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Mastodon: What is the social network being hailed as a Twitter alternative?

Mastodon, a decentralized, open alternative from privacy-obsessed Germany, has seen a flood of new users.

With Twitter in disarray since the world’s richest person took over last week, Mastodon, a decentralized, open alternative from privacy-obsessed Germany, has seen a flood of new users.

“The bird is free,” tweeted Tesla mogul Elon Musk as he completed his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter. But many free speech proponents reacted with dismay at the prospect of the world’s “town square” being run by one person and looked for other options.

For the most part, Mastodon — named after an extinct mammoth breed — appears on Twitter, with hashtags, politics back and forth, and tech banter competing for space with cat photos.

But while Twitter and Facebook are run by a single authority — a corporation — Mastodon is installed on thousands of computer servers, largely run by volunteer administrators who federate their systems together.

People exchange messages and links with others on their own server – or Mastodon “instance” – and also, almost as easily, with users on other servers in the growing network.

The fruit of six years of work by Eugen Rochko, a young German programmer, Mastodon was born from his desire to create a public sphere beyond the control of a single entity. That work is starting to pay off.

“We reached 1,028,362 monthly active users across the network today,” Rochko – Mastodon’s version of tweeting – shouted on Monday. “That’s pretty cool.”

That’s still small compared to its established rivals. Twitter reported 238 million daily active users who had seen an ad as of Q2 2022. Facebook said it had 1.98 billion daily active users as of Q3.

But the jump in Mastodon users in a matter of days is still surprising.

“I’ve gained more new followers on Mastodon in the past week than in the past five years,” Ethan Zuckerman, a social media expert at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote last week.

Before Musk completed the Twitter acquisition on Oct. 27, Mastodon’s growth averaged 60-80 new users per hour, according to the much-cited Mastodon Users account. It showed 3,568 new registrations in one hour Monday morning.

Rochko started Mastodon in 2016, when rumors circulated that PayPal founder and Musk ally Peter Thiel wanted to buy Twitter.

“A right-wing billionaire would buy an actual public utility that is not public,” Rochko told Reuters earlier this year. “It’s really important to have this global communication platform where you can learn what’s happening in the world and chat with your friends. Why is that operated by one company?”


There’s no shortage of other social networks ready to welcome any Twitter exodus, from Bytedance’s Tiktok to Discord, a chat app that’s now popular well beyond its original gamer base.

Mastodon proponents say the decentralized approach makes it fundamentally different: Instead of going to Twitter’s centrally delivered service, each user can choose their own provider, or even run their own Mastodon instance, just like users can email. from Gmail or an employer. provided account or run their own email server.

No company or person can impose their will on the entire system or shut it all down, the platform’s proponents say. If an extremist voice popped up with their own server, they say, it would be easy enough for other servers to cut ties to it, allowing the account to talk to its own dwindling group of followers and users on the isolated server.

The federated approach has drawbacks: It’s harder to find people to follow in Mastodon’s anarchic sprawl than in the neatly ordered town square that centrally managed Twitter or Facebook can provide.

But the growing group of adherents says that these do not outweigh the advantages of the architecture.

Rapid growth has led to overload and server outages. Seeing economist Paul Krugman struggling to get his Mastodon account up and running, Musk mocked the upstart network on Monday.

“If you don’t like Twitter anymore, there’s a great site called Masterbatedone,” he wrote in a quickly deleted tweet above a screenshot of Krugman’s failed toots.

Rochko, whose Mastodon foundation runs on a small crowdfunded budget supplemented by a modest grant from the European Commission, has found a particularly receptive audience among privacy-conscious European regulators.

German Data Protection Commissioner Ulrich Kelber is campaigning to get government agencies to shut down their Facebook pages, saying there is no way to host a page there that complies with European privacy laws.

Authorities should move to the federal government’s own Mastodon agency, he says. The European Commission also maintains a server for European Union bodies to draw from.

“No exclusive information should be sent through a legally questionable platform,” Kelber said earlier this year.

Although Mastodon is busier than ever, it still lacks a lot of the big names in politics and showbiz that have made Twitter an addictive online home for journalists in particular. Few know the comic Jan Boehmermann – Germany’s answer to John Oliver – outside his country, but climate activist Greta Thunberg is known worldwide.

For Rochko, the project’s only full-time employee, who programs at his home in a small town in East Germany for a modest monthly salary of 2,400 euros ($2,394.96), the work continues.

“Would you believe me if I told you I’m extremely tired?” he honked on Sunday.

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