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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Twitter Users Have Caused a Mastodon Meltdown

Fosstodon is an online community where people chat about open source tech. They talk about VR and tech gear, but they also post pictures of changing autumn leaves and pets. It’s been a small, tight-knit community for five years ever since its founders moved from Google+ to Mastodon.

But on Monday, it went offline. The culprit was an influx of new users spurred by Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, forcing Fosstodon to migrate its data to a larger server.

Since Musk bought the bird app last month, users are looking for ways to access Mastodon, the open source microblogging platform that isn’t quite Twitter but seems to be the closest thing to it, and they’re signing up for its many servers in droves. And Fosstodon, whose usership has grown from a list of about 3,000 active members to an unwieldy 40,000 total members, is far from the only server on the network to run into trouble.

“We can’t keep up with those requests, so we just opened the floodgates,” says Mike Stone, cofounder of Fosstodon. “My concern right now is the people that are coming in don’t understand the point of Fosstodon specifically, as opposed to the greater Mastodon environment.”

The decentralized social platform, which has served a smaller niche since its founding in 2016, had 381,113 active users as of October 28. On November 7, the company’s founder Eugen Rochko “tooted” (the term for posting short messages on Mastodon) that the network had hit more than 1 million active users. That meant 1,124 new servers and 489,003 new users. Musk also says Twitter’s daily growth hit all time highs during his first week at the helm, hinting that the great Twitter migration might be much smaller than expected, but Bot Sentinel estimated that more than 1 million accounts have been deleted or deactivated in that time. The outcome could have implications for how well decentralized tech works for the masses.

As Twitter has a public meltdown, Mastodon is having a quieter one. Its decentralized nature appeals to those who hate Musk’s unilateral control over Twitter, but that key feature is also working against it—Mastodon was not prepared to host millions of people in a short span of time. Some of the most popular servers that feed users into the network are overloaded with the fury of new activity, and volunteer administrators of the more than 4,000 instances, or servers, cannot keep up with new user requests to join and the volume of posts. Plus, new users are hitting a steep learning curve.

“What the platform owners and the instance administrators need to make sure is, it’s somehow sustainable,” says Aravindh Raman, an internet measurements researcher with the telecommunications company Telefónica who has studied Mastodon.

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Several of the popular instances, like mstdn.social and mastodon.social, could no longer accept new signups this week. People do not need to be in these popular servers to access the network, but finding and applying to join an alternative takes some digging. People still stuck on Twitter complained about not receiving verification emails to get their Mastodon accounts up and running.

Rochko says he was too busy this week working on Mastodon to comment about the overloaded servers, and how the massive amount of new users had affected the network. The Mastodon founder posted that he had changed parts of how people sign up for new servers, allowing new users to filter by region, sign-up speed, and type. By November 8, he said he had fixed delayed feeds on two of the bigger servers.

Downtime on the decentralized network isn’t a new issue. Raman’s research looked at downtime on Mastodon in 2019 and found servers had been inaccessible about 10 percent of the time. It’s a frustration reminiscent of Twitter’s fail whale days. But even in Twitter’s early days, Raman says, it went offline only about 1.25 percent of the time.

Some of these growing pains come from users expecting that Mastodon will work with the same ease as products funded by Big Tech companies, but the nature of a volunteer-driven network means Mastodon can’t respond to crises like they do.

“People are trained not to be patient. We expect to pop in, sign up, and we’re onboarded,” says Robert Gehl, a professor of communication and media studies at York University in Canada, who has studied Mastodon. “This is a little bit more complicated. But in the long run, for people who are interested in a more community-oriented space, I think it is very much worth it.”

Part of Mastodon’s appeal is in hosting smaller communities, where moderators have rules and can regulate hate speech better than on some larger platforms. But with larger servers overwhelmed, people are applying for and flooding smaller ones, reshaping the communities that have grown there. Still, Stone and fellow cofounder Kev Quirk say they are excited about the diversity of opinion and topics coming in the conversations.

Fosstodon has seen its traffic increase tenfold since late October, says Quirk, and managing it has become a second full-time job over the past week. It saw increased interest even in April, when news of Musk’s agreement to buy Twitter first broke. “That nearly brought us to our knees,” says Quirk. “It’s been nothing compared to this.”

Jerry Bell, who runs the security-focused instance infosec.exchange on Mastodon, says his server saw challenges over the weekend as its users jumped from around 180 active users to some 8,000. On Monday, Bell posted a toot looking for volunteers to help him with security, support, and moderation on the instance.

“This has been a really big struggle because a lot of people are doing this as a hobby,” says Bell. “The pace with which things changed forced a lot of people to figure out how to react really fast.”

But Bell says the new users have also ushered in more substantive discussions on his instance. The small community was not always the most active. Already, he’s seen that change as more people from the security world join. And, Bell says, volunteers who want to help are pouring in already.

Mastodon’s meltdown may be short-lived. But that depends largely on instance runners expanding their efforts to host more users, and on users having the patience to navigate the network. The model for decentralized social media isn’t really new—it’s more a return to the old internet. And for some, that’s a welcome change.

“What’s happening now is causing people to rethink social media,” says Gehl. Mastodon “is kind of designed to adapt, because it’s comprised of all these different servers,” he says. “It just takes a little time to shake out.”

Will Knight contributed to this report.

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