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With Twitter in chaos, Mastodon experiences dizzying growth

(CNN) — Ever since Elon Musk started taking over Twitter, the number of people signing up to the small Mastodon social network has increased significantly.

Many may not have heard of Mastodon, which has been around since 2016, but is now growing at a rapid rate. Some are running away from Twitter or at least looking a second option to post your thoughts onlineas the popular social network faces layoffs, controversial product changes, a new approach to content moderation and a jump in hateful rhetoric.

It may also be unclear what the alternative is to Twitter, an influential and unique platform that is fast-moving, text-heavy, conversational, and news-oriented. But Mastodon fills some needs.

The service looks similar to Twitter, with a timeline of short updates arranged chronologically rather than algorithmically. It allows users to join a large number of different servers managed by various groups and individuals, instead of a single central platform controlled by a single company like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Unlike the larger social networks, Mastodon is free to use and free of ads. It is operated by a non-profit organization led by its creator, Eugen Rochko, and receives funding via microfinance, also known as crowdfunding.

Elon Musk sued for mass layoffs on Twitter 0:57

Rochko said in an interview Thursday that Mastodon has gained 230,000 users since Oct. 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.

“Obviously, it’s not as big as Twitter, but it’s the biggest network that’s ever been,” said Rochko, who originally created Mastodon more as a project than a consumer product (and, yes, its name was inspired by the heavy metal band Mastodon).

Who is joining Mastodon?

Mastodon social network.

Mastodon is free, open source software for running self-hosted social networking services.

The new registrations in Mastodon include some Twitter users with many followers, such as the actress and comedian Katy Griffinwho joined at the beginning of November, and the journalist Molly Jong Fastwhich joined at the end of October.

Sarah T. Roberts, an associate professor at UCLA and faculty director of the university’s Center for Critical Internet Research, started using Mastodon in earnest on Oct. 30, just after Musk took over Twitter. She (She said that she had created another account years ago but didn’t get into it until recently due to Twitter’s popularity among academics).

Roberts, who worked at Twitter as a staff researcher earlier this year while taking a leave of absence from UCLA, said she was inspired to start using Mastodon because of concerns about how Twitter’s content moderation could change under the control of Musk. But she suspects that some newcomers are simply fed up with social media companies that keep a lot of user data and are governed by advertising.

And he noted that Twitter users can migrate to Mastodon because the user experience is quite similar. Many of Mastodon’s features and design (particularly in its iOS app) will look and feel familiar to current Twitter users, albeit with slightly different verbiage. You can follow others, create short posts (there is a 500 character limit and images and videos can be uploaded), bookmark or repost other users’ posts, etc.

“It’s as close as you can get,” he said.

Feel like a newcomer to social media

I’ve been a Twitter user since 2007, but as people I follow on the social network have started posting their Mastodon usernames in recent weeks, I’ve been curious. This week, I decided to check out Mastodon for myself.

There are some key differences, particularly in how the network is configured. Because Mastodon user accounts are hosted on a large number of different servers, the costs of hosting users are spread across many different people and groups. But that also means users are scattered far and wide, and the people you know can be hard to find. Rochko likened this setup to having different email providers, like Gmail and Hotmail.

elon musk twitter trump suspended accounts

Elon Musk.

This means that the entirety of the network is not under the control of a single person or company, 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 be less intuitive than the popular Facebook and Instagram.

In Mastodon, for example, you have to join a specific server to register, some of which are open to anyone, while others require an invite (you can also build your own server). There is a server operated by the non-profit organization behind Mastodon, Mastodon.social, but it is not accepting more users. I’m currently using one called Mstdn.social, which is also where I can log in to access Mastodon on the web.

And while I can follow any other Mastodon user, no matter what server they’re logged into, I can only see lists of who follows their Mastodon friends, or who their Mastodon friends follow, if the followers belong to the same server with the one that is registered (I realized this while trying to track down more people I know who have recently registered).

At first, I felt like I was starting over, in a sense, like a newcomer to social media. As Roberts said, it’s pretty similar to Twitter in terms of looks and functionality, and the iOS app is easy to use.

But unlike Twitter, where I can easily engage with a large audience, my Mastodon network has fewer than 100 followers. Suddenly I had no idea what to post, a feeling I never get on Twitter, perhaps because the sheer size of that network makes any post feel less important. However, I quickly got over it and realized that Mastodon’s smaller scale can be soothing compared to Twitter’s endless stream of stimulation.

A gateway to social media

However, I am not quite ready to close my Twitter account. For me, Mastodon is kind of a social media escape hatch in case Twitter becomes unbearable.

Roberts also hasn’t decided yet whether to close his Twitter account, but he was surprised at how quickly his Mastodon following grew. Within a week of signing up and alerting his nearly 23,000 Twitter followers, he amassed over 1,000 Mastodon followers.

“It could be that very soon people don’t want to be stuck on Twitter,” he said.

In a way, starting over can be fun too. “I thought, ‘What will it be like to start over?'”

“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 together.”

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