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Mastodon vs. Bluesky: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Updated: Feb 26

Hey all. It's been a while. A lot of water under the bridge since my last post. Patreon got enshittified (I'm on SubscribeStar now, for anyone who didn't know), Furaffinity caved in to the 18-20something puritan nonsense, and Twitter went completely to shit after it got bought by the apartheid space cadet. So in all of that space, a lot of us have had to scramble to find new places to promote ourselves and post new content. This has led to many new alternatives to Twitter (no, I will not call it "X"; deadnaming Elon Musk's dumbassery is always morally correct), but the two that seem to have become most prominent are Mastodon and Bluesky. I've seen a lot of debate about the features and foibles of both networks, and there's tons of misinformation out there about both networks. I was very hesitant to join either network at first (because I too was taken in by the misinformation in both cases), but I am now on both (you can find my Mastodon here, and my Bluesky here). If you want the basic summary of the debate: Mastodon's users believe that Bluesky's users are all sheeplike corporate shills desperate to relive Twitter nostalgia, while Bluesky's users are convinced that everyone on Mastodon is a condescending, Linux-hawking poopoohead. In the usual manner of social media, everyone is handling the debate maturely and sensibly.


I've been sitting back and trying to come up with an honest, unbiased (well, as unbiased as any one man's opinion is capable of being) assessment of the pros and cons of each network, in good faith. I really don't like seeing the furry community so fragmented, and I think the future of the web is going to be more granular: that is, we really shouldn't be relying on a single place to post all of our work to begin with.


What is Mastodon?

One of the first important things to talk about when it comes to Mastodon is that when most laypeople say "Mastodon," what they're actually referring to is called ActivityPub, which is the social networking protocol that Mastodon happens to use. Mastodon isn't a website; it's a type of software. What most people are actually talking about when they say "Mastodon" is the collection of communities that use the Mastodon software (and its many forks and spin-offs). "Mastodon" is just a shorthand way of saying that. You may also hear people refer to it as "the Fediverse" (but there are many non-Mastodon things on the Fediverse - Pixelfed, for instance, uses the same ActivityPub protocol). Basically, imagine if, on Reddit, every subreddit was just run by some guy - paying for space in a data center, running the subreddit off of his old CPU in the basement, whatever. That's basically what "Mastodon" is. It's decentralized and distributed. It's more complicated than that, but one of the main complaints about Mastodon is that "it's too complicated." The description I just gave is an accurate one, even if it's a bit oversimplified and imprecise - you don't really have to understand more than that to get started. If all of that is a little bit much, David Pierce posted a fantastic article in The Verge last week that breaks it down very neatly, step-by-step, for the average person who knows nothing (and is content to know nothing) about the technical side.


How is Bluesky different from that?

I'll be frank: there's no way to explain this without getting a little into the weeds of some of the technical details. Bluesky - fully, "Bluesky Social" - is (despite many of its founders' claims to the contrary) not a decentralized network. At least (as is the case with many of Bluesky's claims), not yet. Bluesky is a website that uses its own social networking protocol, known as AT Protocol. AT Protocol, just like ActivityPub, is an open-source protocol, which means that it's not proprietary; anyone can view the source code. What sets Bluesky apart from Mastodon is that while Mastodon is a software, Bluesky is a website - the underlying protocol is open-source, but Bluesky itself is not. In effect, what Bluesky's owners are trying to do is set up a Fediverse of their own - one that uses the AT Protocol (which they also develop) instead of the ActivityPub protocol that largely powers the already-existing Fediverse. This is something that could have great potential, but it has not reached the same level of maturity as ActivityPub yet (which is unsurprising given that ActivityPub has a three-year head-start on it!). If Bluesky's owners want their network to be decentralized in the same way that the ActivityPub Fediverse is decentralized, what it means is that they have to open Bluesky to federation (that is, the ability for different communities - read: communities other than just Bluesky - to become interconnected with Bluesky) through the AT Protocol, which they have not done yet. They do plan to do it, and given the recent developments we've seen on Bluesky, I personally have no reason to doubt that they'll eventually follow through on it. Until they do, however, don't let the "decentralized" language fool you: that network is still fully, completely reliant on a single corporate entity. None of that is me complaining about Bluesky; in that sense, it's not really much different from the social media networks we've been using for years. Whether that's good or bad really depends on your own views on the subject. And unlike the current social media giants, Bluesky (by virtue of its connection to a federable protocol) at least has the potential to be different from that in the years to come.


ActivityPub (Mastodon) Fediverse: Pros and Cons

So now that we've gotten a basic introduction to both networks out of the way, let's move on to more practical matters and talk about some of the pros and cons of using each one. Bear in mind that some of these things depend on which Fediverse community (which Mastodon server) you're on.


