Mastodon: a gateway drug for activism? 🧐
Since I joined Mastodon in November 2022, I've gone from armchair ponderer to local activist. Coincidence? I think not.
It’s been just over a year since I joined the “Twitter alternative” Mastodon, so now seems like a good time to write about my experience – and why I believe this open-source social media platform has the potential to help us connect and collaborate on solutions that can accelerate our journey to a clean-energy future.
(Yes! Really! Social media can be a force for good! Who woulda thunk.)
But first, here’s why I decided to join a social network that most people have never heard of in the first place:
I believe in the Internet’s potential to unite humanity and help us solve our biggest problems.
One might think that sounds absurdly naive – especially in these divisive times.
But no matter how disheartening the realm of online discourse has become, there is a part of me that still believes that if we could just figure out how to create an online “public square” that was free from advertising, disinformation, and government/industry overreach – we would have the communication tool we needed to work on solutions and make the world a better place for everyone.
That’s why I was so excited to learn about Mastodon.
“Social networking that’s not for sale”
Mastodon seems like the closest thing we have to the kind of free and independent online public square I’ve always dreamed of.
Unlike other Twitter alternatives that have seen a surge of signups since Elon Musk assumed ownership of the former “bird site” back in October 2022, Mastodon is an open-source social media platform that operates through a federated network of independently hosted servers. That means no one person or company can ever own it. Visit the signup page and you'll see that the platform declares itself to be "Social networking that’s not for sale.”
Anyone can host a server and connect it to the “Fediverse” (as the larger decentralized network has come to be called) and make their own rules for the people they allow to join it. If people don’t like those rules, they can move their account to another server with relatively little hassle or set up their own.
This makes Mastodon pretty amazing because:
- It’s impossible to universally block or censor users on Mastodon. The moderators of individual servers can choose to block other servers or accounts that post certain types of content, such as hate speech or disinformation. Or they can allow their users to say and share anything they want. Users are free to find a server that aligns with their values and interests.
- It’s allergic to advertising. Most servers are run through donations to the moderators and don’t have any advertising functionality built into them. And because people aren’t being constantly bombarded by advertisements, when someone does try to include promotional content beyond, “here’s some art I made” or “check out this article I wrote,” it grates like a record scratch and is more likely to generate unfollows than boosts or clicks.
- There’s no algorithm forcing you to see content you didn’t ask for. Because there’s no advertising, that means there are no sponsored or promoted posts – and there’s no algorithm feeding you high-engagement (read: highly inflammatory more often than not) content intended to keep you scrolling and commenting. The only content that appears in your feed is content that you’ve specifically asked to see.
- YOU are not the product. On Mastodon, one’s collecting your data or tracking what you click on, like, or boost and then selling that information to advertisers. Nothing you share or like will result in targeted ads following you around the Internet trying to convince you to buy something. Imagine that.
- It diminishes the toxicity of “look at this asshole” posts. Most Mastodon servers don’t offer users the ability to “quote-tweet” someone, which makes it much harder to instigate flame wars and publicly shame or bully people. In my experience, this leads to more meaningful conversation and connection.
- Fewer bots and trolls. For all of the reasons above, there are nowhere near as many propaganda bots or rage-baiting accounts clearly being used to sow division and hate. This makes it a much more enjoyable and less infuriating and exhausting place to be.
- It doesn’t throttle your reach or hide links to external content. Unlike advertising-dominated sites such as Facebook and Twitter, Mastodon doesn’t shrink the visibility of organic posts or bury links to external sites to prevent you from clicking away. This makes Mastodon much more effective for sharing news and information.
- It’s (largely) billionaire-proof. No one can swoop in to buy the entire federated network and unilaterally change the rules to serve their own whims and interests. Sure, someone could potentially buy one of the more popular Mastodon servers. But if the users on that server don’t like the new owner’s policies, they can move their accounts to another server with minimal disruption.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Mastodon has seen a huge surge of growth over the past year. Before Musk took over Twitter in October 2022, Mastodon had 400,000 users. That number jumped to over 2 million by early December 2022 and 10 million by March 2023 – and as of July 2023, the Mastodon user count was reported to be 12-13 million. That’s pretty impressive!
Especially when you consider the fact that Mastodon isn’t a for-profit company and there’s no such thing as a marketing budget or billions being spent on ads trying to convince people to use it.
So, what has my Mastodon experience been like?
