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As Twitter changed hands at the end of October, another very similar social media site was experiencing something of an influx.
Mastodon, a decentralized microblogging site named after an extinct type of mammoth, recorded 120,000 new users in the four days following billionaire Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, its German founder Eugen Rochko tells TIME. Many of them were Twitter users seeking a new place to call their online home.
Those users, whether they knew it or not, were following in the footsteps of Rochko, 29, who began coding Mastodon in 2016 after becoming disillusioned with Twitter. “I was thinking that being able to express myself online to my friends through short messages was very important to me, important also to the world, and that maybe it should not be in the hands of a single corporation,” Rochko says. “It was generally related to a feeling of distrust of the top down control that Twitter exercised.”
Mastodon, which proudly proclaims it is “not for sale” and has around 4.5 million user accounts, is pretty similar to Twitter, once users get past the complicated sign-up process. The main difference is that it’s not one cohesive platform, but actually a collection of different, independently-run and self-funded servers. Users on different servers can still communicate with each other, but anybody can set up their own server, and set their own rules for discussion. Mastodon is a crowdfunded nonprofit, which funds the full-time work of Rochko—its sole employee—and several popular servers.
The platform doesn’t have the power to force server owners to do anything—even comply with basic content moderation standards. That sounds like a recipe for an online haven for far-right trolls. But in practice, many of Mastodon’s servers have stricter rules than Twitter, Rochko says. When hate-speech servers do appear, other servers can band together to block them, essentially ostracizing them from the majority of the platform. “I guess you could call it the democratic process,” Rochko says.
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The recent influx from Twitter, Rochko says, has been a vindication. “It is a very positive thing to find that your work is finally being appreciated and respected and more widely known,” he says. “I have been working very, very hard to push the idea that there is a better way to do social media than what the commercial companies like Twitter and Facebook allow.”
TIME spoke with Rochko on Oct. 31.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What do you think of what Elon Musk is doing at Twitter?
I don’t know. The man is not entirely comprehensible. I don’t agree with a lot of his behaviors and his decision-making. I think that buying Twitter was an impulse decision that he soon regretted. And that he basically got himself into a situation that kind of forced him to commit to the deal. And now he’s in it, and he has to deal with the fallout.
I specifically disagree with his stance on free speech, because I think that it depends on your interpretation of what free speech means. If you allow the most intolerant voices to be as loud as they want to, you’re going to shut down voices of different opinions as well. So allowing free speech by just allowing all speech is not actually leading to free speech, it just leads to a cesspit of hate.
I think that is a very uniquely American idea of creating this marketplace of ideas where you can say anything you want completely without limits. It is very foreign to the German mindset where we, in our Constitution, our number one priority is maintaining human dignity. And so, hate speech is not part of the German concept of free speech, for example. So I think that when Elon Musk says that everything’s gonna be allowed, or whatever, I generally disagree with that.
How do you ensure on Mastodon, given that it’s decentralized and you don’t have the power to ban users, that the space is welcoming and safe?
Well, this is the kind of strange dichotomy of how it’s turned out. On the one hand, the technology itself is what allows basically anyone to host their own independent social media server, and to basically be able to do anything they want with it. There is no way for Mastodon, the company, or anyone really—except the normal law enforcement procedures—to really go after anyone specifically running a Mastodon server. The way that you would shut down a normal web site is how you would shut down a Mastodon server, there’s no difference there. So on that end, it kind of turns out to be the ultimate free speech platform. But obviously that’s basically just a side effect of creating a tool that can be used by anyone. It’s kind of like cars. Cars are used by everyone, even bad people, even for bad purposes, there’s nothing you can do about it, because the tool is out there. However, I think that the differentiating factor to something like Twitter or Facebook, is that on Mastodon, when you host your own server, you can also decide what rules you want to enforce on that server, which allows communities to create safer spaces than they could otherwise have on these large platforms that are interested in serving as many people as possible, perhaps driving engagement up on purpose to increase time people spend on the web.
You can have communities that have much stricter rules than Twitter has. And in practice, a lot of them are [stricter]. And this is part of where, again, the technology intersects with guidance or leadership from Mastodon the company. I think that, through the way that we communicate publicly, we have avoided attracting a crowd of the kind of people who you would find on Parler or Gab, or whatever other internet hate forums. Instead we’ve attracted the kind of people who would moderate against hate speech when running their own servers. Additionally, we also act as a guide for anyone who wants to join. Because on our website, and our apps, we provide a default list of curated servers that people can make accounts on. And through that, we make sure that we curate the list in such a way that any server that wants to be promoted by us has to agree to a certain basic set of rules, one of which is that no hate speech is allowed, no sexism, no racism, no homophobia, or transphobia. And through that, we ensure that the association between Mastodon, the brand, and the experience that people want is that of a much safer space than something like Twitter.
But what happens if hateful people do set up a server?
Well, obviously, they don’t get promoted on our “Join Mastodon” website or in our app. So whatever they do, they do on their own and completely separately, and the other administrators that run their own Mastodon servers, when they find out that there’s a new hate speech server, they may decide that they don’t want to receive any messages from the server and block it on their end. Through, I guess you could call it the democratic process, the hateful server can get ostracized or can get split off into basically, a little echo chamber, which is, I guess, no better or worse than them being in some other echo chamber. The internet is full of spam. It’s full of abuse, of course. Mastodon provides the facilities necessary to deal with unwanted content, both on the user end and on the operator end.
What made you want to go into building a service like this back in 2016?
I remember that I was just not very happy with Twitter, and I was worried where it was going to go from there. Something very questionable was in its future. That got me thinking that, you know, being able to express myself online to my friends through short messages was actually very important to me, important also to the world, and that maybe it should not be in the hands of a single corporation that can just do whatever it wants with it. I started working on my own thing. I called it Mastodon because I’m not good at naming things. I just chose whatever came to my mind at the time. There was obviously no ambition of going big with it at the time.
It must feel pretty special to see something that you made grow from nothing to where it is now.
Indeed, it is. It is a very positive thing to find that your work is finally being appreciated and respected and more widely known. I’ve been fighting for this for a long time, I started working on Mastodon in 2016, back then I had no ambitions of it going far at all. It was very much a hobbyist project at the start, then when I launched publicly it seemed to strike a chord with at least the tech community and that’s when I got the original Patreon supporters that allowed me to take on this job full time. And from then on I have been working very, very hard to make this platform as accessible and as easy to use for everyone as possible. And to push the idea forward, that there is a better way to do social media than what the commercial companies like Twitter and Facebook allow.
Correction, November 7
The original version of this story misstated Eugen Rochko’s nationality. He is German, but not German-born
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