Twitter Alternative Mastodon: On Another Planet


After Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, there is a strong user migration to Mastodon. Does the future belong to the social media service?

Colorful ropes that are knotted together

Being knotted is all that matters these days Photo: Richard Drury/getty images

Since the Twitter purchase by the super-rich Elon Musk, one refuge in particular has been hyped in Germany: Mastodon. The microblogging service, which was founded in 2016 by the Jena developer Eugen Rochko, recorded according to their own statements an increase in user numbers of one million users in the first two weeks after Musk’s acquisition. The number of active users has on 19 November cracked the two million mark – and is now more than three times as high as before the wave.

While Mastodon looks similar to Twitter, it’s far from a replacement. Mastodon user and librarian Hugh sums up the difference on his blog like this: “In the late 1990s there were three clubs in Hobart (Australia). They were all different shabby, different loud and people went there because other people went there – to have fun, to attract attention and to assert their social status. This is Twitter. I had a friend who lived in an apartment around the corner from one of these popular clubs. He gave parties on the weekends. Small, only for friends and a few of their friends. That’s the Fediverse.”

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The goal of the company Twitter is the same as that of other social media companies: collect data to make money from it. For users, it’s about visibility and marketing themselves. Mastodon, on the other hand, is about communication. Many users understand the so-called Fediverse, to which Mastodon belongs, as an alternative to commercial social media services. Mastodon makes no profit. It is not managed by any person or company and is not subject to their whims. Mastodon is decentralized, an open source platform and cannot be sold or shut down entirely.

Fediverse, which has existed and been growing since 2008, is based on the concept that Internet services should not run centrally via a single company like Twitter or Facebook, but on many different servers run by different people. The Fediverse not only operates the Twitter alternative Mastodon, but also alternatives to Youtube (Peertube), Instagram (pixelated), miscellaneous, reminiscent of Facebook, but partly thematic (BookWyrm) or Soundcloud (Funkwhale). All these services are independent, but want to be compatible with each other. A message I read on Mastodon may have been written on a completely different service. Like my Twitter feed popping up with messages written on Instagram, videos from YouTube, comments from TikTok.

“Every platform started out that way, but then evolved into a platform of pomposity.”

Peertube is almost like YouTube, only much smaller and quieter and yes: call it niche. Over there a cute little video: A cat and a dog want to talk on the phone. Sure, that’s possible, explains the voice from the off. And without having the same telephone provider. “Federation” is what the voice calls it. Nobody has to have several providers, no provider gets a monopoly. And then the video goes big: the cat and the dog are on the same planet. This symbolizes a single social media platform. On other planets are other animals. Dogs and cats also want to get in touch with them. The Fediverse (or Federated Universe) wants to be exactly this communication possibility.

But back to Mastodon. The servers of this service are operated and maintained by many individuals and groups. They are called instances and if you want to hang out on Mastdon, you have to choose an instance when registering. Some of these instances have a specific area of ​​interest that the participants share, are regional or offer shelters for LGBT*QI, for example. The authorities also ensure that the burden of service rests on many different shoulders. A website that wants to give an overview of the instances counts right now over 4,200 such instances. They not only provide the technical requirements, but also take care of enforcing their own rules. You can report content that violates the rules of the instance directly to your own instance. There may also be sanctions. Sometimes they even go so far that entire instances break off contact with other instances, such as those where right-wing and inflammatory content is shared. Because there are too.

Wolfang Schweiger is a professor of communication science at the University of Hohenheim. He has little faith in Mastodon’s future. It is an important network for “nerds and community utopians,” he says. “I’m just a bit skeptical as a social scientist.” He doubts that content will experience enough scrutiny and regulation as the community continues to grow. “As soon as the large crowds migrate over there, people who act with hate speech, who act with lies, also come accordingly. Just like on the other platforms,” he says.

The influx of new users poses new challenges for those who have been using Mastodon for years. The servers have growing pains, at times some instances were down or no longer accepted new users because they had reached their technical limits.

There are also cultural conflicts. Librarian Hugh has been running a server for four years. He writes that he is shocked by the current development. “It’s actually what we wanted.” He describes the situation as “traumatic” for him. “Like I’m chatting with some friends in a quiet train car and then a platform full of football fans get on after their team has lost. They don’t usually ride the train and they don’t know the etiquette. They assume that everyone on the train was at the game or at least watching football. They block the doors and complain about the seats.”

It wasn’t just former Twitter users who were to blame. They would have learned to behave like this. Because many use Twitter to get the widest possible reach, to get a lot of likes, to be retweeted often. The algorithm at Twitter rewards behavior in terms of the attention economy. It’s different with Mastodon. The self-representation, the performative, recedes into the background simply because of the chronological timeline structure. Exchange is paramount. Likes don’t bring more attention, only boosts, the equivalent of retweets. And depending on the timeline, they are further down after just a few seconds.

However, communication professor Schweiger does not believe that Mastodon remains so far removed from the performative: “In principle, every platform started out that way, but then developed into a platform of self-importance of impression management. Why should Mastodon be any different?”

However, long-time Mastodon users also react positively to the newcomers. They patiently explain technical aspects and which labels are available here. A user writes that the “hurricane” of newcomers would be exhausting, but also: “I try to greet as many as possible in a friendly manner.” Some organize themselves into mentor groups in which the newcomers can ask questions without feeling too stupid . Another user finds the development positive, “because so many interesting people are joining, especially experts, scientists, competent journalists (not talk show waffles, but those who really know something)”. He willingly distributes lists of important accounts that may be of interest to specific areas. Helpfulness and affection, that’s what Mastodon can do.

The balance between the different social media services in the Fediverse is fundamental. There is concern that Mastodon will throw this principle off balance and become too large compared to the other services. But that need not be. Schweiger doesn’t think enough people are switching to Mastodon to make it a platform of overarching societal relevance. So far it has been a “protest movement of the Berlin Twitter bubble”, i.e. politicians, journalists, opinion leaders. He calls them “communication professionals”. In the near future, the first problem cases would appear, instances would probably disconnect and a huge mess would arise. In about a year, Mastodon will only be a place for nerds.

Maybe. But maybe Mastodon will also become the super planet in the Fediverse universe. The question then remains how its stronger gravitational pull changes the conditions of weightlessness on the other planets.

The taz is also in the Fediverse! Here’s how to find us: @[email protected]





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