What Is Mastodon, and Why Are People Leaving Twitter for It?

Updated: Mar. 15, 2024

As Twitter deflates and users leave in droves—Mastodon gains traction.

Over the past couple of decades, we’ve gone from adjusting to life with a social media presence to social media becoming an integrated part of our world to seriously wondering what would happen if social media disappeared. Some people are more devoted to these platforms than others, and many wish it would go back to where it came from. Elon Musk’s early tenure at Twitter has shined a bright light on some pitfalls of the platform that were always there but that have been amplified by his chaotic takeover.

What is Mastodon?

Mastodon app homepage on a mobile phone rests on keyboardSOPA Images/Getty Images

Enter Mastodon, a decentralized social network built on open-source software. “That means that anyone can set up their own server, and there is no central authority controlling the platform, which is in contrast to Twitter, which is a centralized platform controlled by Twitter, Inc.,” explains Michael Xavier, founder of insidertechie. Mastodon is similar to other social media sites in that users can search for topics using hashtags and reshare, reply and send private messages.

German software developer Eugen Rochko founded Mastodon in 2016. He runs @Gargron, where he posted last week that “we’ve hit 1,028,362 monthly active users across the network today. 1,124 new Mastodon servers since Oct 27, and 489,003 new users. That’s pretty cool.”

For those not in the know, Musk formalized his Twitter takeover on Oct. 27, and Bot Sentinel (a firm that tracks Twitter behavior and analyzes accounts) estimates that nearly a million users deactivated their Twitter accounts in the first five days after Musk took over—and now, Twitter users appear to be leaving in droves as tumultuous management of the company continues.

“There are more than 1.5 million accounts across all the Mastodon servers, with the largest server, Mastodon.social (run by the developer of the Mastodon software) growing by around 700,000 accounts in a week,” says William Gunn, Head of Communications at Quora and long-time Mastodon user.

How is Mastodon different from Twitter?

Users run their own servers

In some ways, it’s easier to describe what Mastodon is by describing what it isn’t. “Mastodon is to Twitter like email is to Gmail,” explains Gunn. “Instead of one website that’s run by one company, any user of Mastodon can run their own copy of the software and send messages to any other Mastodon user,” Gunn says. “Similarly, anyone could run their own email server and send email to anyone else, no matter what comes after the @ in their email address.”

In technical terms, this is called federation and it’s the main difference between Twitter and Mastodon.

Toots instead of tweets

While Mastodon and Twitter function similarly, they use different terminology. Twitter’s tweets are called toots on Mastodon, likes are called favorites and retweets from other people are called boosts.

Longer character limits

One of the main differences between Mastodon and Twitter is that Mastodon has a much longer character limit for posts. “On Twitter, you’re limited to 140 characters, but on Mastodon, you can go up to 500 characters,” Xavier says. “This allows for more in-depth and nuanced discussions on Mastodon.”

More control over data

Because Mastodon doesn’t have a central server, it’s more resistant to censorship and attacks. “Additionally, Mastodon gives users more control over their data,” explains digital marketing expert Deepak Patel. “For example, users can choose to make their posts private or public. They can also block other users and report abuse.”

No algorithms

One of the main complaints about Twitter is the algorithm, which isn’t an issue with Mastodon because it’s not algorithm-driven. “On Mastodon, what you follow is what you see,” explains Andreas Grant, Network Security Engineer. “There is no hidden algorithm trying to manipulate us to a certain type of content.”

Because Mastodon isn’t an algorithm-driven site, you choose and follow to control what fills up your feed, and like all social media sites, you can follow others to see their content. “If you find someone who shares your interests, you can also add them to your ‘boosts’ list, which allows their posts to appear in your timeline,” Patel explains. “In addition, you can join or create groups on Mastodon, which are similar to forums or discussion boards. These groups allow users with common interests to connect and share content. Finally, you can search for Mastodon instances specific to your location or interest using the mastodon-instances mastodon search engine. By following these steps, you can easily join Mastodon and begin interacting with its vibrant community.”

How do I join Mastodon?

Joining Mastodon is a bit more involved than other social media sites because it’s more complex than just choosing a username and setting up a basic profile. After opening Mastodon.social, the first step is to choose a server. “Every server is operated by an independent organization or individual and may differ in moderation policies,” Mastodon says on the site.

It can be a little overwhelming, but Grant says these options are the beauty of Mastodon. “This is what the trendy word decentralization means. You can choose which server seems to be taking care of your freedom or just join a random one,” Grant explains. You also have the option to run your own server and invite people to join you.

“Each server has its set of standards, but there is some interaction across the servers because it’s part of this ecosystem called the Fediverse, which is essentially a collection of decentralized open-source social platforms,” explains Christophe Jammet, managing director of innovation and emerging media at Gather, who advises clients on their digital and social strategies. Jammet advises his clients to “lock a handle down, take a look and keep Mastodon on their radar.”

While choosing a server might seem daunting, Gunn says it’s not all that important. “Because you can switch servers without much trouble, just pick one that looks good to you, perhaps one that is in your local area or whose description sounds appealing.”

The first thing to do is to go Mastodon’s site and pick a server. You pick a username and password, and then you’re off. “You can take a look at the posts on the server before joining to get a feel for things,” Gunn says, “And the next step would be to follow people! You can change your display name on Twitter to your Mastodon handle to help people find you, and you can also use services like Fedifinder that will tell you if anyone you know on Twitter has already joined Mastodon.”

“From there, it works pretty much the same as Twitter,” Gunn says. “It might take a few days to find people and for them to find you. Because hashtags are important due to the lack of search, you may want to write an intro post including hashtags that describe you and your writing help people who are looking at those hashtags find you.”