Few people outside computer programmers or engineers had heard of the social network Mastodon before Elon Musk bought Twitter.
Now, Twitter users queasy about changes the eccentric billionaire is making are signing up for Mastodon accounts in droves. Mastodon reached a million users earlier this week, up from under 400,000 before Musk closed the Twitter deal on Oct. 27.
The surge in popularity has surprised even Eugen Rochko, who founded Mastodon in 2016.
"What I always wanted to try to get over as a hurdle is the idea that, no, there's not enough people in there, so I can't really use it. Or it's for nerds," he said.
Now he's pulling all-nighters to meet the growing demand.
But Mastodon is not the most intuitive social media platform. Mastodon is open-source software, meaning anyone so inclined could set up a server to host users and connect to other servers, making for a decentralized network.
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"Nobody is in control of the entire network," Rochko said.
"It is, in effect, more democratic," he asserts, because the operators of each individual server can set content standards based on the preferences of the communities they're trying to serve.
But he admits many new users get hung up on choosing which server from thousands to join.
"I tried to explain Mastodon to my fiancée's elderly stepdad once, and I think I managed to do it," he said.
John Wilker is one of the many Twitter users now casting about for alternatives. He's tried Mastodon before, among others.
"I joined a Mastodon [server] that was all about science fiction and fantasy writing. And I'm like, 'This is great. These are definitely my people!'" he said. "But then no one else is there."
Breaking up with Twitter is hard to do, many users find
Wilker, who joined Twitter in 2007, credits the platform for helping him launch his career as a science-fiction writer. But he's gotten fed up with it before, like after the 2016 elections, then again in 2020.
"It would always come down to just like, OK, this feels like the ratio now is turning more towards doomposting, mean-spirited hot takes on things. That was usually when I'd start to look" for alternative social platforms, he said.
But he says it's been hard to replicate elsewhere the combination of the community he's built over the years on Twitter and the tools to customize his information feed. It's not for lack of trying. He said he signs up for most new social networking sites that come along, but he keeps returning to Twitter.
Twitter is more than a social network, says Karen North, a professor at University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
"People come to Twitter because they want to be part of a community of people crowdsourcing information and opinions," she said. "It's really a place where journalists go to get a heads up on a headline, get a quote by the source, build their stories and talk to their audiences."
But that is changing. Shortly before Election Day, the Associated Press warned its journalists to consider Twitter and other social media platforms "also function as arenas of information warfare," and to approach all posts with skepticism.
Twitter, under Musk, has overhauled its system of marking verified accounts with blue checkmarks. Now, some blue checkmarks still indicate that the company has confirmed a user's identity. Other blue checkmarks simply signify that the user has a monthly subscription, leading to mass confusion.
Meredith Clarke, a communications professor at Northeastern University, is writing a book about Black Twitter. She's sticking with Twitter because it's central to her research. But she knows users who are looking around for options feel torn about leaving. While more popular social networks like Facebook and TikTok serve some of the same needs as Twitter, they are not the same.
"No other social networking platform has the same sort of tools that make connection possible the way Twitter does," she said.
Even before Musk took over, she said, Twitter didn't do a good job of protecting Black and other marginalized users. She worries it'll get even worse for them under Musk, who is known for his belligerence and trolling of those who disagree with him.
"The question is whether they want to deal with the kind of harassment that has definitely spiked in the last few days and weeks, whether they want to be there when, say, the chief chaos agent in charge, [former President Donald Trump,] is allowed back on the platform," Clark said.
Musk has said it was a mistake for Twitter to ban Trump shortly after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. At the time, the company said Trump broke its rules about inciting violence.
North, of USC, says many people will stay on Twitter simply because of the time and effort it takes to set up a new community on another site. But she notes users' shifting allegiance over time is also part of the evolution of social media.
Young people migrated from Facebook to Instagram, she said. "Then they got frustrated with Instagram and they went over to Snapchat. And before that, everybody left MySpace, and before that, everybody left Friendster. And it's hard to remember that Friendster and MySpace even existed."
A chance to rethink what social media could be
If a critical mass of Twitter users desert it for Mastodon or other alternatives, it could be an opportunity for a do-over of sorts for social media networks.
"Let's ask, 'What does it mean to build an intentional social network around timely, accurate, local knowledge?'" said Joan Donovan, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and co-author of the new book "Meme Wars." "Rather than start from the premise of, 'We're just going to be the tubes that push information around the Web and no one's going to be responsible for quality.'"
Donovan says imagine if we could keep the parts we like: easy online community building and fun memes, for example. And lose the parts we hate, like the disinformation, compulsion, and breathless chase for likes and eyeballs.
As for Wilker, the sci-fi writer, he says he's ready for a break from his relationship with Twitter.
"We've definitely taken it to places that aren't great for society or our mental well-being. So maybe we could figure out a social media that isn't so toxic or favorite-driven," he said.
But when it comes to quitting Twitter altogether, he says he thought of it. Then, he thought again.
"No, I have no plans to go anywhere. No plans to wholesale walk away," he said.
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