Some of the world’s biggest social-media companies have faced a reckoning in the public forum, and in response, many users have been rethinking their engagement and considering alternatives.
Decentralized social media – platforms on which users, rather than corporations, are in control of their content – has become an attractive proposition. One option gaining steam is Mastodon.
Launched in 2016, Mastodon is a federated network of independently operated servers (or “instances”) that work together to provide a decentralized social-media experience. No single company or entity controls Mastodon – it is run by and for the people who use it, funded through donations and crowdfunding campaigns. Unlike platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, Mastodon does not, and claims it never will, accept advertising dollars.
That lack of advertiser-specific options might make it harder for companies to find a way to reach their target audiences. But with Twitter Inc. losing half of its top 100 advertisers after its takeover by billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk, and Facebook parent company Meta’s ad revenue seeing steady drops, companies might soon be searching for new homes for their digital marketing efforts.
Forging a path on a decentralized equivalent such as Mastodon, while challenging, is not impossible: Advertisers could create their own instances, participate in comment sections, or host ask-me-anything (AMA) events to elevate their leaders or lines of query that push their brands.
One big question remains: Will advertisers want to? Rob Rakowitz, initiative lead for the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, says brands want assurances that a platform is safe for consumers, and that it is suitable for advertising.
“Core to those things are policies and enforcement,” Mr. Rakowitz says. “Policies around content moderation, teams dealing with enforcement, having clear service-level agreements, and being able to report on those activities and enforcement. If any of those component parts are missing, that’s high risk.”
Philip Mai, Director of Business and Communications of the Social Media Lab, Toronto Metropolitan University, cautions that while Mastodon makes an effort to enforce guidelines around content moderation and privacy, it does not technically set rules for the entire platform.
“One of the key issues with Mastodon is that it’s not clear what kind of moderation, if any, is taking place,” Mr. Mai says. “You don’t know if (individual servers) have put together a data retention policy, or moderation policies. Mastodon allows each server, as a group, theoretically, to decide what is the norm.”
Mr. Mai goes on to explain that while there is a kind of “community policing” element built into the platform – for example, users can “shun” content or profiles they disagree with, similar to Reddit’s down-voting system – it is ultimately left up to the moderators of each individual server to decide what content is appropriate. He notes that there are progressive and thoughtful Mastodon administrators who are transparent about how their crowdfunding dollars are being spent, or how personal data is stored and used. But without corporate or government oversight, there’s no way to verify these claims.
Mr. Mai also warns of the siloed nature of decentralized platforms. Social media has always felt like an echo chamber, but on Mastodon, it can be taken to extremes.
“As more and more people go into these (decentralized) networks, the other concern is that we assume it’s only ‘normies’ in these instances who are federated to each other,” Mr. Mai says. “But the people who may not have society’s best interests in mind can also be there.
“Groups involved in child porn, extremism and the like can federate with each other. The bigger parts of Mastodon might not even know about this, because our servers aren’t connected to those. The only time the larger parts of society will know about them is when something goes really wrong.”
These concerns highlight the importance of brand safety in decentralized networks, and the need for advertisers to understand these platforms before they commit. Even as Mr. Musk attempts to reassure companies of their brand safety on his platform, the Association of Canadian Advertisers has already urged its members to “speak with your agency partners to consider the risks with each social-media platform you invest in.”
Canadian agencies seem increasingly on alert: Dentsu Media Canada president Sarah Thompson told The Message in November her organization was monitoring Twitter for the reinstatement of banned accounts. Around the same time, Cairns Oneil said it suspended advertising on the platform until “material changes” were made.
In thinking about what’s to come for social-media marketing, Mr. Rakowitz notes that the decentralization of networks could also mean the emergence of third-party moderation and review services. These sorts of systems would be a great boon for social networks, as it would remove the burden of having to manage content moderation in-house. “That seems like it could be a market inevitability,” Mr. Rakowitz says.
There’s still a long way to go before this type of service is commonplace. It also remains to be seen how popular these services will become, and the extent to which they can provide an effective means of ensuring brands are not associated with high-risk content.
Mr. Mai says it’s still too soon to tell whether a movement toward decentralized platforms such as Mastodon will materialize or be sustained. “Twitter has almost 400-million users,” he points out. “Mastodon barely breaks one million on a good day. In the next few years, we’ll see if these millions of new users will also attract new developers and programmers.
“If we see their code base being changed and improved upon, that over time will cause more traditional corporate social media to lose eyeballs.”
It could also see them lose advertisers. “That’s their whole business model: whoever has the most eyeballs.”