Mastodon is an open-source social-networking service that allows users to either host their own "community" or join an existing one. It has been in existence for the past couple of years, but in India, it only took off recently after a series of controversial moves by Twitter suspending the accounts of renowned people.
Mastodon is remarkably similar to Twitter, but the setup is different. The "communities" are servers that are connected to each other in a decentralised social network.
More importantly, people seem comfortable with Mastodon’s policies, especially when they face virtual harassment, something that happens on Twitter with seemingly little action taken against perpetrators. To know more about this platform, The Quint spoke to Eugen Rochko, who founded the main server on which many Indians have signed up in the past week.
What was the idea behind Mastodon and when was it first hosted on the internet?
Eugen Rochko: The idea behind Mastodon is that online communication should not be beholden to one private company. It’s way too important to be subject to commercial interests (e.g. ads), financial instability (e.g. Twitter’s problems on the stock market, CEO issues, potential buyout by another entity), or laws of a single government (e.g. USA) extending over the whole world. Mastodon turns that top-down hierarchy into a completely flat (non-)hierarchy.
As a decentralised service, legally and operationally independent, Mastodon servers are run all over the globe, and anyone can create a new one. The social network is more robust against any risks as a result and can accommodate many communities with varying needs and rules.
During development, my Mastodon server mastodon.social went online for the first time in March 2016. In November 2016, it was announced to the public.
With “Instances”, users get to choose their server to create an account. How does one verify the credentials of the server and check its safety standards?
Eugen Rochko: On the front page of each “instance” there is an information card that tells you how many people have accounts on that server, a short description of the server, who runs it, and a link to more information.
Following that link, or otherwise opening the “about this server” page, usually leads to a code of conduct established by that server, as well as a contact e-mail address for inquiries. All of that information is supplied by the owner of that server, of course.
As developers of Mastodon, we also list Mastodon servers on our project homepage (i.e. page dedicated to the project itself), joinmastodon.org. To be listed there, server owners have to agree to certain safety standards both in a social sense (like a ban on racist content) and a technical sense (backups, availability).
It’s interesting that Mastodon works via apps on Android, iOS as well as Sailfish OS, but on the Google Play Store, there are quite a few other apps which claim to support Mastodon. Can you help us identify the authentic ones that users should download?
Eugen Rochko: Unlike Twitter or Facebook, Mastodon does not seek to lock down its APIs. Instead, we believe that an ecosystem of independently developed applications will lead to more innovation and higher quality than would otherwise be possible.
As such, all apps you see are Mastodon apps, but none of them are official, because there are no official apps. You can check the joinmastodon.org/apps page for a list of apps we think are good.
You have highlighted the privacy controls and other features on offer, but with a Mastodon account operating through a server, isn’t there a danger of them being hacked?
Eugen Rochko: Such danger exists for any online service. We put a lot of thought into security when developing the software, and recommend best practices for configuration and operation in our documentation, but the practical risk varies by server. For what it’s worth, Mastodon collects as little information as is necessary for its operation.
What are your moderation policies and how quickly do you respond to a user report?
Eugen Rochko: Moderation policies and moderators vary by server, so I can only speak on behalf of my own, mastodon.social.
We currently have 5 moderators not counting me, covering different time zones and languages, and we try to process reports at most within hours, sometimes in less than an hour, depending on who’s online.
How many users have you added from India in the past 3 to 4 days?
Eugen Rochko: My server (mastodon.social) has received 26,165 new users last week. Since the typical number is closer to three thousand, the rest can be attributed to India.
Mastodon is said to be a crowdfunded platform, can you explain how the servers are set up and whether it takes a heavy load if a lot of users are added in quick time?
Eugen Rochko: The development of the Mastodon software is crowdfunded through Patreon and OpenCollective. Likewise, the operating costs of mastodon.social are covered by Patreon.
Other servers often use Patreon or Liberapay to crowdfund their costs as well, but it’s completely up to them. Sometimes they don’t need extra funding, for example, if their server is part of a company, or if it’s a personal server for one or two people. There is a lot variance there.
As more people use a Mastodon server, just like any other website, more computing power is required to operate. If capacity of the underlying hardware is reached, the owner of the server has to either stop accepting new users, or upgrade the hardware (e.g. changing hosting provider or plan or add new machines). This of course involves money.
Also, you don’t have a verification process, why is that?
Eugen Rochko: Verification as it is understood by Twitter requires that someone looks at identifying documents and says “this person is who they say they are”. But when you have many independent servers, how do you do that? Who will look at the documents?
If one server claims they’ve looked at documents, can another server truly trust that information without looking at them on their own? And if every server has to check the documents, it’s a privacy nightmare. That is problematic.
For this reason, Mastodon does not provide verification as it is understood by Twitter.
We support link verification. If you have a homepage that proves your identity, and you link to your Mastodon profile from it, then your Mastodon profile will display a green check mark next to the link to that homepage.
The Verge had done story about Gab, a right-wing following group and spoke to you about how open source platforms like Mastodon have their shortcomings as well. In India, we have a similar situation with trolls. How does the platform make sure such users don’t misuse it for their propaganda?
Eugen Rochko: While we can’t stop someone from running the freely available open-source code of Mastodon on their own infrastructure, we can moderate content on our own servers, and block content from troll servers from reaching ours.
Gab has been isolated by most of the current network that way. Because independent servers have their own mod teams, responsible for primarily their own users, the workload in the network is shared, and moderation scales better than on a monolithic platform. This is why many find Mastodon to be so troll-free compared to Twitter right now. It’s not because the trolls don’t know about it, they do.