Future Tense

The New Social Network Dodging Government Surveillance—and Nazis

The founder of Mastodon is trying to build a social universe that can push back against data collection and white supremacists alike.

A mastodon on the Twitter bird.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock and Twitter.

Eugen Rochko is just 25 years old, but he’s created Mastodon, a global social network that has emerged as an increasingly popular alternative to Twitter. It has a similar layout, but with fewer ads and fewer Nazis. We spoke to him this week for our tech and politics podcast, If Then. Read a lightly edited version of our conversation below.

Listen to If Then by clicking the arrow on the audio player above, or get the show via Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotifyStitcher, or Google Play.

Will Oremus: Can you give us just the basic outline of what Mastodon is, how it’s similar to Twitter, and one or two key differences?

Eugen Rochko: Mastodon is a social media platform that looks very similar to Twitter, or other platforms that are similar. So it’s not new in how you perceive it. However, the main difference is that it’s decentralized. It is a federated platform. A federation is a collection of servers and websites—websites that are in themselves independent but can interoperate seamlessly with each other.

It still sounds very technical, but everybody uses a federated network already: It’s called email. You have an account on Gmail, and your friend has an account on Outlook, and you talk to each other via email. Mastodon works very similarly to that: You have an account on one server and your friend is on another, and you can follow each other, and it works just like a centralized network, except that it’s not.

April Glaser: And the benefit of it not being a centralized network—it seems like there are a few. I remember after the [Edward] Snowden disclosures came out in 2013, there was a lot of excitement around switching off the platforms that were complicit with [National Security Agency] surveillance, or that worked with the PRISM program—like Facebook, like Google—and to switching to these kinds of decentralized federated alternatives. The idea at that point was that it’s much easier for the federal government to put in a request for a company that has all the servers in one place than it is to put in a request to 100 or 50 or 1,000 [individual servers] where this stuff is kind of all being stored. So I know that’s one benefit to a kind of decentralized federation. What’s another?

Exactly. Centralization is not just centralization of power, but centralization of data as well. So the more data a platform like Facebook collects—it’s all in one place. It’s easy to access and to analyze. With Mastodon, the data is separated. Every server stores only the data of its local signed-up users and the data that they subscribe to from their friends. If you take the data just from one server, you don’t have a lot.

Some of the other benefits of the decentralized approach are that indeed it’s harder for governments to deal with, not only in terms of collecting data or enforcing some kind of rule or secret requests for tracking. It also has to do with shutting down. For example, in a country like Turkey, where the government wants to block access to particular content on the internet, it’s easier to block one website than it is to block a network of 2,000 3,000 different websites.

Oremus: Mastodon has a bunch of different little subnetworks, and you call them “instances.” I was signing up the other day and noticed there were instances for Berliners, people from Berlin, for anime, for furries. What are a couple of the other most popular Mastodon instances?

The most popular one is a Japanese instance called Pawoo.net for artists. The next one is the one that I run, which is more of a general-purpose one, but people use it because it has the developer behind it and it has the promise of stability and they know it’s not going to disappear.

Oremus: And that’s Mastodon.social right?

That’s Mastodon.social, indeed. The other one is Switter.at, which is a Mastodon server for sex workers, which has been founded in the wake of the FOSTA-SESTA bills in the U.S. And it’s another point that would fit in the previous question—why is decentralization better than centralization? Currently, the top social networks all depend on U.S. law—Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, etc. They enforce U.S. law globally, and when such stupid laws are passed, it affects everybody worldwide. Switter is hosted in Australia, where sex work is legal, so it provides a safe haven for people who are not welcome on other platforms anymore.

Glaser: One thing about the Japanese community is that it is a community that actually is making art about usually young children being naked. It’s not exactly child porn because it’s art, but it’s something that would be censored in the U.S. In fact, those communities were kicked off of Twitter and the main social networks. And so they found a home on Mastodon.

As far as I’m aware, that’s not the main purpose of Pawoo.net—it’s just a general-purpose art website, like DeviantArt is in the West. It just so happens that it attracts a certain demographic because Japan has more liberal laws on that topic. But it’s not a very pleasant topic to talk about. On Mastodon.social, we have blocked images from Pawoo.net just to be on the safe side of that.