So that’s what I did. I followed a large number of interest-related hashtags (such as: #sustainability, #environment, #greentech, #RenewableEnergy, #EVs, and #ebikes) to ensure that any posts that included these hashtags would appear in my timeline. I boosted any posts that offered interesting or important information related to these topics. And I shared any relevant stories I found in my own online travels.
Here’s what’s happened since then:
- I’ve gained almost 1.5K followers on Mastodon simply by posting once or twice a day. Not a huge number, but accomplished without any real grind or marketing strategy on my part. And my posts tend to get a lot more traction here than I suspect they would on Facebook or Twitter.
- As more people started following me and boosting my posts, I became increasingly motivated to spend more time reading and writing about the topics and issues that were truly important to me. In the past year, I’ve read 9 books related to sustainability and climate solutions and bring them into conversation regularly with friends online and off.
- I've learned more than I imagined about sustainability-related topics such as renewable energy, EVs, batteries, micromobility, shared transportation, green concrete, energy-efficient buildings, mushrooms, seaweed, green steel, regenerative farming methods, and the circular economy. Not just from the books I've read, but from questions and comments people have made on my Mastodon posts that have prompted me to dig deeper into different topics so I could converse more intelligently about them. Simply being able to talk to people about something provides a strong impetus to learn more about it.
- I launched Our Awesome Future, a website and newsletter dedicated to sharing information related to sustainability and green tech and am approaching my first 100 subscribers with zero advertising and less than a handful of posts about it on Facebook and Mastodon. (Baby steps!)
- Because of all the time I spent reading about the challenges and solutions related to climate change, I found myself inspired to take more sustainability focused action in my own life, such as choosing my ebike over my car for most trips and buying more second-hand clothing for myself and my family.
- I went way beyond my usual comfort zone to attend Micromobility America in San Francisco – just so I could meet with people and businesses who are working to create a greener and more energy-efficient transportation paradigm for all of us. (Also to geek out over small, cute, environmentally friendly vehicles. 😍)
- I was asked to make a presentation about my Micromobility America experience to a local sustainable transportation group – and within a month found myself doing something ELSE way beyond my comfort zone and joining the group’s board of directors.
- I even attended my first-ever town council meeting to advocate for the building of more cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in our area – and I was actually excited to go.
It should be said that I am NOT the kind of person who typically joins volunteer groups (or even leaves the house all that often, LOL, given that I'm a writer who works from home).
Yet suddenly I find myself highly motivated to get more involved in local efforts to promote sustainable transportation and other climate-friendly initiatives and do what I can to make this part of the world more climate resilient.
In short, I’ve gone from armchair ponderer to local activist in one year.
And it can all be tied back to my initial decision to join Mastodon.
Because for people like me to want to actively get involved in helping to shape the future of their community, we have to believe our efforts will make a difference. We have to believe that shaping a better future is actually possible – that solutions exist (or have the potential to) and can be implemented.
In other words, we have to have HOPE.
And that’s what I was able to find through my experiences on Mastodon.
This open-source social network has allowed me to connect with people all over the world who care about the same things I care about, and learn from people who know a lot more than I do.
It has opened my eyes to the different kinds of solutions being developed and initiatives taking place all over the world to help us achieve net zero emissions by 2050 – while helping me better understand the huge challenges that face us and how relentless our efforts will have to be if we hope to ever reach that goal.
It has allowed me to speak directly to people who can say, “this is what my community is doing, and this is what has worked and what hasn’t.”
And – even though (or perhaps because?) it's an online platform and most of the conversations I've had on it are with people who in a completely different part of the world than me – it has helped me realize that if I want to see meaningful change in my part of the world, I have to step up and do what I can locally to help make it happen.
And it's given me the push I needed to do just that.
So, should YOU join Mastodon?
It depends on what your goals are.
If you’re a business owner and your primary reason for being on social media is to promote your products or services, Mastodon probably isn’t the best place to do that. Depending on your audience and demographic, you’re more likely to see better results using Meta, Tiktok, or LinkedIn for your marketing purposes.
BUT, if your goal with social media is to build connections and share important news and information with people all over the world in an ad-free environment that is resistant to corporate and political manipulation, then Mastodon is DEFINITELY a platform you should check out.
It may not be as addictive and dopamine-driven as TikTok or Facebook or Twitter in its heyday – but from a user’s (as opposed to a marketer’s) perspective, I would say that’s a good thing.
Long live the free and open Fediverse! ✊