What is Mastodon? Twitter users are switching social network

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

Mastodon has no fees or advertisements, 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 regarded as an alternative to Twitter following Elon Musk's controversial purchase of the platform.

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 Mr Musk envisions for Twitter, which he recently acquired in a $44 billion deal.

The site has received tens of thousands of new users in recent days, as Mr Musk's handling of his Twitter ownership hasn't gone down well with some users..

The founder and chief executive of Tesla and rocket company SpaceX has always said that Twitter does not offer a platform for free speech.

He previously 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.

Are decentralised microblogging sites such as Mastodon new?

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 have no say in the matter most of the time.

The welcome note on the desktop version of the site says: "Your home feed should be filled with what matters to you most, not what a corporation thinks you should see. Radically different social media, back in the hands of the people."

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 in October 2021 ― 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 has already started to welcome a potential retreat from Twitter. On the day Mr Musk announced his purchase agreement, about 30,000 users joined the platform, said Mr Rochko.

It added a further 230,000 after the completion of Mr Musk's deal, taking its user total to about 655,000. Twitter has about 237 million active daily users.

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?

Firstly, it is worth noting that Mastodon is free to use and does not have adverts.

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.

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 languages, and one for a "predominantly English-speaking community". There is 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 advertisements, 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.

However, while each of the servers have their own moderation rules, some are without any.

Moderation has been one of the biggest concerns around Mr Musk's tenure as Twitter owner. Twitter staff said the content curation, product and moderation teams were hit by job cuts in the past week, and it is unclear how addressing misinformation may change with a smaller team.

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.

Are there any other benefits to using Mastodon over Twitter?

Mastodon of course believes so. It has issued the following list of benfits:

  • Edit button
  • Server-custom emoticons
  • Auto-delete posts option
  • Extended notification bar
  • 500 character limit
  • Advanced post filter system
  • Content warnings

It has also been taking a few swipes at Twitter and Mr Musk's running of it — in particular the verification system that will cost users $8 a month.

“Power to the people,” Twitter said in the version notes for its latest update that was released on Saturday. “Your account will get a blue checkmark, just like the celebrities, companies, and politicians you already follow.”

But Mastodon has hit back, tweeting you can verify yourself, by yourself, for free on its platform "... because the point of verification should be about actually verifying who you are, not about paying for fancy badge and utilising an algorithm to artificially inflate your social media clout".

Who is on Mastodon?

If you like Twitter for its celebrity drama, with Mr Musk himself causing quite a stir on an almost daily basis with his tweeting, then you might find Mastodon somewhat lacking.

Actor and comedian Kathy Griffin is on Mastodon and had her Twitter account suspended after making fake posts while impersonating Mr Musk.

Updated: May 30, 2023, 8:15 AM