Twitter is in crisis these days. Under new owner Elon Musk, the service has lost more than half of its staff to layoffs and resignations, made erratic changes to its product and platform strategies, and faced reports about its financial situation.
This disruption, in true tech industry style, has led to the emergence of a plethora of alternatives, some still sprouting and others fully formed and awaiting their moment in the spotlight.
Among them, one of the leaders that has emerged is Mastodon – a network built on the ActivityPub protocol that runs servers itself and allows others to join and/or establish their own servers to chat and view the content of others.
Eugen Rochko, the creator of Mastodon – and currently the only full-time employee – said in an interview with TechCrunch that the service has grown very quickly and now has 2.5 million monthly active users over no less than 8,600 different servers. Mastodon directly operates a few of them, and the largest of them, mastodon.social, has 881,000 registered users, with 210,000 active.
Rochko has shut down Mastodon’s servers for new registrations. It’s a decision he described as a “victimless decision” because there are so many other places to register an account and still interact with the larger Mastodon universe. Nevertheless, this decision has created a curious shortage/demand situation: people and organizations have contacted Rochko to ask him for access to obtain accounts on his servers anyway.
“The main reason why registration is closed right now is just that it’s a big burden for DevOps to scale, beyond the number of users [we have now],” he said. “I don’t mean, ‘oh, the software isn’t good enough to scale’ or anything. That’s not really the reason, it’s just a matter of not having a dedicated DevOps employee right now. I can’t handle all this organizational stuff and stuff. It’s just easier to close registrations and make sure that people who are already there have a good quality of service, instead of allowing more people to register, and then it slows down. And then I have to stay up, spend sleepless nights fixing things.
“The decentralized nature and the fact that there are so many other servers to choose from to sign up for means it’s kind of a victimless decision to make.”
Rochko is now considering the next steps of his operation.
Mastodon as it currently exists is set up as a non-profit organization, largely funded by a Patreon account that Rochko set up and which currently brings in $31,000 a month – a figure he says “has increased dramatically over the past month…from $7,000.
Mastodon will remain a nonprofit, Rochko said, but he envisions what he describes as a split model, “like Mozilla’s, where the nonprofit will continue to work on the core product, which will remain open source, nonprofit, etc. and we might start a side business for profit for software as a service, first to provide Mastodon hosting to those who want it.
The goal, he said, is “a sustainable and fair business…we would only do the hosting and the server would be completely under your control. And obviously we would allow you to take your data and put it there.” move to your own hosting provider in the future, or migrate from another hosting provider, etc.
Unlike the approach taken by WordPress, there are no plans to integrate advertisements as part of the hosted service, he said. It’s a position that seems to stem from his own feelings about them, but he doesn’t completely dismiss them.
“You have to consider the unifying nature of the network,” he said. “Anyone could develop another platform, using the same ActivityPub protocol [that Mastodon does], but with completely different software, with different expectations and different functionalities. And if they wanted to put ads in there, they could, in theory.
“The question is only as a user, would you go to a service that has ads, and to make those ads effective, the service keeps track of your interests and location? Or would you just go to another who doesn’t? We, Mastodon, are not interested in advertising activity and implementing ads in our code. But as I said, it’s free and open source, so no anyone can modify it, they would do so at their own risk, with different business models.
As for those Mastodon server operators, he said, he leaves the door open to them, but ironically prefers something not unlike what Musk launched for Twitter himself.
“I think I see a method in some kind of framework for building interoperable social media networks; you could think of an individual server as a separate social network, like Tumblr or Instagram,” he said. “With interoperability built in from the outset, I think it makes sense that they would be able to explore different business models, or maybe develop different features. I think the fairest model that might appear in the ecosystem would probably be the paid accounts model. This is something in the past that App.net has tried to do but I think hasn’t been successful. It wasn’t clear if it was because of the paid part of the account, or because they hadn’t really built a good flagship.
He revealed he’s also spoken with investors, although for the most part it seems like a lot of those who want to give him money don’t really understand what he’s trying to do, with a recurring theme being the idea of further marketing the platform.
“Over the years I’ve definitely gotten a lot of spontaneous cold contacts from various VCs. I’ve ignored them before, but now we have Felix [Hlatky], who basically works as a CFO, but he doesn’t officially have the title yet. Now I pass them on to him and then he tries to talk to them, or sometimes I pick up the calls,” he said. “We have been trying to talk to some VCs about this hosting deal over the past two weeks. I have to say, though, that they are interested in somehow getting into the main product and not so much interested in a sustainable hosting business. So VCs aren’t going to help here. We do not let them enter the main product in any way. So yeah, we’re probably going to have to bring in an angel investor, or just fund the hosting business separately or just, I don’t know, maybe personal funds would suffice. It’s not entirely clear.
Mastodon was notable for the way it garnered attention in the wake of the Twitter drama – so much so that it triggered a new Musk-era rule banning links to competing social networks, suspending presence from Mastodon on Twitter in the process.
It’s also interesting because of the way it approaches social space.
Mastodon is based on a “federated” open source concept, where different servers use the same protocol to talk to each other and share content; server operators monitor the activity of users registered and hosted on their respective servers.
It might seem a little confusing to the uninitiated, but there are tools to help you bring your Twitter world to Mastodon and retain much of the same experience.
To follow the metaphor, servers become like a herd of animals, even behemoths, distinct but generally moving in the same direction. To get away from the metaphor, however, Mastodon’s ethos is far from extinct: as we’ve detailed, open source is something that a number of other social media platforms, including Twitter , are also considering very seriously.
Mastodon in particular seems to have really struck a chord. The platform’s mobile apps see around 4,000 downloads per day on average, but during a recent peak, 149,000 downloads were recorded on Android and 235,000 on iOS.
That spike took place, Rochko said, during the days when Twitter announced a huge round of job cuts that wiped out entire departments of the company, including those handling media communications, but also those working on moderation, security and curation, as well as several technical teams.
Indeed, this reverse variation – the fall of Twitter equals the rise of Mastodon – is one that’s going really well for the latter right now.
The question is whether it will last. Admittedly, the ups and downs of Twitter as a platform have been a feature of the company almost since its inception, so much so that many have questioned whether it’s best viewed as a utility rather than a company.
Either way, Twitter stayed and grew. And while this latest fight has, to many, seemed like “the last straw”, only time will tell if everything settles down and users end up accepting what becomes the new status quo, or if a change significant in social platforms is really coming.
In any case, technological developments sometimes seem to happen overnight, but sometimes they take years. (Read more about how Rochko spent those years on TC+.)
For Mastodon, the financial aspect is one that continues to loom over him regardless.
On the one hand, it played a role in the growth of the company. Rochko may be the only full-time employee, but he five others work freelance as moderators on Mastodon’s own servers, in addition to the financially named Felix Hlatky on the Mastodon about page. One of the goals was to figure out how to attract more people in a stable way.
The $31,000 a month he earns through Patreon isn’t really enough, or stable enough, to fund a staff, Rochko said, but he’s thought about a secondary level of activity to generate a more stable income for him. business, by operating a second service. where he provides services to host Mastodon servers for others.
“I’m the only full-time employee, and the others – five people – are contractors at the moment,” he said. “I’m looking to grow the team full time and I’ve been working on some job openings. It’s kind of a slow process. I wish I could do it a lot faster. But it’s a new frontier for a company that has been a sole proprietorship for six years. Everything has gone well so far, but now we need more people.