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How Mastodon is scaling amid the Twitter exodus

Is federated really the future?


Mastodon icon on a portion of smartphone screen
Image Credits: TechCrunch

Twitter is in crisis these days. Under new owner Elon Musk, the service has lost more than half its staff through layoffs and quitting, made erratic moves in its product and platform strategies and is facing up to reports about its financial state.

That disruption, in true tech industry style, has led to the emergence of a plethora of alternatives, some still in germination and some fully formed and waiting for their moment in the spotlight.

Among them, one of the leaders that has emerged is Mastodon — a network created on the ActivityPub protocol that runs servers itself and allows others to join and/or establish their own servers to engage with and see each others’ content.

Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s creator — and currently sole full-time employee — said in an interview with TechCrunch that the service has ratcheted up numbers very fast, and it now has 2.5 million monthly active users across no less than 8,600 different servers. Mastodon operates a couple of these directly, and the biggest of them, mastodon.social, has 881,000 registered users, 210,000 of them active.

Rochko has closed Mastodon’s servers for new signups. It’s a move he described as a “victimless decision,” because there are so many other places to register an account and still interact with the wider Mastodon universe. Nonetheless, the move has created a curious scarcity/demand situation: People and organizations have contacted Rochko asking for access to getting accounts on his servers anyway.

Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko talks funding and how to build the anti-Twitter

“The main reason that the registration is closed right now is just that it is a big burden to the DevOps, to scale up, beyond the number of users [we have now],” he said. “I don’t want to say, ‘oh, the software is not good enough to scale’ or whatever. That’s not really the reason, it’s just a question of not having a dedicated DevOps employee right now. I can’t run all of these organizational things and the rest. It’s just easier to close registrations and ensure that the people who are already on there have a good quality of service, instead of allowing more people to sign up, and then it slows down. And then I have to stay up, sleepless nights fixing things.

“The decentralized nature, and the fact that there’s plenty of other servers to choose from to sign up on means that it’s kind of a victimless decision to make.”

Now Rochko is eyeing up the next steps for his operation.

Mastodon as it currently exists is set up as a not-for-profit organization, financed for the most part by a Patreon account that Rochko set up that currently brings in $31,000 each month — a figure that he says “has risen dramatically over the past month… from $7,000.”

Mastodon is going to remain not-for-profit, Rochko said, but it’s looking at what he describes as a split model, “like Mozilla’s, where the nonprofit will continue working on the core product, which will remain open source, nonprofit and so on, and we might start a for-profit side business for software as a service, first to provide hosting for Mastodon’s for those who desire that.”

The aim, he said, is “a sustainable and fair business… we would do just the hosting and the server would be completely under your control. And obviously, we would allow you to take take your data and move it to your own hosting provider in the future, or migrate from another hosting provider, and so on.

Unlike the approach taken by WordPress, there are no plans to incorporate ads as part of the hosted service, he said. It’s a position that seems to come out of his own sentiments about them, but he doesn’t dismiss them altogether.

“You have to consider that the fediverse nature of the network,” he said. “Anyone could develop another platform, using the same ActivityPub protocol [that Mastodon does], but with completely different software around it, with different expectations and different features. And if they wanted to build ads into it, they could, in theory.

“The question is only as a user, would you go to a service that has ads, and to make those ads effective, the service keeps track of your interests and location? Or would you just go to another one that doesn’t have that? We, Mastodon, are not interested in the ad business and implementing ads into our code. But as I said, it’s free and open source, so anyone could modify it. They’d do it at their own risk, with different business models.”

As for those operators of Mastodon servers, he said, he leaves it open to them, but ironically favors something not unlike what Musk has floated for Twitter itself.

“I think that I see a method in the sort of framework for building interoperable social media networks; you could think of an individual server as a separate social network, like Tumblr, or Instagram,” he said. “With interoperability built in straightaway, I think that it makes sense that they would be able to explore different business models, or maybe build out different features. I think that probably the fairest model that could appear in the ecosystem would be the paid accounts model. This is something in the past App.net tried to do but, I feel, did not succeed. It wasn’t clear if that was because of the paid account part, or because they didn’t really build out a good flagship product.”

