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October 6, 2022updated 20 Jan 2024 3:33am

What is Mastodon?

Is Mastodon the new Twitter? Well, that is the question of the moment. Since Elon Musk took over, many have been the changes in the world of social media.

By Silvia Pellegrino

Twitter has been going through a tumultuous period since Tesla CEO Elon Musk took control of the social media platform in a $44bn deal earlier this month and started implementing big changes to how it operates. Users have been looking for alternatives, with many turning to Mastodon as another place to connect and share their thoughts.

Mastodon is a similar platform to Twitter, but it has a different philosophy. Because it is a decentralised network of servers, Mastodon does not adhere to the same restrictions and, since it is run by volunteers, there are no paid ads on the feed.

Mastodon’s platform is growing in popularity and has gained a boost in profile as Musk continues to refine Twitter’s operating model. But what is it exactly? (Photo by Koshiro K / Shutterstock)

What is Mastodon?

Mastodon is a social network made up of a decentralised group of servers where users can establish their own nodes, or ‘instances’. This means that no single person or entity, such as Musk in the case of Twitter, who is in charge of or owns the whole platform – no one can unilaterally change how it operates.

The network uses Mastodon’s underlying technology to connect the servers on a platform known as the Fediverse, making it a federated network. 

All the different servers are categorised according to country, interests or even age. The users are linked to one server but via the Fediverse can interact freely with others, even if they belong to a different server. 

German software engineer Eugen Rochko, who started Mastodon in 2016, told Esquire in 2018 that he intended to keep using Twitter’s framework but wanted it to be more personal and give other people more power.

Mastodon is open-source, meaning that its code is publicly available and can be used as the basis for other social networks, but this does not mean it is free from copyright. For instance, early tests of Donald Trump’s Truth Social in 2021 imitated Mastodon’s open-source architecture without giving it any credit. Trump’s platform was compelled to release its source code in order to avoid a lawsuit.

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How to use Mastodon

Using their own funds or using donations through platforms such as Patreon, volunteers will set up and run each server; they will act as the “owner”, controlling discussions and creating guidelines for who is allowed to join.

However, even if choosing a server could seem like a big choice, it is not final because a person can switch servers at any moment. A single Mastodon account may also access other servers via the underlying Fediverse, so users can communicate across different instances. 

Certain servers are publicly accessible while other will only permit users to join by invitation or with admin approval, much like private Facebook groups.

Is Mastodon a Twitter alternative?

Like Twitter, Mastodon offers posts, or “toots,” that may be “liked”, “boosted”, bookmarked and commented on. A toot may include up to 500 characters.

Blog posts on Mastodon are shown in chronological order rather than employing algorithmic curation as Twitter does by default.

But Mastodon is not a direct substitute for Twitter. Instead, it’s a brand-new platform with a few comparable features. Mastodon is better suited as a platform for enthusiasts and users trying to converse about diverse topics freely because of its open-source and decentralised nature.

Why are people using Mastodon instead of Twitter?

Even before Musk took over, Twitter was losing active users. The move from Twitter to Mastodon is mainly motivated by Musk’s takeover and his promise of dramatic changes to the popular platform, but it still has a long way to go.

Rochko stated at the beginning of November that his network had 1,028,362 monthly active members and that, even if not even close to Twitter’s 238 million users, it was still a valuable number.

Since Musk announced he was buying Twitter, Mastodon saw over 30,000 new users in just hours after the sale was completed. Even Rochko said: “Funnily enough, one of the reasons I started looking into the decentralised social media space in 2016, which ultimately led me to go on to create Mastodon, were rumours that Twitter, the platform I’d been a daily user of for years at that point, might get sold to another controversial billionaire.”

Why can’t I sign up quickly?

With Twitter awash with explanation threads and step-by-step guides on how to sign up and use Mastodon, one thing is clear: the aspiring community social network is not yet user-friendly.

“I’m going to be honest, the fact that you have to make this post means it’s not going to win out, at least not in its current form. They need a UI that hides all that complexity and just asks what you’re interested in when you sign up,” user LeSkeve on Twitter commented under one of the many Mastodon makeshift guides.

The main issue seems to be how long the process is: after signing up, the next step is to choose a server, which is not as straightforward as it seems. But what criteria should one follow to pick the best server for them? Well, it depends.

If you are transitioning from Twitter and trying to keep your follower list intact, the best way to do it is by tweeting and asking what server your followers are on. Otherwise, there are tools you can use, like Twitodon. Another factor to consider is moderation policies and posting styles since some servers are stricter than others.

The servers, furthermore, can get very busy very quickly. So, if they are not developed enough and a new user is planning to bring in a lot of followers, it is important to chip in with donations or choose a bigger server.

So many decisions are involved in the setup of a Mastodon account, and even expert users are finding it challenging. A tweet by user @GenXJavelina read “I’m a tech savvy and went over there to register last week (iOS) and it’s a confusing mess. Most people will never ever make it through the crazy complex setup process.”

Can businesses use Mastodon?

Many changes have occurred as a result of Elon Musk’s recent Twitter takeover. Millions of users have begun to explore prospective replacements, and Mastodon appears to be the most viable option.

What organisations and businesses have previously understood about social media is also changing, and the Fediverse can offer a new way to engage potential customers. The authenticity of an account is apparent with the “email-like” format of user names, and a business may even construct a completely new server with a domain name that contains its brand.

News organisations, in particular, may gain greatly from the Fediverse and Mastodon, as its journalists can be easily identifiable on social media, making it simpler to communicate with their audiences.

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