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What Is Mastodon: the Social Media Platform Where Twitter Refugees Are Headed?

Elon Musk enters Twitter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Elon Musk enters Twitter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Mastodon, explained: Social media platform Twitter, which tech billionaire Elon Musk recently purchased for $44 billion, is now facing a mass exodus of its users.

According to recent data from Bot Sentinel, which tracks inauthentic behavior on the platform, around 877,000 accounts were deactivated, while an additional 497,000 were suspended between October 27 and November 1, just after the tech entrepreneur took ownership of the company.

That was reportedly more than double the usual number.

Twitter is also struggling to keep its most active users those vital to its business. Heavy users on the platform currently account for less than 10 percent of the monthly overall “tweeters,” yet still generate around 90 percent of all tweets. Losing those power users could impact the platform’s global revenue.

It isn’t just whether those users will return that is the question.

Where Are They Going?

This isn’t the first time that Twitter has seen a mass exit of its users – and many supporters of former President Donald Trump had signed off after he was suspended from the service following the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot. Those users headed to smaller social media networks including Gab, Gettr, MeWe, and Parler, as well as messaging apps such as Telegram.

Trump of course went on to launch Truth Social, but even with the former POTUS sharing his daily thoughts, it has failed to attract an audience even a fraction the size of Twitter.

Though each of those various services saw a surge of new members, none became a true Twitter rival. One issue has been that the MAGA audience is largely fragmented on social media as no single platform was able to fill the Twitter void.

Now, there are many other users who have left, or who have threatened to leave due to their dislike of Musk and his policies. This largely left-leaning/liberal audience could be as fragmented. Some are heading to Instagram, TikTok, and even a return to Facebook.

Then There is Mastodon

The service that could perhaps benefit the most is Mastodon, a free, open-source software for running self-hosted social networking services. It was developed by German programmer Eugen Rochko as a platform that would exist beyond the control of a single entity.

Though it offers many of the same microblogging features of Twitter, this alternative operates on a number of independently run Mastodon nodes, which are called “instances.” Moreover, unlike Twitter and Facebook, which are controlled by one authority – a company – Mastodon is installed on thousands of computer servers, largely run by volunteer administrators who join their systems together in a federation.

Where Mastadon further differs from Twitter is that each “instance” has its own code of conduct, terms of service, privacy options, and moderation policies.

Yet, as of Monday, Rochko “tooted” that Mastodon had reached just over one million active users. That is a fraction of the 238 million daily users that Twitter had as of the second quarter of this year, while Facebook has said it has 1.98 billion daily active users.

“It’s a Twitter-like platform that has been around since 2016,” explained Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible. “It’s been really obscure, with nearly no one using it until Musk purchased Twitter. It’s now getting popular with journalists, academics, and left-wing communities because the left is afraid that Musk is going to follow constitutional law and allow freedom of speech on Twitter.”

A Left-Wing Twitter

Mastodon could gain traction as Twitter faces an exodus of users.

“Basically, the left feels it’s lost its platform to push out their propaganda,” Safko told 19FortyFive. “Musk only wants both sides to be heard, unlike what we have had in America for the past ten-plus years.”

However, at issue is how Mastodon could be supported even if the users do actually come.

“Mastodon says it’s a ‘no-ad’ network. Good luck with that!  If the left flocks to Mastodon, they will have to ramp up with T-1 Fiber and servers racks, and that all costs money, a lot,” Safko continued. 

Even then it won’t be a true Twitter replacement. Whereas Parler, Gab, and Truth Social are essentially Twitter clones, Mastodon is something else.

“Right now, it is the most popular alternative to Twitter, but people are struggling with it, and many, if not most – according to the posts I’m following – are left wanting something else,” explained technology industry analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group.

“But, for now, Mastodon is the favorite alternative for pissed Twitter users,” Enderle told 19FortyFive. “It should evolve relatively quickly now that it is getting so much interest. I expect it will become a more robust alternative to Twitter over time; I expect a relatively short time based on interest.”

A Decentralized Social Network

In many ways, Mastodon could be described as a “decentralized social network,” much like how bitcoin is a decentralized currency.

“It is set up kinda like blockchain, with multiple servers, each managed by the individual who owns that server,” explained Safko. “It is kinda like the old AOL Chat Rooms. Each person sets up a server to discuss a particular subject. The owner becomes the moderator. He/she chooses what information they will allow the public visiting their chatroom to see. Their attitude is, if you don’t like it … Leave.”

While that could result in some instances having different rules – some could end up as echo chambers where everyone agrees, and others where it is a constant argument where anything can be said – the issue is still down to how this is supported.

“The fact that it is unfunded, relies on individual geeks in a basement to set up, manage, control, and could eliminate free speech, I just don’t see it catching on with any rational people or groups,” said Safko. “Similar to how most of the early 2000 chat rooms never survived Web 2.0.”

It is likely that just as some threaten to move to Canada following an election, and don’t follow through with it, those leaving Twitter might return to the fold. 

“Once Musk cleans out the perverted employees, fixes the algorithms, and gets rid of the massive amount of bots and fake accounts on Twitter, rational people will once again flock to the tweets,” said Safko.

A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.