If I've identified a trend in my social media preferences, it's that I prefer not to use social media. That's not to say that I don't use it, just that I often feel conflicted when I do. On the one hand, this is where my friends are, and online networks have become a sort of pseudo-public square. (My choice of words there is deliberate ... "pseudo" as in "fake." I actually don't think online networks work as a true replacement for a public square, but that's a post for another time.) Skip out on social media altogether and you basically opt-out of a lot of opportunities to rub elbows with people, which, despite all of the good and the bad that entails, I still think is worthwhile.
On the other hand, popular social networks are for-profit companies that invariably make their money by turning their users into their product, which is packaged and sold to online advertisers. I don't know about you, but to me that feels a bit dehumanizing. Sure, that model of business existed long before social networks did, at least in the abstract, but let's not kid ourselves—the way we're packaged and sold to advertisers is far different in the hands of social networks than at any time in history. Magazines and television networks could guess at the kinds of readers and viewers they attracted, and companies like Nielson could even provide some hard data to back up their guesswork, but what they didn't have was gobs of very personal data from which to draw conclusions about us. Apart from our reading/viewing habits, older forms of media had comparatively little to work with.
(As an aside, this is why Google and Facebook are such valuable companies with such obscenely high market caps. It's not because of the value they provide to their users. It's because of the value they provide to advertisers. If what they were doing wasn't such a marked departure from the way ad targeting was done in the past, then these companies wouldn't be so financially successful. Don't buy the argument that what these companies do is the same as magazines and television networks before them.)
So here's the bind, I can either participate in social media in order to "stay connected," and deal with the icky feeling of being someone's product, or I can opt-out and look like an increasingly irrelevant luddite, telling Facebook and Google to get off his lawn. But here we are, this is just the deal we're all being given, and there's nothing we can do about it, right?
What's Mastodon? There are a few perspectives from which to tackle that question. To wit:
Technically speaking, Mastodon is one of a few social media networks that participate in what's sometimes referred to as the "Fediverse," which is a term used to describe the common technologies/protocols underpinning them. These protocols allow Mastodon and it's sister networks to be both decentralized and federated. Taken together, it's useful to think of federated, decentralized networks as being like email. I might have an email address with Google, but I can use that address to send email to anyone at any other email provider. Loosely speaking, multiple providers/operators is what we mean by "decentralized;" and the fact that they can all talk to each other is what we mean by "federated."
To users, Mastodon works a lot like Twitter. You can tweet (which in Mastodon is called—rather unfortunately in my opinion—tooting), retweet (or boost, in Mastodon parlance), and send "private" messages to other users. Toots in Mastodon can be longer than tweets, 500 characters compared to 280. Hashtags work too.
In terms of look-and-feel, the user experience on a typical Mastodon server's website reminds me a lot of Tweetdeck. That said, there are custom user interfaces available as well (not to mention mobile apps).
Because of the above—and particularly because of Mastodon's decentralized, federated nature—there's a lot to recommend it.
Did I Mention No Ads?
I actually started this post because I wanted to have something to send to folks either asking what Mastodon is or who have just joined and are a bit confused about next steps. There's a lot already out there, so my approach with what remains will be to link to other introductions. If I find another page that fills a gap, I'll update this page with a link.
Without further ado: