Company Culture

Moving to Mastodon? Here’s how to select a server for individuals and businesses

Geospatial tech company Azavea is testing the federated system amid Twitter tumult. Here's what its team has learned so far.

Azavea is testing Mastodon after Twitter's tumultuous past few months. (Courtesy image)
This is a guest post by Robert Cheetham and Sara Mack, respectively the president and CEO and marketing coordinator of Philadelphia-based geospatial tech company Azavea. It originally appeared on Azavea's blog and it republished here with permission.
At Azavea, interacting with and contributing to the geospatial community is a perpetual highlight of our work. For many years, Twitter has represented a hub of activity within the professional geospatial sphere, and we’ve enjoyed interacting with community members and sharing our work through the platform.

In light of the uncertain future of Twitter, both organizations and individuals within the geospatial community are taking a step away from the Twittersphere and are exploring alternative platforms. In an effort to remain connected within the community we’ve recently begun to venture into the Mastodon network of communities and the broader Fediverse.

Unlike Twitter, the Mastodon community has grown an ecosystem that does not rely on major brands and their marketing efforts. For this reason, creating a brand account within the Mastodon ecosystem can feel a bit like the wild west. Through researching different instances from both a personal and business perspective, we have been evaluating Mastodon instances that make sense for both use cases.

Why transition to Mastodon?

There are a bunch of potential alternatives to a Twitter-like platform that combine a custom time-sorted news feed, messaging, tagging, lists, and a network that combines followers and people you follow. A few popular options include Mastodon, Planetary and Blue Sky. Although Planetary and Blue Sky are interesting, Planetary is currently limited to iOS, which obviously restricts our potential reach on the platform. Additionally, Blue Sky, which started as an initiative at Twitter but is now organized as a separate public benefit corporation (which should enable it to operate independently from Twitter and prioritize its mission), is still developing its protocol and isn’t yet ready for use.

How to sign up for Mastodon

Mastodon has been around for a few years, and, while it has grown rapidly over the past few months and has now reached more than a million users as of November 2022, it still only represents a tiny percentage of the 238 million Twitter had as of earlier this year. However, apart from rapid growth, Mastodon has a few interesting qualities that align with Azavea’s mission and values:

  • Open source — The code is available and anyone can set up an instance.
  • Nonprofit — Founded in 2016 by German software developer Eugen Rochko, the organization operates in support of its mission, not generating profits or serving its advertisers.
  • Federated — More on this below.
  • Glocal — It’s both global and local; there is a balance between the local community ( /public/local ) and the universe of everything  ( /public ).
  • Robust support for ALT textALT text enables screen readers to work more effectively, improving accessibility. Twitter now supports ALT text as well, but Mastodon has developed a significant community expectation that users take advantage of the ALT text support.
  • Community emoji — Each instance of Mastodon can provide their own community emoji.
  • Languages — The new version 4.0 adds robust support for languages and translation.
  • Community-level rules — Different communities operate on different sets of rules, allowing users to align with an instance that both matches their interests as well as the rules and norms that align with their values. Rochko’s original idea was that small, closely related communities deal with unwanted behavior more effectively than a large company’s centralized safety team.
  • Support for content warnings — Mastodon includes the ability to hide the content of a post behind a warning, and the community expects that this is done for potentially upsetting topics.

Server rules from Mapstodon.Space. (Screenshot via Azavea)

Setting up an account on Mastodon is ostensibly straightforward. New users need a user ID, email, screen name and password. Although these requirements match those of most other major social media platforms, Mastodon differs from Twitter in that it’s a “federated” system. Like the United States, Canada, and the United Federation of Planets, Mastodon is not one site, but, rather, a growing federation of thousands instances.  These instances are all autonomous; each can make its own rules, while also being able to interoperate.

This setup is made possible because the instances share a common protocol called ActivityPub. Every Mastodon server uses ActivityPub (and there are actually other social networks that also use ActivityPub), so they can talk to each other. It’s a bit like email or the Internet itself; billions of web pages can interoperate because they all use a few common protocols and standards: HTTP, HTML, CSS, Javascript and so on. There’s a lot being written about Mastodon and ActivityPub, so that’s all we will say about it here, but the key thing to remember is that you need to pick a Mastodon instance (also known as a “server”) that you join.

But with thousands of instances available, how do you know which one to select?

How to pick a geospatial Mastodon server for a personal account

After setting out to find a Mastodon server that reflected my interests, I learned that there can be a bit more to the process than just one’s interests. But let’s start there. I’m looking at this through a professional lens and my professional interests are both eclectic and change over time, but they generally include: geospatial technology, geography, remote sensing, data science, open source software, open data, ecology, science, innovation and data visualization. Here are a few related instances that I found:

(Table via Azavea)

So now I had a short list of potential servers to join. How should I select? After browsing a few of them, I realized that an instance can differ in several ways:

  • Broad vs. narrow interest — Some instances are limited to specific languages, geography, themes, or may be quite general.
  • Community rules — Each instance can have different rules about what is acceptable behavior. Each instance lists its community guidelines and you agree to them when you sign up. While the ones I looked at seek an inclusive community and don’t want harassment, what that specifically means can vary quite a bit.
  • Community size — A larger community might be more diverse as well as represent a critical mass of collective interests. A smaller community might represent a tighter set of interests.