He revealed that he also has been talking with investors, although for the most part it seems that a lot of those who want to give him money don’t really understand what he’s trying to do, with one recurring theme being the idea of further commercializing the platform.

“Over the years, I’ve definitely received a lot of unprompted cold contacts from various VCs. I’ve previously ignored them, but now we have Felix [Hlatky], who works as basically a CFO, but he doesn’t have the title officially, yet. Now I forward those to him and then he tries talking with them, or sometimes I tune into the calls,” he said. “We’ve tried talking to some VCs about this hosting business thing in the past couple of weeks. I have to say, though, they’re interested in somehow getting into the main product and they’re not so much interested in a sustainable hosting business. So, VCs are not going to help here. We’re not letting them into the main product in any way. So yeah, we’re probably going to have to go with an angel investor, or just crowdfunding the hosting business separately or just, I don’t know, maybe personal funds would be enough. That’s not entirely clear.”

Mastodon has been notable for how it’s been picking up attention in the wake of Twitter’s drama — so much so that it triggered a new Musk-era rule forbidding links to competing social networks, suspending Mastodon’s Twitter presence in the process.

It’s also interesting because of how it’s approaching the social space.

Mastodon is based on an open source, “federated” concept, where different servers use the same protocol to speak to each other and share content; server operators oversee the activity of the users registered and hosted on their respective servers.

It might sound a little confusing to the uninitiated, but there are tools out there to help import your Twitter world over to Mastodon and retain much of the same experience.

To follow the metaphor, the servers become like a herd of animals, Mastodons even, distinct but generally moving in the same direction. To move away from the metaphor, though, Mastodon’s ethos is far from extinct: As we’ve detailed, open source is something that a number of other social media platforms, Twitter among them, are also contemplating quite seriously.

Mastodon in particular seems to have really struck a chord. The platform’s mobile apps are seeing about 4,000 downloads per day on average, but at one recent peak saw downloads of 149,000 on Android and 235,000 on iOS.

This spike took place, Rochko said, over the days when Twitter announced a huge swathe of job cuts that wiped out entire departments at the company, including those managing communications with the media but also those working on moderation, security and curation, as well as a number of technical teams.

Indeed, that inverse variation — Twitter’s fall equals Mastodon’s rise — is one that is playing out very well for the latter right now.

The question is whether it will last. To be sure, Twitter’s ups and downs as a platform have been a hallmark of the company almost from its start, so much so that many have wondered if it’s better thought of as a utility, not a business.

Regardless, Twitter has stayed and grown. And although this latest bout has, for many, felt like “the last straw”, only time will tell if everything settles down and users eventually accept whatever becomes the new status quo, or if meaningful change in social platforms really is coming.

In any case, sometimes evolutions in tech seem to happen overnight, but sometimes they take years. (Read more about how Rochko spent those years over on TC+.)

For Mastodon, the financial aspect is one that continues to hover over it, regardless.

For one, it’s played a part in how the company has grown. Rochko may be the sole full-time employee, but there are five others working freelance as moderators on Mastodon’s own servers, in addition to Felix Hlatky on the financial front, named on Mastodon’s about page. One focus has been to figure out how to bring on more people in a stable way.

The $31,000 per month he makes through Patreon is not really enough, nor stable enough, to finance a staff, Rochko said, but he has been thinking about a secondary level of business to generate a more stable income for the business, operating a second service where it provides services to host Mastodon servers for others.

“I’m the only full-time employee, and the rest — five people — are contractors at the moment,” he said. “I’m looking to expand the full-time team and have been working on some job listings. It’s kind of a slow process. I wish I could do it a lot faster. But it’s a new frontier for a company that has been a one-person venture for six years. It has been fine so far, but now we need more people.”

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