Twitter’s chaos may help decentralized alternatives like Mastodon gain traction

Mastodon mobile app

It’s been an adventure observing the chaos that’s ensued following Elon Musk’s completion of his deal last month to purchase Twitter for $44 billion.

It’s also been a nightmare for users large and small, and for advertisers large and small, navigating the shifting quicksands that make up the Twitter landscape. ‘Shifting’ is the key word here as fear, uncertainty and doubt took hold as the familiar became the confusing in how you actually use Twitter.

This could be a golden moment in the development of social platforms that are not under the control of a single organisation, or that change at the whim of a wealthy individual owner, as is the case with Twitter. It adds momentum to the perceived appeal of a place to be and engage with others that could be spoken of in a term favoured by Web3 enthusiasts – decentralization – where control is distributed not centralised.

But before looking into that possibility, I want to summarise some of the events of the past week or so and how these have played a role in arriving at a point where that Web3 term has some real credibility.

Bad actors

Probably the biggest question mark has been about verified accounts. Before Elon Musk took over Twitter, a verified account was designed to let anyone know that the person or entity behind the account has been verified by Twitter to be who they say they are.

That’s all changed. Now, in certain countries, all you need to do is pay $7.99 a month for a Twitter Blue subscription, and bam! you have a (paid for) verified account. The meaning of ‘verified’ is now entirely different.

It should be no surprise, then, that bad actors of every stripe have piled on to Twitter to disrupt all of this with fake accounts and fake content. Twitter eventually responded by prohibiting accounts created after November 9 to take out a Twitter Blue subscription.

In one case – the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly – a fake but verified account tweeted out a message that “insulin is free now” with consequent damage to the company of a drop in its share price of more than 5%. Eli Lilly is one of the world’s main suppliers of medical insulin.

Fake Eli Lilly tweet

Eli Lilly responded on Twitter from its genuine account.

Genuine Eli Lilly tweet

And Lilly weren’t the only one caught up in fake messaging.

Lilly’s and others’ experience is also a good example of whether you need to secure handles and domains of variations on your corporate or brand name that would place hurdles in front of anyone with bad intent.

Mass movements

As a consequence of the uncertainty, some of the world’s biggest brands have hit the pause button on their advertising spend on Twitter, indefinitely in some cases.

Big agencies are recommending to their clients that they do that. Given that Twitter relies on income from advertising as the major source of its revenue, this is a serious matter for the social network that may cause significant damage if it continues and grows.

Elon Musk spoke of the risk of bankruptcy in an employee conference call, adding to the overall uncertainty.

This has also affected the confidence of individual users where a stream of leavers has swollen to a torrent by some accounts. Many more are making preparations to leave in case they have to suddenly flee Twitter, with Mastodon as a favoured alternative.

Germany-based Mastodon has experienced rapid growth since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, with nearly half a million users joining the network since October 27. While a fraction of the size of Twitter’s 238 million daily active users, Mastodon’s user base remains on a steep upward trajectory, growing from 60-80 new user registrations per hour prior to October 27 to thousands of registrations per hour today.

TechCrunch, November 7, 2022

I opened an account on Mastodon in 2017, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I started building up connections there when I prepared a Twitter escape plan. That planning has accelerated since Musk took control of Twitter in October. I don’t plan on leaving Twitter, where I’ve been since 2006, but that may change depending on what happens there.

Either way, it’s possible that Mastodon for me will become a more interesting place and Twitter less so.

Is decentralization the next step?

Do people really care about decentralization? I’m not sure most people do except in an abstract sense. It’s what decentralization means or can enable that’s the important thing.

Mastodon (and some of the other potential alternatives to Twitter) is decentralized. This means there is no single organization or individual controlling a single place that everyone signs up to and uses to communicate and engage, unlike Twitter.

How would this structure be more appealing? Consider how Mastodon works:

Mastodon is a social media network comprised of nodes (called “servers” or “instances”), each running special software. Anyone can run their own Mastodon instance (if they have the proper dedicated server), which can then link to others in a federation or remain private. Individuals or companies can have complete control over individual Mastodon servers, so there are still centralized points of administration, but it’s not as concentrated as in the case of Twitter, Tumblr, or Facebook.

How-To Geek, April 28, 2022

So when signing up to Mastodon, you choose an ‘instance’ that offers a place you find appealing. Maybe it’s focused on specific topics of interest to you. Maybe peopole you know and trust are congregating there. Or maybe it has policies and terms of use you find appealing, different to other instances you may look at. It might be self contained, not connected to any other instance of Mastodon so not part of the federation; or it might be wholly connected. (Also see this alternate perspective on Mastodon and federation.)

The point is, you can choose what kind of Mastodon you want to sign up to.

This doesn’t just apply to individual users.

Imagine a group of people who have common interests and want to gather somewhere online that isn’t a walled garden or controlled by a large organisation (think of Facebook or LinkedIn). They want to build their own trusted place but with connection to other selected places in the Mastodon federation.

You can have your own private Mastodon

Take this another step – a company wants to enable its employees to enjoy the benefits of connecting with others (not just their fellow co-workers) yet safely and with a trustworthy place for its users, with much of the familiarity of how they’ve been using Twitter with none of the toxicity that’s prevalent on Twitter. Such a place should use software that is proven and reliable, is free and open source, and relatively easy to administer.

You can create your own private Mastodon instance on a server on your company domain and limit access to it to employees and other trusted people, yet enable connections to other federated instances that you choose to connect to. This might be appealing as well due to the present lack of verification capability across the federated Mastodon network – easier to do this on your company’s private instance.

There’s a lot to take in with this so it’s worth exploring the wealth of documentation at Mastodon that will help you understand this social network, how it works, how it can work for you, and much more at Mastodon Help.

You can say goodbye to the current chaos on your own terms.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.