It’s been a busy time for Ashley Hull.
“My instance saw more than 12,000 people joining over the last weekend, and this only slowed down due to closing signups because my servers could not handle the flood of people.”
The ‘instance’ Hull is referring to is Aus.Social, one of the thousands of so-called instances that make up the fledgling social media network Mastodon.
Suppose you are yet to hear of Aus.Social and Mastodon, it’s guaranteed this will soon change.
Mastodon is suddenly one of the fastest-growing social media networks on the planet, claiming to have added over a million users since October 27th. That date was also the day Elon Musk completed his $44 billion takeover of Twitter, a social media platform Mastodon resembles and a move that appears to have sparked its rapid growth.
Since the world’s richest man took control nearly a month ago, Twitter has undergone massive upheaval, with over half of all staff sacked, numerous senior executives resigning, and Musk announcing and then reversing plans on his own timeline, causing confusion.
Changes to authentication and security rules have been particularly problematic, with Musk announcing that the blue-tick verification could now be bought for US$7.99, leading to a surge in fake accounts and disinformation. Advertisers – who account for 90% of Twitter’s income -responded by suspending or pulling their accounts, with Musk conceding it has caused a sharp drop in revenue.
Whether these are teething problems (Musk has recently claimed user numbers are at an all-time high) or signs of an impending collapse remains to be seen. Still, many Twitter users have sought an alternative, given their similarities to Mastodon, via independent instances like Aus.Social, which has been a popular choice.
“I expected to see growth over time but not for the thousands of signups over a 48-hour period”, says Hull, who has run Aus.Social since its inception three years ago.
The sudden influx caused much stress on Aus.Social’s volunteer staff, leading Hull to suspend signups while they make changes to accommodate their new users.
Hull told Umbrella News, “I plan on opening up again soon, and there have been other Australian instances opening recently to share the load. We’re more than able to support hundreds of thousands of people on my instance now if we see another flood of people leaving Twitter.”
While similarities in format might attract ex-Twitter users to Mastodon, their respective structures are very different.
Founded in 2016 by Russian-born German software developer Eugen Rochko, Mastodon is a decentralised network of instances run independently on their own servers. This prevents it from being taken over by a single person like Musk has with Twitter and means there is no top-down control.
Unlike Twitter, which relies on advertising, Mastodon is crowd-funded and part of a broader community called Fediverse. This free and open-source service allows people to build their social networks.
Even the user experience has some key distinctions, as Hull explains.
“Twitter is a machine built for user engagement, and Mastodon is built with a slightly more personal direction. For example, there is no search function. So you cannot search for ‘Melbourne coffee’ and find local or like-minded people to follow. This is to stop people from discovering people whom they disagree with and starting a fight.”
Fewer fights and less rancour certainly appeal to Melbourne online campaigner Asher Wolf, who has joined Mastodon while maintaining her Twitter presence.
Wolf told Umbrella News, “it was like living on the edge of a knife at some points on Twitter” after spending 14 years and amassing over 76,000 followers.
“Twitter became quite overwhelming for a couple of years there, where the sort of pile-on that was happening was quite intense.”
However, while finding Mastodon a more pleasant experience due to its decentralised and less adversarial nature, Wolf says this prevents it from ever being as powerful and valuable as Twitter was at its peak.
“It’s like, you can’t cross the street,” she says of Mastodon’s structure of segregated instances that she likens to a federated internet.
Wolf says this also limits its ability as a campaign tool.
“It makes it really hard to work together like Occupy (Wall Street) and the Arab Spring; there was a real crossing the street. You had Western activists and Middle East activists working together. Both had the same ideas, both on the same platform. There isn’t a centralisation of things (on Mastodon) in the same way that there is on Twitter.”
Wolf says the centralised nature of Twitter is why it is still useful for breaking news and news aggregation in a way that Mastodon and other social media can’t match.
It’s a point backed up by RMIT Journalism Lecturer Tito Amboyo.
“Twitter was used and is still being used by marginalised people, activists, and community organisers, to reach out to people and collaborate with each other. At the moment, loss of funding means journalism struggles to cover many parts of the world, and there is a feeling in many countries that their stories are forgotten. But Twitter has given the ability to give spaces for these stories to become global headlines in a different way to the first page of the New York Times or the BBC”.
Amboyo, originally from Indonesia, says Twitter remains especially important in the non-English speaking parts of the world.
“As someone from Indonesia, who is very under-reported in global media, seeing ordinary people talking about something that has just happened in your country or community that has rarely been reported on feels good – you feel like you’re a part of the world.”
But while remaining a vital news source, Amboyo believes Musk’s attempts to monetise Twitter will damage it in other ways.
“The commercial and cultural imperatives required to make Twitter financially viable now for Elon Musk, especially if he still wants to create an ‘everything app’, will mean that it can no longer play a role as a space for global conversations. If Musk really wants to get it back on track, he should get off the platform.”
For Asher Wolf, Twitter’s problems started long before Musk, with an ageing user base, tepid growth and mounting losses.
She holds out little hope for the Tesla CEO turning things around.
“The thing that made Twitter so attractive was also what sabotaged it, and that’s the users didn’t want to be a product”, she says.
“When you look at its (Twitter’s) base, they’re not the same sort of people that you would find on Facebook. They’re not the people who are willing to be packaged up as nicely and as neatly. They’re the same sort of people that will struggle to do well on Tik Tok.”
This explains why so many Twitter users have flocked to Mastodon instead of other social media sites, but while it is adjusting to the change in circumstances, it seems unlikely to have the same impact.
It certainly won’t for Asher Wolf, who met her partner, made friends and made a career out of Twitter.
She sees it as the end of an era; “don’t be sad that Twitter is ending. Be happy that it happened.”
It’s now up to Elon Musk to prove her wrong.