(To receive weekly emails with conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decision makers, click here.)
Since Twitter changed hands in late October, another very similar social media site has experienced something of an influx.
Mastodon, a decentralized microblogging site named after an extinct species of mammoth, signed up 120,000 new users in the four days after billionaire Elon Musk acquired Twitter, its German-born founder Eugen Rochko told TIME. Many of them were Twitter users looking for a new place to call their online home.
These users, whether they knew it or not, were following in the footsteps of Rochko, 29, who started coding Mastodon in 2016 after becoming disillusioned with Twitter. “I thought that being able to express myself online with my friends through short messages was very important to me, important to the world, and that maybe it shouldn’t be in the hands of a single corporation,” says Rochko. “In general, it had to do with a sense of distrust of the top-down control that Twitter exerts.”
A mastodon proudly announcing it “not for sale” and there are around 4.5 million user accounts, is quite similar to Twitter once users go through the complicated sign-up process. The main difference is that it is not one cohesive platform, but actually a collection of different, independently managed and self-funded servers. Users on different servers can still communicate with each other, but each can set up their own server and set their own discussion rules. Mastodon is a crowdfunded non-profit organization that funds Rochko’s full-time job – his only employee – and several popular servers.
The platform does not have the power to force server owners to do anything – not 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 appear, other servers can band together to block them, essentially kicking them off the majority of the platform. “I guess you could call it a democratic process,” Rochko says.
The recent influx from Twitter, Rochko says, is rehabilitation. “It’s very positive to find that your work is finally appreciated and respected and more widely known,” he says. “I’ve worked very, very hard to push the idea that there’s a better way to do social media than what commercial companies like Twitter and Facebook allow.”
TIME spoke with Rochko on October 31.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
What do you think about what Elon Musk is doing on Twitter?
I do not know. The man is not quite understandable. I don’t agree with a lot of his behavior and decision making. I think buying Twitter was an impulsive decision that he soon regretted. And that he actually put himself in a situation that forced him to commit to the deal. And now he’s in it and has to deal with the consequences.
I specifically disagree with his stance on free speech because I think it depends on your interpretation of what free speech means. If you allow the most intolerant voices to be as loud as they want, you will also silence the voices of different opinions. So allowing free speech by simply allowing any speech doesn’t actually lead to free speech, it just leads to a cesspool of hate.
I think it’s a very uniquely American idea to create this marketplace of ideas where you can say whatever you want, completely without restrictions. This is very foreign to the German way of thinking, where we, in our constitution, our number one priority is the preservation of human dignity. So, hate speech is not part of the German concept of freedom of speech, for example. So I think when Elon Musk says everything will be allowed or whatever, I usually don’t agree with that.
How do you ensure Mastodon, given that it’s decentralized and you don’t have the power to ban users, that the space is welcoming and safe?
Well, it’s kind of a weird dichotomy of how it worked out. On the one hand, the technology itself is what allows anyone to host their own independent social media server and be able to do whatever they want with it. There’s no way that Mastodon, the company, or anyone can really — outside of normal law enforcement procedures — actually go after someone who specifically runs a Mastodon server. The way you would shut down a normal website is how you would shut down a Mastodon server, no difference. So on this side it turns out to be the best platform for free speech. But apparently that’s just a side effect of creating a tool that anyone can use. It’s kind of like cars. Cars are used by everyone, even by bad people, even for bad purposes, there’s nothing you can do about it because the tool is out there somewhere. However, I think 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, allowing communities to create safer spaces than they otherwise would. they could have on these big platforms, who are interested in serving as many people as possible, maybe incentivize engagement on purpose to increase the time people spend online.
You can have communities that have much stricter rules than Twitter. And in practice many of them are [stricter]. And that’s part of where, again, the technology intersects with the guidance or leadership from the Mastodon company. I think that by the way we communicate publicly, we’ve avoided attracting the kind of crowd you’d find on Parler or Gab or any other internet hate forums. Instead, we brought in people who would be moderators against hate speech when they run their own servers. In addition, 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 create accounts on. And by doing this 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 by doing that, we’re making sure that the connection 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 you hateful people create a server?
Well, obviously they don’t get promoted on our Join Mastodon website or in our app. So whatever they do, they do it alone and completely separate, and the other admins who run their own Mastodon servers, when they find out there’s a new hate speech server, they might decide they don’t want to receive any messages from the server and block it in turn. Through, I guess you could call it a democratic process, the hateful server can be ostracized, or it can be effectively divided into a little echo chamber, which I guess is no better or worse than being in another echo chamber. The internet is full of spam. It’s full of abuse, of course. Mastodon provides the necessary facilities to deal with unwanted content, both on the user’s and the operator’s side.
What made you want to create a service like this in 2016?
I remember just not being very happy with Twitter and worried about where it would go from there. Something very doubtful was in his future. It made me think that being able to express myself online with my friends via short messages is actually very important to me, important to the world, and that maybe it shouldn’t be in the hands of a single corporation that can just do whatever he wants with it. I started working on my own stuff. I called it Mastodon because I’m bad at naming things. I just picked whatever came to mind at the time. He clearly had no ambition to make it big at the time.
It must feel pretty special to see something you’ve made grow from nothing to where it is now.
It’s true. It is very positive to find that your work is finally appreciated and respected and more widely known. I’ve been fighting for this for a long time, I started work on Mastodon in 2016, then I had no ambitions for it to go far at all. It was very much a hobbyist project at first, and then when I launched publicly, it seemed to catch on at least with the tech community, and that’s when I got the initial Patreon backers that allowed me to take this on full-time. And since then I’ve been working very, very hard to make this platform as accessible and easy to use as possible for everyone. And to push the idea forward that there is a better way to do social media than what commercial companies like Twitter and Facebook allow.
More must-see stories from TIME