Mastodon races toward a turning point
Mastodon races toward a turning point
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Rodti MacLeary launched a mastodon instance, mas.to, in 2019. By early November 2022, it had amassed around 35,000 users. But ever since Elon Musk bought Twitter, triggering one chaotic decision after another, people have signed up for mas.to and other instances or servers in surging waves, sometimes knocking them briefly offline. The influx of users is fueled by each random policy update, which Musk confesses from his own Twitter account. Last week, Twitter’s billionaire owner suspended several high-profile journalists, accusing them of doping him, then briefly banned links to all social media competitors, including Mastodon. But the mas.to instance continued to grow, reaching 130,000 total users and 67,000 active users by Tuesday.
That’s tiny compared to Twitter’s hundreds of millions of tweeters. But it’s hard work for someone like MacLeary, who has a day job, no paid staff, and has put time and money into mas.to as an affair of the heart. As an open-source, decentralized social media platform, Mastodon’s construction is quite different from big-tech platforms like Meta, Twitter, and YouTube. That’s part of its appeal, and it’s working its way from niche into mainstream consciousness: Mastodon now has more than 9,000 instances and almost 2.5 million active monthly users.
“There’s definitely a dynamic behind it,” says MacLeary. “I don’t know if that momentum got it over the turning point. It reminds me of my experience in the early days of Twitter, which was very positive. You felt like you knew everyone there.”
Whether Mastodon will remain a nice, utopian “early Twitter” or become a ubiquitous, chaotic social network remains to be seen. But it’s growing in its potential to replicate some of what Twitter does, with politicians, celebrities and journalists signing up. Twitter profiles now often carry Mastodon usernames as social groups migrate to the other app. But there’s a schism: some new users want Mastodon to be Twitter, and some Mastodon users are there because they’re on Twitter.
And with this growing user base comes more responsibilities—not only for Mastodon himself, but also for volunteer administrators whose hobbies of running servers have turned into side jobs.
“There are a lot of people who really don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” said Corey Silverstein, an attorney specializing in internet law. “If you run these [instances], you must run it as if you were the owner of Twitter. What people don’t understand is how complicated it is to run a platform like this and how expensive it is.”
Because Mastodon is decentralized, it relies on different server admins instead of a central hub to stay online. These administrators aren’t just glorified users; They’re more likely to become Internet service providers themselves, says Silverstein, and are therefore responsible for ensuring their servers comply with copyright and privacy laws. If they fail, they could face lawsuits. And they have to comply with complex legal frameworks worldwide.
The US alone has the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes social platforms liable for copyrighted material posted there if they don’t register to protect themselves and work to remove it (registration takes minutes and costs $6). There is also the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, which dictates how platforms handle children’s data. If administrators become aware of child exploitation material, they must report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Then there is Europe with its General Data Protection Regulation, a privacy and human rights law. Europe’s new Digital Services Act could also apply to Mastodon servers if they get big enough. And administrators not only have to comply with their local laws, but with laws that apply wherever their server is accessible. It’s all scary, experts say, but not impossible.