Fediverse Pros:


  • Versatility. There are so many different kinds of applications connected to the Fediverse, from Twitter-style microblogging (the various Mastodon servers can set their own character limits), to long-form posting à la Tumblr and LiveJournal, to Instagram-like media sharing (Pixelfed), to a YouTube-esque video service (PeerTube), and people on all of these services can interact with one another without having to make twenty different accounts.

  • Privacy controls. On most Mastodon servers, you have pretty much unlimited control over who is allowed to see what you post. You can set your entire account to private and require approval for your followers. You can set individual posts so that only your followers can see them. You can set posts so that people from outside your own instance (that is, your community - the server where you sign up) can't see them.

  • Community moderation. Moderation is handled directly by people within your own community. When you report an account for breaking the rules, it doesn't go into a robot-controlled swear jar. It goes to someone you can probably easily talk to on Telegram.

  • Content controls. It's incredibly easy on the Fediverse to avoid seeing stuff that you don't want to see. There is a culture of content warnings (some critics have even said people are too fervent about them), and those warnings are user-defined and can be applied to any kind of post, whether it contains media or not. On the flipside, hashtags are encouraged and used heavily, and you can actually follow hashtags (just like you can follow individual users) so that they show up in your feed by default, so it's also easy to avoid missing the stuff that you do want to see.

  • Many, many emojis. You want all your pride flags in your display name? Go ahead and put 'em there. Cute little blobfox emotes? They have those too. In all seriousness, though, the emojis are part of a larger pro: a lot of formatting is customizable. Many instances even have markdown enabled; you can do bold, italics, even bulleted lists. There are lots of different mobile apps with UIs catered to different tastes. Since anyone can look "under the hood," it's a lot easier to make it go the way you want.

  • No corporate dependency. The Fediverse is effectively a crowd-sourced social media network. The servers are run by community members themselves, rather like Telegram groups or Discord servers. While it's true that that comes with its own set of problems (see the "cons" section), it makes the system highly resistant to corporate control. Even if Mastodon (as a brand) were to fail, the ActivityPub Fediverse would persist. If your community's server shuts down, there are mechanisms that allow you to move your account to another. Since it's a distributed network, it's very resilient.


Fediverse Cons:


  • Obtuse sign-up process. This is the number one complaint I hear about the Fediverse. People want to sign up to "Mastodon," but of course, since Mastodon is a software and not a website, it's not that simple. The sign-up process depends on your ability to actually find a server to sign up on. There are many "directories" that you can use to find an instance ("instance" is what an individual Fediverse community is called - "server" is a familiar-but-technically-inaccurate synonym). If you're a furry like me, there's a pretty good list of furry instances published on Wikifur. Even so, the fact that there's no one place to go and just sign up is a turn-off for a lot of people.

  • Weaponized admin controls. Defederation (that is, censorship of one entire server by another) can easily be (and has been) weaponized for petty reasons. Admins with personal grudges are fully capable of blocking each other's entire community without any input from their users. This doesn't happen often (instance owners who did that routinely would quickly cut themselves off from the larger Fediverse), but it does happen, and when it does, it can get ugly.

  • Poor discoverability. Mastodon has no algorithms whatsoever (which some people admittedly see as more of a "pro" than a "con"), and what that ultimately means is that there is no "for you" or "discover" or anything of the kind. Anything you want to find, you have to search for yourself, and this is further hindered by the fact that Mastodon's search tools are not particularly robust.

  • Federation confusion. While you can interact with folks from almost any instance without having to sign up in multiple different places, posts and users from outside your own community don't always show up correctly. And I call this a con of the Fediverse, but if Bluesky reaches the same level of decentralization as the extant Fediverse, it will eventually have the exact same problem; that's simply the nature of an open-source, decentralized network - because unless all the posts are stored in a single, centralized place, content delivery involves the hundreds of different servers always talking to each other without any hiccups, and that simply does not happen on the internet.

  • Instance sustainability concerns. Although you can migrate your account from one server to another, that can be a pain in the neck, and you lose all of your posts in the process. And the unfortunate truth is that since the Fediverse exists on servers operated by everyday people who just want to run them, it naturally follows, that they aren't always reliable or long-lived.


Bluesky: Pros and Cons

Bluesky comes with its own set of pros and cons. It's worth mentioning that many of the "cons" on this list are cons for now. Bluesky is still in a somewhat nascent state, so a lot of the features it's missing right now could very well be implemented in the not-distant future.


