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Few people outside of computer scientists or engineers had heard of the social network Mastodon before Elon Musk bought Twitter.
Now, Twitter users worried about the changes made by the eccentric billionaire are signing up to Mastodon accounts in droves. Mastodon hit one million users earlier this week, up from less than 400,000 before Musk struck the Twitter deal on Oct. 27.
The rise in popularity surprised even Eugen Rochko, who founded Mastodon in 2016.
“What I’ve always wanted to try to overcome as an obstacle is the idea that, no, there aren’t enough people in there, so I can’t really use it. Or is it? is for nerds,” he said.
Now he is working sleepless nights to meet the growing demand.
But Mastodon isn’t the most intuitive social media platform. Mastodon is open source software, which means anyone can set up a server to host users and connect to other servers, creating a decentralized network.
“Nobody controls the whole network,” Rochko said.
“It is, indeed, more democratic,” he argues, because the operators of each individual server can set content standards based on the preferences of the communities they are trying to serve.
But he admits that many new users are obsessed with choosing which server out of thousands to join.
“I tried to explain Mastodon to my fiancee’s elderly stepfather once, and I think I managed to do it,” he said.
John Wilker is one of many Twitter users looking for alternatives. He has already tried Mastodon, among others.
“I joined a juggernaut [server] it was all about science fiction and fantasy writing. And I’m like, ‘That’s great. They are definitely my people! “, He said. “But there is no one else there.”
Breaking up with Twitter is hard to do, many users find
Wilker, who joined Twitter in 2007, credits the platform with helping him launch his career as a science fiction writer. But he was fed up before, like after the 2016 elections, then again in 2020.
“It would always boil down to just like, OK, this makes it seem like the ratio is now leaning more towards doomposting, mean-spirited takes on things. That was usually when I started looking 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 personalize his news feed. It’s not for lack of trying. He said he signed up for most new social media sites that came up, but kept coming back to Twitter.
Twitter is more than a social network, says Karen North, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
“People come to Twitter because they want to be part of a community of people who gather information and opinions,” she said. “It really is a place journalists go to learn about a headline, get a quote from the source, build their stories and speak to their audience.”
But that is changing. Shortly before Election Day, The Associated Press warned its reporters to consider Twitter and other social media platforms “also operating as arenas for information warfare” and to approach all posts with skepticism.
Twitter, under Musk, has overhauled its system for marking verified accounts with blue checkmarks. Now, some blue checkmarks still indicate that the company has confirmed a user’s identity. Other blue checkmarks just mean the user has a monthly subscription, leading to mass confusion.
Meredith Clarke, a communications professor at Northeastern University, is writing a book on Black Twitter. She sticks to Twitter because it’s central to her research. But she knows users looking for options are feeling 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 kind of tools that make connection possible like 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 fears it will get even worse for them under Musk, who is known for his belligerence and trolling for those who disagree with him.
“The question is whether they want to deal with the type of harassment that has definitely increased in the last few days and weeks, whether they want to be there when, say, the chief chaos operative in charge, [former President Donald Trump,] is allowed back on the platform,” Clark said.
Musk said it was a mistake for Twitter to ban Trump shortly after the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol. At the time, the company said Trump broke its rules on inciting violence.
North of USC says many people will stay on Twitter simply because of the time and effort it takes to build a new community on another site. But she notes that the changing allegiance of users over time is also part of the evolution of social media.
Young people have migrated from Facebook to Instagram, she said. “Then they got frustrated with Instagram and they went to Snapchat. And before that everybody left MySpace, and before that everybody left Friendster. And it’s hard to remember that Friendster and MySpace have even existed.”
A chance to rethink what social media could be
If a critical mass of Twitter users abandons it for Mastodon or other alternatives, it could be an opportunity for some sort of social media overhaul.
“Let’s ask ourselves, ‘What does it mean to build an intentional social network around accurate and timely local knowledge?'” said Joan Donovan, professor at Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of the new book “Meme Wars”. “Rather than starting from the premise: ‘We’re just going to be the tubes that put the news out on the web and nobody’s going to be responsible for the quality. “”
Donovan says imagine if we could keep the parts we love: easy online community building and fun memes, for example. And lose the parts we hate, like misinformation, coercion, and the breathless hunt for likes and eyeballs.
As for Wilker, the science fiction writer, he says he’s ready to break up with his relationship with Twitter.
“We’ve definitely taken him to places that aren’t good for society or our mental well-being. So maybe we can find a social network that isn’t so toxic or favorite-focused,” he said. he declared.
But when it comes to quitting Twitter altogether, he says he’s thought about it. Then he thinks again.
“No, I don’t plan to go anywhere. I don’t plan to leave,” he said.