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Mastodon's Biggest Problem is Its Name

- One of the two hardest problems.


I'm gonna ride the wave of popular discourse for a second. With Twitter being on the brink of either becoming infinitely better or completely imploding (signs point to the latter), there's been some attention being paid to "alternatives". If Twitter does implode, where do its users go? Where are the greener pastures?

One alternative is the Mastodon project, a federated microblogging platform (aka a self-hosted Twitter). I personally fell out of love with "microblogging" when I was a Twitter user, though whether that was the fault of the format or the platform isn't clear. I've considered adding some kind of microblog sidebar to this site, for the random one-off thoughts that don't deserve their own post. Perhaps this post could have been one of them.

But I've always ended up avoiding Mastodon, even though I should really give it a shot. It's right in my wheelhouse. Open-source, self-hosted, extensible, automatable, apparently widely used... so why can't I bring myself to do it?

If I'm really honest, I just hate the name "Mastodon".

The developer part of my brain knows this is a dumb reason. Things should be evaluated on their substantial qualities, not on their presentation. Don't judge a book by its cover, and all that.

The human part of my brain knows that presentation is as much a substantial quality as anything else. The name of something tells us how it should be used, and informs the mood we are in when we use it. "Twitter" is possibly the perfect name for the service it was originally meant to be, with the image of a group of birds merrily broadcasting fun little chirps to each other being brought to mind, with connotations of the togetherness and forward movement of a flock.

"Mastodon" does nothing. Sure, mastodons traveled in groups (or at least, elephants do, I assume mastodons did as well). But to me the word "mastodon" primarily invokes images of largeness, cumbersomeness, and cold. Not to mention images of being hunted to fucking extinction. The word itself is clunky and not obvious how to spell correctly (should that middle vowel be an "o" or an "a"?).

To make matters worse, in the Mastodon platform the name for a post (a "tweet" on Twitter) is apparently "toot". Come on!

I don't want to impugn the quality of the Mastodon project or the platform they have developed. In fact as far as I can tell everything about Mastodon is quite good, which can be evidenced by how many people are using it and how it's seemingly the primary challenger to Twitter at the moment.

My point is only that, for Mastodon, or ActivityPub (the protocol which Mastodon implements), or "federated microblogging" in general, to take off and become used by the general public, we need a better name.

Published 2022-11-04