Bluesky Pros:

  • Simple sign-up. It's like any of the old social networks in that sense. Go to bsky.app, create an account, download the app (or don't), and off you go. No muss, no fuss. You don't need an invite code anymore, either.

  • Twitter-like familiarity. The main thing I've seen people talk about for Bluesky is that "it's basically like Twitter was before it went to shit." Now, I'm personally of the opinion that Twitter has always been shit, and even at my most addicted I only ever used it begrudgingly because that's where everyone else was, so your mileage may vary on that, but I think what most people mean by that is that it's simple to use (especially compared to Mastodon) and is similar enough to Twitter that it's easy to pick up even for the completely uninitiated.

  • Robust discoverability tools. There's no hashtags, but the search tools work like they're supposed to. There's a "What's Hot" feed. The "algorithms" on Bluesky are mostly in the form of community-curated feeds, but following those feeds has helped me find a lot of people that I would have otherwise missed. Bluesky will also show you what is popular among people you follow. It has a lot of the things that people liked about Twitter (as mentioned above), but unlike Twitter, Bluesky doesn't force them on you.

  • Generally uncomplicated. For the time being, Bluesky is the clear winner if you're just looking for a simple social media network that works just like the ones you've always used in the past; you go there, you sign up, you post, you get the content you generally want and can avoid the content you don't. At the moment, you don't have to think about federation or instances or any of that (that's going to come later if Bluesky follows through on its federation promises, but most of the ones who are already there will likely miss the most confusing aspects of it in their day-to-day posting).

Bluesky Cons:

  • Almost-nonexistent privacy controls. There is only one privacy control on Bluesky: you can set your account so that people have to be logged into Bluesky to see your posts (which may or may not work, since Bluesky's API is public). There is no way at all to make your account or any of your posts private, and from the way this FAQ is worded, that's unlikely to change any time soon.

  • No support for videos or GIFs. Sure, that's probably going to change eventually, but let's be honest: that's a pretty mortal blow to artists and shitposters alike.

  • No direct messages. There's no way to send DMs on Bluesky currently. This is in line with the fact that there is no way to control the privacy of posts; yes, on most other services (including Twitter), the admins can read your DMs if they have a reason to, but on Bluesky, they don't exist at all. If you want to have a private conversation with a user from Bluesky, you have to do it somewhere else (and that basically requires that person to publicly disclose where you can reach them privately). This one also comes with a big asterisk that it's very likely to eventually change.

  • Weaponized curation. When a platform gives you the ability to make community follow-lists, it also gives you the ability to make community block-lists, and Bluesky is no exception. There's nothing particularly wrong with that per se, but the trouble is that it's very easy to exploit that since there's no real way to hold list-makers accountable for it. This is somewhat similar to Mastodon's weaponized defederations, but in a way, it's worse: on Mastodon, you can move from one instance to another. On BlueSky, you can't just take yourself off of someone else's list. If someone applies a false, heinous label to you and no one else holds them to account for it, it just kinda sucks to be you.

  • AI-based moderation. I don't think I need to go into detail about why that's bad. Content-scraping concerns aside, it just opens the door to all sorts of problems.

  • Corporate control. Bluesky is owned and operated by corporate interests. It was started up with money from Twitter, and it's currently sustained by money from other venture capitalists. That funding will run out; that's a question of "when," not "if." Bluesky says they have no current plans to sell data to advertisers or to introduce advertising to the platform, and that they will make some of their money from selling domain space. Even if that is the case, I am skeptical that that is a viable long-term funding strategy once the venture capitalists pull the plug. Regardless of how that plays out, it is undeniably true that Bluesky as it stands right now exists at the whims of people who are betting on Twitter to fail (and hoping to be part of the "next big thing," which Bluesky may or may not become - I'm honestly not sure which outcome would be worse).


Which network should I use?

The god's-honest, unambiguous, uncomplicated answer: both. My more personal answer: literally anything other than the corpse of Twitter. A lot of folks are probably familiar with the anecdote about kicking Nazis out of a bar so that it doesn't become a Nazi bar (if you're not familiar with it, here it is - I have it on speed dial). Twitter is a Nazi bar now.


More to the point, I think it's a good idea to not put all your eggs in one basket. I was very resistant to using Mastodon at first - once I started using it, I became one of its more vocal proponents in my spaces. If I'm being honest, I don't see myself ever being particularly vocal for Bluesky, but what I will say is that as I use it, I am warming up to it, and I think it has potential. What I would really like more than anything is for people to understand that there isn't a right or wrong answer here - ultimately, the right answer is the decision you have the easiest time living with. Both networks are full of queer people and furries, and frankly, I don't see a downside to that.

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