised the spectre that it might be destroyed, or ruined, or confused, or fade away, or … something. The fabric of Internet social existence is now deeply threatened. You can add the fact that Facebook is stagnating and the Instagrams and TikToks of the world are less helpful for sharing sophisticated commercial and informational messages.

Suddenly, everyone is discovering Mastodon and the “Fediverse”. The Fediverse is an underlying non-proprietery social communication system and Mastodon is the most popular (but not the only) software to talk to it. Both were lurking in hackers’ basements for the past few years, but neither was remotely mainstream until a few million people suddenly abandoned Twitter and began to try them out. Surprisingly, it works. It’s not Twitter and its reach is limited, but messages mostly arrive and follows mostly follow and, apart from teething problems from the growth spurt, it pretty much delivers as promised. There are, however, two critical differences between Mastodon and Twitter that most users (especially in organizations) have yet to understand:

  • Corporate platforms like Twitter are designed to actively push content while in Mastodon and the Fediverse, users control how they pull material.
  • Each large corporate social platform has its own unique software apps. Mastodon and other tools in the Fediverse all use the ActivityPub communication protocol. ActivityPub content can be viewed via any client/server software that honors the standard.

Twitter and Facebook and other corporate-run social media give the superficial impression that the user controls their own feed. The user can decide which sources to follow and can search for topics of interest. If you look under the hood, however, you will see the powerful business mechanisms that push information and messaging to users whether they want it or not.

With Twitter, the main feature is the “algorithm”. In principle, it’s supposed to learn what each user finds interesting and bring more of that material to the user’s attention. However, it’s a very short step to adjust the algorithm to push material into the user’s feed that Twitter wants them to see. It’s an even shorter move to bias the material toward what a paying advertiser would like Twitter to show to the user. In addition, Twitter shows ads to the user at regular intervals. These are also chosen based on the user’s viewing habits to enhance the likelihood that they will catch and hold the user’s attention. Even when the platform is not actively trying to shill for an advertiser, the algorithm will push content that is chosen to excite the user. That entices the user to stay on the site longer, visit more often and engage more deeply. Meanwhile they are exposed to more of the commercial messaging lurking in the background.

This admittedly busy diagram tries to capture the current corporate social media landscape, or at least the big pieces that drive most of the technology and policy:

  1. Social media deals with big populations. They are mostly anonymous, but there may be millions of them. Twitter, for example, has over 200 million users. Facebook has more.
  2. Each individual user typically has at least one device and several apps, each for a specific social media system. They need multiple apps because the systems do not interconnect. If I have friends on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook, I need all three apps to cover my circle.
  3. Complicating everything are the actions of myriad bad actors. These can range from pranksters, to antisocial trolls, to organized protestors, to malevolent nation states. They have no interest in genuine discussion or opinion and everything to do with injecting as much confusion and havoc as they can. If the social media service can’t block them, honest users (e.g., businesses) must filter their noise out of the data.
  4. With this complexity, it is hard to make direct inferences about the behavior of individuals in the marketplace. Fears of overbearing surveillance require careful privacy controls. Also, the sheer volume and variety of data means there is always immense “noise” in the system.
  5. These huge systems are funded mainly by corporate money. The businesses pay the system companies (e.g., Twitter) to push their message to suitable prospects. Making a successful connection (earn follower, install app, view video) can cost from US$.50 to $3.00 per customer. They also buy large datasets from the system companies to analyze the market of likely customers. In its final year as a public company, Twitter earned and spent about US$5 Billion.
  6. Because there is so much data and so much “noise” and because there is very little direct visibility into individual attitudes or behavior, big users employ expensive “big data” analysts to try to make sense of the situation.

In effect, this system is designed by big business for big business. Most insights come from big data and computer-intensive statistical analysis. A large corporation can spend hundreds of millions of dollars managing its social media marketing effort. Service providers like Twitter pay lip service to small organizations and businesses, but they are not the industry focus.

Mastodon – The World Pulled Through Your App

If an end user switches to Mastodon, the structure and flow of information is very different from corporate social media. The center of control shifts from the corporate server to the user’s personal server and client, where all messages flow through one gateway process. They are not split among different social media platforms and formats.

