Under Elon Musk’s chaotic first month of ownership, Twitter has seen twin exoduses. Last Wednesday, having already slashed nearly half of his staff, Musk abruptly e-mailed remaining employees an ultimatum: either stay at the company and commit to being “hardcore,” or leave with three months’ severance. More than a thousand reportedly chose the latter option. According to some estimates, as much as ninety per cent of Twitter’s staff is now gone. At the same time, the platform has seen a flight of users who have watched with alarm as Musk has overhauled the company’s verification systems, decimated its content-moderation teams, tweeted conspiracy theories, and alienated employees and advertisers alike. By the end of last week, the mood on the platform was half funeral, half bacchanal, as departing staff tweeted out farewells and others wondered gleefully whether the site would still be there by morning. It didn’t help when Musk announced, over the weekend, that Donald Trump would be allowed to reinstate his banned account. Even if Twitter staggers on, many of us have been wondering, Where can we go instead?
Thus far, the most talked-about alternative is not a competing Silicon Valley startup but a lesser-known piece of open-source software called Mastodon. Mastodon is one of a fleet of new tools for so-called decentralized social networking, or what is sometimes dubbed the fediverse. This includes various open-source programs trying to position themselves as substitutes for the major platforms—Pixelfed for Instagram, PeerTube for YouTube—by letting individual users run a “federation” of autonomous mini social networks, all of them linked but each with its own set of ground rules and policies. Until now, these sites have been niche undertakings, attracting a small set of early adopters. But the tumult at Twitter has caused Mastodon to see a sudden surge of mainstream interest. Eugen Rochko, its twenty-nine-year-old creator, told me that in the past month Mastodon has grown from three hundred thousand monthly active users to nearly two million. On a recent video chat, he looked haggard and solemn, like a medical resident on overnight rotation. To keep up with Mastodon’s influx, he’s been working fourteen-hour days—hard-core by most standards.
Rochko was born in Russia in 1993, but moved to Germany when he was eleven years old and eventually studied computer science at the University of Jena. He was a fan of Twitter in its early years, when it had a thriving third-party-developer ecosystem, with outsiders able to build on the platform or offer alternative interfaces. But, as Twitter gradually limited developers’ access to its A.P.I. and other tools, beginning around 2012, Rochko saw an opportunity to create something better. He began work on Mastodon in 2016, while still in school, and launched it the same year, later receiving grants from Samsung and the European Commission. (It is named after an American heavy-metal band, which in turn is named after an extinct elephant-like creature.) Mastodon’s interface looks much like Twitter’s. The text-entry box is on the left rather than at the top of the screen, and the graphic design is less slick, but the template feels comfortingly familiar—a Twitter for people who want to get off Twitter.
Yet in other ways Mastodon is designed to cultivate an environment very unlike Twitter’s. Posts have a five-hundred-character limit rather than Twitter’s two hundred and eighty, so people often communicate in short paragraphs rather than in pithy one-liners. Stats such as “favorites” and “boosts,” as Mastodon calls likes and retweets, are largely hidden in users’ timelines, making it harder to tell what’s popular. There is no quote-tweet function, and little algorithmic sorting of content. Mastodon itself runs two of the largest servers, mastodon.social (two hundred and forty-six thousand active members) and mastodon.online (eighty-seven thousand active members), but there are thousands of others that vary in size from hundreds of members to tens of thousands. Iain Triffitt, a records officer at the University of Technology Sydney, who has been on Mastodon since 2017, spends most of his time on tabletop.social, a server for board-game players, and aus.social, for Australia-specific posts. Each server has “a shared language that doesn’t have to be explained or interpreted,” he said. Brian Lloyd, an editor at the Irish Web site entertainment.ie, belongs to mastodon.ie, a server focussed on Ireland with sixteen thousand active members. Its feed is something like a national digital billboard, offering appreciations of the regional landscape, TikTok videos praising a butter-and-crisps sandwich, and historical political cartoons. Compared with Twitter, “you don’t feel the same level of hostility there,” Lloyd told me, and there’s no “swathe of American bullshit to cut through.”
