Something to toot about: Kalamazoo has its own Mastodon server

Kalamazoo has its own Mastodon server, or "instance," now: Kzoo.to 

Mastodon? Is this the alternative to Twitter we've heard about, where users "toot" instead of tweet?

We could jump into a description of Mastodon as an open-source decentralized social media platform of independent servers working as a federated "fediverse" network of..... and we can practically hear our readers zoning out. 

For a basic overview of it all, here's a two-minute video with cute animation.

Kzoo.too is a new local Mastadon server.How about we start with this: With Mastodon, there is no Elon Musk, no Mark Zuckerberg, running the show. There are no advertisers. No algorithms, pushing content it thinks you want to see. No way to go viral in the same way as on the other platforms, so social media influencers can't rely on their outrageous or inflammatory posts in their desperate attempts to get attention.

Portage software developer Mike Elston joined Mastodon during "the whole Twitter mess" in November. "I'm really into open-source software, that's what got my interest peaked with Mastodon," he says.

Good engagement, bad engagement

This journalist also left Twitter for Mastodon in November. Before Musk took charge and began kicking out journalists and others in accordance with his whims, I'd started to suspect it was an unhealthy place to be. 

Social media relies on engagement. I'd stopped engaging, and found myself just doomscrolling through the Pandemic era. It was a source of stress, yet I had a hard time turning away. 

I worked on cutting back in the past year. But Twitter's algorithm kept putting posts on my feed, from people I didn't follow, that I disagreed with. The ghost in the machine wanted to bait me into arguing on the internet, something I tried to quit sometime in the last presidential administration. 

There's good engagement and bad engagement, and it seemed that Twitter was trying to keep me involved with divisive, annoyingly combative stuff. It was bad enough that half of my feed was people I did follow posting versions of, "Look at this horrible thing this bad person said! Isn't this horrible?"

"Exactly. And that's one of the great things that makes Mastodon different," Elston says.

"Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are built to just drive traffic. Whether it's good or bad it doesn't matter. Whatever posts get the most attention, that's what they shove to everybody," he says.

Also, posts on the two main social media platforms never seem to be in chronological order. You might want to see the latest from friends, but instead, shoved into your face is junk that's irrelevant to you.

"Because (posts are) not in a logical timeline, they're just, hey, this is what the algorithm thinks you should see because this is what's popular and what people are interacting with," Elston says.

"Mastodon, on the other hand, it's more natural. . . If you make a post at 2:04, that post is there for anybody following you at 2:04. And you can scroll back down to see it. It's easy to find stuff, and it doesn't push that discourse and anger into everybody's face."

And no ads

The other platforms are designed to provoke reactions. "Reactions drive traffic, traffic drives advertisement, advertisement pays the bills," he says.

There are no ads on Mastodon?

"No," he promises. 

Since it's open-source, "you can go and view the source code, you can see exactly what it's doing with your data, how your data is protected, or not protected if you will. You can see all the inner workings of it."

And you can see that "there is no built-in advertisement platform." 

On Mastodon, no advertiser is analyzing your data and then serving up spookily accurate ads that make you wonder, how did they know I was admiring a friend's outdoor fire stove?

Businesses could self-promote on Mastodon, "but they're not able to sell their post and have it be pushed to 5,000 people in the Kalamazoo area, for example. They're treated like everybody else. Their posts would have to get positive responses, people would have to favorite it -- on Mastodon they call it reboost. They'd have to reboost your post to help spread it around. So the only things that become viral are because the people want it to become viral. It's not viral because the algorithm wants it to become viral."

We need to be reminded that we the users of the big social media platforms aren't the customers, we're the product.

"Exactly. And that is a big mental shift (when using Mastodon). People have been taught that for a long time, if the service is free, then you're the product," Elston says. 

"I know a lot of people who will not create Facebook accounts because of things like that. They know that their information is being harvested and used to market to them for whatever purposes, and they just don't like that."

Kalamazoo joins the Fediverse

On Mastodon, you have to work at finding users and subjects that are relevant to you. If you want to, you can see the top posts of the day, but there are no algorithms analyzing your profile and putting things that might interest you in your feed.

You can also look at all the latest posts on your local instance – think of an instance as an island in the Mastodon world, separate yet connected with the other islands – or even see everything posted from the "Fediverse" – all of Mastodon and related platforms, an endless scroll of many languages, moving too fast to read.

