Analysis

December 9, 2022

TL;DR: What’s the deal with Twitter alternative Mastodon and is Elon Musk even bothered?

How does it make money? Why's it named after an extinct elephant beast? And should Twitter be worried?


Name: Mastodon

Age: About six years old

TL;DR: A bit like Twitter but not really

How’s an extinct tusk-wielding elephant creature a bit like Twitter? I see what’s happened here. We’re talking about the social media site that was mooted as an alternative to Twitter after Elon Musk took that over, reinstated the accounts of some pretty controversial figures and sacked half the company.

Why’s it named after an old elephant? No one knows… or at least, the internet doesn’t seem to. Founder Eugen Rochko probably has an idea.

How many people use it? 8m in total, of which 2m have signed up in the last month. 

Is that a lot? It’s nearly 10 times as many as signed up in the month before Musk became Twitter’s supreme leader.

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Should Twitter be worried? Probably not at the moment. According to Twitter, it was getting 2m sign-ups daily towards the end of November — and has 330m monthly users.

Do you do tweets on it? You do “toots”.

Ah, I see what they did there. Or you used to at least — the powers that be have started calling posts, er, “posts”.

How apt. And who are the powers that be? Pretty much anyone who wants to be. Mastodon is made up of thousands of different decentralised servers that are run and moderated by the person or organisation that sets them up, known as a “federated network”.

Does that network have a fun name? You bet it does. It’s called the “fediverse”.

Cool, but what happens if my best buddy signs up to a different server to me in the “fediverse”? Don’t panic! You can still follow and chat to them. It’s like how someone with an @hotmail email can still get in touch with their pals who went down the @gmail path. 

Is there any other Mastodon lingo should I know? Funnily enough, there is. Retweets are “boosts” and those servers are known as “instances”.

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And how does it make money? Not through adverts — which made up 90% of Twitter’s revenue in 2021. Because servers are decentralised, brands can’t advertise across the platform.

Down with capitalism! Hold your horses, I didn’t say Mastodon doesn’t make any money.

Oh. It makes about $25k a month through crowdfunding and it offers some paid-for services to servers. Organisations can also sponsor the platform and it received a small grant from the European Commission.

And where does that money go? To founder Rochko — who’s the site’s only full-time employee and pays himself a modest €2,400 a month, apparently.

That doesn’t sound very decentralised. The man’s got to eat. 

What about the rest of the cash? It costs a fair wedge to maintain a site with millions of users.

Fair enough, then. But has Musk had anything to say about it? Of course he has. He tweeted (and then deleted): “If you don’t like Twitter any more there is awesome site called Masterbatedone.” 

Very clever wordplay. The Shakespeare of our times.

Kai Nicol-Schwarz

Kai Nicol-Schwarz is a reporter at Sifted. He covers UK tech and healthtech, and can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn