Mastodon, that giant cartoon mammal that’s been rampaging across the internet this week, is not the product of a Silicon Valley start-up.
Instead, the social networking app that’s been touted as a potential Twitter-killer is the brainchild of a 24-year-old recent college grad hellbent on disrupting the way we think about social networking.
As the wildly popular service’s German-born founder Eugen Rochko said Thursday via the gamer chat service Discord, it aims to operate on a “different paradigm” to established sites.
Mastodon, named for the extinct animal and not the metal band despite Rochko being a fan of the band and progressive metal, was announced on Hacker News in October. “I decided to give this a go,” Rochko said during the late-night call.
He had started building the project in early 2016. But it wasn’t until he graduated that he decided to put his project out in the wild. He said he wanted to take advantage of that precious time between graduating from university and getting stuck in the doldrums of a 9-to-5 job.
So only a few months after he earned his degree in computer science from a German university, he decided to push out an open sourced social network not too different from one of his favorite — but flawed, in his view — sites, Twitter. He named it Mastodon and in the past few days it has taken off.
What he’s created is a viable alternative to Twitter — if you’re OK with toots, instances, federations and meaningless verification marks. That’s the language of the social network, which was built to get away from the trolling and abuse that’s ruined the microblogging site for many of its users. “I was a heavy Twitter user,” Rochko explained, but something about the site pushed him to look for an alternative. To be clear, Mastodon’s distinctly not Twitter even if its based on Tweetdeck’s design (which Rochko said he still has pinned open in a browser tab out of force of habit). He said he sees it as a replacement.
Instead of the Twitterverse, Rochko has built a decentralized ecosystem that works the way he “wishes Twitter would.”
Instead of the Twitterverse, Rochko has built a decentralized ecosystem that works the way he “wishes Twitter would.” He’s shaped Mastodon to run on separate servers, or instances. The main instance is Mastodon.social. Other instances are moderated and managed by a volunteer crew and entirely separate from his flagship instance.
The federated timeline connects toots (aka tweets, which have a 500-character limit instead of Twitter’s 140) all coming from different instances. If an instance falls apart or goes dormant the entire platform stays intact, and Rochko doesn’t have to manage, pay or support the many arms of the decentralized system. That’s how Rochko can maintain his strong stance opposing corporate structuring, monetization and advertising.
In the past few months Rochko has been vocal about why a new type of social network needs to exist. In Medium posts and other sites, he’s gone into the flaws of traditional sites like Facebook and Twitter. In a March post, “Learning from Twitter’s mistakes,” he laid out how Mastodon’s federated system — where “you have the ability to choose an instance with the rules and policies that you agree with” — is more conducive to “smaller, tight-knit communities” that are “less prone to harbouring toxic behaviour.”
Moderators in different instances also keep abuse in check. As Rochko posted about platform control back in February, “Facebook simply cannot give anyone the power to do anything, because that power will always, ultimately, reside in Facebook itself, which controls both the software, the servers and the moderation policies.”
During Thursday’s call he said some of Twitter’s recent changes have helped push people to his site — all organically since he says he has no press strategy. Five days ago 24,000 users had signed up. By Thursday the site boasted more than 40,000 users, per Rochko. That’s 6,000 active users at a time — way too many for Rochko alone to handle.
He’s closed registration to his instance, Mastodon.social, but a growing list of other instances are open. “Right now my focus is to make the service work smoothly for those users I have right now,” he said about the possibility of his instance re-opening up anytime soon.
Rochko had to laugh at some of the domain names popping up on the instance list. He pointed out Witches.town and Slime.global. With the code open and available on GitHub, he’s hoping for some hardcore users to “get into the code” and become a resource for running the growing platform.
The site is really a success story of Patreon, the project crowdfunding site, which helped support Rochko as he was building out the platform these past few months. The amount of pledges has doubled in the past few days to more than $2,000 a month from $800 a few days ago, so he’s optimistic that he can continue working on Mastodon full time. Just a few months ago he was working on freelance software development projects for his alma mater. Not any more.
As he wrote on his GitHub page, this is not about money. “I’m not a company,” he said. Though if his recurring Patreon payments keep going up he can start paying himself a salary and possibly hire someone to help him with the platform. He said he was approached recently by someone claiming to be an early-stage investor and he quickly shot that down. “No one needs to buy it,” he said.
As the user base grows way beyond friends and the developer community, Rochko is excited that it’s growing exponentially. He’s even OK with — and encouraging of — companies, media outlets and other organizations making their own profiles and instances — in Rochko’s eyes that’s what the network is all about.
Rochko said his parents aren’t on social media and haven’t made an exception for Mastodon — yet. If Rochko’s vision of Mastodon is realized it will become part of the “mainstream consciousness” and “start being widely used,” he said.
At that point Mastodon will need an new instance dedicated solely to parents, weird uncles and other “olds.” But once its reached that level, will the cool “it” platform have gone extinct? It’s hard to predict, but until then Rochko’s all about the toots.