Twitter is in turmoil. This matters for democracy. The platform is a political superpower. Despite all of its problems, in many countries it is the most important platform for political debate, used by politicians, journalists and commentators.
When Elon Musk expressed his desire to by Twitter, it felt like Donald Trump descending on the golden escalator to enter the presidential campaign. As well as becoming the CEO of Twitter, with a stream of tweets, Musk has also made himself the centre of debate on the platform.
Musk is the bull in the china shop of complex discussions on free speech.
One day he claims “I am a free speech absolutist”, the next, under pressure from advertisers, he says Twitter will not become a “hellscape where anything can be said”. He has no plan where to position Twitter in terms of freedom of speech and its legitimate limitations.
There may be business method in his madness, but it is unlikely that Twitter can restore credibility when its owner uses it variously as his political megaphone, psychologist’s couch and an ad site for his other companies, twisting and bending rules as he sees fit.
If there is a moment when Twitter could be unseated as the primary platform for political discussion, it is now.
Many see Mastodon as the strongest potential challenger. It is all the rage with former Twitter fans and has gained half a million users since Musk brought chaos to his new acquisition.
Carnivores vs Vegetarian
What is Mastodon? Calling it a challenger conveys the wrong impression.
If the well-known social media companies are aggressive carnivores, Mastodon is best described as a group of small, leaf-eating animals. Everything about it/them is different to what we know about social media companies.
In the Mastodon network there is no advertising, there is no trade with user data, there is no profit motive.
Indeed “Mastodon” is much more than Mastodon gGmbH, the company registered in Berlin, which has one employee, its founder, chief executive and only shareholder, the young programmer Eugen Rochko. For he designed Mastodon as open software that allows many people and groups to build it up as a network.
When people talk of Mastodon, they do not mean the Berlin company, they rather mean this decentralised group of currently 3,600 smaller networks, which each have their own server, users, rules and administrators.
These are called “instances” in Mastodon lingo, which are interconnected by Rochko´s software. Users can choose which instance to sign up to.
Each instance can have slightly different rules, meaning that a religious group, for example, could ban blasphemy or swearwords being used in its group/instance. But what is most misunderstood about this set-up: users are not confined to the instances they sign up to. Instances are interconnected.
Users can see any posting by any individual they follow across the Mastodon universe of instances, even if they are registered with another instance. In this way it resembles Twitter. But the grassroots approach gives users a lot more choice about their online environment than they have on Twitter.
A user can, for example, join a hyper-protective instance, which blocks connections with other groups it perceives to be too aggressive, or she could opt for a group that accepts stronger opinions and language. Users can also change instances quite easily.
Clubhouse or Wikipedia?
So will Mastodon be the rising star on the social media sky? The jury is out. It could become the new clubhouse, a temporary fad, or it could become something like Wikipedia, a household name liked for its integrity and relative reliability, powered by countless volunteers and donations.
There are good arguments in favour of Mastodon.
Preventing big platforms of global speech from ending up in the control of a few billionaires or authoritarian governments can only be a good thing. The Mastodon structure is far more democratic than the commercial competition. The barrier to entry is extremely low. With a bit of time and little money, anybody can set up an instance and host users.
The complicated questions of blocking users or deleting extremist and illegal speech are made “locally” in the various instances. If a user is unhappy, they can move to another instance. If the software is abused by extremist groups that build their own instances, the other instances can block and thereby isolate them.
Most hate speech on big platforms comes from a very small number of users. One can hope that a group effort would keep them marginal in the Mastodon universe, as happened when the extremist network Gab switched to Mastodon software.
The question of how posts are ranked, the stuff of complex AI-powered algorithms on Facebook or Twitter, which has bedevilled legislators, is a non-issue on Mastodon. There is no ranking. You see all the posts in chronology. The last posted shows up first. All the discussions about political bias in newsfeeds: not relevant on Mastodon. The users shape their own newsfeed.
These are powerful arguments in favour of Mastodon. There are doubts as well.
Once the Mastodon network gets big, people who spread disinformation, including extremists will try to abuse it, challenging its defences.
Its founders and protagonists seem overconfident in the resilience of the network against what could be a massive onslaught.
Instances with many users — some already have several hundred thousand — will only be able to moderate content in automated ways, raising the usual problems of over- or under-blocking content and the need for human decision-making in difficult cases.
Also, while the role of the Mastodon company in Berlin is weak within the network, it nevertheless exerts influence by, for example, recommending instances for new users to join. Further, the structure of the company, in which Rochko is both shareholder and director, does not reflect good non-profit governance.
The biggest challenge will be that the network is initially not intuitive to users. At first glance, it appears complicated. Being run by volunteers and donations means it may not always have the engineering power to create a perfectly smooth service.
But hopefully users will invest some time learning something new (and sometimes imperfect) than to spend another decade complaining how bad commercial social media is.
If Mastodon thrives, many will hail it as a new European tech player.
But the platform holds a more valuable promise — the establishment of a more democratic social network that can be used by anybody, everywhere in the world, without being manipulated by big money, the whims of billionaires or repressive governments.