Exploring Mastodon, an open source social network

In recent years, especially since the launch of Reliance Jio, access to internet has become cheaper and more importantly, easier for us in India. It is not necessary anymore to own or have access to a computer to be able to be able to log into the intertubes. A much cheaper smart phone is now our window into almost any corner of the information highway. Consequently, social network sites and apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are fast becoming an important part of the way we interact with our friends and family and consume information and news. So much so that the recently concluded Lok Sabha election has been described by many as a WhatsApp election (here and here, for example). These social platforms are now powerful enough to be able influence our country’s future.

Like any good tool, social networks too have dual edges. While they have been used to network, bring people together and bust fake narratives, they have also been used to push fake news, rumor mongering, spread hate and increase divisions. This is a consequence of users misusing the service. But there is another group that has abused these services for their financial and ideological benefit, the companies that developed these apps themselves. The data that users of these apps entrusted these companies with has constantly been abused to sell targeted advertising. They have even sold the data to those seeking to manipulate and undermine democracies around the world. In accordance with the prevailing political culture in Silicon Valley, where most of these companies are located, they have promoted the leftist ideology on their platform and actively suppressed conservative ideas (for example, here).

One response to the unethical business practices and targeted censorship by the dominant corporate social networks is the OSSNs (open source social networks). These software allow any one with sufficient technical skill to install and run their own social network with very little infrastructure and costs associated. There are OSSN apps that are alternatives to YouTube (Peertube), Facebook (Diaspora, Friendica), Instagram (Pixelfed). The users on all these different apps can communicate and follow the users all other apps. Thus forming an interconnected but distributed social networking universe of small self-regulated communities called the Fediverse. One of the Twitter alternatives on the Fediverse, and probably the most popular one, is Mastodon. The following video explains Mastodon.

As I mentioned earlier, anyone can install Mastodon and run a Twitter like social network for their own particular purpose or community and administer it according to the moderation rules that they/that community wants. Each such self-moderated node on Mastodon is called an Instance and users on different instances can communicate and follow each other. For example, those interested in Chennai Super Kings or Mumbai Indians can form their own separate instances to share the information that fans of each team are interested in. If a CSK fan wants to follow a MI fan, they can do so or they can choose to just follow other CSK or MI fans. CSK fans can decide what rules to be followed by users on their Instance and MI fans can decide their own rules. Similarly, there can be instances for all different kinds of interest groups which can interact with each other; fans of movie stars or authors, those interested in particular subject matter (eg. history, army, software, etc), supporters of political parties, government departments.

Basically, accounts on Mastodon Instances are like email accounts. With a Gmail account, you can send an email to a person with a Gmail account or with a YahooMail account. Except, the communication on Mastodon is public while email is private.

Currently almost every department of Indian government including the Prime Minister’s office and the Prime Minister himself have Twitter accounts. Same is true of most state governments and Chief Minister’s offices. All the information from these Twitter handles is accessible to and is controlled by a foreign corporation that is legally obliged to provide access to this information to the US government. Indian government can instead run its own Twitter like service using Mastodon on servers that are controlled by them and are located in India and subject to Indian law.

There is a Mastodon Instance specifically aimed at providing a platform for Indian users called the Inditoot. The service started a few months ago and already has about 1100 users. To use the service, an account has to be created through the Inditoot website – go to inditoot.com, type in the username you want to use (eg. chalat@inditoot.com), provide your email address, a password, click the service conditions tick box and click sign up.

Once the account is created, Inditoot can be accessed either through the native website or one of many Android and iOS Mastodon apps available on Play and App store, respectively. Because all the Android and iOS apps are common for Mastodon, once you install the app, it will ask you to enter the name of Instance where you have an account; inditoot.com needs to be entered here. After that enter the email address and password as for any other app and log in. If you have used Twitter, using most of these apps is intuitive.

When you access Inditoot through the website, you’ll see that it has a multi-pane layout. The 1st pane is where you compose the message you want to post, call a TOOT. The next pane is the Home timeline; this shows all the toots from people you follow. This could be people from Inditoot as well as any other Mastodon Instance. For example, in the image below you’ll see that my Home TL has toots from an account @FamousQuotes@mastodon.social. This is not an account on Inditoot but another Instance, mastodon.social.

One interesting feature of Mastodon that makes it more interesting than Twitter is the different timelines you can see. On Twitter, you have only one TL which is similar to the Home TL. On Mastodon, there are 2 other TLs – Local TL and Federated TL. Local TL shows all the toots from all the users on an Instance. For example, my Local TL will show all the toots posted by all the 1100 current users on Inditoot, not just people I follow. Federated TL shows all the toots from all the users on all the Instance that your home Instance follows in Fediverse (not just Mastodon).

When I first wrote on Twitter about Inditoot, someone tweeted back asking how much I was getting paid to promote the platform. Before such questions start coming up in response to this post, let me state that I have no commercial interest what so ever in Inditoot. My interest in it is only due to the excitement of having come across a very interesting platform that can be a very powerful tool in combating the ideologically motivated censorship of big tech. I hope at least some of those reading this post will join Inditoot and try it out to see what I am saying. If you do join, do let me know in the comments what you think of the platform. See you there; I am @chalat@inditoot.com

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