The ActivityPub protocol that underpins the Fediverse handles the communication and the Mastodon client/server (or its brethren) handle the delivery of materials to the recipient. Participation in ActivityPub hinges on each participant adopting a network address that resembles an email address.

  1. The user can see all of the message traffic through one client/server. There are numerous software cllients available, most free and a few paid, that work on different devices. However, you only need one app on each device to fully participate. No need to bounce between apps because some friends are on one system and others use a different app.
  2. The material fed to your client by your server is controlled by rules that you set. Nothing can be pushed past those rules by outsiders. I say more about the rules in the Appendix to this note. If you are already familiar with Mastodon, just ignore it. If you are new to Mastodon, it gives at least a superficial overview to its operation.
  3. Each recipient has an account on a Mastodon server that is the inbox and outbox for all message traffic. The inbound delivery rules are enforced in the server, but you can adjust them from your client app. The server probably hosts other users who form your local community and they, by default, have a bit more visibility in your feed.
  4. Through your community server, you can follow users on any other server in the Fediverse, locally or around the world.
  5. There are a growing number of online services that will pull messages into the Fediverse from conventional services. For example, you can read the Tweets from any Twitter user account, but you can’t reply or retweet them. Connections to other services may appear in due time. Some commercial services (e.g., Tumblr) have stated an intention to fully interoperate with the Fediverse … eventually.
  6. Finally, there is the fuzzy role of eventual business participation in the Fediverse. Any business can get a Mastodon account or set up a server. However, few have done so to date and it’s unclear how they will choose to participate. Indeed, speculating on that is the main topic for the following sections of this post.

With Mastodon and the Fediverse, the end user has almost total control over their participation. Currently, it might take a little bit of work to set up strong rules, but that should become easier as clients and servers improve. Then, if enough people migrate to the Fediverse, that will put businesses in a quandary and the corporate social media vendors in a serious cash crunch.

Widespread business use of Mastodon and the Fediverse is not a thing … yet. The best we can do is to imagine what it might be like. Fortunately, we don’t need to assume new technologies or business practices. The technologies are already in place and the required business methods are well proven.

A Brave New World for Small Business

I would start by imagining how the Fediverse might operate in a localized, small business ecosystem. It’s a smaller problem that fits the Fediverse and I think it sets up the big business discussion that follows. This diagram shows how a Mastodon/Fediverse business system might operate in a community or small town.

In this (still imaginary) world, I sit at my computer with a single client … Mastodon. Through my client app, I tell my server account who in the Fediverse I want to follow.

  1. I support several local non-profit organizations. Each has one or two accounts that they use to talk to supporters. I got one account addresses from a business card at an unrelated meeting and I got the other from a table outside the supermarket. The messages are not frequent, but they tell me about visiting speakers and fundraisers.
  2. I follow my local soccer team to keep on roster changes and I have the message account for a local country club. Although I’m not a member, the golf club sends messages when they have open tee times and I get a promo code with a discount.
  3. My local bank sends messages about mortgage rate changes and it sometimes hosts civic events. The big employer in town lets people know about job openings.
  4. Quite a few local stores and restaurants have message feeds that offer discounts and notice of events. I really liked the Talk Like a Pirate party at our local bar. It was a blast and I wouldn’t have known about it if they hadn’t posted the message the week before.
  5. I follow the police, emergency or airport message feeds all the time, but I mostly keep them muted so I don’t see their posts. When the news says a big storm is coming, for example, I unmute them and watch for alerts.
  6. I don’t follow the local car dealership or realtor except when I have a reason. Our company hired a new staffer from out of town, so I unmuted the realtor for a few weeks. There was a message about an interesting home listing that I passed along, but my colleague didn’t really like it.

If this scenario comes to pass, messages will flow to and from subscribers automatically and for free … just as they do with Twittter. It’s as easy as making a Tweet, but there is less network noise and chatter. It’s definitely easier than trying to manage a Twitter advertising account and, as more locals use Mastodon, businesses won’t have to worry about servicing multiple communications systems.

A Scary World for Big Business

The situation for big businesses and organizations is totally different. As Mastodon usage grows, they can no longer write a check to Twitter to push messages to suitable prospects. They also can’t pay Twitter to track the online behavior of its millions of users. The new reality will resemble this diagram.

