Rodti MacLeary started a Mastodon instance, mas.to, in 2019. By early November 2022, it had amassed around 35,000 users. But since Elon Musk bought Twitter and unleashed one chaotic decision after another, people have signed up for mas.to and other instances, or servers, in surging waves that have sometimes kicked them briefly offline. The influx of users is propelled by each haphazard policy update Musk professes from his own Twitter account. Last week, Twitter’s billionaire owner suspended several high-profile journalists and accused them of doxing him, and then briefly banned links to any social media competitors, including Mastodon. But the mas.to instance continued to grow, hitting 130,000 total users and 67,000 active users by Tuesday.
That’s minuscule compared to Twitter’s hundreds of millions of tweeters. But it’s a heavy lift for someone like MacLeary, who has a day job and no paid staff, and has funneled time and money into mas.to as a labor of love. As a decentralized, open-source social media platform, Mastodon is markedly different in its construction from Big Tech platforms like Meta, Twitter, and YouTube. That’s part of its appeal, and it’s working its way from a niche into the mainstream consciousness: Mastodon now has more than 9,000 instances and some nearly 2.5 million active monthly users.
“There’s definitely momentum behind it,” MacLeary says. “Whether that momentum has pushed it over the tipping point, I don’t know. It reminds me of my experience in early Twitter, which was very positive. You felt like you knew everyone there.”
Whether Mastodon stays a nice, utopian “early Twitter” or becomes a ubiquitous, messy social network is yet to be seen. But it’s growing in its potential to replicate some of what Twitter does, with politicians, celebrities, and journalists signing up. Twitter profiles now often bear Mastodon usernames, as social groups make the move to the other app. But there’s a schism: Some new users want Mastodon to be Twitter, and some Mastodon users are there because they’re over Twitter.
And with that growing number of users comes more responsibility—not just for Mastodon itself, but for volunteer administrators, whose hobbies running servers have become second jobs.
“There are a lot of people who really don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into,” says Corey Silverstein, an attorney who specializes in internet law. “If you’re running these [instances], you have to run it like you’re the owner of Twitter. What people don’t understand is how complicated it is to run a platform like this and how expensive it is.”
Because Mastodon is decentralized, it relies on various server administrators instead of one central hub to stay online. These admins aren’t just glorified users; they become more like internet service providers themselves, says Silverstein, and thereby responsible for keeping their servers compliant with copyright and privacy laws. If they fail, they could be on the hook for lawsuits. And they must follow complex legal frameworks around the world.
In the US alone, there’s the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes social platforms liable for copyrighted material posted there if they don’t register to protect themselves and work to take it down (registering takes just a few minutes and costs $6). There’s also the Child Online Protection Act, which requires platforms to ask if users are older than 13 and deal with their data accordingly. If admins become aware of child exploitation material, they must report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Then there’s Europe, with its General Data Protection Regulation, a privacy and human rights law. Europe’s new Digital Service Act could apply to Mastodon servers too, if they become large enough. And administrators must comply with not only their local laws, but laws that exist anywhere their server is accessible. That’s all daunting, experts say, but not impossible.