Mastodon: The Network Effect

This article first appeared in Village magazine, February/March 2024 edition

The defining online event for journalism in 2023, and likely in 2024, is likely to be the continuing self-inflicted implosion of Elon Musk.

Historians will debate whether Elon was just an idiot who accidentally broke his toy, or an idiot who deliberately destroyed the information stream. But destroy it he has.

Twitter shambles on zombie-style, losing even a name with worldwide recognition, apparently because Elon thought “Brand X” was a funny idea when he was five years old, and still does.

For many journalists, hanging on seems a good idea, even if those follower counts are a mirage and engagement has gone through the floor. But even those who still keep up a presence there are testing new venues. Threads is is being tested by many outlets, even if they are wary of trusting a Mark Zuckerberg product. Bluesky offers a familiar experience, like Twitter before it broke, but numbers are still small. And then there’s Mastodon, with its slightly chaotic public image and reputation for technical difficulty, yet with the advantage it isn’t owned by a petulant billionaire who can break his toys if the mood takes him.

While many journalists are still addicted to Elon’s Mess, American public radio service NPR, which left in protest at being labelled “state-affiliated media”, found the decision had little impact on web traffic. Likewise, the BBC found Threads provided few benefits. On a smaller scale, Dublin Inquirer’s Sam Tranum recently noted their big traffic day used to be Wednesday, when they published a new set of stories, and shared on social networks. That has now changed, and more to Thursday, when they send out the weekly newsletter, and Google News picks up stories. Twitter, for all the noise and fury, simply isn’t worth the effort.

A persistent pattern in Autumn 2023, among journalists and others, was to post identical content to several online accounts. So what happens if the same post is published on all three platforms? For many users, the level of engagement is about the same in each case. But not all platforms are equal. Remember, the typical user has many more followers on Twitter than anywhere else. Yet in many cases, the “bird site” has the lowest engagement of all, with fewer replies and fewer “likes”, even as the site tells users the post has been seen by thousands of accounts. Mastodon hundreds are worth Twitter thousands. Musk may have rebadged it as X, but for many, it it the ex-site.

As previously noted, Bluesky has a familiar look and feel to Twitter. And while it is still officially in beta, and missing features such as the ability to send direct messages or post a gif, it is promising better days ahead, including the ability to set up independent, federated sites connecting to the larger network. Meanwhile, Mastodon has offered all those features since its inception.

The real power of the Fediverse, proponents argue, is putting ownership in the hands of users. Even as Musk broke the “blue tick” system, by making it available to anyone dumb enough to pay €8 for the privilege, several academics argued news outlets should set up their own servers to authenticate their journalists. Indeed, the BBC has set up an experimental server (or instance) at

RTÉ say while they have not set up any instances, “RTÉ has reviewed a range of options and platforms”, and the idea remains under “active consideration”. Meanwhile, some enterprising soul has registered an domain name, presumably in the hope of profiting by selling it to the national broadcaster at a future date.

The BBC project, launched in July 2023 is still ongoing. Yet so far, it is populated only by a handful of accounts. Even if journalists are reluctant to get on Mastodon, active news accounts would make some sense to direct readers to the news site. Programmes could also run their own promotional accounts. There is a ready made nerd audience on Mastodon, and it seems a waste not to offer them a Doctor Who account during the diamond anniversary year of the longest running science fiction programme in the world. When contacted, the BBC said they were not yet ready to talk about their mastodon experiment, but hoped to write about what they had learned from the experience in a few months time.

On an international and national level, several European governments are testing their own fediverse instances. In July, the Netherlands launched their own fediverse instance at, and the Swiss government announced a one year trial at in September. The German government operates, and the EU Commission and other EU bodies have been on their own server since November 2022, at

And on 6 December, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main international standards organization for the web, announced it was “no longer active on X/Twitter and have directed all our followers here to Mastodon. We are encouraging all W3C-related accounts to do the same.”

Some Irish organisations are also building a following on Mastodon. The CSO [] and the University of Limerick [] are active, but others, such as the popular “TG4 Intern” [] faded away after an initial burst of enthusiasm.

Following an initial query to RTÉ, I conducted a survey of government departments last Autumn, asking if there were any plans to open a dedicated Irish government instance to provide verified authentic accounts in the ‘fediverse’.

The Government Information Service (GIS) replied “Government uses social media as one element of how we communicate public information in way that is accessible and relevant to people.

“The concept of using mastodon instances is relatively new and, while there are no immediate plans to do so, we continue to keep all methods of communication under review with a view to maximising the accessibility and effectiveness of government communications.”

A word-for-word identical response was received from the press offices in the departments of justice; defence; environment, climate and communications; tourism, culture, arts, Gaeltacht, sport and media; public expenditure and reform; and transport.

At least we can conclude message discipline is high across the departments.

So why does any of this matter?

Last summer, as wildfires raged across Canada, state agencies rushed to evacuate people from the city of Yellowknife, in the path of the fires. Getting accurate, up-to-date information to residents was literally a life-or-death issue. Yet Meta, operator of Facebook, refused to lift a ban on news in Canada set up against a law on revenue sharing. Other algorithms on Facebook and elsewhere, often downplay news in favour of more up-beat and viral content. And bad actors often exploit those algorithms, to creating “fake news” designed to spread outrage and go viral.

“If there was ever a job for an Irish Government Strategic Communications Unit, it would be to orchestrate the movement of critical updates from public bodies, transport and infrastructure to a platform other than Twitter,” as one Irish mastodon user noted at the time. “Really vital updates about hospitals, ambulance services, transport were not accessible last night. Twitter is a small, badly-run, walled garden inaccessible to the broad public.”

Every site faces this kind of product rot over time, as the network locks in its users (“I have to be here, because everyone else is here”), and replacing the things that first attracted people (friends, jokes, news, and general “buzz”) with more and more algorithmic content and advertising, a process named “enshittification” by journalist and commentator Cory Doctorow.

Mastodon, a decentralised network, bypasses this algorithmic rot by design, and because institutions from the EU Commission to state agencies to news media can set up their own servers to run their own instances, authentication is built in. Bad actors are simply defederated, removed from the network.

The Irish state, not surprisingly, is lagging. Government Buildings on Merrion Square are not just close to Google Docks in a geographic sense. The state has often been reluctant to trust anything that didn’t come with corporate credentials. Perhaps more surprising is the reluctance of media outlets, given how many times they’ve been burned by pivot-to-video” and other arbitrary algorithmic bait-and-switch moves from Silicon Valley.

The best time to build an ark is on a dry day. Media and state agencies would be well advised to start building their followings outside the traditional social media silos before the stormclouds gather.