Is Elon Begging Us to Look for Twitter Alternatives? The Silver Lining of Twitter’s Deepening Woes

Posted on Nov 28, 2022 by Glyn Moody

Whether or not you use the service, most of you are probably aware by now that Twitter is going through a tumultuous period following its purchase by Elon Musk.

An article in the New York Times with the headline “Two Weeks of Chaos” runs through some of the changes that Musk has already instituted. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the new Twitter is the “anything goes” approach that has led to the account of Donald Trump being re-activated, along with those of others who had been banned for what Twitter previously considered abusive behavior.

Musk’s decision to fire most of the people working on moderation means that there are few, if any brakes on misinformation and hate speech spreading on the platform.

Against this woeful background, many Twitter users are casting around for an alternative where they can continue their conversations without the growing downsides of staying on Musk’s platform, and a clear favorite is emerging – Mastodon.

The Beginning of Twitter’s End?

Among other things, Twitter’s state of chaos has resulted in:

Mastodon was created by the 24-year-old Eugen Rochko, and first released as open source in 2016. In recent months, its growth has accelerated as more people have become concerned about how Twitter was likely to develop under its new owner:

Musk’s acquisition became final on 27 October 2022. Mastodon experienced an increase of 70,000 new users from the resultant diaspora on 28 October alone. Daily downloads increased substantially, rising from 3,400 daily downloads on 27 October to 113,400 on 6 November 2022.

How Mastodon Is Different from Twitter

Although Mastodon shares many features with Twitter, it differs in one crucial respect. It is not a monolithic system, like Twitter, but a network of servers, known as “instances“. Each instance is independent, and free to set its own code of conduct, terms of service, moderation rules and privacy policy. That’s in stark contrast to Twitter today, where everything seems entirely at the whim of Musk.

The freedom to set per-server rules has led to a wide variety of different local cultures, some catering for professional groups like lawyers, some aimed at geographical groupings, and others based around hobbies or personal interests. Most instances are self-funded or, increasingly, crowdfunded, so there are no commercial pressures that limit what kind of rules are put in place – and no ads anywhere.

As more people have started to explore Mastodon and its instances, some have been surprised to learn that its DMs (direct messages between Mastodon users) are not encrypted end-to-end, only in transit to the server. In fact, Mastodon explicitly warns about this: “Please keep in mind that the operators of the server and any receiving server may view such messages, and that recipients may screenshot, copy or otherwise re-share them.” What people are forgetting here is that exactly the same is true about Twitter. As a post about Mastodon’s DMs on Gizmodo put it:

Social media is a very bad place to have sensitive conversations. And while Twitter’s setup seems aimed at convincing people that their DMs are private, that’s obviously not the case. A few weeks ago, an exorbitantly rich man bought access to every DM on that app. He’s free to read them at his own leisure. Those messages don’t belong to you. They belong to him and whoever he chooses to share them with.

Another useful exploration of Mastodon’s privacy and security, on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s site, pointed out that the key difference with Mastodon is that: “unlike Twitter or Instagram, you have the choice in what server or instance you trust with your communications.” Different instances will take different approaches to privacy and security, allowing users to choose the one that best suits their needs.

A More Open Social Media Ecosystem

The real power of Mastodon as a Twitter alternative stems not just from this choice of different local cultures and privacy protections, but the fact that they can all interoperate. People can follow users on different servers, without needing another account there. Moreover, people can easily move their account from one to another if they decide that they prefer the local rules elsewhere. This interoperability is possible thanks to ActivityPub, which is an open, decentralized social networking protocol.

The power of ActivityPub extends well beyond providing interoperability between Mastodon’s instances, to creating a larger “fediverse” – a portmanteau word formed from “federation” and “universe”. The ActivityPub fediverse of platforms already includes a couple of dozen online services beyond Mastodon’s microblogging.

For example, PeerTube is a free and decentralized alternative to video platforms like YouTube. It currently has over 600,000 videos published by 150,000 users, viewed over 70 million times. Once more, there are various instances devoted to particular topics – for example educational videos, ornithology, computers etc. Because Mastodon and PeerTube both support ActivityPub, users of one service can interact with and follow someone on the other without needing to set up separate accounts on both. The same is true for Pixelfed, a fediverse photo sharing service.

ActivityPub Has Serious Growth Potential

The sudden influx of millions of new users of Mastodon – all of whom can access servers in the ActivityPub fediverse – is starting to have a knock on effect.

For example, Tumblr, an older social networking site for short-form blogging founded in 2007, plans to add support for ActivityPub. Once this is done, users on Mastodon will be able to comment on Tumblr posts and vice versa without needing a separate account.

There are also discussions about adding ActivityPub to the photo sharing site Flickr. An article on The New Stack suggested that other developers are interested in supporting ActivityPub, and there are already some new services that have been announced, such as Great Ape, “a free social audio & video social-media platform that can be used via an app”.

These fediverse apps currently have tiny numbers of users compared to the mainstream versions. But the interoperability of ActivityPub services means that it is the sum of all the users that counts. The more people who join Mastodon, disillusioned perhaps by Twitter, the stronger the entire fediverse becomes. That, in turn, holds out the exciting prospect of new services being created – for example fully-fledged rivals to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and the rest.

Twitter’s Loss May Be A Win for Privacy

For users, ActivityPub versions of these platforms would have the huge advantage that it would be possible to create many alternative instances for a particular sector, as is already the case for Mastodon. That would introduce a real element of choice – and of competition.

Since people could move freely between ActivityPub instances, they could start to select on the basis of things important to them – like privacy. Instances with better privacy protection would attract more users who cared about that. At the moment, that’s simply not possible, since Facebook users can’t migrate to other services without losing their network, and so Facebook is able to exploit personal data without much regard for privacy.

As a PIA blog post pointed out last year, once interoperability makes migration easy, the main problems of today’s services – constant surveillance for the purpose of selling access to personal data via real-time bidding – can be avoided. New business models – based, for example on contextual advertising or subscriptions – can be tried out. That makes watching today’s great Mastodon experiment not just thrilling, but also a cause for celebration and even hope.

Featured image by Mastodon.