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Culture

What happened to Mastodon after its moment in the spotlight?

In early April, open-source social platform Mastodon had its 15 minutes of fame. The service has been compared ad nauseam to Twitter, from which it borrows its basic structure: short messages from users, retweets (or retoots, in its parlance), chronological timelines updating in real-time, and so on. Mastodon’s layout even cops a basic version of Tweetdeck, the popular third-party Twitter software.

Creator Eugen Rochko made Mastodon as a way of improving on Twitter’s formula; the open-source platform gave users more privacy options, and improved the overall experience with expanded character counts and chronological timelines. The service launched months ago, but it didn’t really take off until Twitter rolled out an update on how it displays replies. As users grumbled over the changes, many took their complaints a step further. They left Twitter — at least momentarily — to start new accounts on Mastodon. The userbase of Mastodon’s flagship instance, Mastodon.social swelled more than 70 percent in 48 hours. Registration was locked, and those interested in the platform were encouraged to branch out to any number of other instances. (Unlike Twitter, Mastodon is spread across many sub communities, e.g. social.targaryen.house, mastodon.host, mastodon.network, and so on.)

More than a month later, the buzz over Mastodon has quieted. But though it may not be making headlines, the service continues to grow.

Mastodon’s flagship instance is open once again

Mastodon.social still serves as the flagship instance for Mastodon, though registration temporarily closed as sign-up numbers swelled; it re-opened earlier this month. Rochko says he’s longer concerned about its size. “Accepting new users is not much of a problem, load / moderation wise,” he tells The Verge. “It’s only when the sign-up plus activity rate is higher than I and my mods can deal with [that] it becomes problematic.”

As it stands, Mastodon.social is home to more than 59,000 users — a jump from last month, when it housed around 41,700 users.

Rochko says he closed the instance during the boom in order to spread members through the service’s federation system — a system of separate, but linked communities — instead of situating everyone on a single server. “That would defeat the purpose of decentralization,” he says. “I am not changing my stance on that.”

However, Rochko explains that with over 1,200 different servers in existence — and at least one other massive instance (pawoo.net, which supports more than 150,000 users) — he isn’t as worried about users defaulting to the flagship.

Work has been done to streamline the sign-up process. When you register on an instance now, there’s notably more handholding than there was a couple months ago. The first time you log in, the service gives you your full handle, tells you who your moderator is, and explains the basics of the service. That’s a definite plus, as logging onto the service initially felt, for newcomers, a little like wandering into oncoming traffic. The tutorial allows Rochko and instance mods to skip personally having to address questions or misconceptions about the service, he says.

“Mastodon isn’t difficult, but it’s different, and that has to click for people to get it,” says Rochko.

For example, new users need to easily grasp how handles work. Unlike Twitter, your handle isn’t just your chosen username. It also includes the full address of your Mastodon instance. Where I might be @Megan_Nicolett on Twitter, for example, my Mastodon handle is @[email protected] Rochko says that explaining this system to new users right away has alleviated a lot of confusion.

Who are Mastodon’s users?

As the flagship instance has grown, its community focus has become diluted. While Rochko described mastodon.social initially as “predominantly queer / furry / leftist,” the 50,000-member community has become far more generalist. “It is hard to describe the average mastodon.social user because this is the ‘flagship’ instance that got all the main press attention, so lots of people from different backgrounds joined,” he says.

Scrolling through my mastodon.social local feed is like reaching into a social media grab bag: toots about personal observations, video games, politics, comics, and a mix of users speaking in French, Japanese, Spanish, and more. As one user opines on Sonic Forces, another laments the Trump presidency. Shortly after, someone toots in celebration of the release of Chelsea Manning.

In other words, mastodon.social doesn’t look so different than the rest of the internet.

With expansion, it has experienced the same growing pains as its social media contemporaries. The need for moderation and blocking has increased. “Trolls and internet go hand in hand,” Rochko says. “We strive to further improve blocking and moderation tools, and make owning your identity across the fediverse easier, whether by making the creation of new instances simpler or adding tools for migration between identities, or cryptographic approaches to verifying identities / content.”

Carving out your own community

This concept of creating standalone spaces is perhaps the key differentiating factor between Mastodon and Twitter.

Since its moment in the spotlight. Mastodon has ballooned into an even wider web of (mostly connected) communities. According to Mastodon’s site, it currently serves more than 623,000 users spread across nearly 1,600 instances. If there’s a specific sort of community you’re seeking — from burners, cuties, motorsports, sci-fi, and “wang” lovers — you’re likely to find it on the list of Mastodon instances.

The variety makes defining “Mastodon culture” nearly impossible; it depends on what instance you call home, and which instances yours federates with. Mastodon explains the federated timeline as a stream that “shows public posts from everyone who people on [your instance] follow.” In other words, it’s not exactly the Twitter replacement we all hailed it as. It’s more like a series of sophisticated, quick-fire message boards.

There are a handful of Mastodon instances I’ve frequented since the initial mass migration; all of the moderators I spoke with for these instances noted an influx of users around early-to-mid April. The largest of my personal instances is Mastodon.xyz with more than 9,000 users (for reference, that’s roughly a sixth the size of the flagship instance). The smallest I have a membership to is the Memetastic space, with just over 3,000 members.

Similar to Mastodon.social, Mastodon.xyz offers a general space for users to hang out. When I contacted the server’s host, a French 17-year-old student who goes by @TheKinrar, they described it as a multi-culture community light on moderation. “I only silence or suspend [people using hate speech] or things like that,” they said. @TheKinrar spends several hours a day on the instance. “I’m really very happy with what happened here. I’m involved in a community I like, and there are a lot of people out there thanking me for all I’ve done … this is just really great.”

The Memetastic space is currently hosted by @meme, a 15-year-old located near London. @meme says he spent a lot of time on the flagship instance before deciding to start his own. “My Twitter account (@LOLGuy213) had turned into just me ranting about politics, so Mastodon was a perfect place to take a break from Twitter,” @meme says. He explains that Mastodon.social requests that people use built-in Content Warnings when talking about sensitive topics like politics, so people who don’t want to read them don’t have to.

@meme says The Memetastic instance hasn’t needed much moderation, as most members respect the terms of service laid out in the instance’s informational tab.

When I asked Mastodon hosts if they felt the service could, in fact, serve as the Twitter replacement it was hailed as, their answers varied. Some agreed that it was a good alternative to Twitter. Others likened it to different platforms altogether, like mobile community network Amino Apps, or — perhaps more appropriately — Reddit.

The longer I spent on Mastodon, the more that comparison feels apt. With access to large local timelines, and not just personally curated feeds, there’s a variety of communities and spaces that Twitter, for all of its scale, rarely achieves. At the same tine, the lack of scale still hinders Mastodon. A social media service is only useful if it has members.

Rochko himself says he’s mostly left Twitter behind at this point. “Mastodon has replaced Twitter for me,” Rochko says. “I only rarely check it anymore, and only because not all people I care about have migrated yet.”

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