Thankfully, it is possible to control how your server interoperates with other ones. It’s a common thing that people bring up when they talk about Mastodon: “What happens if bad people create a server?” And the answer is you don’t have to communicate with that server—it’s very easy to block. There are different levels, so you can block a server, from simply hiding it from the local timelines of the user interface, to blocking content wholesale, to simply blocking images so that they don’t appear on your server.

Oremus: It’s great that these alternative networks exist. There is such a craving, I think, for alternatives to these social networks. And yet when you go to Mastodon, if you’re not part of a specific community that has moved there en masse, you might find yourself a little lonely. The people you know are unlikely to be using it on a regular basis. That’s the big obstacle that [alternative social networks] all face—you go there to escape the Nazis or you go there to talk with other people who have a similar interest to you, but then you find out that all the people you really want to communicate with aren’t there, and you end up migrating back to Twitter or Facebook. Is there a solution to that, or is there a way that Mastodon could grow and become large enough that you get those kind of network effects? Or are you intending to stay small and maybe make that sustainable somehow?

Network effects are universal. That’s true. They don’t affect just Mastodon—it happens to every new platform. However, I think the fact that some of the now-popular platforms also had to start at some point and they managed to break through the network-effect barrier—it’s a good sign that we do have a chance. In fact, Mastodon already has a very good starting pool of people who use it: There are 1.5 million people who are on Mastodon.

Even though you’re not going to have the exact same friends that you made on Twitter, you’ll find new ones. And I think that’s the point, and maybe [it’s] a bit of a wrong expectation that people have going into. People think, “Well, I’ll just switch from one website to another, and it’s gonna be the same, but different.” But Mastodon is a new platform and it brings new chances to people to make new friends, new connections, build a new audience. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be one-to-one to what you had on Twitter.

Glaser: You do have a good point. I remember in 2006, MySpace reached like 100 million users, and it was the most popular social network in the U.S. at the time. And then, less than two years later, in 2008, Facebook had reached twice that number. That was right after allowing anyone older than 13 to join the network. So things certainly do change.

You did mention the word sustainability, and that is a major question I have. Mastodon is not run by ads, right? How is it sustainable? How are you guys dealing with the server space or paying the bills?

It is funded by the community. Crowdfunding is big in 2018, and it’s proven that it works. Many years back, crowdfunding was not a thing, and websites or software that relied on donations were not doing very well at all. But in 2018, people finally understand the value of being a patron to something that they value that does not necessarily have commercial value. And we now have tools to redistribute small amounts of money to creators and people who do something that you like. So most Mastodon servers are crowdfunded by their users, and my work on Mastodon is likewise funded by my patrons on Patreon.

Oremus: In a lot of ways, Mastodon is seen as an alternative to Twitter, and you have been a critic of Twitter. If you were running Twitter—if you were Jack Dorsey—what’s one thing that you would do differently than he is doing? Or do you think that Twitter itself is the problem, that it’s just broken and there’s no way to make it better?

The main reason I don’t like Twitter in 2018 is their position on free speech and their position on hate on their platform. Twitter is a company, and Jack Dorsey does have a 100 percent right to decide what they are hosting and what they’re not hosting. And he chooses to give verified marks to white supremacists and he refuses to act on reports. If I was running Twitter, that’s the thing I would do differently, and that’s how I run my server. We don’t tolerate that stuff. We have a strict code of conduct, and that’s why people like being on Mastodon.social and that’s why people like Mastodon.

Glaser: So you can have a free software alternative that also is a safe space, right? Because Mastodon is free software, isn’t it?

Yes, it is free software.

Oremus: I should note that I have heard from some people on Twitter complaining about the moderation on Mastodon.social, saying that you didn’t respond to complaints they had. So I think it’s really hard to please everybody when you’re doing community moderation.

Indeed. When you have a lot of people using something, somebody is going to have complaints. Not every complaint is justified. Some are. We have a team of moderators working on this. We have good faith in what we’re doing and we have a zero tolerance policy for Nazis on the platform.