Elon Musk’s chaotic autumn at Twitter has produced one clear winner: Mastodon, the open-source social network, has now grown to 2.5m users – triggering a land-grab for space on it from groups including browser makers, cryptocurrency advocates and other social networks.
Despite the Twitter CEO’s best efforts to disparage the rival platform, Mastodon has grown by more than 800%, according to its founder and lead developer, Eugen Rochko, who said on Tuesday that it had jumped “from approximately 300k monthly active users to 2.5m between the months of October and November, with more and more journalists, political figures, writers, actors and organisations moving over”.
At the weekend, Musk briefly banned all links to the rival service and suspended users who tweeted out their Mastodon usernames, but has now admitted the apparent move to prevent Twitter users migrating was an error. “That one was a mistake,” Musk said on a Twitter livestream with a former intern on Tuesday night, adding: “Fucking post Mastodon all goddamn day long, I don’t care. From an evolutionary standpoint, how’d that work out for the mastodons?”
Mozilla, the developer of the popular Firefox browser, seems to disagree with that take, joining the rush to create a presence on the platfrom. On Tuesday it announced it would begin to run a Mastodon “instance”, one of the decentralised servers upon which the social network rests.
“Our intention is to contribute to the healthy and sustainable growth of a federated social space that doesn’t just operate but thrives on its own terms, independent of profit- and control-motivated tech firms,” said Steve Teixeira, chief product officer at Mozilla, which is owned by an non-profit foundation.
“We’re living through the consequences of 20 years of centralised, corporate-controlled social media, with a small oligopoly of large tech firms tightening their grip on the public square,” he added. “In private hands, our choice is limited, toxicity is rewarded, rage is called engagement, public trust is corroded, and basic human decency is often an afterthought. Getting from the internet we have to the internet we want will be a heavy lift.”
A Mastodon instance is similar to an email service provider: all users must join one instance, but can communicate with users on others once they have. Currently, two of the most popular instances are run by Rochko, with many smaller ones operated by hobbyists, but there is no equivalent to Gmail – a large company running a free and popular instance that becomes the default for the service.
However, Mastodon is also compatible with a wider array of communities using a technology called ActivityPub, which lets services like photo sharing, podcasting and social networking all share content with each other.
Tumblr, which was founded shortly after Twitter and has been owned by Yahoo! and Verizon before being sold to WordPress developers Automattic, will begin supporting the technology in the near future, according to founder Matt Mullenwegg. Tumblr too is “dealing with waves of users right now”, but will be adding “interoperability and ActivityPub support as soon as possible”.
Corporate money is flowing into Mastodon more directly, as well. Pawoo.net, a large Mastodon instance based in Japan with 800,000 users, was acquired by crypto startup Social Coop, which runs a cryptocurrency-based “web3 social network” called Mask, with $50m of funding behind it. The company already runs two other Mastodon instances, Mastodon.cloud and mstdn.jp.
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