How does Mastodon work? – Marketplace

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Since Elon Musk bought Twitter, gutted its staff, and began an overhaul of its financial model, a previously overlooked social media platform has entered the conversation. And although it’s named after a prehistoric mammoth-like creature, Mastodon is anything but extinct. The micro-blogging platform has grown by at least one million users since Oct. 27, when Musk’s Twitter acquisition was completed.

Perhaps most appealing to users (and confusing to venture capitalists), is that Mastodon, which has been around since 2016, has not implemented any monetization strategies into its software. That means no ads, no algorithm built to keep users hooked, and no paid accounts. Because of this, the company’s financial model is very different from most social media giants.

Mastodon gGmbH — the small German non-profit that develops Mastodon’s codebase and maintains mastodon.social, the first Mastodon server — is crowdfunded. Their site lists organizations that have donated money, and has a Patreon. The company says though that it is independent: “Sponsorship does not equal influence” reads the bottom of a list of sponsors.

While it sort of looks like Twitter, Mastodon is decentralized, which means that, using open source software, anyone can start their own server, called an instance. Users can interact with other instances in an interconnected community called the Fediverse. 

In fact, Mastodon is entirely open source — anyone can download all of the code and add to it. And the decentralized model means each instance is a bit different. Server hosts set their own content moderation standards and decide which other servers to “federate” with, meaning one server can block another server that doesn’t have content moderation rules they agree with.

Image of ground rules for a Mastodon server on a background of Mastodon logos.
Content rules for mas.to, the Mastodon instance I joined as part of researching this article. (Screenshot/Jordan Mangi/Marketplace)

A little tech-y and out there, sure, but many people are eager to recreate their experience on Twitter in case the site goes under or is further overrun by hate speech and fake accounts

Daniel Appelquist, open source and open standards strategy director at cyber security company Snyk, said for users in a community that faced harassment on Twitter, Mastodon’s decentralized model could be appealing for building a safe online community.

“Mastodon is very oriented towards that, because you can start your own server, you set the rules,” he said, citing that some instances are identity or interest-specific.

Most Mastodon instances are progressive in terms of their content rules, Appelquist said. But, they don’t have the same resources other social media companies have (or, at least, historically had), like full-time moderators or in-house legal teams that make sure they’re obeying hate speech laws. Instead, moderation is distributed across the instances, often done by the host or a few volunteers, sort of similar to Reddit.

“This whole distributed equals better thing hasn’t really been tested,” said Appelquist. “As the bad actors, the actual Nazis, for instance, start to see what’s happening on Mastodon, they’re gonna come over too, hence the need for strong content moderation guidelines. And we’ll see if Mastodon is up to the job of repelling that.”

Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko has hired content moderators for his instance, mastodon.social. But each instance is different, and most don’t have the resources to pay moderators.

Scaling up content moderation is tricky, but so is the actual upkeep of servers. Most instances are free-of-charge to users, and run by an individual or small group. As instances grow — whether that’s a huge influx of users or one user with a massive following that generates a significant amount of activity — it costs more and more to upkeep the server. 

Stefano Maffulli worked at Twitter in its early years, and said the site dealt with somewhat similar expansion difficulties. 

“I remember when Twitter was central during the revolution in Egypt. Trying to keep the service running to help the people on the ground, so they’re able to exchange messages was very hard,” said Maffulli, who is now the executive director of the Open Source Initiative. “Mastodon will have to face similar challenges on the technical front, but they have an advantage.”

In this case, the decentralized network is an advantage, he said. Rather than Mastodon needing to constantly expand server capacity and hire more staff, users can start new servers, essentially building out instead of up. 

The model is not supposed to make money, but rather foster a widespread network of instances that grow and change with community input. 

But despite it’s differences from Twitter — or improvements, or shortcomings, depending on how you look at it — Mastodon hasn’t quite tackled data privacy. Because each instance has different rules and moderators, users should be careful that the rules align with their own data privacy concerns.

“The users are empowered, but also responsible for their choices at this point,” said Maffulli. “You cannot say, ‘Facebook made me do it, Twitter made me do it.’ You should look at those terms of service when you join a new instance.”

As to whether Mastodon is in a position to replace Twitter, it may be too early to tell. But some Mastodon fans say the network isn’t meant to be an alternative at all. It’s part of a movement of decentralized social media that use a standardized protocol called Activity Pub, including photo-sharing community PixelFed.  

This makes Mastodon a component of a “wider ecosystem” of federated social media, Maffulli said. An ecosystem that is, theoretically, built to give users more control over their social media experience, whether that’s escaping an algorithm that shows hate-filled posts or finding a niche of like-minded users. There is even an instance made up of ex-Twitter employees.

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