I’m late to file this because I’ve just spent the last three hours trying to figure out the social media platform du jour Mastodon. Billed as “a viable alternative to Twitter” by its founder software developer Eugen Rochko, I am one of the 70,000 users who have migrated over following Elon Musk’s $44 billion takeover of Twitter. Or, at least, I’m trying to.
To make an account, you first need to join a server. Luckily, the site offers up some inspiration. There’s “pettingzoo.co”, which calls itself: “A chill server run by some queer-leaning gay dudes.” And the popular “techhub.social”, which is “A hub primarily for passionate technologists, but everyone is welcome.” In the end, I chose “universeodon.com” as I don’t have to be vetted before being accepted, which is a prerequisite for many servers.
Once in, I “toot” (their equivalent of a “tweet”) from my account email@example.com (every account name is tethered to its server like an email address) and somehow it ends up both on my server and the “Fediverse” homepage. Confused? Same here.
Since the Tesla owner bought Twitter on October 27, the app has claimed user growth is at “all-time highs’’. An internal document obtained by Vox even stated that users spiked by 20 per cent in the first week of the tech entrepreneur’s tenure. But you really wouldn’t think that from scrolling through the app.
Model Gigi Hadid tweeted that the platform was a “cesspool”, singer Toni Braxton lamented that it was “no longer a safe space”, while actress Whoopi Goldberg declared she was “done with Twitter”. It’s not just celebrities either; tens of thousands of users have proclaimed they are logging off and are now looking for alternative online arenas to air all their thoughts.
As mentioned, amid the uproar, left-leaning social media platform Mastodon has welcomed 70,000 Twitter refugees - a fact that irked Musk enough for him to tweet three derogatory comments about it on Monday (he has since deleted them). With an estimated 4.5 million accounts, it’s no surprise you probably haven’t heard of Mastodon. Compared with Twitter’s reported 450 million daily active users, TikTok’s 700 million and Instagram’s 500 million, Mastodon lags massively behind - but that could soon change.
Named after an extinct relative of mammoths and elephants, Mastodon describes itself as a “free, open-source decentralised social media platform” that aims to be “a viable alternative to Twitter.” At first glance, the homepage kind of looks like the “dead bird app” (a phrase you will almost immediately come across while scrolling through the app), apart from the fact that posts are ordered chronologically rather than through an algorithm, and there are no ads.
However, unlike Twitter Mastodon is decentralised, meaning it’s not a single website, but a network of thousands of websites called servers. These servers are “federated”, which means they are run by different entities but can still communicate with each other without needing to go through a central system called the “fediverse”. Or, in other terms, individuals “toot” from their servers but all of them end up on the “fediverse” homepage.
“That’s how Mastodon creates a unified global experience without being controlled by one entity,” Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s Germany-based founder and lead developer, told the Guardian. “The servers are service providers, like Hotmail and Gmail are for email. It doesn’t mean that the different servers are isolated from each other, like old-school forums. Having just one account allows you to follow and interact with anyone in this global decentralised social network.”
So say you wanted to start a server about impersonating Musk called “Musk.Town” - an action that will now get you banned from Twitter, as recently confirmed by comedian Kathy Griffin - then anyone who joined your server account would be called jane.doe@Musk.Town.
However, to actually do this requires a level of computer literacy that most of us don’t have. To create a server, you have to host it yourself, which requires a website, a virtual computer system connected to the internet and an email provider. Then your computer needs to install some security protocols and programming languages to download Mastodon’s code. Confused? So are we. But luckily you can find all sorts of niche servers, from dolphin.town to kpop.social. Warning: if that server shuts down so does your account. Considering you have to join a server when setting up an account, you may not be at the whim of a billionaire but you’re still reliant on largely anonymous admins.
Say you make this far, then you’ll most likely want to find your friends and favourite commentators from Twitter. Unfortunately, the only way to do this is to manually enter each name; and for many who have had Twitter accounts for years and subsequently following lists in the thousands, this could be a right pain. That is, if you can even find them. After making an account, I personally found only five people I knew previously from Twitter using the platform.
Whether this is the new virtual utopian haven sent to save us from billionaire tech overlords is debatable. Still, as Musk continues to upset the millions of Twitter users, Mastodon might just be the best alternative - for now.