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What the Heck Is Mastodon, and Why Is Everyone Talking About It?

Photo: Mastodon

If you follow anybody in tech journalism on Twitter today, your feed has likely seen a fair number of mentions of Mastodon. Which, sadly, isn’t because the Ice Age–era beasts are making a comeback or because Mastodon the band has a new album. (The platform is, in fact, named after the band.) Mastodon, in this context, is an open-source social platform that’s been around for about six months now, but is picking up speed today, thanks to nods from Sarah Jeong at Motherboard and Casey Newton at the Verge. It’s kind of like Twitter, except for all the ways it’s not. Which include …

Mastodon’s character limit per post is higher.
Unlike Twitter’s standard 140 character limit — which, in a painful design change, no longer includes user handles in reply tweets — Mastodon gives users a little more room to breath. Or whine. Or pontificate. The limit is 500 characters.

Mastodon is “decentralized to commercial platforms.”
Unlike Twitter, you don’t have to worry about what happens to your content should another company purchase the site. “It [Mastodon] avoids the risks of a single company monopolizing your communication,” Mastodon explains on its entry page. There are no advertisements allowed, and the site is funded, Motherboard notes, by some guy in Germany on Patreon for just under $1,000 a month.

Posts are called toots.
Mercifully, if you share someone’s toot on Mastodon, it’s called a boost and not a retoot. To like something is to favorite it, a callback to the days before Twitter forced exploding-heart animations onto our timelines. As for layout, Mastodon feels a little like TweetDeck, with columns for your toots, toots from the people you follow, your mentions, and (unlike Twitter) a timeline of all public posts being shared by every user on the platform.

You’ve got a lot more control over your privacy.
Like Facebook, users can opt — on a post-by-post basis — whether they want their content to be public or private. There is also the option to label a post as “unlisted.” Unlisted posts are viewable to the public, but do not get shared on the local and federated timelines. (Timelines of public toots from all users.)

There are no Nazis, and Nazism is forbidden.
Mastodon was developed by Eugen Rochko, who is German. Unlike Twitter, which has been struggling (and largely failing) to deal with its Nazi problem, Mastodon’s terms of service are clear, and expressly forbid “content illegal in Germany and/or France, such as holocaust denial or Nazi symbolism.”

What the Heck Is Mastodon?