Rather than outsourcing to the big social media services, they will have to patiently build their audience by offering value that incrementally attracts individual users:

  1. Each BigCo creates a set of accounts on a Mastodon server. The accounts could be on their own server, an independent server (if the server admin allowed), or I could foresee the emergence of professionally run business servers that host multiple companies’ accounts. The various accounts are channels for different types of conversations that the BigCos would like to have with their markets.
  2. In some manner, each BigCo must entice users to “follow” their account(s). Finding the correct inducement will force BigCo to do old school marketing. They will have to craft great content. Maybe they can offer discounts or promo codes … or invitations to events. They will need to do something tangible to convince users to follow them.
  3. If a user doesn’t follow BigCo, the company can’t force itself on the user. The user will only see BigCo’s messages if they are following a user who is following BigCo … or if someone on their home server boosts it. Regardless, the wider visibility of BigCo’s message will be mostly hit or miss.

For big companies that are accustomed to spending millions of dollars on social media advertising, this will be a wrenching change. That’s why I don’t expect them to abandon Twitter easily and if they are forced to use the Fediverse, they will quickly look for ways to spend money to rig the game … and I can think of some things they will probably try.

The obvious move is to buy boosts. I expect companies will greatly expand the “influencer” phenomenon that we already see on social media. If I sign up with my 500 followers, a company might give me $50 every time I boost one of the company’s messages. It will scale up with the number of followers. If they can find a way to count reboosts, they might pay even more.

As a user, this will put me in a strange, new situation. I will need to offer my followers consistent content to hold their interest and build followers. Simultaneously, I want to boost my sponsors often to earn more money. Yet, I worry that my boosts will turn off some of my followers, so I may have to be selective in which company messages I endorse. In effect, I will become an adjunct advertising manager for the company that is paying me. If I sign with several companies, it’s even more complicated. From the business side, managing a corporate program with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of amateur boosters will be a new kind of social media marketing experience for corporate marketers.

The other part of the current corporate equation is their huge marketing investment in big data. How do you pull millions of user records out of the Fediverse? The answer is you probably don’t. On the other hand, the data that you can get is fairly high quality. You know who is following you and how much they engage with and boost your message. Marketing managers will need to be able to work with smaller amounts of more intimate and localized information. In other words, “old school” market analysis.

As hard as the shift will be, there are compensations. First, the Mastodon system is simpler and cheaper. BigCo can send one message and it will reach every follower in the Fediverse and everyone who views what they have boosted. Eventually, BigCo won’t have to tune its messages differently for Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. BigCo also won’t pay big bucks to companies like Twitter, either to push the message to specific demographics or to return the oceans of data that BigCo would otherwise need to figure out how the message is working among all the noise. It will be a simpler, more localized and traditional marketing approach.

In a Crystal Ball

So where does this leave the Fediverse and Mastodon, Twitter, and the Silicon Valley billionaire techbros? I don’t think anyone knows yet. However, there some markers and milestones that should tell us a lot more in the coming months and years:

  • How many Twitter users will Musk drive off? – His first set of actions caused Fediverse users to increase from 1.5 million to nearly 8 million in just a few weeks. That is probably still not enough to threaten Twitter or Facebook, etc., but if Musk can make another 4 or 5 million switch, things might get interesting. That might happen in a steady trickle or it might happen suddenly if Twitter were to become unreliable.
  • When will the “bad actors” on Twitter drive users off? – As sane opinion leaders leave and thousands of crazies, trolls, conspiracy theorists, and intelligence operatives crowd back onto Twitter, the dialog will steadily degenerate. For many users, however, there will still be switching costs. For them, it may be a case of “frog in boiling water”. No one knows if the situation will get bad enough to make them change platforms, or how long it might take.
  • When will enough “lead users” switch their publishing to the Fediverse? – Several Twitter luminaries have already moved their work to Mastodon. As more make the move, presumably many of their Twitter and/or Facebook followers will come across. Even if they don’t close their Twitter accounts, they may spend more time on Mastodon. When does a trickle become a stampede?
  • When will software service vendors offer small, simple Mastodon servers? – Mastodon and its brethren are designed and built mostly by volunteer, open source developers. Once Mastodon reaches critical mass, better resourced commercial developers will issue new paid or advertised software. There’s lots of room for better server and client software to sand off the current rough edges. That, in turn, will make it easier for users to make the journey across.
  • When will big organizations decide that it won’t hurt to have a Fediverse presence? – There are a few big companies or organizations that have entered the Fediverse. When Musk upset Twitter, EU bureaucrats began to ostentatiously use Mastodon and Volkswagen created an account. In practical terms, a competent IT team could set up a corporate address in a few minutes and configure its own corporate server in a few days. The company can run their Fediverse messaging in parallel with their Twitter and Facebook accounts until it decides what to do long term. If enough companies cross-post, the shift to the Fediverse will be easier.
  • When will some towns, communities or associations see the potential and encourage local use? – The design concept for the Fediverse is ideal for independent communities that want talk to one another, but still communicate with the wider world. As explained above, that would be ideal for small towns or communities with common interests. A few such groupings are already evident among tech nerds, artists and music lovers, but the Fediverse is waiting for that to go mainstream. That might happen first outside North America, farther from the Silicon Valley influence. But time will tell.

