Why Everyone Is Tweeting About the Mastodon in the Room

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Elon Musk — also known as the world’s richest man — will either single-handedly bring down Twitter Inc. or save it from a bloated workforce running a money-burning hell.

No matter which side you’re on, if you’re on Twitter, you have to be on a side, and there’s no question he has thousands of users desperate for an alternative. By far the most talked about proxy is German social network Mastodon, which until a month ago few had heard of.

Another million people flooded the Mastodon network between late October and Sunday, when Musk officially took over Twitter, bringing the number of active users to more than 1.7 million.

Eugen Rochko, who started the community in 2016 and nearly tripled its size, was a huge boost for him when he was living with his parents during college, where he studied computer science . But it can’t match the 200 million users that Twitter claims, let alone the 3.7 billion that Meta Platforms Inc. has on its string of sites, including Facebook and Instagram. Rochko, who remains CEO of the company formed to run the venture, started the open source project out of a prescient fear that Twitter would one day be owned by billionaires. He earned just 55,300 euros ($57,000) last year, mostly from donors and Patreon subscribers.

Data from Google Trends shows that searches for the term “Mastodon” have surged. Curiosity about the Berlin-based site first spiked in late April after Musk announced plans to take Twitter private for $44 billion. Interest then peaked after Musk struggled to avoid closing the deal and it became clear that it would close last month.

“While we’re clearly not seeing large numbers of people leaving one of the most popular social media sites on the planet, the data clearly shows that [show] People are really starting to think about leaving it, and they’re looking for alternatives,” wrote Michelle Stack, director of sales and marketing at UK-based web and web hosting provider Fasthosts Internet Ltd., recently.

The number of users on Mastodon will most likely continue to grow. It’s also possible that while many people will love the Twitter alternative and stick around, thousands will leave — or have their accounts dormant — because the placid purple behemoth won’t be a replacement for what they’re used to at Bluebird. Confusion Feed on . (By the way, although the now-extinct mastodon looked a lot like an elephant, it was actually a different mammal.)

To be clear: Mastodon is not the next Twitter. It’s ok. It shouldn’t be.

What you have at Mastodon isn’t even a single social media site. It’s more like a group of linked chat rooms, independently run and moderated in what the community calls a federation. These rooms are called servers because they are often hosted on their own separate computers, all connected together at the same time (there are over 5,700 of them). This is a real network. Rochko summed up the differences in an April press release:

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

This loose collection of small social media sites is Mastodon’s core strength and greatest weakness. Rather than a single feed offering conversation and debate on different topics, each server is dedicated to a specific topic and operates according to rules set by its founders and moderators.

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

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

This interest-based structure makes Mastodon more akin to Reddit or Discord than Twitter or Facebook. For example, pictures of cats are less likely to be mixed with discussions of police brutality. This means that – in theory – there is a safe haven for minorities or disadvantaged groups, a feature conspicuously lacking on Twitter, which is full of harassment and harassment, even after Musk fired half the company Before, an army of content moderators struggled to keep up.

But it also means that Mastodon sites are more likely to become echo chambers of similar views and ideologies, without the sanitizing sunshine that more open forums can bring to conspiracy theories and political correctness. The growing popularity of TikTok, which offers a steady diet of happy dancing and cute memes, suggests that avoiding conflict is an extremely attractive feature of the social media site. It also hints at why Mastodon has found its niche and grown from strength to strength.

Ultimately, Mastodon will never become a public town square, though it’s at least beginning to attract comedians who were banned from poking fun at the bluebird’s new owner. Instead, Twitter users looking for a venue for raucous and forceful debate may need to accept the fact that it is now run by a billionaire who can arbitrate on free speech standards.

More from Bloomberg Opinion author and others:

• TikTok is new front in election misinformation: Tim Culpan

• We may be watching Twitter crash live: Parmy Olson

• Twitter is destroying the Musk halo Tesla needs: Liam Denning

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

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

More stories like this can be found at bloomberg.com/opinion

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