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Monday, April 15, 2024

What Elon Musk Can Learn From Mastodon—and What He Can’t

Freedom never comes for free. In Twitter’s case, the price was $44 billion, which Elon Musk will pay to liberate the platform from its responsibilities as a public company and transform it into a free speech Xanadu. Musk wants to open source the platform’s algorithms, exile spam bots, and allow people to tweet whatever they please “within the bounds of the law.” To him, the stakes are nothing short of existential. “My strong intuitive sense,” he said in an interview at TED last week, “is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.”

Musk’s vision has fueled uncertainty about what the future of Twitter may look like. But many of those ideas are already at work on another social network, one that thousands of people have flocked to in recent days: Mastodon.

Mastodon emerged in 2016 as a decentralized alternative to Twitter. It is not one website, but a collection of federated communities called “instances.” Its code is open source, which allows anyone to create an “instance” of their own. There is, for example, metalhead.club, for German metalheads, and koyu.space, a “nice community for chill people.” Each instance operates its own server and creates its own set of rules. There are no broad edicts about what people can and cannot say across the “fediverse,” or the “federated universe.” On Mastodon, communities police themselves.

More than 28,000 new users joined a Mastodon server on Monday, according to the network’s creator, Eugen Rochko. Since March, when Musk first started making noise, the network has seen as many as 49,000 new accounts. For a service with 360,000 monthly active users, that’s a substantial influx. “On the Mastodon server that I manage, sign-ups have increased by 71 percent and monthly active users have increased by 36 percent,” Rochko said by email. “Many people have come back to their old accounts following the news.”

Rochko once found himself in a position similar to Musk's: He was a Twitter power user with some gripes. The problem, as Rochko saw it, was centralization. A central authority meant the platform bent to the whims of its shareholders and rules could change without warning. It also meant that a platform could go defunct, something Rochko had experienced with MySpace, Friendfeed, and SchülerVZ, a German version of Facebook. A server owned and operated by the people who used it would allow greater control, including over their self-governance.

Unlike Musk, Rochko did not have billions to burn. Instead, he was a 24-year-old college student, months away from graduating from a university in central Germany. So Rochko decided to build his own social network. He created the framework for Mastodon in his spare time, accepting donations from benefactors from Patreon, who were similarly interested in a Twitter alternative that returned power to the people. In 2016, shortly after graduation, he launched Mastodon to the masses.

The initial wave of interest in Mastodon came from people who wanted to escape Twitter’s trolls, spam bots, and the sudden rise of @realDonaldTrump. Plus, Mastodon was fun. One early instance was based around a word-game community that excluded the letter “e.” Another instance, called Dolphin.Town, allowed people to communicate exclusively using the letter “e.”

The federated nature of Mastodon allowed Rochko to skirt some of the common problems with social media moderation that have increasingly vexed companies like Twitter and Facebook. As platforms scale, it gets harder to make rules that fit every case, and it’s nearly impossible to enforce those rules across millions of users. But Mastodon’s user base was still small, and each instance was responsible for itself. If two instances had a beef, they could block each other outright, cutting off all contact between their communities. Individuals could also employ a number of blocking, muting, and reporting tools. “This gives the power to shape smaller, independent, yet integrated communities back to the people,” Rochko wrote in an early blog post. “As an end-user, you have the ability to choose an instance with the rules and policies that you agree with (or roll your own, if you are technically inclined).”

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By design, Mastodon’s moderation looks a lot like what Musk seems to want. Some instances are widely blocked, but no one has been “deplatformed.” While the approach has its advantages, it also has consequences. In Mastodon’s early days, people referred to it as a place to take refuge from the trolls of the internet—or, simply put, “Twitter, without Nazis.” But Nazis did eventually arrive. In 2019, when the alt-right social network Gab was shut down, a number of its users recreated their community on Mastodon. People protested, but Rochko told reporters that his hands were tied. “You have to understand it’s not actually possible to do anything platform-wide because it’s decentralized,” he said at the time. “I don’t have the control.”

Still, Mastodon’s blocking tools at least make the Nazis easier to ignore. And instances can choose the rules that fit their needs, says Darius Kazemi, who runs a server called Friend Camp for about 50 of his friends and wrote a guide for others to do the same. That sounds similar to Musk’s idea that people on Twitter should be able to say what they wish, but Kazemi says in practice that ethos only works in small groups. “It’s much easier to come up with rules that 50 people agree with than moderation rules that a billion people agree with,” he says. “If I wanted to, I could probably get consensus that mentioning Elon Musk would be a bannable offense on our server. I don’t think you can do this sort of stuff at scale.”

For similar reasons, Mastodon has never grown quite as big as social networks like Twitter or Reddit. Rochko says that’s because network effects are hard to replicate. People go where their friends are, and most people’s friends are still on Facebook and Twitter. Still, the fediverse has benefitted from the regular stumbles of those larger social media companies. When Tumblr announced in 2018 that it would ban “sensitive content,” like nude photography, thousands of its users migrated to Mastodon. The network also saw a surge of users after the #deletefacebook campaign the same year, and since then various complaints about Twitter have sent new users to Mastodon.

As with this latest surge, those who arrive on Mastodon servers are joining an experiment in whether communities can function better with self-moderation, and by self-organizing into like-minded groups. The answer, it seems, is that they can—but not without some trade-offs. Chief among them is that Mastodon has no owner or central authority. “We present a vision of social media that cannot be bought and owned by any billionaire,” Rochko wrote in an email. “We believe that people's ability to communicate online should not be at the whims of a single commercial company.”

In purchasing Twitter, Musk has similarly stated that his intentions are not to make money for shareholders, or even for himself. But there remain big differences between his vision for a free speech utopia and the reality of the platform that he bought. No matter how lax the content moderation or freewheeling the rules, Musk’s Twitter will still be owned by a central authority who can implement policies as he chooses, change his mind as many times as he wants, and even read every user’s direct messages. That central authority also happens to be the richest person on earth and does not have a reputation for making slow and thoughtful decisions. For people seeking true freedom on the social web, that might be reason enough to leave Twitter for good.

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