I doubt that any single shift will be enough to move the larger social media business needle. However, there are several forces and each is more or less independent, so combining a few of them may provide the necessary impetus. Today, at least, it seems more likely than not that the corporate social media cabal in Silicon Valley will give way to a widely distributed Fediverse of some type. When that happens, the Internet social world will tilt on its axis.

Big Picture

Look again at the first diagram in this post. If the Fediverse succeeds, it will tear the guts out of the Silicon Valley billionaire techbro social media machine. Musk will the gutted. Zuckerberg will be largely sidelined. Most important, the Internet cultural hegemony of Silicon Valley will be diminished, perhaps forever.

Who will inherit? … The rest of the Planet.

The engine that will drive the transformation will be money. Hopefully small business, maybe government, and possibly big corporate money. Nerds and artists, bless their heart, don’t have billions of dollars to compete. Money from New York, Ohio and Georgia. Money from Germany and UK. Money from Korea. Money from Japan. Money from Brazil.

It will either be terrible … or it will be glorious.

Appendix – Notes on Mastodon Displays and Rules

Mastodon and the underlying Fediverse don’t have a push algorithm. Messages arrive roughly in the order that they were sent. The recipient, does, however, have several ways to control what messages they see and how they are displayed (or hidden). Most visibly, incoming messages are split among a set of streams that each appear in their own display panel:

  • The User’s Home Stream – A user can pull in messages as they are posted by people that the user is following. If the user hasn’t followed anyone, the Home stream will be empty. If the user is following people, their posts will appear, along with posts that those people have chosen to “boost”. Overall, the stream only shows posts from trusted people or posts that they explicitly like and recommend.
  • The Local Stream – The Local stream shows posts that are made or boosted by other people on the user’s local server. In a small community, this can be informative and intimate. In a big community, it can be a firehose. If it’s a firehose, the user may only view it occasionally.
  • The Federated Stream – The Federated stream pulls messages from all over the Fediverse. It is always a firehose and the posts can seem to arrive rapidly and randomly on any topic. FWIW, I don’t bother to display this stream on my Mastadon desktop client.
  • The Hashtag Stream – With later versions of Mastodon, a user can follow messages with a specific hashtag. For example, I can follow “#horse” and I will see every post in the Fediverse with “#horse” in its text. If my client supports it, I can display parallel streams for different hashtags. This is an efficient way to track posts on specific topics from the outside world.
  • The List Stream – The List function can designate a subset of people you especially want to follow. Only posts from those people will appear in this independent stream. A list can have many people or just one. If you have some trusted sources on a topic, this is an efficient way to keep current on their thoughts.
  • The Notification Stream – If people follow you or respond to things you write or boost, you can elect to receive notifications that will appear in their own stream window. Depending on the exact version of the Mastodon server, the level of control can be quite fine grained.
  • The Boost and Various Other Tools A user cannot push their own message beyond simply posting it. They can, however, give someone else’s message implied approval and pass it along to their audience. The “boosted” message will appear in the recipients’ timelines, depending on how the recipient has configured their settings. There are many more features and settings (e.g., to block or mute accounts that you are following) that are supported by various software servers and clients. You typically find these as little icons or buried in the user settings.

There are a growing number of Mastodon/Fediverse clients. Some are paid, but most are still free. Typically, they display each stream as a vertical list. This one (Sengi), lets me select and show streams from multiple accounts: