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Can Mastodon be an alternative to Twitter?

With Twitter in disarray since the world’s richest person took control last week, Mastodon, an open and decentralized alternative from privacy-obsessed Germany, has seen a flood of new users.

“The bird is free,” Tesla mogul Elon Musk tweeted as he completed his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter. But many free-speech advocates reacted with dismay to the prospect of the world’s “town square” being controlled by one person, and began looking for other options.

For the most part, Mastodon resembles Twitter, with hashtags, political back-and-forth, and tech jokes vying for space with photos of cats.

But while Twitter and Facebook are controlled by one authority, one company, Mastodon is installed on thousands of computer servers, mostly run by volunteer administrators who join their systems in a federation.

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People exchange posts and links with others on their own server, or on the Mastodon “instance”, and also, almost as easily, with users on other servers throughout the growing network.

The fruit of six years of work by Eugen Rochko, a young German programmer, Mastodon was born out of his desire to create a public sphere that was beyond the control of a single entity. That work is starting to pay off.

“We have reached 1,028,362 monthly active users across the network today,” Rochko, Mastodon’s version of tweeting, touched down on Monday. “That is very beautiful.”

That’s still small compared to its established rivals. Twitter reported 238 million daily active users as of the second quarter of 2022. Facebook said it had 1.98 billion daily active users as of the third quarter.

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But the jump in Mastodon users in a matter of days is still amazing.

“I got more new followers on Mastodon in the last week than in the previous five years,” Ethan Zuckerman, a social media expert at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote In the past week.

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Before Musk completed the Twitter acquisition on Oct. 27, Mastodon’s growth averaged between 60 and 80 new users per hour, according to the widely cited Mastodon Users account. It showed 3,568 new registrations in an hour on Monday morning.

Rochko founded Mastodon in 2017, when rumors spread that PayPal founder and Musk ally Peter Thiel wanted to buy Twitter.

“A right-wing billionaire was going to buy a de facto public service that is not public,” Rochko told Reuters earlier this year. “It’s really important to have this global communications platform where you can learn what’s going on in the world and chat with your friends. Why is that controlled by a single company?

Toots and instances

There is no shortage of other social networks ready to welcome any Twitter exodus, from ByteDance’s Tiktok to Discord, a chat app now popular far beyond its original player base.

Proponents of Mastodon say that its decentralized approach makes it fundamentally different. Instead of going to Twitter’s centrally provided service, each user can choose their own provider, or even run their own instance of Mastodon, just as users can send email from Gmail or an employer-provided account or run their own. email server.

No company or person can impose their will on the entire system or shut it down completely. If an extremist voice emerged with its own server, advocates say, it would be easy enough for other servers to cut ties with it, leaving it to speak to its own shrinking group of followers and users.

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The federated approach has its drawbacks: it’s harder to find people to follow in the anarchic sprawl of Mastodon than it is in the orderly town square that centrally managed Twitter or Facebook can offer.

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But Mastodon’s growing group of supporters say the advantages of its architecture outweigh them.

Rochko, whose Mastodon foundation operates on a shoestring crowdfunding budget supplemented by a modest grant from the European Commission, has found a particularly receptive audience among privacy-conscious European regulators.

Germany’s data protection commissioner is waging a campaign to get government bodies to shut down their Facebook pages, saying there is no way to host a page there that conforms to European privacy laws.

Authorities should move to the federal government’s own Mastodon instance, he says. The European Commission also maintains a server for European Union bodies to tap on.

“No proprietary information should be sent via a legally questionable platform,” Data Commissioner Ulrich Kelber said earlier this year.

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While Mastodon is busier than ever, it still has some of the biggest names in politics and entertainment that have made Twitter an addictive online home for journalists in particular. Few know the comedian Jan Boehmermann, the German answer to John Oliver, outside his country, but every day more names arrive.

For Rochko, the only full-time employee on the project, who programs at home in a small eastern German town for a modest monthly salary of 2,400 euros ($2,405.86), the work goes on.

“Would you believe me if I told you that I am extremely tired?” she played on Sunday.


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