Why Everyone’s Tweeting About the Mastodon in the Room

How

Elon Musk — also known as the world’s richest man — is either single-handedly running Twitter Inc. into the ground, or saving it from a bloated workforce that operated a money-burning hellscape.

Whichever side you fall on, and if you’re on Twitter you have to take a side, there’s no doubt he’s had thousands of users rushing to find an alternative. So far, the surrogate receiving the most attention is Mastodon, a German social network that until a month ago few had even heard of.

In the time it took for Musk to officially take control of Twitter in late October until Sunday, 1 million more people had flocked to the Mastodon network, driving active users above 1.7 million.

Nearly tripling its numbers is a huge boost for the community started by Eugen Rochko back in 2016, when he was living with his parents while finishing university, where he studied computer science. But it doesn’t begin to compare to the 200 million users that Twitter claims, much less the 3.7 billion Meta Platforms Inc. has across its suite of sites that include Facebook and Instagram. Rochko, who started the open-source project out of a prescient fear that Twitter would one day be owned by a billionaire, remains chief executive officer of the company set up to run the venture. He got by on just 55,300 euros ($57,000 ) in revenue last year, largely from donors and Patreon subscribers.

Data from Google Trends show a massive uptick in searches for the term “Mastodon.” Curiosity about the Berlin-based site first jumped in late April after Musk announced plans to take Twitter private for $44 billion. Then, after Musk fought to avoid going through with the deal and it became apparent that the transaction would get completed last month, interest reached a crescendo.

“While we obviously aren’t looking at a mass exodus of people leaving one of the most popular social media sites on the planet, the data clearly [show] that people are indeed beginning to both look into leaving it, and they’re also looking for alternatives,” Michelle Stark, sales and marketing director at British network and web-hosting provider Fasthosts Internet Ltd., wrote recently.

There’s a good chance that user numbers on Mastodon keep growing. It’s also probable that while many will love this Twitter substitute and stick around, thousands will leave — or let their accounts lay dormant — because the calm purple behemoth is no replacement for the chaotic feed they’re used to at the blue bird. (And by the way, although it looks a lot like an elephant, the now-extinct mastodon is actually a different genus of mammal.)

It needs to be said: Mastodon is not the next Twitter. And that’s OK. It’s not supposed to be.

What you have at Mastodon isn’t even a single social media site. It’s more like a collection of related and connected chatrooms, independently operated and moderated in what the community calls a federation. These rooms are called servers because they’re quite often on their own separate computers while being connected together (there are more than 5,700). It’s a network in the truest sense of the term. Rochko summarized the difference in an April press release:

Unlike Twitter, there is no central Mastodon website – you sign up to a provider that will host your account, similarly to signing up for Outlook or Gmail, and then you can follow and interact with people using different providers.

It’s this loose collection of small social-media sites that is the core strength and biggest weakness of Mastodon. Rather than one single feed that dishes up conversations and debate on disparate topics, each server is subject-specific and run according to the rules laid down by its founders and moderators.

“Join a server with the rules you agree with, or host your own,” Mastodon advises. “Your feed is curated and created by you. We will never serve ads or push profiles for you to see.” Musk’s Twitter, meanwhile, has started selling authenticity for $8 per month, with disastrous consequences.

Most new users find themselves signing up for a general room, such as mastodon.online or mas.to, before gravitating toward particular interests: fosstodon.org caters to software enthusiasts, climatejustice.social is self-explanatory, while mastodon.lol is “ friendly towards anti-fascists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, activist movements, hackers, and anyone who doesn’t think ‘free speech’ is the only important human right.”

This division-by-interest structure makes Mastodon more akin to Reddit or Discord than Twitter or Facebook. It’s unlikely cat photos will mix with discussions of police brutality, for example. This means that — theoretically — minority or disadvantaged groups have a safe haven, a feature distinctly lacking on Twitter, where trolling and harassment are rife and an army of content moderators was struggling to keep up even before Musk fired half the company.

But it also means that Mastodon sites are more likely to become echo chambers of similar views and ideologies absent the sanitizing sunlight that more open forums can bring to conspiracy theories and political correctness. The rising popularity of TikTok, which serves up a steady diet of happy dancing and cute memes, shows that avoiding conflict is an extremely attractive trait for a social media site. It’s also a hint as to why Mastodon will find its niche and grow ever stronger.

In the end, Mastodon will never be the public town square, though at least it’s starting to attract comedians banned for poking fun at the blue bird’s new owner. Instead, Twitter users looking for a rowdy and robust locus for debate may need to accept the fact that it is now run by a billionaire who gets to arbitrate standards of free speech.

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

• TikTok Is the New Front in Election Misinformation: Tim Culpan

• We May Be Watching Twitter Implode in Real Time: Parmy Olson

• Twitter Is Wrecking the Musk Aura That Tesla Needs: Liam Denning

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion