The decentralized social media network has grown significantly since Elon Musk took over Twitter, but it’s still a tiny community with a confusing interface and few resources. But for users tired of Twitter’s chaos, those shortcomings might be features rather than bugs.
Over the past 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.
A decentralized software built on open standards, Mastodon is a platform that some experts say holds promise for those wanting to escape Twitter. But it’s not there yet. Still in its nascent stages, the platform is riddled with challenges of its own. It has far fewer high-profile influencers than other social media sites, not to mention a confusing interface that makes creating a profile a daunting task for some. 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.
Launched in 2017, nonprofit Mastodon is not exactly a single social media hangout. Instead, it provides open source software that can be used to run social networking sites, which can be independently hosted by any user. 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. Users on different servers can communicate with each other but ownership of servers is spread out across nonprofits, individual admins and hobbyists so that no single entity has control over the entire network.
When new users want to give Mastodon a go, they can choose to join a server based on their interest or region. 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. As a heavy Twitter user, he began noticing changes that troubled him. “I was growing dissatisfied with Twitter, the company and the platform,” Rochko tells Forbes. “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.”
Dissatisfaction with Twitter is heavy on the minds of Mastodon users as the influx of newbies arrives. The term #twittermigration is currently trending on the platform to discuss their trading the old platform for the new one. 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.”
Mastodon is far from being a mainstream social media platform, says Gergely Orosz, who writes about software engineering. 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. But new Mastodon users are often clueless on its functionality and frustrated by its complicated structure, which is vastly different from the one-stop shop that Twitter offers. 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. Yet, users often get lost in the myriad 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.
The volunteer-run nature of the server-based communities has other drawbacks, too. 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. Rather than relying on investors, Mastodon survives on donations, crowdfunding, sponsorships and grants. The platform is free of ads and thus doesn’t collect any of its user’s data. But, its frugality has meant it also has no real way to gain revenue the way other platforms do right now. (Although the technology could be monetized in the future by people or businesses charging to host accounts 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. However, for long-time users of Twitter who have grown tired of its loud, chaotic discourse, Mastodon may offer something better than a replacement: a much-needed respite.
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.”