Could an open source alternative finally spell the end of Twitter’s short-form bulletin board style postings? It’s been tried before, but now there’s perhaps the best contender for the Twitter throne yet: Mastadon.
Featuring Tom Merritt.
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A platform that people love to hate.
A platform people love to yell “I’m leaving.”
But they always come back.
They left for Pownce. And they came back. And Pownce died.
They left for Plurk. And they came back. And Plurk went niche.
They left to start whole new protocols like Diaspora and Identica.
But every time they fly to an alternative, they also fly back.
Except. Maybe this time? Is this the exception?
Because this isn’t the story of Twitter. This is the story of a place that has almost all the ingredients to keep the Twitter exodus.
Let’s help you know a little more about Mastodon.
It’s March 2007. The SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas is filled with Web 2.0 pitches and internet stars. But one website is standing out. Twitter, with a giant screen in the convention center showing “tweets” as they happen in real time, steals the spotlight.
That feels like the last time people unanimously loved Twitter.
In 2009 a group calling itself the “Iranian Cyber Army” hacks Twitter through a DNS exploit. It won’t be the last time Twitter gets hacked. But it will cause one of the first big rounds of questions about whether Twitter is safe. It won’t be the last time that happens either.
In 2011. Twitter posts are credited with fueling uprisings in the Middle East known as the “Arab Spring” BUT it also launches the “Quick Bar”, a floating bar at the top of the iOS app which was withdrawn after loud user complaints.
Then there was #gamergate and the vitriolic arguments and harassment about what was true journalism and who were fake gamers. That led to calls for better Twitter moderation.
You get the idea. Controversies happen frequently on Twitter and when they do, users storm off to try an alternative.
And in 2016, the US presidential election made every one of those controversies look mild. A month out from election day, a European developer decided to be the latest to try to make yet another Twitter alternative. Maybe this would be the one.
Mastodon launched October 5, 2016 Developer Eugen Rochko posted on Hacker News, “Show HN: A new decentralized microblogging platform” It linked to a Github page.
There you could find the basic code of yet another decentralized social network. It stood out from previous attempts in a couple ways. First, it was truly open source, not a proprietary service pretending to be decentralized. Anybody could set up a Mastodon server. And second, it was polished. It looked like a slick implementation of Tweetdeck.
Developers in general were complimentary and several jumped in to help work on the project. Since anybody could set up a Mastodon server, lots of them did, showing that it could work as a truly federated and decentralized platform.
You just needed people to use it.
It simmered away with people wandering in as they heard about it in various corners of the internet. But that calm period changed. In March 2017.
The rancor on Twitter had been snowballing since the election of President Trump. It seems like background noise now, but at the time it was overwhelming. People got angry on Twitter before but not in the numbers and not with this kind of sustained rage. Almost every user on the platform was picking a side and firing shots at the other.
That may explain why a seemingly innocuous change began another exodus.
On March 30th, Twitter announced that the names of people you are replying to would not count against the character count, and if you replied to more than one person, only the first person’s name would show with the rest available with a click.
Minor stuff right. WRONG
With everyone angrily replying to each other and laser-focused on shaming their opponents by name, this was seen as hiding important information! In reality, this was the straw that broke the camel’s ability to stay on Twitter.
So when big names like IT Crowd creator Graham Lineman (aka Glinner) and Community and Rick and Morty creator Dan Harmon started accounts on Mastodon, a wave began. Motherboard’s Sarah Jeong had been working on an article about the little platform and found herself documenting a mass migration.
Mastodon users jumped 70% in 48 hours and Rochko met his $800 a month Patreon goal. Jeong posted her Motherboard article on April 4th. Mashable’s Jack Morse posted the same day with the title “Bye, Twitter. All the cool kids are migrating to Mastodon.” A few days later, April 7, Quartz and The Verge both had published guides on how to use Mastodon.
By April 9, 2017 Mastodon had 129,302 accounts. Nothing compared to Twitter’s hundreds of millions, but a hockey stick-like growth that caught people’s attention.
Rochko’s main instance, Mastodon.social had to lock registrations to encourage new users to sign up on one of the other 1,200 or so servers.
Mastodon was having its moment. Like Pownce, and Plurk and identi.ca and Diaspora before it.
