Why Mastodon Apps Should Stop Trying to Copy Twitter

Why not embrace the freedom of openness?

  • Mastodon is currently doing little but copying Twitter. 
  • It’s a publishing platform that could replace Slack, blogs, Reddit, and more. 
  • Federated social media is still too complex for many people.
A smartphone laying on a wood surface with the Mastodon app displayed on the screen and notebook with the Twitter logo sitting nearby.

Battenhall / Unsplash

The Mastodon social network is open, free, and developers can build anything they want on it. So why is it all just twists on or straight-up copies of Twitter apps?

Twitter controls how and what any connected apps can do, as demonstrated a few weeks back when Musk cut off access to all third-party apps. Mastodon is the opposite. It's open-source software that powers countless independent-yet-interconnected instances. At its heart, it is about publishing short messages, yet so far, all we have are twists on the familiar Twitter timeline. This is, as we shall see, a colossal waste. 

"If developers can break free from thinking of Twitter as the apex of microblogging, we could see tools that would radically change and improve our ways of interacting," writes journalist and veteran tech industry watcher Adam Engst on his TidBits blog.

Mastodon's Potential

Just think about the ways you read articles and information and how you interact with people online. Much of that, from Reddit to Slack to email or any kind of blog, is made up of a few lines or paragraphs of text attributed to a person and to which you can reply.

Mastodon is still a relatively new platform, and developers are more likely to prioritize replicating Twitter's functionality than experimenting with new features.

Mastodon, or a compatible service supporting the ActivityPub protocols, could replace any of these. Essentially, Mastodon gives you an identity and a way to publish stuff and follow content published by others. But because it is built on open standards, it doesn't have to work like a social network at all. And in fact, even the makers of Mastodon liken it to Tumblr as much as to Twitter. 

So why is pretty much every Mastodon app just another version of a Twitter app?

"Mastodon is still a relatively new platform, and developers are more likely to prioritize replicating Twitter's functionality than experimenting with new features," Mark Voronov, communications manager of SocialPlug, told Lifewire via email. "However, I would like Mastodon apps to focus on exploring the platform's unique features, such as its decentralized structure, to create more engaging and diverse social media experiences. For example, Mastodon apps could develop features that foster community engagement, such as local discovery tools, support for online events, and easy-to-use tools for creating interest-based groups."

Mastodon vs The World

There are some interesting Mastodon apps out there already. One, David Beck’s ThinkSocial for Mastodon, is a twist on the familiar vertical timeline. Instead of the usual list, each post gets a page, and you swipe left and right to move through them. These pages contain the original post, plus any replies and interactions. 

The Ivory app for Mastodon from Tapbots.


Another app that shows the flexibility of Mastodon is Pixelfed, a kind of federated Instagram. In theory, you can use your existing Mastodon account with Pixelfed, but only if your server supports it. The best way to find out is to try. Or just sign up with a separate account. 

But it can go far beyond this. Engst’s blog post (linked above) goes into some detail on a Slack-type app that would run on Mastodon. You’d see a list of people in a column on the left, and when you click or tap on them, you’d see a list of all their posts in the next column. A third column would contain replies, the conversation around those posts. 

That’s just one example. Here’s another. Because Mastodon and Twitter are microblogging platforms, you can use them for blogging. Twitter is terrible for this, because everything slips off the timeline so fast, and you miss most of what people publish (their tweets, in the case of Twitter).

But an app that works like an RSS reader (which itself acts like an email app) would be perfect. You could tap on the person whose posts you want to read, and see a list, save them for later, etc.

The Pixelfed app for Mastodon displayed on a smartphone.


This example is also a great illustration of the flexibility of ActivityPub, the open platform that lets all kinds of publishing apps interact with each other. For instance, if you have a blog on Micro.blog people can already follow it on Mastodon. We just need apps designed around these different use cases to make it happen.

Mastodon: Federated Social Media

The problem is, all this is still super nerdy right now. Few people have either the understanding or the desire to bother with all this. We’re used to signing up for Twitter, or signing up for Instagram, and knowing that our friends will also be in the same place. 

But perhaps this will change. One possible future has everyone using federated networks like Mastodon. You have your Mastodon user name, or whatever, and you use that to sign into any service. And if you don’t like the popular Instagram-type app your friends are using, you can use a different one, but still follow their posts, in any way you like. 

That’s the beauty of open, federated social media. We just need it to happen.

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