Christopher Fenwick, a British writer and translator who is pursuing his Ph.D. at the Free University of Berlin, joined the mastodon.online server on November 3rd, a week after the Twitter takeover. “I have an intense, personal dislike of Elon Musk,” he told me. He’d been part of a literary community of fellow-academics and critics on Twitter, and he had trouble finding an equivalent online social circle on Mastodon. So along with Hyo Yoon Kang, a legal scholar, he created zirk.us, a server devoted to “the circus of arts and humanities.” It has an elegantly serifed, magazine-esque logo. The name comes from a URL that Fenwick was saving for an eventual literary journal. Zirkus now has more than three thousand users, who post about teaching nineteenth-century literature, reading the Quran in Arabic, watching Yasujiro Ozu films, and, of course, the antics of their cats. I joined on November 15th and found an atmosphere like that of an erudite coffee shop, where conversation is murmured instead of shouted. Mastodon’s software is “better for this kind of small community than Twitter—it’s generally a friendlier environment, encouraging, less combative interaction,” Fenwick told me. Whereas Twitter’s current freneticism can cause some people to clam up, Mastodon’s more intimate setting encourages the kind of banal, personal diarizing that characterized Twitter’s early days. Plus, as one user posted, “there is not a constant, fevered discussion about the erratic but powerful weirdo who owns the place.”
Lacking the oversight of a single company, decentralized social media places the onus of responsibility on individual hosts. Fenwick told me that “there’s no need for technical knowledge at all” to create a space on Mastodon, but hosts must at least run their own data servers or be willing to rent space on one. For Zirkus, Fenwick used a paid service called masto.host, which handles all of the upkeep for you—though it’s now closed to new accounts, owing to a spike in traffic. Fenwick told me that Zirkus currently costs about two hundred and fifty dollars a month, an expense that will increase as his user base grows. Hosts often crowdfund to foot the costs; even Rochko’s work in building Mastodon is funded by a Patreon that has now reached around thirty thousand dollars a month in pledges. Hosts must also serve as their own safety officers, performing the daily labor of content moderation. Fenwick said that he and Kang deal with around ten posts a day that their users have flagged as problematic, most of them posts from accounts on other servers that are harassing Zirkus users. They have had to block five other Mastodon servers outright because they were dominated by racism or hate speech. Just because Mastodon is decentralized doesn’t mean it’s free of toxic behavior. But, unlike on Twitter, if you don’t like the policies of whoever’s running your server you can always move your account to a different one.
Users who want to have a lively, varied experience on Mastodon have to put in effort, too. On Twitter, you log in to your account and are immediately thrust into the melee of the “global town square,” for better or worse. On Mastodon, you can start accounts on as many servers as you like but you have to log on to each one in turn, as if each were its own separate social network. The server your account is hosted on is embedded in your username (mine is @[email protected]) and becomes a kind of home base. Mastodon offers various feed configurations, from a “local” one that shows only posts from accounts on your server to a more bustling admixture of all the users you follow across any server. There’s a tool called Debirdify that can tell you which Twitter users you follow are already on Mastodon. But Mastodon’s built-in friction and fragmentation make it harder to communicate with many people at once. You can peer into servers you don’t belong to, like a curious tourist, but you won’t be able to post to their feeds.
Journalists have always been one of Twitter’s most addicted user bases. We rely on the platform to share and follow breaking news in real time and engage in breakneck conversation with industry colleagues. Can Mastodon, with its more deliberate pace and siloed structure, fulfill a similar function? On November 4th, the journalist Adam Davidson (a former staff writer for The New Yorker) created journa.host, a Mastodon server for journalists whose identities are verified before they join. It quickly received funding from CUNY’s graduate school of journalism and attracted a group of volunteer administrators, including Zach Everson, a staff writer at Forbes, who told me that he sees it as an opportunity to let journalists “tailor the rules to what’s best for our profession, rather than having to follow the whims of a corporation.” Whereas Twitter is open to anyone, on journa.host the admins determine who should be allowed to join. Last week, the freelance writer Jeff Maysh, among others, took to Twitter to complain that the server had rejected him for being unqualified, and its administrators have already become embroiled in messy questions of content moderation. I was able to create a journa.host account with my work e-mail address; so far I’ve mostly found members posting photos of food, promoting their own stories, and expressing confusion about the software itself. It may be quieter and safer, but it lacks the sense of urgency that comes from reporters communicating to wider audiences. A “clubhouse,” as one of the server’s other admins called it, is a far cry from a public square.
Over the past decade, we’ve been conditioned to think of life on social media as a relentless pursuit of attention from as many people as possible. The goal is to yell into the void, loud enough to perhaps reach a crowd of strangers. Fenwick, of Zirkus, described Mastodon as “designed to be against virality,” which for many users is exactly its appeal. Rochko told me, “I think we’re entering a different paradigm of social media.” Part of what makes Twitter fascinating is the frenetic pace, the crosstalk, the unpredictability. We don’t yet know what an Internet with less virality would look like, or whether it would be as compelling as what came before. But it is heartening, after watching Musk’s erratic Twitter despotism, to imagine community-driven spaces that are only as good as the hosts who moderate them and the people they attract. Perhaps we are undergoing a collective period of relearning what we need and want from our digital lives. Rochko told me, “Some tolerance for slowness is advised.” ♦