Featured Article

How Mastodon is scaling amid the Twitter exodus

Is federated really the future?

Comment

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.”

More TechCrunch

Another fintech startup, and its customers, has been gravely impacted by the implosion of banking-as-a-service startup Synapse. Copper Banking, a digital banking service aimed at teens, notified its customers on…

Teen fintech Copper had to emergency discontinue its banking, debit products

3D tools behemoth Autodesk has acquired Wonder Dynamics, a startup that let creators quickly and easily make complex characters and visual effects using AI-powered image analysis. The two companies have…

Autodesk acquires AI-powered VFX startup Wonder Dynamics

Farcaster, a blockchain-based social protocol founded by two Coinbase alumni, announced on Tuesday that it closed a $150 million fundraise. Led by Paradigm, the platform also raised money from a16z…

Farcaster, a crypto-based social network, raised $150M with just 80K daily users

Microsoft announced on Tuesday during its annual Build conference that it’s bringing “Windows Volumetric Apps” to Meta Quest headsets. The partnership will allow Microsoft to bring Windows 365 and local…

Microsoft’s new ‘Volumetric Apps’ for Quest headsets extend Windows apps into the 3D space

The spam reached Bluesky by first crossing over two other decentralized networks: Mastodon and Nostr.

The ‘vote Trump’ spam that hit Bluesky in May came from decentralized rival Nostr

Welcome to TechCrunch Fintech! This week, we’re looking at the continued fallout from Synapse’s bankruptcy, how Layer wants to disrupt SMB accounting, and much more! To get a roundup of…

There’s a real appetite for a fintech alternative to QuickBooks

The company is hoping to produce electricity at $13 per megawatt hour, which would be more than 50% cheaper than traditional onshore wind.

Bill Gates-backed wind startup AirLoom is raising $12M, filings reveal

Generative AI makes stuff up. It can be biased. Sometimes it spits out toxic text. So can it be “safe”? Rick Caccia, the CEO of WitnessAI, believes it can. “Securing…

WitnessAI is building guardrails for generative AI models

It’s not often that you hear about a seed round above $10 million. H, a startup based in Paris and previously known as Holistic AI, has announced a $220 million…

French AI startup H raises $220M seed round

Hey there, Series A to B startups with $35 million or less in funding — we’ve got an exciting opportunity that’s tailor-made for your growth journey! If you’re looking to…

Boost your startup’s growth with a ScaleUp package at TC Disrupt 2024

TikTok is pulling out all the stops to prevent its impending ban in the United States. Aside from initiating legal action against the U.S. government, that means shaping up its…

As a US ban looms, TikTok announces a $1M program for socially driven creators

Microsoft wants to put its Copilot everywhere. It’s only a matter of time before Microsoft renames its annual Build developer conference to Microsoft Copilot. Hopefully, some of those upcoming events…

Microsoft’s Power Automate no-code platform adds AI flows

Build is Microsoft’s largest developer conference and of course, it’s all about AI this year. So it’s no surprise that GitHub’s Copilot, GitHub’s “AI pair programming tool,” is taking center…

GitHub Copilot gets extensions

Microsoft wants to make its brand of generative AI more useful for teams — specifically teams across corporations and large enterprise organizations. This morning at its annual Build dev conference,…

Microsoft intros a Copilot for teams

Microsoft’s big focus at this year’s Build conference is generative AI. And to that end, the tech giant announced a series of updates to its platforms for building generative AI-powered…

Microsoft upgrades its AI app-building platforms

The U.K.’s data protection watchdog has closed an almost year-long investigation of Snap’s AI chatbot, My AI — saying it’s satisfied the social media firm has addressed concerns about risks…

UK data protection watchdog ends privacy probe of Snap’s GenAI chatbot, but warns industry

U.S. cell carrier Patriot Mobile experienced a data breach that included subscribers’ personal information, including full names, email addresses, home ZIP codes and account PINs, TechCrunch has learned. Patriot Mobile,…

Conservative cell carrier Patriot Mobile hit by data breach

It’s been three years since Spotify acquired live audio startup Betty Labs, and yet the music streaming service isn’t leveraging the technology to its fullest potential — at least not…

Spotify’s ‘Listening Party’ feature falls short of expectations

Alchemist Accelerator has a new pile of AI-forward companies demoing their wares today, if you care to watch, and the program itself is making some international moves into Tokyo and…

Alchemist’s latest batch puts AI to work as accelerator expands to Tokyo, Doha

“Late Pledge” allows campaign creators to continue collecting money even after the campaign has closed.

Kickstarter now lets you pledge after a campaign closes

Stack AI’s co-founders, Antoni Rosinol and Bernardo Aceituno, were PhD students at MIT wrapping up their degrees in 2022 just as large language models were becoming more mainstream. ChatGPT would…

Stack AI wants to make it easier to build AI-fueled workflows

Pinecone, the vector database startup founded by Edo Liberty, the former head of Amazon’s AI Labs, has long been at the forefront of helping businesses augment large language models (LLMs)…

Pinecone launches its serverless vector database out of preview

Young geothermal energy wells can be like budding prodigies, each brimming with potential to outshine their peers. But like people, most decline with age. In California, for example, the amount…

Special mud helps XGS Energy get more power out of geothermal wells

Featured Article

Sonos finally made some headphones

The market play is clear from the outset: The $449 headphones are firmly targeted at an audience that would otherwise be purchasing the Bose QC Ultra or Apple AirPods Max.

7 hours ago
Sonos finally made some headphones

Adobe says the feature is up to the task, regardless of how complex of a background the object is set against.

Adobe brings Firefly AI-powered Generative Remove to Lightroom

All cars suffer when the mercury drops, but electric vehicles suffer more than most as heaters draw more power and batteries charge more slowly as the liquid electrolyte inside thickens.…

Porsche Ventures invests in battery startup South 8 to boost cold-weather EV performance

Scale AI has raised a $1 billion Series F round from a slew of big-name institutional and corporate investors including Amazon and Meta.

Data-labeling startup Scale AI raises $1B as valuation doubles to $13.8B

The new coalition, Tech Against Scams, will work together to find ways to fight back against the tools used by scammers and to better educate the public against financial scams.

Meta, Match, Coinbase and others team up to fight online fraud and crypto scams

It’s a wrap: European Union lawmakers have given the final approval to set up the bloc’s flagship, risk-based regulations for artificial intelligence.

EU Council gives final nod to set up risk-based regulations for AI

London-based fintech Vitesse has closed a $93 million Series C round of funding led by investment giant KKR.

Vitesse, a payments and treasury management platform for insurers, raises $93M to fuel US expansion