And almost as quickly as it began. It ended.
The pattern held. The Twitter faithful got mad. The Twitter faithful fled. The Twitter faithful realized that they still liked yelling on Twitter and returned.
By May 22, the headline on the Verge was “What happened to Mastodon after its moment in the spotlight?”
Thankfully for Rochko and friends the story was more Plurk than Pownce. The flood had stopped but there was still growth.
The Verge’s Megan Farokh-manesh described it as a grab bag of “personal observations, video games, politics, comics, and a mix of users speaking in French, Japanese, Spanish, and more.”
In fact it was now a cozy community. Slightly bigger than it had been a few months before but the better for it. The Twitter masses had gone.
Let’s take a minute to look at how Mastodon works. Because it’s not exactly a Twitter clone. And it points out some of the reasons Mastodon is seen as a good Twitter alternative, and also what its actual road blocks are to becoming massively popular.
Mastodon’s code is issued under the AGPLv3 open source license built on the W3C ActivityPub standard. That’s a standard used not just by Mastodon but other federated services like PeerTube for video, Pixelfed for images and Friendica, another social networking alternative.
But the point here is Mastodon is standards compliant. ActivityPub is a World Wide Web Consortium standard, like HTML.
Mastodon’s open source code is free and the license does not allow anyone to reverse that. It is administered by a German nonprofit called Mastodon which owns the trademark and runs two servers, the original mastodon.social and mastodon.online.
Mastodon describes its federation of servers as the ‘fediverse.’
Basically, anybody can take the code and start a server if they want to maintain it. And those servers can then integrate with other servers in the fediverse as much or as little as they want. Each server will have its own policies and moderation rules. So you can be on a server and see posts on every other server but you can choose a server that plays by rules you’re comfortable with. Want maximal free speech? Find a maximal free speech server. Want strong moderation and crackdowns on offensive speech, choose a server with those kinds of policies. You can still interact with the rest of the fediverse, but with filter levels and other rules that you’re comfortable with.
So for example a Mastodon server can see all the posts in the fediverse, but a particular server may choose to ban a list of swear words. If you sign up on that server you’d see all the posts from the rest of the fediverse unless they had swearing in them. But swearing doesn’t have to be banned everywhere. If you don’t mind seeing swearing you can choose a server that doesn’t block it.
And you can also block server yourself on your own account. Don’t like the policies or perspectives of the people who post on the mastodon server blacklicorice.rocks, you can stop it from ever showing up in *your* feeds, without needing the server you’re on to block it for everyone.
Of course, most people will pick a server that has policies they agree with, so they don’t have to do a lot of maintenance and blocking. But what if you change your mind. Or pick the wrong server. Or your server changes ITS policies?
This is where another feature of the fediverse comes in handy. You’re not locked into a server. You can try one out and then change your mind and not lose your data.
Mastodon makes it possible to take your follower lists along with you. With Facebook or Twitter that would mean abandoning everything. With Mastodon it just means a couple of export and import clicks. There are one or two steps depending on what you want to keep after you move. If all you want to keep is your followers– so people find you immediately at your new server– you can do that automatically. If you want to keep who YOU follow, as well as mute lists, block lists, bookmarks, domain blocks, you need to export a file with that info and import it when you set up the new account. The point being, it’s not complicated to move from one server to another.
This is also why Mastodon usernames look like email addresses. firstname.lastname@example.org for example. The first part is the user name and the portion after the at symbol is the server name.
Even with the ability to switch servers, the choice makes it daunting for some people to sign up in the first place. Not just for the simple reason of having to choose, but because the various apps are still developing better ways to make it easy to see what’s available and get signed up.
Whatever server you end up on, you’ll be able to view multiple feeds. And they’re pretty familiar if you’re a Twitter user. Different servers can tweak them a little but usually there’s one for people you follow, one for interactions with your posts, one to see everything on your local server and quite often one called “Federated” which lets you see every post from every server your server interacts with.
A lot of servers also have a feed called Explore which lets you see posts from across the fediverse that are getting a lot of attention. That’s the closest Mastodon gets to a “trending topics” feed.
There are also Direct messages, Favourites and Bookmarks. Favourites let other people know you like something, bookmarks are for you to reference something later whether you “like” it or not. And you can make your own lists.
