Is Mastodon the decentralised alternative to Twitter?

The open-source microblogging platform could be a blueprint for how Elon Musk might reposition Twitter

Mastodon has no fees or ads, publishes only what a user chooses, and the only feeds that show up are what a user decides on. Photo: Mastodon
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Mastodon, the open-source social network created by a German developer, has been in the news lately, where it is being touted as an alternative to Twitter.

One of the reasons it's in the spotlight is because Mastadon operates on a platform that is different to Twitter, and one the latter's new incoming owner is considering.

Mastadon is a decentralised platform, meaning no single individual or organisation owns or regulates it, similar to cryptocurrencies. This is exactly the open-source ecosystem billionaire Elon Musk envisions for Twitter, which he acquired in a $44 billion deal on April 25.

The founder and chief executive of Tesla and rocket company SpaceX has always said that Twitter does not offer a platform for free speech. When he announced his acquisition, he tweeted: “I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means.”

Mastodon also advocates free speech and goes a step further by leaving the management of the platform in the hands of its users.

Decentralised, free-to-all microblogging sites are not new. Mastodon was created in 2016 by Eugen Rochko after he shared a gripe similar to that made by Mr Musk: corporations that own a social media platform take independent business-driven decisions that have an effect on users, who most of the time have no say in the matter times.

"Social media doesn't have to belong to a single corporation," Mastadon's preview on Apple's App Store says.

Things are gradually changing. Facebook tried to force its WhatsApp users to consent to sharing their personal data with the company's other platforms in early 2021.

The move prompted a swift backlash with threats of mass boycotts forcing the company, now known as Meta Platforms, to backtrack on the move.

Then, after the Facebook network went down for six hours last October ― affecting Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram ― several users went looking for alternatives. The biggest beneficiary was Telegram, the messaging app created by Russian developer Pavel Durov, which welcomed about 70 million users the day Facebook went dark.

Mastadon could find itself going the route Telegram enjoyed. It has already started to welcome a potential exodus from Twitter ― the day Mr Musk announced his purchase agreement, about 30,000 users joined the platform, according to Mr Rochko.

Built by Mr Rochko when he was a 24-year-old college student six years ago using donations from Patreon supporters who shared a similar interest about having an alternative to Twitter, Mastodon was named after the extinct animal. The messages posted on it are called “toots”, a counter to Twitter’s tweets.

How do you use Mastodon?

For those accustomed to social media, the usual first steps for new users are to sign up, set up a profile and add a picture before you can start using the app. With Mastodon, there is an extra step.

Even before signing up, you need to pick a server, each representing a specific interest or group. It is unclear if the options presented have region-specific algorithms, but during a trial by The National, server topics ranged from social responsibility, climate, journalism and gender issues to music, art, games, food and technology.

A screenshot of the Mastodon app on an iPhone showing servers that a user can choose to join.

Some options are empty, including journalism, academia, food and furry ― an apparent reference to pets or animals.

You can also find country-specific servers, groups that are in German, Korean and Japanese launguages, and one for a "predominantly English-speaking community". There's also one group dedicated to the Pokemon community.

Once a server has been selected and the other formalities are done, you can start using the app. Mastodon has no fees or ads, publishes only what a user chooses and the only feeds that show up are what a user decides on.

Each server also has its own regulations and moderators, with some explicit "ground rules" enforced.

A screenshot showing 'ground rules' after choosing a server on Mastodon.

The caveat is you can only be on one server at a time. If you decide to switch to another ― or if that domain shuts down ― you can do it on the app's settings. The process is easy, and you'll be able to take your followers with you and retain other settings, such as lists containing muted and blocked accounts.

Mastadon is not the only decentralised alternative ― there is Minds for Facebook, Pixelfed for Instagram, Aether for Reddit and Dtube for YouTube, among others ― but Mr Musk's acquisition of Twitter could add a social media major to the mix.

Updated: May 20, 2022, 10:02 AM