To say that Elon Musk’s $44bn takeover of Twitter has gotten off to a rough start would be an understatement. From losing some of the company’s top advertisers to implementing a paywall behind verification ticks, the Tesla chief has faced ridicule for just about every decision made so far. Meanwhile, Musk’s arrival has led to a mass exodus from a number of celebrities and the public alike.
Without Twitter users abandoning the social media platform in their droves, we may never have heard of the company’s latest competitor, Mastodon. A few weeks ago, as reported by TechCrunch, on October 28th, the platform had little under 400,000 users – small change compared to Twitter’s 206m daily users.
Fast forward to November 7th, and Mastodon’s founder, Eugene Rochko, revealed that the network had grown to more than one million users. So, there’s a possibility that we’ll all have to get used to toots (Mastodon’s version of a tweet) in the near future.
Despite Mastodon’s relatively small user base, the company has been around for some time. Rochko founded the company in 2016 in response to rumours that another billionaire, Peter Thiel, wanted to buy Twitter. It’s somewhat appropriate, then, that the social network is providing refuge for disgruntled Twitter users – considering it was born out of the idea that one person or company shouldn’t be able to control such a vital public forum.
Although Mastodon is being labelled as a Twitter alternative, it doesn’t entirely function the same as its more famous counterpart. In fact, it’s classed as a “federated” network, meaning the whole thing is made up of thousands of separate social networks run on servers across the world – and is linked by Mastodon’s overarching technology. This makes up what’s known as the “fediverse.”
Simply put, anyone can set up a server as long as they sign up to the “Mastodon covenant” – which acts as an agreement to provide “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.” If you were unfortunate enough to witness the outpouring of hate speech that followed Musk’s takeover, then you can see why this is important. Other benefits of this approach include joining servers according to your interests, location or friend groups.
The aforementioned toots can be shared with any of the servers. Unlike Twitter, toots have a maximum length of 500 characters, meaning there’s much more wiggle room. It includes other features, such as clickable spoiler warnings. In comparison with Twitter, Mastodon users have more control over the visibility of their toots. These posts can be tailored to be shared with a number of groups, from everyone on the server to only those who are directly mentioned.
On the controversial topic of verification, Mastodon allows anyone with their own website to be marked as verified – and does not make them pay for the privilege. All servers are funded by the communities who set them up or by donations, meaning that, thankfully, there’ll be no ads.
Now, you’ve probably been wondering, why is it called Mastodon? Well, according to Rochko, the platform is named after an extinct relative of mammoths and elephants of the same name. Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the explanation goes from the founder.
So, is it actually within the realms of possibility that Mastodon rises up through Twitter’s ashes and takes its seat on the throne? First of all, migrating from Twitter to Mastodon won’t be a simple process. Users with existing audiences will be reluctant to jump ship for obvious reasons, and finding all of your friends again could prove tedious. Although, with Twitter experiencing massive revenue drops, risking billions in fines and facing abandonment from its users, we’re not entirely sure how long the app will stick around.
While Mastodon is currently staking its claim as Twitter’s most appropriate competitor, the new wave of users has put significant strain on the platform. Since Musk’s takeover, the platform has had issues with servers going offline and emails failing to send following the sharp increase in user count. While Mastodon may have found itself as the best combatant against Twitter, it’s clear the network has a long way to go before it can ever bring down Musk’s billion-dollar walls.