Since Elon Musk has taken over Twitter and has fired thousands of employees, the Mastodon social media platform has seen a huge influx of new users: more than 1 million people people joined Mastodon since Musk took over Twitter. Stephen Fry is one of the most famous people who made the move. People cite fear that Twitter will become even more toxic because of the more tolerant moderation announced by Musk. Indeed, many newcomers on Mastodon praise the more relaxed atmosphere with less attacks and controversies.
All the general media have written articles about Mastodon and the increasing popularity of it (CNN, BBC, Le Monde, Tagesschau, VRTNws,…) fueling the stream of people creating a Mastodon account even more.
For many people this is probably the first time that they realize what the risks are of one huge single commercial platform and now discover the advantages of an independent open network based on free and open-source software.
Mastodon dealing with the growth
In the meantime Mastodon server administrators are scrambling to increase the capacity of their servers. Fortunately also new administrators have stepped in and set up new servers to deal with the growth of the network. Even some organizations, like MIT, have already set up their own Mastodon server. There have been temporary slowdowns and outages of Mastodon servers, but all in all no fundamental problems. It looks like the network can deal with the huge influx and scales well on a technical level.
The question remains whether the social network will be able to prevent the problems that plagued Twitter and which at times made it an unfriendly and hostile environment where fake news and attacks were common. First of all, Mastodon has a few features which should help in preventing it in becoming a toxic environment. First of all, the timeline in Mastodon is purely chronological. Unlike Twitter, messages from people you are not following but which are liked by others, will not be pushed in your timeline by some vague algorithm. Only the people you follow, will determine what you get to see in your timeline, so you have much more control over this than on Twitter. Mastodon does not have a quote feature like Twitter. The Mastodon creator deliberately decided not to implement a quote feature, because it stimulates toxic behaviour. And Mastodon does not prominently show in the timeline how many times a toot has been boosted, marked as favourite and how many answers it got, which reduces the drive to maximize boosts, favourites and answers. By default search engines will not index your messages on Mastodon, making it much harder for people with bad intentions to search your old messages. The usage of Content Warnings is pretty common on Mastodon and helps hiding controversial content from people not interested in them.
Will this be enough to prevent trolls from dominating the platform? I dare to doubt that. Up to now, very little news media and politicians are present on Mastodon. Often messages from these accounts, trigger negative reactions and toxic behaviour. I can imagine things will become more difficult once more politicians and their fan base and news media start posting on Mastodon.
Much will depend of the instance moderators and also of the choices all people on Mastodon make themselves. First of all, every instance has its own set of rules and its up to the moderators to enforce them. For example see the rules for some Mastodon servers: Fosstodon, mastodon.social, mastodon.art, mastodon-belgium.be. Some instances have more strict rules, while others have more vague rules. I think in the future we will see some instances adapting their rules in order to deal with certain problematic situations. People joining Mastodon should properly take into account the rules when choosing an instance: if you want to minimize the risk of trolling, choose an instance which has an explicit zero-tolerance policy against such behaviour. If you are not happy with how your instance deals with annoying behaviour, you can always move to another Mastodon instance.
Then of course the question remains whether moderators will be able to enforce the policy in practice. Will there be enough moderators to do all the work and will they dare to intervene and block people? And what will they do with people who stay in the grey zone, who strictly speaking don’t break the rules but create a negative atmosphere?
Server moderators are only responsible for their own server, so trolling can still happen from other instances. However, the administrator of an instance has the option to completely block other instances. On the web pages with the server rules mentioned above, you can also see which servers are blocked by this instance and for which reason. So there’s again a big responsibility here for the instance admins: will they dare to completely block instances which have a lax policy and are too tolerant against abuse?
But the administrators and moderators will not be able to solve all problems. A huge responsibility falls also on the shoulders of the users themselves. How will people react when politicians start launching controversial ideas on Mastodon? If people start fueling controversial discussions, for example by posting screenshots of controversial ideas, together with indignant remarks, this will only spread the message to others, including to people who don’t want these messages and will only annoying them. People on Mastodon do have the tools to protect them against such annoyances: just like on Twitter, you can mute and block people, and there are also filter options which allow you to hide all posts containing certain words.
It will be up to all the people on Mastodon to use all these options wisely to prevent heated discussions, attacks and annoyances leading to a negative atmosphere like on Twitter.
The future of Twitter
In the meantime, some people on Twitter closed their account after they became active on Mastodon. Several companies decided to pause advertising on Twitter because of uncertainty and fear that Twitter would become a platform with problematic content due to Musk scaling back content moderation. Twitter Blue, a plan where anyone could get a Verified check for $8 per month, caused a dumpster fire. It lead to a flood of fake verified accounts impersonating famous people (including Musk), politicians and companies. This even has consequences outside of Twitter: the stock of the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Company went down after a fake account posted on Twitter that insulin would become free and it lost 15 billion in valuation. Because of all the confusion, Twitter Blue has been suspended. Some people complain about an increase of spam on Twitter. Thousands of people have been fired and top executives responsible for security and moderation on the platform, have resigned. It is clear that Twitter is in a deep crisis. The current mess will only make companies doubt even more about spending money on the platform.
It’s hard to say how this will end. Twitter has huge problems, but in spite of this, I think that it is too big to fail. At least for now. What’s for sure is that many people now have a real choice: a proprietary platform which is ruled by someone whose impulsiveness causes havoc and which is at times unfriendly and hostile, or an open platform in hands of the community and with stricter moderation and a more friendly atmosphere. Mastodon is growing and it looks like the growth is sustainable, even though currently it is still much smaller than Twitter.
I would not be surprised that somewhere in the future Twitter would implement the ActivityPub protocol and so it would become part of the Fediverse. That way they could give companies access to people who fled to Mastodon. Many companies however have invested a lot in Twitter and use it to promote content of their own websites to the public or for customer support. For this they often use specialized software, often integrating in their own website CMS. Unless these software tools are adapted for Mastodon, it will be hard for such companies to move to Mastodon. So for big brands, Twitter definitely still has an advantage. However the question is whether companies will still have faith in Twitter.