After some more reading, I learned about a software tool designed to help people migrate from Twitter to Mastodon, called Debirdify. So I took a look at Debirdify, and learned that it could provide some interesting insights. Once you authorize Debirdify to look at your Twitter account, the software can help you find the overlap between Twitter and Mastodon. That’s useful because it means that you can import the people you follow on Twitter and configure Mastodon to follow the same people (at least where there is overlap).

By running Debirdify, I learned that of the 313 people I follow on Twitter, 35 are on one of the Mastodon instances (about 11%). And of the 2,030 people that follow me, about 100 are on one of the Mastodon instances (less than 5%). But these reports also showed me additional Mastodon instances that I hadn’t found earlier, including:

(Table via Azavea)

Debirdify also calculated a “relevance” rating for each instance. In other words, given my Twitter network, what are the most relevant Mastodon instances? Here’s what I learned:

(Table via Azavea)

I struggled between Fosstadon (referring to free and open source community) and Mapstodon, and I ended up selecting Mapstodon for my personal account (@rcheetham@mapstadon.space), at least for now. While the “map” part of the name seems a bit too cute, it’s a small community that overlaps with many of my geospatial and remote sensing interests. And, the thing is, it’s not an irreversible decision. If I change my mind, Mastodon makes it possible to move from one instance to another. (There are currently some caveats to this; posts made on the old instance will remain there, and there is a “cooldown” period enforced after a move, during which you can’t move again.)

How to pick a Mastodon server for a business

Azavea’s Twitter account is our finger on the pulse of the geospatial community, and enables us to connect with a variety of audiences including like-minded organizations and individuals. Due to Twitter’s tumultuous past few months, staying involved in the community by experimenting with Mastodon was a natural step.

As previously noted, the path for brands to find a presence on Mastodon is less defined than on other social media sites, and most organizations within the geospatial community are relative newcomers to the Mastodon space. There are few precedents, which enables us to choose the instance best suited to our mission.

We determined that a larger Mastodon server might suit our needs better than a smaller instance due to an ability to boost our initial impressions. Although the largest instances are those that have no thematic specificity, it made sense for Azavea to seek an instance that both reflected our values and still gave us access to an initial community from which to build our presence.

The list of initial instances we considered largely matched those listed above. Although we’re committed to our Philly roots, we decided against a local community in order to better align with individuals interested in our work and our international scope. Ultimately, due to Azavea’s previous connections to the free and open source community, particularly our decade-plus involvement in the OSGeo and FOSS4G communities (we had two presentations at this year’s FOSS4G conference in Florence, Italy), we opted to join @Fosstodon at @azavea@fosstadon.org.

Fosstodon. (Screenshot via Azavea)

As mentioned above, selecting an instance does not lock you into that Mastodon server forever. Because the transition process is straightforward, we are able to leave our options open. This means that in the future we could transition to another existing Mastodon server if there is a shift within our community, or even start our own instance if we were inspired to do so.

Lessons we’ve learned from our time on Mastodon so far

After deciding to join Fosstodon, the creation of our Azavea account was fairly simple. Through using tools like Debirdify and FediFinder, we were able to download a list of our current Twitter followers with an active Mastodon presence. We then uploaded the list to our Mastodon instance to follow those accounts.

Mastodon’s design is focused on individual people, rather than organization or brand accounts. Further, marketing- or sales-focused posts are discouraged by the community standards on many instances. However, Azavea’s posts are focused on sharing information and highlighting the work of other people, and we’ve been experimenting with cross posting from our Twitter feed and have observed an increase in engagement over time.

So far, we see a couple of challenges. First, it’s important to note that Mastodon is not an open source “clone” of Twitter. Critically, the community norms and conventions are different. For this reason, we’re going to have to continue to work to find our own voice in this new community. Second, thus far, it’s more difficult to understand how people are engaging with what we share; specifically, there isn’t a great way to collect analytics data.

From a marketing perspective, analytics are important to determining the relative success of a given project. Due to Mastodon’s strict anti-tracking policy, link tracking and analytics that would enable us to understand the reach of a given post are not available. As time passes, we’re interested in seeing whether Mastodon will expand the services available to organization accounts, and whether analytics collection will become a possibility. Until that time, however, we look forward to continuing to grow with the community and experiment within the Fediverse to continue to connect with like-minded individuals.

You can find Azavea CEO Robert Cheetham on Mastodon at @rcheetham@mapstadon.space, and Azavea at @azavea@fosstadon.org. We’re also still on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Companies: Azavea / Twitter
People: Azavea / Twitter / Robert Cheetham
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