In the week since Elon Musk took over Twitter, the number of people signing up for a little social network called Mastodon has increased.
You might not have heard of Mastodon, which has been around since 2016, but now it’s growing fast. Some flee Twitter for it or at least looking for second place to post their thoughts online as the much better-known social network is facing layoffs, controversial product changes, an expected shift in its approach to content moderation, and a jump in hateful rhetoric.
There may be no clear alternative to Twitter, a uniquely influential platform that is fast-paced, text-heavy, conversational and news-oriented. But Mastodon scratches a certain itch. The service has a similar look and feel to Twitter, with a timeline of short updates sorted chronologically rather than algorithmically. It allows users to join a number of different servers run by different groups and individuals, rather than one central platform controlled by a single company like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
Unlike larger social networks, Mastodon is both free to use and free of ads. It is developed by a non-profit organization run by Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, and is supported via crowdfunding.
Rochko said in an interview Thursday that Mastodon gained 230,000 users since Oct. 27, when Musk took control of Twitter. It now has 655,000 monthly active users, he said. Twitter reported in July that it had nearly 238 million active users who could earn money every day.
“It’s obviously not as big as Twitter, but it’s the biggest this network has ever been,” said Rochko, who originally created Mastodon as more of a project than a consumer product (and, yes, the name was inspired by the heavy metal band Mastodon).
Mastodon’s new registrations include some Twitter users with large followings, such as actors and comedians Kathy Griffinwho joined at the beginning of November, and journalist Molly Jong-Fastwho joined at the end of October.
Sarah T. Roberts, associate professor at UCLA and faculty director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, began using Mastodon in earnest on October 30, shortly after Musk took over Twitter. (She had set up another account years ago, she said, but didn’t access it until recently because of the popularity of Twitter among people in academia.)
Roberts, who worked at Twitter as a staff researcher earlier this year while on leave from UCLA, said she was inspired to start using Mastodon because of concerns about how Twitter’s content moderation might change under Musk’s control. She suspects that some newcomers are simply tired of social media companies that capture a lot of user data and are driven by advertising.
And she pointed out that Twitter users may migrate to Mastodon specifically because the user experience is quite similar to Twitter’s. Many of Mastodon’s features and layout (especially in the iOS app) will look and feel familiar to current Twitter users, but with slightly different wording; you can follow others, make short posts (there’s a 500 character limit, and you can upload photos and videos), favorite or repost other users’ posts, and so on.
“That’s about as close as it gets,” she said.
I’ve been a Twitter user since 2007, but as an increasing number of people I follow on the social network started posting their Mastodon usernames in recent weeks, I got curious. This week I decided to check out Mastodon for myself.
There are some important differences, particularly in how the network is set up. Because Mastodon users’ accounts reside on a number of different servers, the cost of hosting users is spread across many different people and groups. But it also means users are scattered all over the place, and people you know can be hard to find — Rochko likened this setup to having different email providers, like Gmail and Hotmail.
This means that the entire network is not under the control of any one person or company, but it also introduces some new complications for those of us used to Twitter – a product that has also been criticized over the years for being less intuitive than more popular services such as Facebook and Instagram.
On Mastodon, for example, you have to join a specific server to register, some of them are open to everyone, some of them require an invite (you can also run your own server). There is a server run by the non-profit organization behind Mastodon, Mastodon.social, but it does not accept multiple users; I currently use one called Mstdn.social, which is also where I can log in to access Mastodon online.
And while you can follow all other Mastodon users, no matter what server they’re signed up with, you can only see the lists of who follows your Mastodon friends, or who your Mastodon friends follow, if the followers happen to be on the same server as you is registered with (I realized this while trying to track down several people I know who have recently registered).
At first, it felt like I was starting over, in a sense, as a complete newcomer to social media. As Roberts said, it’s quite similar to Twitter in terms of appearance and functionality, and the iOS app is easy to use.
But unlike on Twitter, where I can easily interact with a large audience, my Mastodon network has less than 100 followers. Suddenly, I had no idea what to post—a feeling that never bothers me on Twitter, perhaps because the size of that network makes any post feel less important. I quickly got over it, though, and realized that the smaller scale of Mastodon can be soothing compared to Twitter’s endless stream of stimulation.
I’m not quite ready to close my Twitter account; for me, Mastodon is sort of a social media escape hatch in case Twitter gets unbearable.
Roberts, too, has yet to decide whether she wants to shut down her Twitter account, but she was surprised by how quickly her following grew on Mastodon. Within a week of signing up and notifying her nearly 23,000 Twitter followers, she has amassed over 1,000 Mastodon followers.
“It could be pretty soon that people won’t be caught on Twitter,” she said.
In some ways, it can also be fun to start over.
“I thought, ‘What’s it going to be like to start over?'” she asked. “It’s kind of interesting: Oh that person is here! There’s so and so! I’m so glad they’re here so we can be here together.”