The micro-blogging site Mastodon has seen explosive growth in the past few weeks, as Twitter users in the hundreds of thousands have flocked to it in the #twittermigration. Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, Mastodon has grown by hundreds of thousands of new users, and today has over one million users who have been active in the past week. This last point is critical. The power of a social network is not how many people are members, but how many are active.
Can this upstart social media platform really succeed and establish itself as a solid alternative to Twitter?
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a micro-blogging platform, similar to Twitter in some respects – and vastly different in others. It was founded in 2016 by now 29-year-old German programmer, Eugen Rochko.
As on Twitter, users post short comments or messages. Mastodon has a 500-character limit as opposed to the 280 characters possible on Twitter. These messages can be accompanied by links, pictures and videos. Users can follow people that they are interested in, and in some cases, send private messages (although this is reported to be unencrypted and accessible to the admins of the server the recipient is on; do not trust a DM to always be private).
The big difference is that Twitter is owned and controlled by an erratic billionaire. Mastodon has no owner. It’s a distributed group of independent servers sharing open-source code. That shared code links them together in a federated model that many refer to as the “Fediverse.” The central body, if there is one, is a not-for-profit called Mastodon, but as Rochko has pointed out, even if someone were to buy or take control of that not-for-profit, it would not be able to control the federation of communities nor the software which is irrevocably open sourced.
The protocol that links these servers is called ActivityPub. It allows anyone to use this open-source software and boot up a server that hosts a Twitter-style community. Each community has its own rules but is linked by a common set of principles published by Mastodon.
These interlinked communities communicate with the entire “Fediverse.” You can see the stream from the entire federation. You can read, like, or even boost a message from anyone on any affiliated server, although these terms have a slightly different meaning than on Twitter (see below).
You can change your view to just communicate with those in your own community, or see the entire world. Equally, you can block content from any server in the Fediverse.
Other differences – subtle but potentially powerful
Beyond the lack of a billionaire dictator and slightly longer messages, there are a number of more subtle differences which have a large impact and make a Mastodon conversation different than a Twitter stream.
Being organized in terms of having distinct communities has some great advantages. It allows for groupings of people based on similar interests. These range from groups of professionals – journalists are among the pioneers of this – to groups with different social interests. For example, there is one group just for people with disabilities. The possibilities are endless.
Each group has its own moderators and its own rules of conduct. Local moderation, and the ability to block other servers, eliminates the need for the huge “top-down” technical efforts at moderation which have largely failed on Twitter and Facebook.
Another subtlety is the way that favourites work. You can put a star on someone’s post. A star merely tells the author that you liked their post. You can boost a post so that it will appear to your friends. But there is no algorithm to feed content to you based on likes or dislikes.
Individuals actively manage or filter the information they receive based on the local server, who they follow, or by selecting topics through hashtag searches.
Algorithms themselves are not insidious, but they do invisibly influence what you see. They are potentially subject to manipulation. For reasons well documented, algorithms favour the sensational, and on Twitter have aided the promotion of extremist ideas. This is much harder to do on Mastodon – if it’s even possible.
Like the early days of the internet, the Fediverse is devoid of advertising, but it is possible for individuals to promote products or services. I saw one post about a cure for thinning hair, and I’m sure there will be more. But there is no advertising machine like on Facebook or Twitter. Without the likes and algorithms to drive advertising, it may be difficult to run advertising in the unlikely event it takes root. At least for today, it’s not necessary to fund Mastodon with paid advertising, and individual communities will probably react negatively to it.
Mastodon may achieve the holy grail of social media – paid for by the members themselves without exchanging their personal data for free services. That, and the ability to achieve portability and allow users to own their data and potentially move it between server communities, fixes two of the major flaws in current social media architectures.
Why Mastodon might succeed and how
Most people are familiar with Moore’s law. It predicts a continuing and exponential increase in the power of technology with a corresponding decrease in cost. That law has allowed technology to infiltrate every aspect of our lives. What once took a multi-million-dollar mainframe to process is now done on a computer or phone costing hundreds of dollars.
Social media depended on the ubiquity of technology, but it is driven by a second law called Metcalfe’s law. Metcalf’s law states that the larger the number of “nodes” (read people) in any network, the more valuable it is. Simply stated, when a group or network reaches a critical size, you can complain about it as we do with Twitter and Facebook, but you don’t want to leave them because that’s where everybody is. Author Don Tapscott once called this the “Hotel California” syndrome. “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.”
That’s why it’s hard to unseat a social network once it hits this super-critical mass. Note that it is hard, but it is not impossible. Few will remember, but there was once a popular social network called Myspace. In 2006, Myspace signed up over 90 million members, surpassing Google and Yahoo as the most visited website in the U.S. A buggy interface, internal fights and dissatisfied users and lawsuits left it vulnerable to a new upstart – Facebook.
It takes a huge negative event or series of events to unseat a social giant. Even Facebook’s multiple privacy scandals have not done much to impede its growth.
Musk’s takeover of Twitter and his erratic and to some, deeply offensive, behaviour may very well be the epic mistake that creates an opportunity for a serious competitor to emerge. Mastodon may be that viable alternative.
Success is not guaranteed by any stretch. There are a number of competing social sites that have tried to unseat Twitter and Facebook but have failed miserably. The most recent, Truth Social, has been mired in financial and legal issues, and even with the cult-like behaviour of Trump followers. So far, even with the loss of Donald Trump’s account, Truth Social has not made any huge impact on Twitter.
In fact, Musk’s reinstatement of Trump’s account would potentially devastate Truth Social, although Trump claims he will not resume posting on Twitter and destroy his fledgling social media company. But reinstating Trump may damage Twitter without Trump actually posting anything. The mass exodus of Twitter users that started when Elon Musk took over got an added boost when it was announced Trump’s account was reactivated.
