What Elon Musk can learn from a mastodon and what not

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Freedom never comes for free. In the case of Twitter, the price was $44 billion to be paid by Elon Musk free the platform from its public company responsibilities and turn it into a freedom of speech Xanadu. Musk wants open source platform algorithmsexpel spambots and allow people to tweet whatever they want “within the law”. For him, the stakes are nothing but existential. “My strong intuition,” he said in interview at TED last week, “it’s that having a public platform that is as trustworthy and broadly inclusive as possible is extremely important for the future of civilization.”

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Musk’s vision raised uncertainty that the future of twitter may look. But many of these ideas are already working on another social network that thousands of people have joined in recent days: mastodon.

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Mastodon appeared in 2016 as a decentralized twitter alternative. It is not a single website, but a collection of federated communities called “instances”. Its code is open source, allowing anyone to create their own “instance”. For example, there is metalhead.club for German metalheads and koyu.space, “a nice community for easygoing people”. Each instance manages its own server and creates its own set of rules. There are no sweeping decrees about what people can and cannot say in a “federated universe” or “federated universe”. On Mastodon, the communities look after themselves.

According to the creator of the network, Yevgeny Rochko, more than 28,000 new users joined the Mastodon server on Monday. Since March, when Musk first started making noise, there have been 49,000 new accounts online. For a service with 360,000 monthly active users, that’s a significant influx. “On the Mastodon server I manage, signups increased by 71 percent and monthly active users increased by 36 percent,” Rochko said via email. “A lot of people went back to their old accounts after the news.”

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One day, Rochco found himself in a position similar to Musk’s: he was a power Twitter user with some issues. The problem, according to Rochko, was centralization. Central authority meant that the platform was subject to the whims of its shareholders, and the rules could change without warning. It also meant that the platform could go out of business, which Rochko experienced with MySpace, Friendfeed and SchülerVZ, the German version of Facebook. A server owned and operated by the people who used it would allow for greater control, including over their self-management.

Unlike Musk, Rochko didn’t have billions to burn. Instead, he was a 24-year-old college student who was months away from graduating from a university in central Germany. So Rochko decided to create his own social network. He built the Mastodon framework in his spare time, accepting donations from Patreon philanthropists who were also interested in a Twitter alternative that gives power back to the people. In 2016, shortly after release, he launched Mastodon to the masses.

The initial wave of interest in Mastodon came from people who wanted to get away from Twitter trolls, spam bots, and the sudden appearance of @realDonaldTrump. Also, Mastodon was funny. One early example was based on the word game community, which excluded the letter “e”. Another instance called Dolphin.Town allowed people to communicate exclusively using the letter “e”.

Mastodon’s federated nature has allowed Rochco to sidestep some of the common social media moderation issues that companies like Twitter and Facebook are increasingly annoyed with. As platforms scale, it becomes more and more difficult to create rules that are appropriate for every case, and it is almost impossible to enforce these rules for millions of users. But Mastodon’s user base was still small, and each instance was in charge of itself. If two instances had a conflict, they could completely block each other, cutting off all contact between their communities. Individuals can also use a range of blocking, mute and message tools. “It empowers people to form small, independent but integrated communities,” Rochko wrote in early blog message. “As an end user, you have the option to choose an instance with rules and policies you agree with (or create your own if you’re technically inclined).”

By design, Mastodon moderation is very similar to what Musk wants. Some instances are widely locked, but none have been “deplatformed”. While this approach has its benefits, it also has implications. In the early days of Mastodon, people referred to it as a place to hide from internet trolls, or to put it more simply, “Twitter without Nazis“. But the Nazis eventually arrived. 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 that it’s actually impossible to do anything for the whole platform because it’s decentralized,” he said at the time. “I have no control.”

However, Mastodon’s blocking tools at least make it easier to ignore the Nazis. And instances can choose rules that suit their needs,” says Darius Kazemi, who runs a server called Friend Camp for about 50 of his friends and wrote Management for others to do the same. This sounds similar to Musk’s idea that people on Twitter should be able to say what they want, 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 on than moderation rules that a billion people agree on,” he says. “If I wanted to, I could probably reach a consensus that mentioning Elon Musk would be a common violation on our server. I don’t think you can do that kind of thing at scale.”

For the same reasons, Mastodon has never been 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. However, the federal network has benefited from the regular stumbles of these large social networks. When Tumblr announced in 2018 that it would ban “sensitive content” like nude photos, thousands of its users switched to Mastodon. The network also saw a surge in users following the #deletefacebook campaign that same year, and has since various complaints about Twitter sent new users to Mastodon.

As with this latest surge, those who log into Mastodon’s servers are joining an experiment to see if communities can do better with self-moderation and self-organization into like-minded groups. The answer seems to be that they can, but not without some compromises. Chief among these is that the mastodon has no owner or central authority. “We present a vision of social media that cannot be bought and is owned by no billionaire,” Rochko wrote in an email. “We believe that the ability of people to communicate online should not depend on the whims of one commercial company.”

When buying Twitter, Musk also stated that his intentions were not to make money for shareholders or even for himself. But big differences remain between his vision of a free speech utopia and the reality of the platform he bought. No matter how lax content moderation or loose rules may be, Musk’s Twitter will still belong to a central authority that can enforce policy as it pleases, change its mind as many times as it wants, and even read direct messages of each user. This central body also happens to be the richest person on Earth and has no reputation for making slow and deliberate decisions. For people looking for real social media freedom, this might be enough to leave Twitter for good.

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