Rodti MacLeary started A Mastodon specimen in 2019, mas.to. As of early November 2022, it gathered around 35,000 users. But ever since Elon Musk bought Twitter and made one chaotic decision after another, people have signed up to mas.to and other instances or servers in surging waves, sometimes causing them to be offline for short periods of time. User flow is fueled by every haphazard policy update Musk claims from his own Twitter account. Last week, Twitter’s billionaire owner suspended several high-profile journalists and accused them of exposing himself, and then briefly banned links to all social media competitors, including Mastodon. However, the mas.to cloud server continued to grow, reaching a total of 130,000 users and 67,000 active users by Tuesday.
That’s tiny compared to Twitter’s hundreds of millions of tweeters. But it’s a heavy burden for someone like MacLeary, who has a day job and no salaried staff, and pours his time and money into mas.to as a labor of love. As a decentralized, open-source social media platform, Mastodon is significantly different in nature from Big Tech platforms such as Meta, Twitter, and YouTube. That’s part of its appeal, and it’s moving from a niche to mainstream consciousness: Mastodon currently has over 9,000 instances and around 2.5 million monthly active users.
“There’s definitely momentum behind it,” MacLeary says. “I don’t know if that momentum has pushed it past the tipping point. It reminds me of my very positive experience in the early days of Twitter. You felt like you knew everyone there.”
Whether Mastodon will remain a nice, utopian “early Twitter” or just a ubiquitous, messy social network remains to be seen. But with politicians, celebrities, and journalists signing up, the potential to copy some of what Twitter is doing is increasing. Twitter profiles now often carry Mastodon usernames as social groups migrate to the other app. But there’s a divergence: Some new users want Mastodon to be Twitter, and some Mastodon users are there because they’ve outgrown Twitter.
And with this growing number of users comes more responsibility, not just for Mastodon itself, but for volunteer administrators whose hobbies of running servers have become second jobs.
“There are a lot of people who don’t really realize what they’re getting themselves into,” says Corey Silverstein, an attorney specializing in internet law. “If you are running these [instances]You should run Twitter as if you own it. What people don’t understand is how complex and expensive it is to manage such a platform.”
Because Mastodon is decentralized, it relies on several server administrators rather than a single hub to stay online. These administrators are not just glorified users; Silverstein says they are more like internet service providers themselves and therefore responsible for keeping their servers compliant with copyright and privacy laws. If they fail, they can be hooked for litigation. And they have to follow complex legal frameworks around the world.
Only the US has the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes social platforms liable for copyrighted material posted there if they don’t register and try to remove it to protect themselves (registration takes just a few minutes and costs $6). There is also the Online Child Protection Act, which requires platforms to ask if users are over 13 and process their data accordingly. If administrators become aware of child abuse material, they should report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Then there is Europe with the General Data Protection Regulation, a privacy and human rights law. Europe’s new Digital Services Law could also apply to Mastodon servers if they get big enough. Administrators must comply not only with their own local laws, but also with existing laws wherever their servers are accessible. All of this is daunting, but not impossible, according to experts.