The standard message posting on Mastodon has a maximum of 500 characters. You can attach an image, run a poll, add a content warning and select a default language that the post is in. Posts were jokingly referred to as Toots in the early days, a play on Tweets and because Mastdon’s logo is a big hairy extinct elephant. While the word toot is still in use, it’s somewhat deprecated.
Posts can also have varying privacy settings. You can let a post be public across the fediverse, private to only your followers, direct between users or even unlisted, so anyone can see it if they know where to look but it won’t be discoverable.
There are some differences from Twitter too.
Search is more limited as well, with most servers only returning searches for user names and hashtags. For example, the Explore feed only follows hashtags, not individual words in posts. And Boosts, the mastodon equivalent of Retweets, do not allow you to add commentary.
One of the downsides of Mastodon’s federated approach is that not every server is as well run as every other. Large popular servers have few problems but niche communities rely on the good graces of small teams or sometimes individuals. There is no monetization built into the platforms so the folks who run servers rely on crowdfunding like donations or Patreons.
So not every server is secure, and things like posting images can become an ethical dilemma if you know each image is increasing the cost of the volunteer who runs your server.
That boils down to two things working against Mastodon’s uptake with the wider populace: ease of use and difficulty of maintenance. Hold that thought though.
The tradeoff is that you get that ability to pick and choose moderation. Something that attracted people to another run at Mastodon in 2022. This time was much bigger.
By October 2022, Mastodon had grown to 300,000 users. A little less than three times what it had during the great yet brief migration of 2017. It wasn’t booming but it wasn’t declining. Just a nice slow growing community of people. A small suburban feel.
Then. On October 27, 2022, Elon Musk closed his long embattled acquisition of Twitter.
It would be an entire separate episode to discuss all the events of Musk’s first few months owning Twitter. Lifting the ban on President Trump, firing executives, firing more people, lifting more bans, launching paid verification, unlaunching paid verification, laying off more people, making decisions by poll. And with each event, the Twitter user did what Twitter users have always done. Flee to try something else.
And there were new platforms to try like Hive and Post and platforms on the comeback trail from decline, like Tumblr. But the biggest by far was a familiar furry trunk.
Mastodon had never gone away. It was never in decline. But it had never grown like this. Between October and November 2022 it grew 800% to 2.5 million. Still much smaller than Twitter’s 350 million plus, but now in the conversation.
The holidays took some of the momentum away though as people paid less attention to whatever wild thing Twitter’s CEO was posting. And after the first of the year, CES diverted the tech world’s attention such that Musk’s antics seemed to engender less panic than they had.
By February, Mastodon users had fallen from the 2.5 million high to 1.4 million.
It looked like an old story. Twitter users angered. Twitter users flee. Twitter users get over it. Twitter users come back. Alternative platform left to pick up the pieces.
January 19, Twitter changed its API kicking off third-party clients. That left developers of the clients wondering if they shouldn’t make a Mastodon app. The folks who made Tweetbot launched Ivory. The folks who made Aviary, launched Mammoth and even got funding from Mozilla. Suddenly there were easier ways to get started with Mastodon with experienced developers who by all rights should not have been given the opportunity to do this.
And on February 10, Cloudflare, a company who makes its money securing big websites from cyberattacks and downtime, launched Widlebeest. It lets you quickly spin up a Mastodon server that supports ActivityPub and other Fediverse APIs, with the ability to publish, edit, boost, and delete posts. And of course the server will sit behind Cloudflare’s security from denial of service and other attacks. You still needed some tech chops, but it made it a lot easier for someone to get a server up and going and not worry as much about the maintenance and security.
And Fast Company had another point. Maybe Mastodon isn’t following the Twitter alternative pattern at all. Maybe it’s following the Twitter pattern.
In April 2009, two years after launch, Nielsen noted that only 40% of Twitter users still used the service. In February 2011, Forbes noted Twitter’s user base had dropped by 5 million. Even as recent as 2014, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 36% of people who joined Twitter said they never used it.
And yet, Twitter, even after all of the outrage– is still going.
Mastodon may or may not be a replacement for Twitter. But it may very well be a new platform in the mix, and possibly could become something totally new and unexpected.
In other words, I hope you Know A little More, about Mastodon.