Mastodon is a social media network powered by a network of independent servers around the world, often called a federated social media platform, or Fediverse—a platform that is decentralized or not controlled by a single private server. Mastodon is similar in its appearance and feature set to Twitter—they are both microblogging platforms where users can publish short posts that enter a central feed where others can read those posts and the individual can read others' posts. These posts can be "starred" (the same as "likes" on other platforms), "boosted" (similar to retweeting), and shared, and those who post can be followed.
Mastodon is supported on several platforms. It is offered as a web version and as a desktop or client application for Windows 10, Xbox One, and Windows 10 mobile users. Otherwise, Mastodon is offered as a mobile app on Android and iOS.
Unlike other social media platforms, Mastodon's self-governed approach allows users to have autonomy and decision-making power over how the platform functions. A person or organization can make a Mastodon server—similar to subreddits—which can be moderated by volunteers and include its own rules and protocols. The servers can be general purpose and let anyone join, such as the Mastodon social server, while other servers require an invite or approval process by a server administrator. Similarly, a server can be focused on a specific category, which often requires users on the server to limit their conversations and posts to those topics of conversation.
Posts on the site are known as "Toots," which have a 500-character limit and can include hashtags, similar to other social media sites, to allow users to interact with posts relevant to their interests. In these Toots, users can include links, images (JPG, GIF, or PNG formats and up to 8MB), audio files (MP3, OGG, WAV, FLAC, OPUS, AAC, or M4A formats and from 3GP up to 40MB, and videos (in the MP4, M4V, MOV, WebM formats up to 40 MB). The site allows users to set posts as either public or private, create polls for users, and use common and custom emojis. Further, posts can be tagged with a content warning that requires users to click before viewing and allows users to edit posts on Mastodon, with a notification for viewers that those posts have been edited.
Due to Mastodon's Fediverse design, in which users can self-govern their servers or instances, joining the platform is considered to be trickier or more difficult than joining other, centralized, social networking sites. To sign up, users have to either be on one of many servers or be developing their own server. Due to this, each Mastodon handle has two pieces of information: the handle and the server, which makes the handle look something like @firstname.lastname@example.org. Once on the platform, users can find and follow others by either searching a known Mastodon handle, navigating to a known Mastodon instance, or discovering users organically.
Mastodon was founded in 2016 by German-born founder Eugen Rochko and was intended to operate differently than previously established social networking sites. He saw Mastodon as a viable alternative to Twitter but using different instances to allow users to moderate and manage their own servers. Rochko founded Mastodon in part because he was a self-described avid Twitter user but was concerned about the potential takeover of Twitter (at the time) by Peter Thiel, which he saw as a takeover of a de facto public utility by a private individual. Mastodon was informed by that concern, to allow it to remain a public facility, which is why Mastodon allows users to start their own servers.
Since its founding, Mastodon has been run by a nonprofit organization of the same name.
Although it was founded in 2016, Mastodon increased dramatically in popularity in 2022 when Elon Musk finalized his purchase of Twitter. The upheaval at Twitter and the concerns of its users around the politics of the new owner and potential changes to the platform sent users to find alternatives to Twitter, with an early focus on Mastodon. The week after Musk took over Twitter, Mastodon gained 230,000 new users (according to Mastodon) and reached over 1 million monthly active users (of which 489,000 were new) in the first month after Musk took over Twitter.
Following the early explosion of users in November of 2022, by late December 2022, Mastodon hit 2.5 million users as more people left Twitter. Mastodon was becoming a household name for people who had left Twitter and were promoting Mastodon through word-of-mouth. Twitter retaliated to the flood of users leaving for Mastodon by blocking users from posting or sharing Mastodon links, as a lot of early "word-of-mouth" marketing for Mastodon occurred on Twitter as users urged their friends and followers to leave Twitter and used Twitter to essentially advertise their Mastodon instances and profiles.
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