Mastodon makes a major move amid Musk's multiple messes
Federated social network adds n00b-friendly features to the 'Fediverse'
Mastodon, the open source Twitter-like federated social network server, has issued a major release that adds features aimed at making life easier for new users.
Version 4.2 – released Thursday, the first release Mastodon has deemed worthy of a blogged announcement since March 2022's version 3.5 – is billed as a "massive update" by CEO and founder Eugen Rochko.
Anyone can run a Mastodon server, and operators can choose to network them to other Mastodon servers. Users can see whatever servers their Mastodon host chooses to expose. One way to understand Mastodon is to consider each instance as an email server that can talk to other email servers – all of them if an admin wants to, or a select set if that's preferred.
The result is what's come to be known as "the Fediverse" – a federated universe of content that feels a lot like using pre-Musk Twitter, but in fact touches multiple Mastodon instances run by different operators.
The big addition in this edition is a rebuilt search facility. That matters, because it's something users expect to just work. Mastodon 4.2 has therefore made it possible to search for users using by words in their bio and their names. "The most exciting news is that for the first time, you can now search for posts," Rochko wrote.
If the Fediverse sounds a little confusing, you're not alone – and Mastodon’s developers know it. Version 4.2 has reworked its sign-up flows to make sure newbies don't struggle in their first Mastodon moments.
"User tests have helped us to identify areas where people lose their way during sign-up, so we've added progress indicators to guide people through the multi-step sign-up process and rewrote copy and labels to be more intuitive," Rochko's post reads.
"Upon login, you are pointed to recommended first steps that include filling our your profile, following people, making your first post, and sharing your profile outside Mastodon," he continues, before pointing out that Mastodon's tests of these changes on its own servers delivered "an increase in the average number of profiles a new user follows from 2.6 to 6.8.
"This number is one of primary indicators of a successful onboarding, as the home feed is the center point of Mastodon."
It's also an important number in the context of Metcalfe's Law, which states that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users. More users, making more connections, gives Mastodon and other social networks momentum.
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Now is a fine time for a social network to be in position to gather momentum, because Elon Musk's oversight of X (formerly Twitter) has changed the nature of the microblogging service in ways that have many users considering alternatives. Musk this week suggested making X pay to play, arguing it may be the only way to deter creation of bots on the service. Yes, the man who says he plans to colonize Mars can't find a way to stop obviously dodgy social media signups.
Musk's own use of the platform is also often contentious. Journalism advocacy group Poynter this week detailed how Musk boosted misinformation, with one consequence being unwarranted harassment of a reporter.
In Australia – which is three weeks away from voting on constitutional reform that would recognize its indigenous people – electoral authorities have struggled to have X take down misinformation about the issues the poll considers.
If Mastodon's upgrades make it more friendly, and grow user numbers, it may come to represent a better alternative to X and other social networks.
Yet Mastodon's federated nature complicates matters – each server operator needs to make the upgrade to the new release. ®