It will be the time of the post-pandemic transition, but I have a feeling that the word "viral" will annoy many. Is it one of the causes that lead to the growth of Mastodon? After all, the "new" social network was designed precisely to avoid the extreme dynamics, bordering on the pathological, that govern other social networks such as Facebook or Twitter.
Already. Because Mastodon isn't just an alternative to Twitter: it's an "antiviral" alternative to attention leeches.
An incentive to create and share. For real.
The absence of "Pavlovian" gratification mechanisms (the sea of likes, "popular" posts and other bells and whistles) has a first, important side effect: it encourages people to communicate and to be creative.
Without constantly thinking about "how many likes this content will get, will it have a large audience?". Why this is it: the algorithms of "traditional" social networks have been designed to capture attention by "forcing" people to stay, so as to reach them with advertising. In essence, they have warped user behavior, creating a world of people making content meant to be operationally theatrical, or rabid, to elicit reactions.
The word "Viral", again, signals a disease. This is why an "Antiviral" social network like Mastodon is experiencing a boom.
Mastodon is a place where people can post their thoughts without letting them enter an exhibitionist, socially manipulative, selfish mechanism. It wasn't born yesterday: this "social" software has been here for several years. But never before has it seen an important growth in audience and trust, in some way it represents a litmus test of user needs.
In fact, more and more people feel they have to get out of the "hamster wheel" in which social networks have placed them. And today the best antiviral "therapy" is in the shape of a purple baby elephant. For many reasons, one above all: slow down the pace a bit. Calm things down a bit.
We need it.
Let's take the platform just bought by Elon Musk. Many things could change in the next few times (we certainly won't get bored), but today that social network has become a container of tweets/jokes/memes/"popular" characters at the moment, so that users can see what's trending. Most of its functions push users to watch new or famous content en masse: hashtags go crazy providing sudden peaks of attention towards "must" to see or to discuss, often argue.
These waves of popularity come and go, depending on the subject. But usually they sell out quickly because the design also has to produce a new moment that captures everyone's attention. That feeling of "wow, I'm talking about the same thing as all these people"? That's the emotional goal of Twitter with its design. Virality is its driving force.
A significant number of Twitter users now find these "compelling" viral waves as the sole purpose of frequenting the social network. Without these elements, it wouldn't be there.
How is Mastodon antiviral
If we want to boil down the crucial differences between platforms, Mastodon has two big ones that differentiate it from all other social networks.
First: no quotes - On Mastodon, you can retweet a post (they call it "boosting"), but you can't add your own comment. In other words, it cannot be "quoted". Why not?
Because the creator of Mastodon feared (probably rightly) that this system too often encouraged the publication of provocative posts, like "look at this bullshit". And the early Mastodon community didn't really like these dynamics.
If a short-lived social network does not have tweets with quotes, it slightly inhibits viral waves. Individual claims are only slightly less likely to suddenly become a viral wave. This is the paradigm of an "anti-viral" design.
Second: no rankings - Another factor to consider: Mastodon does not algorithmically rank posts based on popularity, virality, or content. The Twitter algorithm creates a "rich-get-richer" effect: when a tweet goes slightly viral, the algorithm notices it, highlights it in user feeds and makes it grow dramatically: like a tidal wave.
On Mastodon, however, posts arrive in reverse chronological order. Point. Nothing else. If you're not looking at your feed when a post arrives? You will lose it. End. Again, this is a deeply antiviral design choice.
The antiviral one is a different cultural model
Aside from the "technical" factors that make it different, perhaps even more important about Mastodon's design is the behavior it introduces to its user base. People who have been using it forever (i.e. for 6 years) have literally created an antiviral culture. They oppose functions and attitudes that promote virality. They prefer slowness to speed.
Those accustomed to the world of Twitter, where speed and "herd" behavior are common (and enjoyed by many people), may seem strange to encounter a culture that finds friction useful and productive; a feature, not a flaw. It's a subtly different place. Less mass, even if it will have many subscribers. Less shouted.
This is one reason why Mastodon will never be a full-fledged replacement for Twitter.
And it won't destroy it
The advent of Musk could bankrupt Twitter (it is a hypothesis aired by the tycoon himself in his emails to employees), but it could also cause it to make a new boom. Twitter could find a balance between profit and virality: after all, these dynamics are harmful, but they have also brought social and civil issues to the attention of the general public (I'm thinking of Black Lives Matter).
Not only that: Mastodon's antiviral footprint could reduce the number of people who want to use it. Dudes with an "addiction" to Twitter feed excitement would find Mastodon unattractive and mundane by comparison. Where are the trends? What are we talking about today?
This "confusion" of the new users arriving and they are crowding Mastodon is already creating some problems with longtime users. The newcomers are trying to use the platform the way they've always used Twitter: gleefully promoting themselves, chasing "likes," posting pithy comments from arrogant "beaters," and controversial tirades.
It's not all their fault: it's the fault of those who taught them to behave in certain ways. Constantly hunting for likes and retweets/boosts. To promote yourself. To perform. And now, to bring this form of "mindset" to the new platform.
How will it end? Will Mastodon remain antiviral?
It is possible that the influx of newcomers will decrease. That new users walk away "disappointed", returning to the amusement park of tweets and quarrels between Musk's little bird and Zuckerberg's 'square'.
Or maybe the new mass of users will stay and change the culture of Mastodon making it a "hybrid", increasing its virality a bit. The system is made in such a way that a single Mastodon server can also change its rules, focusing more on the virality of the contents. This doesn't force everyone else to do it, but it may affect them.
The success of Mastodon could, in other words, make it "popular", and less antiviral. Who can tell? In any case, the next phase of Mastodon will be interesting.
(By the way, we've been there since 2021: @near future ... if you are on Mastodon, connect and say hello, so we can chat).