BY Fast Company 4 MINUTE READ

Before Elon Musk blew up Twitter last week, I had no idea what Mastodon was. Chances are, neither did you. I had heard about the Twitter exodus to the platform: 665,000 users are said to have made the switch, propelling the platform past 1 million users since Musk’s Twitter takeover. So I decided to join them and signed up not knowing what to expect.

As a total newbie to the platform, I was in an ideal place to test Mastodon’s UX. My mission was to analyze how the social platform’s user experience used friction that could, in theory, weed out the trolls and the lowest-common-denominator users who make social media such a toxic experience almost by design. This would make Mastodon a better experience overall. And it is—if you are masochist, that is. The Mastodon UX doesn’t feel like friction. It feels like flogging.

That’s fine to its million-ish passionate users. As one of the many recent articles explaining this newly trending social platform stated: “Not understanding Mastodon is part of the experience.” This is the total opposite of Twitter, a website whose accessible user experience makes it easy to use—and get addicted to. I assumed that it would be easy enough to create a log-in and see what people were chattering about. I was wrong. The experience starts to push against you from the very first click.


After some initial reading—yes, signing up requires some research—I understood that I had to choose a server on which my account would live. So which server to choose? Some of them had some very specific interests, like, a chill server with the tagline, “Come enjoy the Petting Zoo. Fuzzies welcome.” Others were more general: “Mastodon Party is a general-purpose Mastodon instance, welcome to the fediverse!” Some servers are open to direct enrollment. Others are closed clubs that require you to apply. And some—like, the first instance ever—are permanently closed to new users because it reached maximum capacity a long time ago.

To understand what this all means, you have to know that Mastodon is not a monolith governed by a board of directors or a single dictator from Mars. It is a network of independent servers called the Fediverse, all of them connected through a common open-source protocol called OStatus. This protocol allows them to exchange information, enabling each server to see the messages in every other server. Sounds complicated. And, well, it is. Anyone who doesn’t give a damn about these things (like 99% of Twitter users) won’t really understand what to do next. In theory, however, the Fediverse gives you a distributed Twitter.

Each of these servers is owned by one person or group, which means that nobody has absolute power. Except they do. Each server has its own rules and is governed by its owners, who can discipline you at any time if they want to, at their own discretion. Freezing your account. Deleting your messages. Kicking you out. Just like Twitter. Its founder—Germany-based Russian Eugen Rochko—“believes that small, closely related communities deal with unwanted behavior more effectively than a large company’s small safety team.”

That’s a good theory. In practice, with Mastodon you are swapping one all-powerful dictator for a myriad of all-powerful dictators. In a way, it reminds me of the old bulletin board systems from the ’80s, which were all independent, more often than not governed by people who abused their sysop (system operator) powers, and all interconnected to a common network called Fidonet.

Now, consider that I had to learn all of the above just to make an informed decision about which server to pick. There are articles and tutorials out there just to tell you about “the importance of choosing the correct Mastodon instance.” There are even video tutorials . . . with multiple parts. This is not a sign that simplicity lies ahead.


The interface may look like Twitter, but it isn’t. In fact, it vaguely looks like a reversed twin. Organized by columns, the left-hand side of the interface is mostly white space and a field to write your toots—Mastodon’s tweets—on the top; the center column is the timeline, and the right-hand column has a menu that looks similar to Twitter’s main menu.

There is no quick guide to start, so you are on your own to wade through Mastodon’s quirks. And there is no way to easily discover content that interests you either. Twitter’s sign-up process prompts users to pick general areas and subtopics of interest, which instantly generates a customized timeline. By contrast, Mastodon’s server set-up acts as a way to filter content from the outset.

If your server is lively, your timeline will be full of toots by people who like your likings. However, the one I chose——feels mostly dead, and the toots are not particularly on topic. In some ways that’s a blessing. Do you really want your feed to be a sounding board of the same topics? Platforms like Reddit and Discord already exist for people who want to interact with specialized channels.

Mastodon’s solution to that siloed effect is the Federated Timeline. Once you start exploring on the main menu on the right side of the user interface, you will see it immediately. Clicking on it will open a never-ending torrent of all the toots from every server—and those toots pass by at blinding speed in real time. It’s impossible to digest or make sense of. on Mastodon, your options are a boring desert, a sounding board, or a cacophony.

It’s telling that despite its recent surge of signups, Mastodon actually peaked at 1.6 million users in 2018. That was two years after its launch. Four years later, it reached fewer than 400,000 active users, and only this recent Twitter migration has pushed it back beyond the 1 million mark (a tiny fraction of Twitter’s almost 300 million active users).

I suspect that in the frenzy to get away from Musk’s new bumbling dictatorship, a lot of people ran in any direction they could. Mastodon seemed like an option that, from its aesthetic, could be a comparable alternative to Twitter. But I’m afraid that all its problematic design choices will prove impossible to navigate for everyone but the most hard-core users. It’s yet to be seen if most of Mastodon’s new users will remain on the platform in a few weeks. Given this UX design, it’s hard to imagine Mastodon ever gaining enough momentum to topple Twitter.