Why is everyone tweeting about the juggernaut in the room

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Elon Musk – also known as the world’s richest man – is either single-handedly running Twitter Inc. into the ground or saving it from a bloated workforce that exploited a scorching hellscape money.

Whichever side you’re on, and if you’re on Twitter you have to take sides, there’s no doubt that it’s had thousands of users rushing to find an alternative. So far, the surrogate that has received the most attention is Mastodon, a German social network that few people had heard of until a month ago.

In the time it took Musk to officially take over Twitter from late October until Sunday, an additional 1 million people had flocked to the Mastodon network, pushing the number of active users to more than 1.7. million.

Almost tripling its number is a huge boost for the community created by Eugen Rochko in 2016, when he lived with his parents while finishing his university studies, where he studied computer science. But it doesn’t begin to compare to Twitter’s claimed 200 million users, let alone Meta Platforms Inc.’s 3.7 billion on its suite of sites that include Facebook and Instagram. Rochko, who started the open source project out of a prescient fear that Twitter would one day be owned by a billionaire, remains the chief executive of the company created to run the business. He got by on just 55,300 euros ($57,000) in revenue last year, largely thanks to donors and Patreon followers.

Google Trends data shows a massive increase in searches for the term “Mastodon”. Curiosity about the Berlin-based site surged in late April after Musk announced plans to take Twitter private for $44 billion. Then, after Musk fought to avoid closing the deal and it became clear the deal would close last month, interest reached a crescendo.

“While we obviously don’t envision a mass exodus of people leaving one of the most popular social media sites on the planet, the data clearly shows [show] that people are indeed starting to consider leaving it and they are also looking for alternatives,” Michelle Stark, director of sales and marketing at Fasthosts Internet Ltd., a UK network and web hosting provider, recently wrote.

Chances are that the number of users on Mastodon will continue to grow. It’s also likely that while many will love this Twitter substitute and stick around, thousands will leave – or leave their accounts dormant – as the calm purple juggernaut doesn’t replace the chaotic flow they’re used to in the blue bird. . (And by the way, although it looks a lot like an elephant, the now-extinct juggernaut is actually a different kind of mammal.)

It has to be said: Mastodon is not the next Twitter. And that’s OK. It’s not supposed to be.

What you have at Mastodon is not even a single social media site. It’s more like a collection of linked and connected chat rooms, independently operated and moderated in what the community calls a federation. These rooms are called servers because they are quite often hosted on their own separate computers while connected to each other (there are over 5,700 of them). It is a network in the true sense of the term. Rochko summed up the difference in an April press release:

Unlike Twitter, there is no central Mastodon website – you sign up with a provider who will host your account, the same way you sign up for Outlook or Gmail, and then you can follow and interact with people using different suppliers.

It’s this loose collection of small social media sites that is Mastodon’s main strength and biggest weakness. Rather than a single stream that broadcasts conversations and debates on disparate topics, each server is topic-specific and operates under the rules established by its founders and moderators.

“Join a server with rules you agree to, or host your own,” advises Mastodon. “Your feed is curated and created by you. We will never run ads or push profiles for you to see.” Musk’s Twitter, meanwhile, began selling authenticity for $8. per month, with disastrous consequences.

Most new users find themselves signing up to a general room, such as mastodon.online or mas.to, before turning to specific interests: fosstodon.org is for software enthusiasts, climatejustice.social is explicit, while mastodon.lol is “friendly to anti-fascists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, activist movements, hackers, and anyone who doesn’t believe ‘freedom of speech’ is the only important human right.”

This divide-by-interest structure makes Mastodon more akin to Reddit or Discord than Twitter or Facebook. Pictures of cats are unlikely to mix with discussions of police brutality, for example. This means that – theoretically – minority or disadvantaged groups have a safe haven, a feature that is markedly lacking on Twitter, where trolling and harassment are rampant and an army of content moderators struggled to keep up before even Musk fires half the company.

But it also means Mastodon sites are more likely to become echo chambers of similar views and ideologies absent the sanitizing sunlight that more open forums can bring to conspiracy theories and political correctness. . The growing popularity of TikTok, which serves up a steady diet of happy dances and cute memes, shows that avoiding conflict is a hugely appealing trait for a social media site. It’s also a clue as to why Mastodon will find its niche and grow stronger and stronger.

In the end, Mastodon will never be the town square, though at least it starts attracting banned comedians to poke fun at the bluebird’s new owner. Instead, Twitter users looking for a rowdy, robust place for debate may have to come to terms with the fact that it’s now run by a billionaire who can mediate free speech standards.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

• TikTok is the new front of election disinformation: Tim Culpan

• We may be watching Twitter implode in real time: Parmy Olson

• Twitter is destroying the musky aura that Tesla needs: Liam Denning

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology in Asia. Previously, he was a technology reporter for Bloomberg News.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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