The Silver Lining to Musk Twitter Takeover? Mastodon Getting Close to 9 Million Users

Elon Musk’s tenure as owner of Twitter has been a complete disaster. However, the result is Mastodon’s user count continuing to go up.

Elon Musk has been a complete disaster for Twitter. Whether it was the mass censorship of journalists, censoring people critical of his decisions, laying off half of the staff, the failure of the $8 blue checkmark fiasco, threatening to go “nuclear” on any advertiser dropping advertising on the platform, and more, what Musk was doing to Twitter was, for many observers, like watching a trainwreck. It’s terrible, you shouldn’t look, but you can’t help but watch because it’s so spectacular in its own brutally awful way.

There is a couple of practical effects about all of this. For one, Musk’s actions have definitively proven that he is a complete idiot when it comes to business and that his other acquisitions of SpaceX and Tesla was more of a fluke rather than a stroke of genius. The other is that it has opened the broader audience to an open source, decentralized social media experience.

For the latter, the biggest winner of the Twitter Musk fiasco has definitely been Mastodon. While the platform has been around for more than a few months, up until Musk’s Twitter acquisition, it was always floating around as a more niche concept and proof of concept that a decentralized platform is more than possible. Before Musk’s takeover of Twitter, Mastodon was not exactly a household name. After, however, it is mentioned in countless news articles and an overwhelming number of people who use social media has now heard of the platform. For any small platform, name recognition alone is absolutely huge. It’s not really enough to have a system that is technologically superior. It’s hugely important to manage to break through the noise and become widely well known which is an extremely difficult thing to do.

Thanks largely to Musk, Mastodon was able to accomplish the latter step in spades. In fact, as people were rushing over to Mastodon to have a better social media experience, even for many observers who knew the network well, a big question mark was whether or not the system could handle such a massive influx of users. With the progressive spikes in new users and traffic, the decentralized system was able to handle the new traffic surprisingly well. Some of the more popular instances certainly experienced slowdowns and the odd error message here and there, but the network (which, itself, has been growing incredibly quickly thanks to the popping up of new instances) held up surprisingly well. In fact, there wasn’t any real definitive downtime of the whole network which is not something Twitter could say when they were first experiencing their growing pains years ago.

Since these initial growing pains, the network has been humming along smoothly. With the dust settling and users figuring out Mastodon features, reality has begun sinking in about just how big the platform has gotten over the last couple of months. Like many others out there, we occasionally check out the MastodonUserCount. As of this writing, the latest toot says that the platform now has roughly 8.9 million users.

The bot account, of course, updates every hour, so by the time you are reading this, the count probably won’t be the latest numbers.

In true “great minds think alike” fashion, it seems that publishing an update on where things are with Mastodon was not a thought exclusively held by me. Techdirt also published an article talking about the overwhelming success story of Mastodon thanks to Musk being a complete idiot.

Lots of people had been saying for years that privacy scandals or other scandals would trigger the grand awakening, but I’d yet to see anything actually happen, and so I thought that if you were to put that into a slide, it seemed like we needed a deeper discussion on what would actually make people get disillusioned. Because very little seemed to have worked to date.

The very next day, while we were at the second day of the conference, Elon Musk announced that he was no longer trying to get out of the deal to buy Twitter, and would go forward with the acquisition.

And while that prompted an immediate hallway discussion with some other conference attendees on what available alternatives there were that could handle an influx of folks, I still didn’t quite expect things to play out as they have. I’ve already wrote about how I’ve come around to now realizing that I’m just not that interested in centralized platforms, after seeing (1) how much worse Elon has made Twitter in just a short while and (2) how quickly Mastodon grew and adapted.

Others are noticing as well. NBC has a somewhat snarkily titled article, noting that Elon Musk is growing a social network — just not the one he expected. It highlights how Mastodon’s recent surge in growth is almost entirely driven by Musk’s whimsically stupid (and quite often hypocritical) decision making. From the article:

Basically, each time Musk does something stupid, such as banning links to Mastodon, it just… drives more people to Mastodon.

The other thing in all of this is the fact that a decentralized platform like Platform would be much harder for governments to crack down on. With big publishing pushing the JCPA in the US and Bill C-18 in Canada, the most that can be hoped for is that the large platforms like Facebook and Twitter would get targeted. If they hoped to go after Mastodon, it’s extremely unclear how something like the CRTC would even accomplish that. The most you could hope for us to compel Mastodon instances operating in Canada to comply, forcing users to use instances that are off shore. At that point, it’s game over, people are going to be switching to another instance that allows the continuation of the sharing of links. Making Canadian instances ban instances that do not comply with link taxes would only hasten users moving to more free speech friendly instances.

Additionally, if Facebook, Google, and Twitter and up banning news links, the sharing of news links could very easily live on on a platform like Mastodon. It’s entirely possible that we could, one day, view Mastodon as the place to get your news fix because it’s not available on other platforms. Wouldn’t that be a world few would see coming just a year ago?

Another big hurdle for Mastodon at this point is lasting power. Will users stick around for the next two to three years or would they slip back to platforms like Facebook after? Only time will tell on that. However, the huge burst in traffic really pushed Mastodon into a position where this is more easily achievable for the time being.

At any rate, Mastodon has really been a huge and overwhelming success story. Given the current commitment to being open source and decentralized, one hopes that this success story will only continue.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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