So why would Mastodon succeed when others failed? We remember that Jimmy Wales, one of the founders of Wikipedia, tried to start a new social network as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter. The vision was a member-driven site without advertising. Wales managed to attract 400,000 users in the first year of operation (1999) but by 2022, the site had grown only slightly, to 508,000 users.
Mastodon has surpassed these numbers in a matter of days.
Mastodon has competition. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky Social is currently accepting beta users. Dorsey, with his knowledge of Twitter and reputation could be a formidable competitor. But first-mover advantage, and the amount of publicity that Mastodon has received, may make it difficult for Dorsey or any of the other competitors to keep up – or scale up fast enough.
As in so much that happens in business, the luck of being in the right place at the right time plays a critical role in success. Mastodon was founded in 2016, so when the opportunity arose, it was operational at the right point in time.
Further, Mastodon’s not-for-profit federated, or if you prefer, franchise model has the potential to scale much faster than a centralized system. It will have issues along the way, but today it can easily add capacity and attract not just users but volunteers. We need only think back to how Wikipedia decimated not just the encyclopedia industry, but also beat a much better-funded effort from software giant Microsoft. A decentralized and committed volunteer army is a tough thing to beat.
This last point – the commitment of the volunteer army – cannot be discounted. While Twitter has, at last count, about 217 million daily users, the vast majority of the traffic comes from less than 10 per cent of the users, referred to as “heavy tweeters.” This group, according to a recent Reuter’s article, also generates the vast majority of Twitter’s revenue.
That same Reuters post notes the decrease in some forms of that content. The “heavy posters” do not contribute as much to once prevalent and popular topics such as sports. Conversely, there has been an increase in “not fit for work” content, including nudity, adult content, conspiracy theories, and hate speech.
Musk’s pledge to weaken moderation and cut the staff dedicated to moderation can only leave us to assume that the amount of offensive content on Twitter will grow. This appears to be feeding the abandonment of Twitter. Further, it may make employers nervous about allowing access to Twitter.
In addition, major advertisers such as General Motors, Pfizer, Mondalez, REI, General Mills, United Airlines, Audi, IPG, and Carlsberg have pulled their advertising. Luxury brands including Möet, Hennessey, and Louis Vuitton have reportedly stated that they will pull their advertising from Twitter if Musk reinstates Donald Trump’s Twitter account, which Musk did a few days ago.
It’s a perfect storm of bad news for Twitter.
While Twitter is starving for revenue, Mastodon is flush, in part because it is surprisingly modest in its needs. Donations to the not-for-profit that runs Mastodon were 55,000 Euros last year. Mastodon actually spent 23,000 Euros. Contrast that with the US$44 billion that Musk spent on Twitter, which has yet to make a profit.
Media Savvy Mastodon – give the “bird” “the bird”
Mastodon’s volunteer army is incredibly media savvy. The new membership fuelled by the initial exodus from Twitter is heavily weighted with talented creators and influencers of social media content. A number of top journalists have moved and created several new communities. There is a growing list circulating that featured 1,000 well-known journalists. More are added daily.
For example, there is Adam Davidson, founder of the Mastodon community journa.host Among his many credits, Davidson has written for the New York Times and the New Yorker. He stated in a recent influential UK blog:
“Even if Mastodon were to remain Twitter’s very tiny stepbrother, I would still like to be part of a Mastodon journalist community because I think we got lazy as a field, and we let Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and, god help us, Elon Musk and their staff decide all these major journalistic questions.”
Journalists and trusted content may not be what we think of as the core of Twitter, but they are vital to its success. The big accounts get huge notice, but on a day-to-day basis, around the world, Twitter is, or was in the days of the blue checkmark, the way in which many people found their trusted news sources. If journalists make the leap permanent, Twitter will lose an enormous amount of its true value.
Academics and others who have built reputations are Twitter are also voicing the idea of moving. A leading research-oriented blog, LSE Impact, had an article, “Requiem for a Tweet” with the haunting quote:
“What’s the value of having thousands of followers if they rarely log in to Twitter?”
In addition to these two groups of high-profile users, there are many other individuals who are experts in the social media world and how to influence it.
With the irreverence and creativity so much a part of social media, new memes are fueling the wave. Twitter is referred to as “the bird,” with an inescapable parallel to the phrase “flipping the bird.”
These memes effectively tap into not just recent frustration with Twitter, but the sense of resentment that has built in social media over the years. For example there is this post from Mastodon user @TheGibson from a community called hackers.town
My data is not yours to own.
You came here and asked to sell us things, then tracked us with the things you sold us.
You came here and begged for trust, which many gave you, then betrayed it by selling our secrets.
Then you took away our nation.
My data is not yours to own.
There are also humorous visual memes that tap into our collective memory:
Make no mistake. Success is not guaranteed for Mastodon. It will face challenges and crises. It is surviving rapid growth but it has barely crossed 1 million users. How it will cope with ten or twenty times that amount is uncertain. Whether the federated model can succeed is still an open question. Cooperation on the level of a Wikipedia or similar open-source idea forums can work, but it requires a continuing stream of dedicated volunteers to sustain it. Can the volunteer army continue to grow and drive growth?
We all love a David and Goliath story. But the size differential – 1 million vs 270 million – is formidable. Musk is his own worst enemy, he continues to alienate, but he is still the richest man in the world and a formidable foe.
On the other hand, for those who feel that they have lost earlier fights, this may be seen as a last chance. They watched as the utopian vision of the world wide web and then social media moved from democratization to corporate dominance. Given that, this ragtag band and their rebellion are enormously determined to find a fairy tale ending in their version of the evil emperor and his death star.