My thoughts on Mastodon and Pixelfed, open source social networks

Laptop with browser graphic

Updated on November 1, 2022

Update (11/8/22): An updated version of some aspects of this post is available here.

Over the past week, I’ve been trying out a few new social networks. Mastodon, which launched in 2016, has gained ground over the past few years as a possible alternative to Twitter. However, it’s also been seen as a Facebook alternative.

I’ve also looked at Pixelfed, a similar alternative social network, but geared toward photos (akin to Instagram).

About Mastodon

Mastodon profile screenshot
Mastodon profile. (Mastodon / screenshot by author)

What sets Mastodon apart from the likes of Ello and the late Google+? A few details:

  • Mastodon is based on a decentralized model known as a federated social network. Instead of one main company controlling Mastodon, it’s a network of different servers (or “instances”), run by individuals. The size and nature of each instance’s users varies, though the instance is the most prominent/”official” one.
  • Mastodon uses open-source software, as well as an open protocol called ActivityPub. This allows users to communicate across all Mastodon instances; it also allows communicating with other social networks using ActivityPub (such as Pixelfed, an Instagram-like federated photo sharing network). It’s comparable to choosing a cell phone carrier or email address provider; you can still communicate with anyone, regardless of who they chose.
  • The social network’s less commercialized than Facebook and Twitter; thus no ads, tracking, or invasive privacy measures. (Some individual instances, as well as Mastodon’s software developer, get some support from Patreon and the like.)
  • Finally, most Mastodon instances feature strict moderation and guidelines against hate speech, racism, homophobia, and the like. This is supposed to help guard against the worst aspects of Twitter and its indifference toward trolls. The federated nature should also make moderating individual instances (and thus Mastodon overall) much easier.

Mastodon produced a short animated video explaining how it works:

My experience so far with Mastodon

So far, I’ve found Mastodon nicer to use in some ways over Twitter and Facebook, though worse in some others.

On the pro side:

  • The interface for Mastodon reminds me of TweetDeck; on my laptop, I use TweetDeck instead of the default Twitter interface.
  • No algorithmic timelines. Everything is seen as-is and by any and all followers, unlike Facebook pages.
  • A pledge to fight harassment (or “ban Nazis” as others put it) is greatly appreciated, versus the “free speech means we need to accommodate harassing racists and trolls” attitude Twitter seems to have.
  • The non-commercial nature is also nice.
  • Unlike Facebook, Mastodon vows to respect users’ privacy.
  • The federate nature means it works across all platforms and devices, as long as they use ActivityPub. Contrast to Twitter blocking or severely limiting third-party apps.

A few of the negative aspects of Mastodon:

  • Few people I know use Mastodon. The same goes for major companies I follow on Twitter (NPR, DC Comics, PBS, etc.). This is the main problem with any new social network. As Google+ found out the hard way, everyone seems to be clinging to Facebook and Twitter with an iron grip, regardless of complaints.
  • Signing up for, and a few aspects of using, Mastodon is a bit more complex than for conventional social networks. You’ll have to pick an instance, for starters.
  • Not quite as bad as the above two, but the name “toot” instead of “tweet” for Mastodon posts has gotten plenty of snickering. (If wondering, one “boosts” a post instead of “retweet,” and it’s “favorites” instead of “likes.”)

Below is an example of an embedded Mastodon post, the introduction post I wrote.

Mastodon’s future

As for Mastodon’s fate? Unlike Google+ and similar previous social networks, Mastodon’s federated and open-standard nature means it’ll probably stick around for the foreseeable future.

That said, I highly doubt it’ll unseat Twitter or Facebook, barring some massive sea change. Thus, I won’t be getting rid of my Twitter account anytime soon. And while Mastodon so far has been less toxic than what I’ve seen on Twitter, that’s possibly just from having fewer users. Actor Wil Wheaton tried to switch from Twitter to Mastodon, but got harassed and ended up quitting social media altogether.

On the other hand, Mastodon should fill my now-shuttered substitute for my Facebook page’s role quite nicely, so I’ll keep using it for now.

A brief look at Pixelfed

Pixelfed page of @dansup
The Pixelfed page of @dansup, the creator of Pixelfed. (Pixelfed / screenshot by author)

The site “Switching Social” lists alternatives to popular software/websites. Said alternatives are, like Mastodon, based on open source/open standards, plus respect users’ privacy.

One such alternative service is Pixelfed, which is a federated photo-sharing site similar to Instagram. I’ve been trying out Pixelfed, and it has most of the same advantages and disadvantages as Mastodon. However, as it’s newer and still being developed, it’s not quite as polished as Mastodon yet. (And again, very few followers versus Instagram.)

The biggest flaws with Pixelfed are:

  • No mobile apps available. However, it works in browsers, both mobile and desktop.
  • Oddly, no federation between Pixelfed instances. That means I can’t use my Pixelfed account to follow someone on another Pixelfed instance. However, I can use my Mastodon account to follow any Pixelfed instance; Pixelfed also offers RSS feeds on all accounts by default.
  • The initial instance I signed up for went down for an entire day; when it came back up, everything (including apparently account itself) was erased/inaccessible. I’ve since signed up for a different instance, but it doesn’t sound very promising. I’d be irritated if I’d heavily posted more photos.

Still, I’ll keep an eye on Pixelfed; its software is approaching version 1.0 (now on 0.94), so I assume these few flaws will be fixed. Otherwise, it works fine as a basic photo blog (which is what I use Instagram for), but without Instagram’s flaws (largely tied to Instagram’s owner, Facebook).

Image by janjf93 from Pixabay


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Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

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One thought on “My thoughts on Mastodon and Pixelfed, open source social networks

  1. Hi, there’s some misunderstanding.
    Pixelfed is based on mastodon and it has federation mode and standalone mode. Maybe for the sake of server security, that instance may choose standalone.
    And pixel fed now has an Android app.

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