While the social media network, which is decentralized and has experienced a lot of growth since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, remains a small community with limited resources and confusing interfaces. But for users tired of Twitter’s chaos, those shortcomings might be features rather than bugs.
OVer the last week and half, as the world’s richest person, Elon Musk, took control of Twitter, other power users of the platform have declared that they’re out. Comedian Kathy Griffin, TV writer and producer David Slack, film producer Jeremy Newberger–all of them announced they’re leaving Twitter in favor of another social media service: Mastodon.
Tech journalist Casey Newton, who has been an inactive user on Mastodon since 2017, said he’s seen a rise in his followers on the platform. And it’s not just him–since Musk acquired Twitter, Mastodon reports that it’s seen an over 55% increase in users. Which sounds great until you realize that’s still a total userbase of about 655,000 people–or less than 0.3% of Twitter’s 238 million users.
Mastodon, an open-source software platform that is decentralized and built upon open standards, has some experts claiming it holds promise for people who want to escape Twitter. But it’s not there yet. The platform’s infancy means that it faces many challenges. Twitter has far fewer prominent influencers than other social networks, and its interface is confusing. This makes it difficult for users to create profiles. And even though Twitter is laying off 50% of its roughly 7,500 employees, that will still leave it with around 3,750 employees–which is 3,749 more than Mastodon has, as it relies primarily on volunteers to run different aspects of the service.
Mastodon, a nonprofit founded in 2017, isn’t just a social media hub. Mastodon is an open-source platform that allows anyone to host social networking websites. So while In functionality, it’s similar to Twitter (except that users ‘toot’ rather than ‘tweet’), in structure it’s more reminiscent of reddit: Mastodon has 3,000 servers, each with its own privacy settings, content moderation team and community guidelines. Although users can connect to each other on various servers, the ownership of server assets is distributed among nonprofits as well as individual administrators and hobbyists. This ensures that there are no one-stop solutions for all issues.
Mastodon allows new users to try it out. They can join servers based on where they live or their interests. Servers include mastodon.green (“a climate positive community primarily for (but not limited to) people in EU countries”) and mastodon.lol (“a community friendly towards anti-fascists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, hackers and the like”) and nerdculture.de (“not only for nerds but the domain is somewhat cool”), among others.
The nonprofit’s CEO, Eugen Rochko, 29, started working on Mastodon (which he named for the American heavy metal band) in 2016 while he was studying at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany. He began to notice changes in his Twitter usage that he was not happy with. “I was growing dissatisfied with Twitter, the company and the platform,” Rochko tells SME. “It made me realize that the method of expressing myself online was too important to be in the hands of a single corporation that could do anything with it that it wanted without any recourse.”
DTwitter is not satisfyingMastodon users feel the pressure of welcoming new users. To discuss the possibility of trading their old platform for the next, #twittermigration has been trending on Mastodon. One user winked at the potential $8 Twitter verification charge on Mastodon, “Putting a dumb check mark next to my name to show that I donated (more than $8) to Mastodon in support of the #twittermigration.” Another posted about Twitter layoffs. “People’s laptops are being remotely wiped and company logins revoked before they’ve officially been told they’re being made redundant. Big business is a tough old game, but that’s an inhumane level of cold.#twittermigration #Twitter”
Asked about what he thinks of Musk taking over Twitter, he says he has witnessed the rise of racist slurs and hate speech on the platform hours after Musk’s takeover. “So things are not looking great over there. I’m not confident in his leadership skills,” he says.
That said, things aren’t looking exactly sunny at Mastodon either. Being the company’s only employee has meant added pressure on Rochko and the servers he runs, especially the most popular server, mastodon.social. “It creates a lot of load and a lot of slowdowns on our end that we have to deal with and upgrade the hardware to deal with it,” he says. “Ideally people should be spreading out among these different servers.”
“I think the structure lends itself to more discussion and discourse than kind of your knee jerk retweet.”
Gergely Orosz writes about software engineering and says Mastodon is not a major social media site. He has seen a part of the tech community migrate over to Mastodon over the years and a sharp influx after this week’s Twitter ordeal. However, new Mastodon users often have difficulty understanding its functions and are frustrated by the complex structure. This is in stark contrast to Twitter’s one-stop shop. Having a multitude of places to have conversation on the platform was part of Rochko’s vision to make Mastodon more accessible to the wider public. Users often feel lost among the multitude of servers.
“The whole thing is built on a vague utopian notion of freedom, but in practice you see confused users wondering where their friends have gone when they switch servers and how they can prevent impersonators from popping up on other servers,” says Dave Hoffman, who stopped using Mastodon for those reasons.
There’s also friction for users who want to sign up on a specific server only to find out that the server is no longer accepting new users because it wants to remain a smaller community. There are also complaints about features popular on Twitter but missing on Mastodon, such as making lists, discovering followers and searching a users’ toots.
There are other problems with the volunteer-run server-based communities. Long time user Heather Flowers, who considers Mastodon as one of her homes online, says the decentralized nature of the “fediverse” (a group of social media apps that utilizing the same decentralized principles as Mastodon) makes it vulnerable to break and crumble at any time. “The mere act of having an account makes you subject to the whims of your server’s admins,” she says. “If your admin gets into a fight with another server’s admin, suddenly you’re drafted into a flame war between your server and theirs.”
The other challenge for Mastodon’s ability to scale is that it has very scarce resources compared to Twitter. Mastodon does not rely on investors. Instead, it relies on crowdfunding, donations, sponsorships, grants, and crowdfunding. The platform is free of ads and thus doesn’t collect any of its user’s data. However, it has not been able to generate revenue like the other platforms. This is due to its ingenuity. Although the technology may be commercialized in the future, businesses or individuals could charge to have accounts hosted on their servers.
“The solution isn’t a copy of Twitter without Elon Musk. The solution is a different paradigm of social media.”
With all of these challenges, it’s unlikely that Mastodon will be replacing Twitter anytime soon. Mastodon might be an alternative to Twitter for those who get tired of Twitter’s chaotic and loud content.
Mastodon and other apps in the “fediverse” were designed to spread control across servers, making each of them smaller and manageable, allowing tighter content moderation and more transparency, says Robert Gehl, research chair of digital governance at York University, who’s been researching alternative social media for a decade and has been a Mastodon user for over five years. “I think the structure lends itself to more discussion and discourse than kind of your knee jerk retweet.”
“Twitter is a central location. A walled garden,” says Tinker Secor, a security researcher who signed up for Mastodon in 2017. He says people are drawn to Mastodon because there aren’t “rage algorithms” driving conversation. “Conversations are more nuanced, calm, and sincere,” he says.
Musk’s takeover of Twitter provided the impetus that Mastodon needed to gain traction. But Rochko wants to see the “fediverse” grow. And, he is optimistic that Musk’s changes to Twitter could incentivize people to take the leap and join Mastodon so they can enjoy a different kind of social media experience.
“People who have been joining us there over the years have always referred to Twitter as the ‘hell site’,” Rochko says. “The solution isn’t a copy of Twitter without Elon Musk. The solution is a different paradigm of social media.”