What is Mastodon? A closer look at the platform surging in users amid Twitter chaos

WATCH: Why some Twitter users are jumping ship to Mastodon.

Elon Musk has been the CEO and sole board member of Twitter for just under a week, in which time he has laid off half of the company’s staff and promised sweeping new changes.

This upheaval within Twitter has some users questioning its future, and even seeking an alternative.

Talk of leaving Twitter has proliferated on the site since Musk first became interested in acquiring it. Now that the richest man in the world has made good on his intention, social media sites billed as “Twitter alternatives” have been gaining ground.

In the early days of Musk’s Twitter, the frontrunner for most popular Twitter-alternative is probably Mastodon.

The site’s founder and CEO, German programmer Eugen Rochko, posted to Mastodon on Monday that the site had just hit over 1 million monthly active users, of which more than 489,000 were new. The social media platform also tweeted that they gained 230,000 users in the week after Musk’s takeover was finalized.

In comparison, of course, Twitter dwarfs Mastodon. The blue bird reported just under 238 million daily active users in July.

Still, Mastodon has managed to attract the likes of comedian Kathy Griffin, who was recently suspended from Twitter after mocking Musk, as well as economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and a growing number of journalists.

Musk himself even commented on the rise of Mastodon on Monday, tweeting in response to Krugman’s new Mastodon account that people could join it if they didn’t like Twitter anymore. In the tweet he referred to the site as “Masterbatedone.” It was deleted after an hour.

Screenshot of Elon Musk's tweet that Twitter users could join "Masterbatedone" before he deleted it about an hour later.

Screenshot of Elon Musk's tweet that Twitter users could join "Masterbatedone" before he deleted it about an hour later.

Global News

How does Mastodon work?

Mastodon is a free, open-source social media network supported via crowdfunding, and it is totally free of ads.

Its interface looks very similar to Twitter, with a timeline of short posts called “toots” (their version of tweets), sorted chronologically rather than algorithmically. Toots can be replied to, liked and reposted and users can follow various accounts.

However, unlike Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, Mastodon is a decentralized social network — meaning it isn’t run by one entity. Instead, Mastodon is a collection of different servers that form one network. That’s why Mastodon calls itself a federated social network, since largely volunteer administrators join their servers together to host different discussions.

Servers, or “instances” as they’re called on the site, are themed like subreddits on Reddit and have topics related to places, hobbies and interests — for example, Glasgow, gaming and technology. They are all independent and have their own community rules.

Users must select an instance when they sign up but this serves more as a jumping-off community as users can follow whatever account they want, even if that account is in another server. People can also change servers whenever they want. Some instances are invite-only while others are open to everyone.

Mastodon’s advocates say its decentralized approach makes it fundamentally different: rather than go to Twitter’s centrally-provided service, every user can choose their own provider, or even run their own Mastodon instance, much like how users can email from Gmail or, for instance, an employer can run their own email server on Gmail just for their employees.

No single company or person can impose their will on the whole system or shut it all down. If an extremist voice emerged with their own server, the advocates say, it would be easy enough for other servers to cut ties with it, leaving it to talk to its own shrinking band of followers and users. When users sign up, Mastodon notes that it has a “zero tolerance approach to racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.”

The federated approach does have its downsides: it’s harder to find people to follow in Mastodon’s anarchic sprawl than on the neatly ordered town square that Twitter offers. The unfamiliar structure also has some recent adopters finding it hard to navigate.

It remains to be seen if Mastodon has the stuff to unseat social-media giant Twitter, as it seems that all the new interest is straining the site’s operation. Some popular servers, such as the one run by the non-profit that administers Mastodon, Mastodon.social, are no longer accepting more users after the spike in popularity.

Mastodon’s founder Rochko said he’s been overstretched trying to keep the site running smoothly amid the traffic surge.

“While it’s nice to see your work finally taken seriously in the mainstream, the 12-14 hour workdays I’ve had to pull to handle everything is anything but,” he posted on Oct. 31.

He apologized to users for “processing delays until I can get my hands on more hardware.”

Other Twitter alternatives

Tribel Social is also emerging as a popular Twitter alternative and proclaims itself to be “social media done right.” The site is also seeing a surge in new activity amid the chaos at Twitter. They announced a 500 per cent increase in user activity on Monday.

The platform was developed by Likeopedia and focuses on news feed customization. It allows users to target an audience to enhance engagement on posts and says users can find experts on topics of discussion.

The platform has called itself “grassroots,” “pro-democracy,” and “bigotry-free” in various statements.

Counter Social is another social media site attracting Twitter abandoners, and it has a strong message against trolls, online abuse, fake news and foreign influence. It was created by hacktivist The Jester, who claims responsibility for hacks against WikiLeaks, the Westboro Baptist Church and jihadist websites recruiting soldiers.

The site says it takes a “zero-tolerance stance to hostile nations, bot accounts, trolls and disinformation networks,” and promises not to mine or sell user data.

— With files from Reuters

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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