In the week since Elon Musk took over Twitter, the number of people signing up to a small social network called Mastodon has increased.
You may not have heard of Mastodon, which has been around since 2016, but now it’s growing rapidly. Some are fleeing Twitter for this or at least looking for a second place publish their thoughts online as the much better-known social network is facing layoffs, controversial product changes, an expected shift in its approach to content moderation and a leap into hateful rhetoric.
There may not be a clear alternative to Twitter, a particularly influential, fast-paced, text-heavy, conversational and news-driven platform. But Mastodon scratches some itch. The service resembles Twitter, with a timeline of short updates sorted chronologically rather than algorithmically. It allows users to join a multitude of different servers run by various groups and individuals, rather than a central platform controlled by a single company like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
Unlike major social networks, Mastodon is both free and ad-free. It is developed by a non-profit organization led by Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko and is supported by crowdfunding.
Rochko said in an interview Thursday that Mastodon had gained 230,000 users since October 27, when Musk took over Twitter. It now has 655,000 monthly active users, he said. Twitter reported in July that it had nearly 238 million daily active monetizable users.
“It’s not as big as Twitter, obviously, but it’s the biggest this network has ever been,” said Rochko, who originally created Mastodon more as a project than a consumer product (and, yes, his name was inspired by the heavy metal band Mastodon).
Mastodon’s new listings include some Twitter users with large followings, such as actor and comedian Kathy Griffinwho joined in early November, and journalist Molly Jong Fastwho joined at the end of October.
Sarah T. Roberts, a UCLA associate professor and faculty director at UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, started using Mastodon in earnest on October 30, just after Musk took over Twitter. (She had created another account years ago, she said, but only really got into it recently due to Twitter’s popularity among academics.)
Roberts, who worked at Twitter as a staff researcher earlier this year while taking a leave of absence from UCLA, said she was inspired to start using Mastodon due to concerns about how moderation content on Twitter could change under Musk’s control. She suspects some newcomers are simply fed up with social media companies that capture lots of user data and are driven by advertising.
And she pointed out that Twitter users could migrate to Mastodon especially because its user experience is quite similar to Twitter’s. Many of Mastodon’s features and layout (especially in its iOS app) will sound familiar to current Twitter users, but with slightly different verbiage; you can follow others, make short posts (there’s a 500 character limit and you can upload images and videos), bookmark or repost other users’ posts, and more.
“It’s about as close as you can get,” she said.
I’ve been a Twitter user since 2007, but as more people I follow on the social network have started posting their Mastodon usernames in recent weeks, I’ve been curious. This week, I decided to check out Mastodon for myself.
There are key differences, especially in network configuration. Since Mastodon user accounts are hosted on a multitude of different servers, user hosting costs are spread among many different people and groups. But it also means users are scattered all over the place, and people you know can be hard to find. Rochko compared this setup to having different email providers, such as Gmail and Hotmail.
This means that the entire network is not under the control of any one person or company, but it also introduces new complications for those of us who are used to Twitter – a product that has also been criticized over the years. years to be less intuitive than more popular. services like Facebook and Instagram.
On Mastodon, for example, you have to join a specific server to register, some of which are open to everyone, some of which require an invite (you can also run your own server). There is a server operated by the nonprofit behind Mastodon, Mastodon.social, but it doesn’t accept more users; I currently use one called Mstdn.social, which is also where I can log in to access Mastodon on the web.
And while you can follow any other Mastodon user, regardless of what server they signed up on, you can only see lists of those who follow your Mastodon friends, or those your Mastodon friends follow, if the subscribers belong to the same server you signed up with (I found this out when trying to track down more people I know who recently signed up).
At first, I felt like I was starting over, sort of, as a complete newcomer to social media. As Roberts said, it’s quite similar to Twitter in looks and functionality, and the iOS app is easy to use.
But unlike Twitter, where I can easily interact with a large audience, my Mastodon network has less than 100 followers. Suddenly I had no idea what to post – a feeling that never nags me on Twitter, perhaps because the size of this network makes any message less important. However, I got over it quickly and realized Mastodon’s smaller scale could be soothing compared to Twitter’s endless stream of stimulation.
I’m not quite ready to close my Twitter account, however; to me, Mastodon is kind of a social media escape hatch in case Twitter gets unbearable.
Roberts, too, has yet to decide if she’ll close her Twitter account, but she’s been surprised at how quickly her followers have grown on Mastodon. Within a week of signing up and alerting her nearly 23,000 Twitter followers, she amassed over 1,000 Mastodon followers.
“People may not want to be caught on Twitter very soon,” she said.
In some ways, starting over can also be fun.
“I was like, ‘How’s it going to be to do it again?’ she asked. “It’s quite interesting: Oh that person is there! Here is so and so! I’m so glad they’re here so we can be here together.