What Elon Musk Can Learn From Mastodon—and What He Can’t

Freedom never comes for free. In the case of Twitter, the price was $ 44 billion, which will be paid by Elon Musk to release the platform from its responsibilities as a public company and transform it into a Xanadu of freedom of expression. Musk wants to open up platform algorithms, banish spam bots, and allow people to tweet whatever they want “within the limits of the law.” For him, the bet is nothing more than existential. “My strong intuitive sense,” he said in an interview with TED last week, “is that having a public platform with the utmost confidence and being broadly inclusive is extremely important for the future of civilization.”

Musk’s vision has fueled uncertainty about the future of Twitter. But many of these ideas are already working on another social network, one that thousands of people have turned to in recent days: Mastodon.

Mastodon emerged in 2016 as a decentralized alternative to Twitter. It is not a website, but a collection of federated communities called “instances”. Its code is open source, which allows anyone to create their own “instance”. There is, for example, metalhead.club, for German metalworkers, and koyu.space, a “nice community for quiet people.” Each instance operates its own server and creates its own set of rules. There are no broad edicts on what people can and cannot say through the “fediverse” or the “federated universe.” In Mastodon, communities are controlled.

More than 28,000 new users joined a Mastodon server on Monday, according to network creator Eugen Rochko. Since March, when Musk started making noise, the network has seen up to 49,000 new accounts. For a service with 360,000 monthly active users, this is a substantial influx. “On the Mastodon server I manage, sign-ups have increased by 71 percent and monthly active users have increased by 36 percent,” Rochko said in an email. “A lot of people have gone back to their old accounts after the news.”

Rochko once found himself in a position similar to Musk’s: he was a powerful Twitter user with some complaints. The problem, as Rochko saw it, was centralization. A central authority meant that the platform was adapted to the whims of its shareholders and the rules could change without notice. It also meant that a platform could disappear, something Rochko had experienced with MySpace, Friendfeed, and SchülerVZ, a German version of Facebook. A server owned and operated by people who use it would allow greater control, including self-government.

Unlike Musk, Rochko had no billions to burn. Instead, he was a 24-year-old college student, months away from graduating from a university in central Germany. So Rochko decided to build his own social network. He created the Mastodon framework in his spare time, accepting donations from Patreon benefactors, who were equally interested in a Twitter alternative that would return power to the people. In 2016, shortly after graduating, he launched Mastodon to the masses.

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