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You are here: Home Blogs Community A new challenger to Twitter's walled garden: Mastodon

A new challenger to Twitter's walled garden: Mastodon

by Georgia Young Contributions Published on Jun 14, 2017 04:05 PM
When it comes to social microblogging, Twitter is the 800-pound gorilla. But a new free, federated option is here.

With 313 million active users each month, lots of people, organizations, and bots communicate in 140 characters or less on Twitter. While the Free Software Foundation does use Twitter, the platform is saddled with ethical pitfalls like nonfree JavaScript and privacy threats. We encourage using decentralized microblogging options, like GNU social or

Another program speaking the same protocol as GNU social made a huge splash this spring. It's called Mastodon, and its growing popularity was in part spurred by positive posts about it by Twitter users with large numbers of followers, like tech writer Sarah Jeong. That momentum is still strong.

Free software advocates can get excited about Mastodon because widespread adoption of federated, decentralized free software for social networking allows more people to break free of walled gardens like Twitter and Facebook and avoid using nonfree JavaScript without having to give up on connecting and conversing with friends on the Web. Federation lets people talk to each other from different sites, and decentralization lets many people do this without everyone depending on one giant server that is a single point of failure. You can even self-host a Mastodon (or GNU social) instance for your friends or anybody who chooses to join. All instances of a program like Mastodon use the same protocol -- so if I'm and you're, we can follow each other's accounts and communicate, even though our accounts aren't registered to the same domain. You can't do that with Twitter.

Decentralization and federation are on the FSF's High Priority Projects list because a decentralized Web built on free software can be more secure, more respectful of your privacy, and community-built and shared. Centralized servers might seem like a good option at first, but they tend to eventually abuse their users' freedoms (if they don't right away). These platforms require the use of nonfree software, they don't distribute the software they use, and they are poor platforms for activist communication -- like the free software movement -- because single gatekeepers control and filter everything. For example, Twitter has adopted various rules that restrict Twitter clients and apps in order to prioritize the needs of advertisers over individual users. Twitter has also become notorious for abusive behavior by some of its users -- free software for social networking sometimes takes a more stringent stance toward community standards (Mastodon, for one), though more work does need to be done to address these problems for decentralized systems.

The Web's governing body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), is taking interest in this, as well. Its Social Web Working Group has spent the last three years working to "develop standards to make it easier to build and integrate social applications with the Open Web Platform." Earlier this month, a decentralized social networking protocol that has been developed by the Social Web Working Group, ActivityPub, advanced to W3C Candidate Recommendation status, meaning that its significant features are mostly set, and the protocol is open to feedback from those who would implement it. GNU MediaGoblin developer Christopher Webber is a member of the Working Group and has discussed ActivityPub on his blog. The FSF is hopeful that this will build on current momentum and enable more exciting developments in this area in the future.

Join the federation!

Want to encourage decentralized, federated social interaction on the Web? Start participating!

  • Create your own account on a GNU social or Mastodon server. (Don't forget to follow the FSF!)

  • Set up your own instance of GNU social or other social microblogging site. This may be challenging, but it's rewarding and helps move the world toward true decentralization.

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