Twitter is embroiled in a seemingly never-ending controversy about hate speech on the platform, with many charging that the company has been overly permissive and too slow to remove offenders including white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Their message to Twitter founder Jack Dorsey: This is your house, and you don’t have to let everyone inside no matter how badly they behave. That’s the attitude of the newish Twitter competitor Mastodon, which has vowed to boot alt-right groups off their platform.
“Nazis are bad and I don’t want to give them a platform for recruiting,” founder Eugen Rochko told a Mastodon user on Twitter. When the user tried to bait Rochko by asking him to define a Nazi, Rochko replied: “That bullshit doesn’t work on me, man.”
Wait, what is Mastodon?
“Mastodon is like a utopian version of Twitter,” wrote Joon Ian Wong in Quartz in March 2017. “It’s focused on limiting abusive speech and promoting privacy, it doesn’t have to chase growth mandated by venture capital, and it’s decentralized.”
Many Twitter users were already disturbed about the length of time that hate groups were given a global platform on Twitter, the profusion of sexist and racist trolls, and the fact that Russia used the social network to foment discord and push pro-Trump, anti-Clinton propaganda during the 2016 election. Frustration boiled over this summer about Twitter’s continued acceptance of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who has claimed that the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School were faked, even after he was banned from nearly every other social platform.
Founded two years ago, Mastodon eliminates those issues. It’s open-source, not owned by a profit-seeking company, so there are no ads and drawing the biggest audience possible is not a priority. Rochko has said he doesn’t care if he makes money on it, and he doesn’t expect to.
How does Mastodon work?
Mastodon is designed somewhat like the chatrooms of the early internet, with different spaces, called “instances,” for different subject areas. Users essentially just talk to each other. Saying it’s “built for real conversation,” Mastodon has a 500-character limit. The smaller chat spaces mean that moderators can ban bad actors quickly. Because the platform is open source, anyone can create a new instance.
Some say that small-community focus will be no match for Twitter’s global town square. Said Alex Goldman of the podcast Reply All: “I think it’s a net negative for the internet, but it appears that we as users want consolidation. It’s easy to find all of our relatives on Facebook. It’s easy to find all our favorite celebs on Twitter. All our information on Google. But Mastodon seems to be broken up into niches, and that doesn’t hold the appeal. Even though I honestly miss those cultural internet niches.”
But Luke O’Neil of Esquire says he’s hooked: “The platform has become a must-check in my daily social media routine,” he wrote last week. “While it looks almost exactly like Twitter—even replicating Tweetdeck’s columned layout—the feel is distinctly different, like putting a favorite pair of pants on inside out. For one thing, there’s no one telling me I’m a piece of shit on there. At least, not yet.”