What Is Mastodon, the Twitter Alternative That’s Seen a 2,600% Surge in Signups?

45% of the app’s new installs took place following Elon Musk’s takeover

Mastodon (Getty Images)

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has sparked a liberal exodus of celebrities, media figures and everyday users, many of whom have fled to Mastodon, a decentralized social media platform that has seen a 2,608% surge in signups since Musk’s acquisition.

The billionaire is clearly aware of the competition: He tweeted — and quickly deleted — at least three disparaging comments about Mastodon on Monday alone.

Is the upstart, which has roughly 4.5 million users, really a threat to Twitter — which boasted 237.8 million monetizable daily users in the second quarter?

Here’s everything you need to know about Mastodon.

What is Mastadon?

Back in 2016, Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko created the open-source project out of dissatisfaction with the state and direction of Twitter, and sought to start a more user-friendly platform.

His decentralized platform strives to create a “viable alternative to Twitter” that enables users to control their timeline by populating their feed with users and servers with whom they would like to engage.

To do so, Mastodon’s platform links together a slew of servers — which can each be considered social networks in their own right — that are governed by different groups or users. These servers make up the Fediverse, or federated universe, which connects the social networks that share protocols for communication.

Because the platform is open source, the original source code is publicly available and can altered by individuals who find and fix bus, add new features and translate the platform into different languages.

How is it different from Twitter?

In place of tweets, Mastodon users post toots, which extend Twitter’s 280-character limit with a 500-character limit per post. Similar to Twitter, users can attach images, video, audio to a toot.

While Mastodon has a Twitter-like look to it, all the content isn’t housed on a single server. Instead, the experience resembles Discord, a platform that holds different servers where groups create their own rules, or even Facebook groups, where users identify and join groups based on their interests.

Unlike Twitter, Mastodon populates a chronological feed and encourages users to stay in control of their own feeds by engaging with servers and following users to “make your corner of the internet a little more like you.” There is no algorithm pushing content to you based on your past activities and searches, as on TikTok and Facebook. “Your home feed should be filled with what matters to you most, not what a corporation thinks you should see,” the platform’s website reads.

The platform is also entirely ad-free; Mastodon is largely crowdfunded. Most servers are funded by the users themselves, with two main ones (Mastodon Social and Mastodon Online) funded by Patreon, a membership and subscription service widely embraced by content creators.

How do you sign up?

To create a Mastodon account, you sign up to join one of 4,000 different servers on joinmastodon.org or official iOS and Android apps. Because the platform is decentralized, you need to choose an individual server — which may not be the same one used by your friends or the people you want to follow.

That set-up has created headaches for many new users — who can struggle to find a server with people who share their interests. But there are servers for fans of everything from pandas to theme parks to “nerd interests with a queer bent.”

Your Mastodon user name includes the name of your server — but you can still interact with people on other servers and boost their toots (like retweeting), or create another account on a different server and transport your followers there.

You can also create your own server — but that’s a heavier lift since you also take on the responsibility (and expense) of hosting it. Mastodon provides thorough instructions, though it’s not necessary to create a server if you’re simply looking to join the platform.

How much has it grown since Musk took over Twitter?

In the eight days following the news of the acquisition closing, Oct. 27 to Nov. 3, Mastodon gained approximately 325,000 worldwide installs from the App Store and Google Play, according to Sensor Tower’s preliminary estimates, a figure representing 27 times the 12,000 installs in the previous eight-day period, from Oct. 19 to Oct. 26. 

As it stands, the Mastodon mobile app has seen about 717,000 installs, with more than a third (45%) occurring within the eight days after Musk finalized his takeover of Twitter. 

Why is it growing so fast?

Mastodon had already seen growth prior to the Twitter takeover, and Musk’s acquisition created the perfect storm to encourage users to reevaluate what they want from a social media platform, according to Stephanie Chan, a Mobile Insights Strategist at Sensor Tower.

“Since Mastodon already picked up some traction in previous years as an alternative for Twitter, it was top of mind for users looking to experiment with different platforms in the wake of the recent acquisition,” Chan told TheWrap.

For Evan Greer, the Director of Fight for the Future, the shift is a welcome change for users who have grown tired of being dissatisfied with the state of content moderation on social media platforms like Twitter, among others.

“What excites me about just kind of this potential shakeup in social media is that we can move past just kind of be circular debates of, again, demanding that existing platforms do a better job of content moderation, and start envisioning, ‘What are the actual tools that we need in place to make spaces online where the most number of people feel safe expressing themselves?’” Greer said.