(CNN) — In the week since Elon Musk took over Twitter, the number of people signing up for a small social network called Mastodon has surged.
You may not have heard of Mastodon, which has been around since 2016, but now it’s growing rapidly. Some are fleeing Twitter for it or at least seeking out a second place to post their thoughts online as the much more well-known social network faces layoffs, controversial product changes, an expected shift in its approach to content moderation and a jump in hateful rhetoric.
There may be no clear alternative to Twitter, a uniquely influential platform that is fast-moving, text-heavy, conversational and news-oriented. But Mastodon scratches a certain itch. The service has a similar look to Twitter, with a timeline of short updates sorted chronologically rather than algorithmically. It lets users join a slew of different servers run by various groups and individuals, rather than one central platform controlled by a single company like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.
Unlike larger social networks, Mastodon is both free to use and free of ads. It’s operated by a nonprofit run by Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, and is supported via crowdfunding.
Rochko said in an interview Thursday that Mastodon gained 230,000 users since October 27, when Musk took control of Twitter. It now has 655,000 active users each month, he said. Twitter reported in July that it had nearly 238 million daily active monetizable users.
“It is not as large as Twitter, obviously, but it is the biggest that this network has ever been,” said Rochko, who originally created Mastodon as more of a project than a consumer product (and, yes, its name was inspired by the heavy metal band Mastodon).
Who’s joining Mastodon?
Mastodon’s new sign-ups include some Twitter users with big followings, such as actor and comedian Kathy Griffin, who joined in early November, and journalist Molly Jong-Fast, who joined in late October.
Sarah T. Roberts, an associate professor at UCLA and faculty director of the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, started using Mastodon in earnest on October 30, just after Musk took over Twitter. (She had created another account years ago, she said, but didn’t really get into it until recently because of the popularity of Twitter among people in academia.)
Roberts, who worked at Twitter as a staff researcher earlier this year while taking a leave from UCLA, said she was inspired to start using Mastodon due to concerns about how Twitter’s content moderation may change under Musk’s control. She suspects some newcomers are simply sick of social media companies that capture lots of user data and are driven by advertising.
And she pointed out that Twitter users may migrate to Mastodon in particular because its user experience is pretty similar to Twitter’s. A lot of Mastodon’s features and layout (particularly in its iOS app) will look and feel familiar to current Twitter users, though with some slightly different verbiage; you can follow others, create short posts (there’s a 500 character limit, and you can upload images and videos), favorite or repost other users’ posts, and so on.
“It’s about as close as it gets,” she said.
Feeling like a social-media newcomer
I’ve been a Twitter user since 2007, but as a growing number of the people I follow on the social network began posting their Mastodon usernames in recent weeks, I got curious. This week, I decided to check out Mastodon for myself.
There are some key differences, particularly in how the network is set up. Because Mastodon users’ accounts are hosted on a slew of different servers, the costs of hosting users is spread among many different people and groups. But that also means users are spread out all over the place, and people you know can be hard to find — Rochko likened this setup to having different email providers, like Gmail and Hotmail.
This means the entirety of the network isn’t under any one person or company’s control, but it also introduces some new complications for those of us used to Twitter — a product that has also been criticized over the years for being less intuitive than more popular services like Facebook and Instagram.
On Mastodon, for instance, you have to join a specific server to sign up, some of which are open to anyone, some of which require an invitation (you can also run your own server). There is a server operated by the nonprofit behind Mastodon, Mastodon.social, but it’s not accepting more users; I’m currently using one called Mstdn.social, which is also where I can sign in to access Mastodon on the web.
And while you can follow any other Mastodon user, no matter which server they’ve signed up with, you can only see the lists of who follows your Mastodon friends, or who your Mastodon friends follow, if the followers happen to belong to the same server you’re signed up with (I realized this while trying to track down more people I know who recently signed up).
At first, it felt as if I was starting over, in a sense, as a complete newcomer to social media. As Roberts said, it is quite similar to Twitter in terms of its look and functionality, and the iOS app is easy to use.
But unlike on Twitter, where I can easily interact with a large audience, my Mastodon network is less than 100 followers. Suddenly I had no idea what to post — a feeling that never nags me on Twitter, perhaps because the size of that network makes any post feel less consequential. I got over it quickly, though, and realized the smaller scale of Mastodon can be calming compared to Twitter’s endless stream of stimulation.
A social-media escape hatch
I’m not quite ready to close my Twitter account, though; for me, Mastodon is a sort of social-media escape hatch in case Twitter becomes unbearable.
Roberts, too, hasn’t yet decided if she will close her Twitter account, but she was surprised by how quickly her following grew on Mastodon. Within a week of signing up and alerting her nearly 23,000 Twitter followers, she has amassed over 1,000 Mastodon followers.
“It might be pretty soon that people don’t want to be caught on Twitter,” she said.
In some ways, starting over can also be fun.
“I thought, ‘What’s it going to be like to start over again?'” she asked. “It’s kind of interesting: Oh that person is here! Here’s so-and-so! I’m so glad they’re here so we can be here together.”
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