They say a week is a long time in politics, but it’s a lifetime on the internet. Like everyone else, we’ve been watching the goings on at Twitter with interest, and more than a dash of concern. Then the layoffs happened. It was time to get a lifeboat ready. After a lot of debate here at Pi Towers, we’ve now spun up our own Mastodon instance. The best thing about it? It’s running on a Raspberry Pi 4 hosted at Mythic Beasts.
It’s running on a Pi in the Sky ☁️.
Last week, Elon Musk walked into Twitter HQ carrying a kitchen sink, and within hours he had laid off half of Twitter’s staff. The lawsuits, then rehiring, started almost immediately afterwards. With the content moderation team cut to the bone, anecdotally at least, folks also started to see an uptick in abuse, spam, and other things. The changes in the way verification is going to work are worrying, and confusing. There are even discussions ongoing about putting the entire site behind a paywall.
That’s a lot of change in a short amount of time. So if you no longer feel like Twitter is a place to be, as some celebrities and academics have already, then you can now also follow us over on Mastodon.
If you haven’t yet joined you can sign up over at Mastodon.
What’s Mastodon? 🐘
Mastodon is yet another social media platform.
That doesn’t tell you a lot, does it? Let’s try that again.
Mastodon is an open-sourced Twitter alternative running as part of something called “the Fediverse.” Unlike platforms like Twitter or Facebook, Mastodon is federated. That means it’s decentralised. There isn’t just one central site where you can go and sign up, like you do for Twitter; instead there are lots of sites all of which talk to each other using a protocol called ActivityPub.
You can sign up to any Mastodon site — which are called instances — and you can follow folks who are on your own, or on any other, instance which is part of the fediverse. Instances all talk to each other, so which instance you’re on doesn’t generally make much of a difference to who you can follow, or who can follow you.
However, your instance is your “local community.” The instance you join could be for you and your friends, or it could be about what you do in your spare time, or for work. For instance, there are communities built around special interest groups like open-source software or cyber security, and geographical ones, like Scotland.
Why did you join Mastodon?
There are two main practical concerns. One is sociological, one is technical.
The changes coming to Twitter look to fundamentally change the way the site feels. The dramatic cuts that the moderation team seems to have taken will open up the platform to spam, scams, and other things that we don’t want to have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. But there are also issues around identity, and I’ve been thinking a lot about identity verification and trust since the announcements.
The announcements around Twitter Blue are concerning not because they give wider access to identity verification; we’d welcome that. Instead they seem to do the opposite. It comes down to what identity itself means: a blue tick next to someone on Twitter no longer means that their identity has been verified by an employee of the company; it means that they can afford $8 a month. That’s not the same thing.
But putting all of that aside, Twitter is going to face technical problems. It probably won’t be a sudden and catastrophic collapse — in my head I have an image of a disk slowly filling up somewhere in Twitter’s data centre, and the site going down hard when it is full — it’s far more likely to be an accumulation of technical debt. Issues will pile up as the backlog of maintenance tasks and fixes that the reduced workforce just can’t get ahead of increases, and eventually, the site will end up as an unstable wreck. That isn’t good for any of us.
How do I join?
There are two ways you can join Mastodon. You can create an account on an existing instance, or you can create your own instance to host your own community and join the fediverse that way.
Because Mastodon is federated, joining an existing instance isn’t quite as simple joining a monolithic service like Twitter. You can sign up to any Mastodon instance to join the fediverse, and you should probably take a little bit of time to find a community that is right for you. On the other hand, you could start out by joining one of the “big” general servers, like mastodon.social, and then migrating to another instance later. Because moving between instances, and keeping your followers as you move, is something that’s entirely supported.
Alternatively, you can run your own server, and spin up your own Mastodon instance.
Why do you have your own instance?
We’ve opted to host our own instance. We’ve done this because, with multiple instances out there, we had to decide how to make sure people following us knew that our Raspberry Pi account was the “real” one.
Distributed systems are an interesting corner case when it comes to trust. Because when it comes to identity, you eventually have to trust someone. Whether that’s a corporation, like Twitter, or a government, or the person themselves. Trust is needed.
With Mastodon the root of trust for identity is the admin of the instance you’re on, and the admins on all the other instances, where you’re trusting them to remove “fake” accounts. Or, if you’re running your own instance, then it’s the domain name registrars. The details of our domain registration of the
raspberrypi.social domain may be redacted for privacy, but our domain registrar knows who we are, and is the same registrar we use for all our other domains. They trust our government-issued identity to prove that we are Raspberry Pi Ltd. You can trust them, they trust the government, and ultimately the government trusts us because they can use Ultima Ratio Regum, the last argument of kings.
Although we are hosting our own instance, the development of the platform is all done by the folks at Mastodon. Mastodon itself, that’s the company behind the network, is a non-profit corporation based in Germany which is supported by both its sponsors and patreons, and because we’re committed to supporting platforms that support us, we’re putting our money where our mouth is and have become a platinum sponsor of Mastodon.
Are you leaving Twitter?
No. We’re not leaving Twitter: we like it there. It’s been our home these many years, but if the worst comes to the worst, we’re now part of the #TwitterMigration.
You’ll see us posting very similar stuff on both platforms, although Mastodon does offer us a bit more flexibility, including larger character counts and moderation that we own ourselves. So you’re going to see more content from us on Mastodon than you might on Twitter.
Because, right now, the way Mastodon presents posts is much more to our tastes: we have always preferred to see a feed made up of what the people we follow have to say when they say it. Twitter’s decision to curate the tweets in your feed never sat particularly well with us.
It is, however, vanishingly unlikely that you will ever hear any of us use the word “Toot” in conversation.
But I don’t know anyone?
You know us? But if you’re anything like us, you have probably spent a bunch of time trying to figure out who you want to follow on Twitter so that your timeline is full of kittens and puppies rather than Nazis and book burning. You’re not alone there, so people have gone off and built tools to help you migrate from Twitter into the fediverse. There are actually a bunch of tools, but the one we’ve used ourselves is called Debirdify. It uses some clever searches of people’s Twitter profiles to try and figure out if they’re also on Mastodon, and if so where.
Can I host my own instance?
Yes, but you’ll need your own server to do that. Our instance is running on a Raspberry Pi 4 hosted in a rack at Mythic Beasts in London, and it’s going to be rather interesting to see how it scales up.
You don’t have to host your instance on a Raspberry Pi, but if you can, why not? Right now both our instance, and Mythic Beasts‘ own instance, are hosted on Raspberry Pi 4.
Full details are coming later, probably sometime next week, when we’re going to do a full walk-through of how to host your own instance, including talking about how to do IPv6 natively with Mastodon. Because if your computer costs $35, your IP address shouldn’t have to cost $50.
If you want to host your own instance with Mythic Beasts, you can. Their host your own Raspberry Pi service is £7.65 per month, which comes awfully close to the new price point for Twitter Blue, and comes with 20GB of disk space. Alternatively, if you need to host a larger community, they’ve also committed to offering fully managed Mastodon instances. You can contact them for more information.
Either way, see you in the fediverse?
Update: We’ve now posted that promised follow up post, with full details of how we’re hosting our own instance on a Raspberry Pi 4 in the cloud.