Mastodon, the new social media that people are running to


At the end of October, a very similar social networking platform was seeing something of an inflow as Twitter changed hands.

According to its German-born founder Eugen Rochko, Mastodon, a decentralized microblogging platform named after a species of extinct mammoth, added 120,000 new members in the four days after Elon Musk, a billionaire, bought Twitter. Many of them were Twitter users looking for a new home on the internet.

Whether they were aware of it or not, those users were imitating Rochko, a 29-year-old programmer who started working on Mastodon in 2016 after growing tired with Twitter. According to Rochko, "I was thinking that the ability to express myself online to my friends through brief messages was incredibly essential to me, significant to the world, and that maybe it shouldn't be in the hands of a single organization." The feeling of mistrust toward Twitter's top-down control was typically related.

Once users get past the difficult sign-up process, Mastodon, which proudly declares it is "not for sale," is quite similar to Twitter. It has about 4.5 million user accounts. The key distinction is that it's actually a collection of various, independently-run and self-funded servers rather than one unified platform. However, anyone can put up their own server and establish their own discussion guidelines, and users on different servers can still connect with one another. Mastodon is a crowdfunded nonprofit that supports multiple well-known servers in addition to the full-time work of Rochko, the company's only employee.

The platform lacks the authority to compel server owners to take any action, let alone adhere to fundamental guidelines for content control. That has the makings of a blueprint for a far-right troll haven online. However, according to Rochko, many Mastodon servers have more stringent policies than Twitter. When hate-speech servers do appear, other servers can work together to stop them, effectively isolating them from the platform's main users. Rochko says, "I suppose you could call it the democratic process.

Rochko claims that the latest Twitter inflow has been a vindication. The fact that your effort is finally being recognized, accepted, and appreciated, he argues, is a really positive development. "I have worked so hard to promote the idea that there is another way to use social media than what the for-profit Twitter and Facebook allow."

What do you think of Elon Musk's Twitter moves?


I'm not sure. It's difficult to fully understand the man. Many of his actions and choices don't sit well with me. I believe that he quickly regretted his impulsive choice to purchase Twitter. And so he essentially put himself in a position where he was obliged to agree to the agreement. And now that he is involved, he must cope with the consequences.

I explicitly disagree with his position on free speech because I believe that it depends on how you define it. If you give the most intolerant voices the freedom to speak as loudly as they want, you'll also silence others who hold opposing views. Therefore, allowing free speech by simply permitting any speech results in a cesspool of hatred rather than free speech itself.

The concept of creating a free-for-all marketplace of ideas where anyone can express any opinion they choose is, in my opinion, quite particularly American. The preservation of human dignity is our first concern according to our Constitution, which is totally different to the German mentality. Thus, for instance, the German definition of free expression does not include hate speech. Therefore, I believe that I generally disagree with Elon Musk when he says that everything will be allowed or whatever.

Given that Mastodon is decentralized and you lack the authority to ban users, how can you make sure that the community is friendly and secure there?

Well, this is the kind of odd dichotomy that has arisen. On the one hand, technology itself is largely responsible for enabling anyone to operate their own independent social media server and to essentially do anything they want with it. There is no meaningful method for Mastodon, the company, or anyone else outside using the regular legal channels to pursue a specific Mastodon server operator. There is no difference between shutting down a Mastodon server and shutting down a regular website in this regard. It thus serves as the ultimate platform for free speech in that sense. But clearly, that's just a byproduct of designing a tool that anyone can use. It resembles vehicles somewhat. There is nothing you can do to stop people from using cars—including terrible people and for bad reasons—because the tool is already in existence. However, I believe that Mastodon differs from services like Twitter or Facebook in that, when you host your own server, you can also choose the rules you want to enforce on that server. This lets communities create safer spaces than they could on these big platforms, which are focused on serving as many users as possible and may even aim to increase engagement to lengthen users' online sessions.

Communities can exist with considerably stronger regulations than Twitter does. And many of them are [stricter] in practice. And here is another instance of how technology interacts with advice or direction provided by Mastodon the firm. I believe that by communicating openly, we have avoided attracting a group of individuals similar to those who frequent Parler, Gab, or any other online hate site. Instead, we've drawn the kind of individuals who, if they ran their own servers, would moderate against hate speech. We also serve as a mentor for anyone looking to join. We offer a default list of carefully selected servers on our website and in our apps, where users can create accounts. And by doing so, we ensure that we carefully regulate the list so that any server that wants to be promoted by us must accept a certain fundamental set of guidelines, one of which is that no hate speech, sexism, racism, homophobia, or transphobia is allowed. And by doing so, we make sure that when people think of Mastodon, the brand, and the experience they desire, they think of a place that is lot safer than Twitter.

But what if those terrible individuals do build up a server?

They aren't advertised on our "Join Mastodon" page or in our app, so clearly. The other administrators who run their own Mastodon servers may decide not to receive any messages from the new hate speech server and block it on their end if they learn about it. This means that whatever they do, they do it independently and entirely separately. The hostile server can be isolated or can be divided off into a small echo chamber by what you could call the democratic process, which is, I guess, no better or worse than them being in some other echo chamber. Spam abounds on the internet. Naturally, it is abusive throughout. Mastodon offers the tools required to handle unwanted content on both the user and operator ends.

Why did you decide to start developing a service like this in 2016?

I clearly recall having mixed feelings about Twitter and being concerned about its future. There was something really dubious in store for it. That made me consider how essential it was for me and the rest of the world to be able to communicate myself to my friends through brief messages online, and how perhaps that ability shouldn't be in the hands of a single corporation that can do whatever it wants with it. I began working on a project of my own. Because I'm terrible at naming things, I gave it the name Mastodon. I simply made the decision based on what was on my mind. Evidently, there was no desire to make it large at the time.

Seeing something you created develop from nothing to where it is now must feel pretty great.

It is, in fact. Finding out that your work is finally being valued, recognized, and more widely known is a really wonderful development. I started working on Mastodon in 2016 with no expectations of it becoming successful at the time. I've been fighting for this for a very long time. At first, it was primarily a hobby project, but after I made it public, it seemed to resonate with at least the tech community. It was at that point that I received the first Patreon supporters, which enabled me to take on this job full-time. And ever since, I've been working incredibly hard to make this platform as open and user-friendly as I can for everyone. And to advance the notion that there is an alternative to using social media in the manner that for-profit firms like Twitter and Facebook permit.

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