What might be most challenging to new users is the concept of the "Fediverse."

Mastodon is not one closed system like the other platforms. It's running on many servers – instances – each with its own administrator, around the world. 

Not knowing the choices when I joined, I jumped onto mastodon.online, a big, general instance with lots of users, based in Europe and run by the Mastodon gGmbH, a non-profit that developed the platform’s software. But there are also instances focused on subjects like journalism or science, and instances that are hyper-local, like Kzoo.to

All the instances can view the others, follow and interact with each other much in the same way as on Twitter. Though I wasn't looking for it, I stumbled on Kzoo.to by following the hashtag #kalamazoo.

Elston's wife works for the Air Zoo. They post a lot of interesting content on Twitter, he says, but since he left Twitter he wouldn't be seeing it.

What if the Air Zoo could fly outside of the Twitter box? He saw that Chicago has an instance, Ann Arbor as well, "so I thought, why shouldn't Kalamazoo have one? We've got a great local community, we've got a lot of heart, a lot of talented people here. We have a lot of amazing organizations and museums and things to do around town."

His instance went live on Jan. 2. There are around 10 members so far. "I'll be inviting local organizations to join, and I hope they will," he says. "I would love to see more local organizations on Mastodon, whether they're on my server or not." 

He'd like the Air Zoo to join -- but maybe they'd join an instance focused on museums or aviation. That's fine with Elston.

There are no sponsors behind Kzoo.to. "Everything is crowdfunded -- I say 'crowdfunded,' but I'm the one funding it," he says with a laugh.

"So far I've gotten a lot of people around Michigan that have messaged me directly saying they love Kalamazoo and are happy to see there's a Kalamazoo instance." Elston hasn't done any real promotion yet. "I'm hoping word of mouth will start to get people interested."

The Ol' Wild West Internet

The Fediverse is more than Mastodon. Imagine a YouTube that's ad-free and without algorithms or an Instagram without annoying influencers trying to game the system for attention. Those are part of the Fediverse, too.

Elston points out that Mastodon's software also runs Pixelfed, an image-based social media platform, and PeerTube, a version for video. You can follow people on those platforms from within Mastodon -- for example, "when somebody (you follow) posts a new video in PeerTube, it's on your Mastodon," he says. 

"It really reminds me of the early days of the internet, where everything was just the Wild West," Elston says. "People linked together -- it was more about sharing information versus selling products or selling advertisements."

But the Internet's Wild West also became home to some bad guys. The closed systems of Twitter and Facebook -- at least when a new billionaire owner didn't come along and changed security systems willy-nilly -- had systems in place to keep extremes in check. After all, it's good business. Major companies don't want their ads next to neo-nazi rants. 

Mastodon instances make their own rules, but most instances' rules are similar. (New instances are asked to agree to a covenant of user rules and server behavior meant to keep order.)  Elston's rules for kzoo.to are found on most instances, "things like no hate speech, no violence, nothing illegal -- basically, be a decent human being." 

Users can report violations to admins of a server, "even if it's of a different server," he says.

Admins can block users, or ban entire servers, he says. 

If Elston blocked an instance run by an extreme hate group directly harassing kzoo.to members, for example, that harassment would stop. But the harassers would still be out there. 

"It is an open platform, anybody can create a server. There are a lot of different belief systems out there, a lot of different ideas. There are servers that are specifically left-wing. There are servers that are specifically right-wing," he says. 

"If that's your thing, you can go and join those servers. If you're a server operator, you can ban those. If you're a user of an instance, you're free to move from server to server to find one that does somewhat align and prevent those posts from coming through." 

As for kzoo.to, "We're an inclusive community, no hate speech, no violence, no fighting with individuals... The server is for the Kalamazoo community." 

He adds, "Mastodon is what I feel the Internet always should've been." 

Elston points out that the Internet at its dawn in the 1970s was a system for universities to talk to each other. As it opened up, the public "had forums and bulletin board systems and chat rooms, and everybody just kinda talked together through the whole Internet."

"Slowly, over time we've gone into those walled-off ecosystems like Facebook and Twitter, and you just get stuck there. And now we're trying to break free." 

Kzoo.to is found here.

The curious can find Mark Wedel at  for cat pictures, bicyclist content, and miscellaneous. 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.