Shortly after Elon Musk took over Twitter last week, Allison Oosterman saw some of her friends announce they were leaving the site. They were flocking to another place she vaguely knew: Mastodon Social.
After signing up on Mastodon, she became confused. Outside of a few friends, many people she wanted to follow weren’t on there. Replicating Twitter’s clean news feed was tricky, requiring her to join communities for each of her interests. The site’s language — “boosts” instead of retweets and “toots” instead of tweets — confused her.
Her first impression: “What the heck is going on?” she said.
Musk, the billionaire Tesla and SpaceX CEO, bought Twitter for $44 billion last week. Since then, there’s been a string of controversies and questions about its future.
Meanwhile, Musk has said Twitter will change how it verifies users, charging $8 per month for those who want a check mark. There’s talk of a potential reboot of Vine, the TikTok predecessor, and The Washington Post first reported on the development of a paywalled video feature. Musk has also said he would allow former president Donald Trump back on the site, although he tweeted this week that it would be weeks before any banned accounts were allowed back.
Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 1, 2022
Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.
Amid that, Twitter users have been looking for a new home, and Mastodon Social seems to have some momentum. More than 70,000 users joined the site the day after Musk finalized his purchase of Twitter, according to the site. Around 655,000 users are on the site, compared with Twitter’s roughly 237 million daily active users.
Some have already taken to their new home. “For those wondering, most of #IrishTwitter seems to have moved to [Mastodon],” one Twitter user posted on Friday. “It’s the same vibe as having moved to a smaller, cozier pub with better music and a turf fire and nobody’s thrown up in the corner yet.”
But according to interviews with people trying the site out, it leaves much to be desired. Some tech-savvy people find Mastodon’s wonkiness to be part of its appeal and have found a community to interact with absent of Twitter’s toxicity. But many find it clunky, lacking a large user base and too technical, raising worries that if Twitter folds, there’s no site to truly replace it.
“If Twitter dies, does the entire idea of microblogging die with it?” said J. Emory Parker, a data project manager with Stat news who is on Twitter and Mastodon Social.
Representatives from Mastodon Social and Twitter did not return a request for comment.
After Mastodon Social was created in 2016, it became popular among a niche group of users. The site pledges to “never serve ads” or sell user data. The code is open-source. Users have more control over how to moderate content.
It has parallels to Twitter but differs in certain ways. Unlike Twitter, which is a single website with a central news feed, Mastodon is a network of thousands of sites, called instances or servers. When logged into a specific server’s site, though, the layout seems similar to Twitter. Posts show up in a news feed, and people can use hashtags, boost posts and like them.
When signing up, people choose which server they want to join. Topics vary, from progressive politics to the furry community, but many have flocked to mastodon.social, mastodon.online and mstdn.social as stand-ins for Twitter — each a separate instance that can function as individual Twitter-like sites.
You can be part of one community and send messages to people within your instance and in other spaces, similar to email.
Mastodon has been taxed by the crush of new users. Eugen Rochko, the site’s creator, said he has been working in overdrive to accommodate for the surge in traffic.
“The past few days have extracted a heavy toll from me,” he posted Sunday on Mastodon. “While it’s nice to see your work finally taken seriously in the mainstream, the 12-14 hour workdays I’ve had to pull to handle everything is anything but.”
Mastodon isn’t the only option for people exploring online options beyond Twitter. Other smaller social networks, such as CounterSocial, are hoping to attract defectors. Twitter users can also return to older technology to fill the void, such as LinkedIn, Reddit or RSS readers for news.
Prolific creators, upset they’d be asked to pay to get verified, might turn to places that generate revenue like TikTok, YouTube, newsletters, podcasts and Patreon accounts. But Mastodon has had the most vocal early support as an alternative, despite its more technical nature.
Parker, of Stat, who is 34 and lives in Boston, said he’s had a Mastodon account since around the site’s creation but barely used it. When Musk purchased Twitter, he thought Mastodon might be the best place to find a Twitter replacement that wasn’t a “right-wing Twitter clone.”
Parker is maintaining his presence on Twitter but is unsure how long he will stay if Musk makes significant changes, especially to how people are verified. He is worried Twitter might go the way of Digg, a popular social media site that floundered shortly after a site redesign in 2010, and wants alternatives if that happens.
“Fundamental changes to [Twitter] really do run the risk of alienating the community,” he said. “You could see a really rapid exodus — a Digg-style collapse of the site overnight.”
But the influx of new users on Mastodon has caused some tension, he added. “The Twitter migrants are looking to re-create a one-to-one Twitter experience,” he said. “It’s a little bit annoying to people who were there and like the ideology of … Mastodon.”
Many social media sites have turned into shadows of their old selves after a change in ownership. For example, Tumblr was purchased by Yahoo in 2013, which was then purchased by Verizon in 2017 and sold to Automatic in 2019, hemorrhaging users along the way.
Kelly Therese Pollock, a 44-year old podcaster from Chicago, said she joined Mastodon over the weekend, because many historians she interacts with on Twitter were doing so.
She has not deleted her Twitter account but says she finds Mastodon appealing because it’s open-source, against corporate ownership and allows people to create shared rules on how to moderate content among their community, making for a pleasant experience.
If Twitter charges to use the site, or sees a consistent rise in hate speech, she said she’ll quit. Even though Mastodon is a bit difficult to learn for some, she said, she’s willing to embrace it.
“At this point, it feels like the pluses of Twitter do not outweigh the minuses,” she said. “So, I don’t see a point in sticking around … in sort of a very serious way.”
Heather Kelly contributed to this report.