Mastodon Isn't Twitter

I’ve spent the last couple of years being very on Twitter. Along with spending too much time scrolling/reading, I write there frequently and at length. It’s where I publish most of my adtech/disinformation research, and where I talk about my software projects.

Like a lot of Twitter users recently, I’ve been trying to work out if Mastodon is an alternative if/when it’s no longer viable to stay on Twitter. I have my doubts.

To understand why, we first need to look at why the bird site had such a draw with a certain group of people — what set it apart from the various other types of mass communication.


While there are undoubtedly many factors in play, a key part of Twitter’s appeal is that tweets have unlimited potential reach, and are persistent.

Tweets are entirely public. On Twitter, you don’t really post to your friends, family, or any other community. You’re tweeting to everyone, at least aspirationally. Retweets, replies, and quote tweets all help spread a tweet to a wider audience, and are themselves tweets that can be spread.

Perhaps more importantly, tweets spread far beyond Twitter itself. They can be viewed by anyone without an account, linked to from anywhere, and they’re easy to embed or screenshot. The ability of a tweet to reach the wider world, and the frequency at which that happens, is core to Twitter’s appeal.

Tweets have a short half-life in the Twitter feed, but remain accessible via links and embeds, and can be readily found via searches. Retweets, replies, and quote tweets push them back into the feed and start the spread again. This persistence preserves the value of the work that goes into creating tweets — particularly long threads.

Reach and persistence are why Twitter is the social network for brands, politicians, and journalists; why its influence has always been outsized for its user base. And they’re why I’m there, building a user-base for a niche research tool, and sharing screenshots of brands advertising on disinformation.

Twitter is where you go if you want your ideas to spread as widely as possible, and to be able to refer back to them in the future.

Clearly, this is not what everyone on Twitter is looking for. And these dynamics cause a lot of issues — it’s often called “the hellsite” for a reason. But I do think these factors are key to understanding Twitter’s niche, and whether any potential replacement can fill it.


Superficially, Mastodon looks a lot like Twitter, just open source and federated. But it has a significant number of differences, many of which are directly at odds with Twitter’s recipe of reach and persistence.

One of the first things a Twitter user will notice is the lack of quote tweets. This is an explicit decision to prevent quote-dunking, an oft-lamented part of Twitter culture.

But while quote tweets can be used to dunk, they can also be used to reference old tweets (your own, or others’) as context for a new tweet, or just to take a conversation in a slightly different direction without hijacking the original one. They’re key to how ideas spread, expand, and evolve across Twitter (and beyond).

Another major departure is searching for posts. Most Mastodon servers only allow searching by hashtag — full-text search just isn’t provided. An external search service was recently created and then shut down almost immediately due to community backlash.

Once again, this is a deliberate choice — harassers often find targets by searching for specific key words or phrases. But it also makes it hard to find old posts you want to reference (even your own) — once they’re out of your feed, they’re largely gone.

Automatic post deletion is a built-in feature, and used by a lot of people. When you migrate your profile to a new server you can bring your followers, but not your posts. Long-term post persistence is clearly not the goal here.

Mastodon servers are designed to be distinct communities, with their own rules and norms. While you can follow people from other servers, it’s highly recommended you find a server that matches your interests. Mastodon doesn’t have a recommendation algorithm, so discovery is largely facilitated by your server’s local timeline — a feed of all the posts from users on your server.

You’re not posting to everyone, aiming for maximum reach — you’re talking to your local community. Trying to talk to followers on other servers spams your community with posts they don’t care about.

Reach is further curtailed when server admins block entire other servers, preventing users from following each other. While there are often obvious reasons for this — there are some toxic servers out there — other cases are due to more complex cultural issues.

For example, a new server for journalists is apparently being blocked by a number of servers. I expect these kinds of culture clashes to be a problem for a lot of Twitter users trying to migrate, not to mention the existing Mastodon communities being impacted.

Overall, a Mastodon server seems a lot closer to a forum, or even something like a Discord server, than Twitter. Posts are essentially transient, and work best when you’re talking to your local community.

I have no doubt many Twexiters will find and create great communities on Mastodon, but I’m not convinced it can slot into the niche Twitter has filled for so long.