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Mastodon is hurtling towards a tipping point

“There’s definitely momentum behind it,” says MacLeary. “Whether that momentum pushed him past the point of no return, I don’t know. It reminds me of my experience starting Twitter, which was very positive. He seemed to know everyone there.”

Whether Mastodon remains a nice and utopian “Twitter first” or becomes a ubiquitous and messy social network remains to be seen. But it’s growing in its potential to replicate some of what Twitter does, with politicians, celebrities and journalists who sign up. Twitter profiles now often carry Mastodon usernames, as social groups switch to the other app. But there’s a schism: Some new users want Mastodon to be Twitter, and some Mastodon users are there because they’re on Twitter.

And with that growing number of users comes more responsibility, not just for Mastodon itself, but for volunteer administrators, whose hobbies managing servers have become a side job.

“There are a lot of people who really don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into,” says Corey Silverstein, an Internet law attorney. “If you manage these [instances], you must run it as if you own Twitter. What people don’t realize is how complicated a platform like this is to manage and how expensive it is.”

Since Mastodon is decentralized, it relies on various server admins instead of a central hub to stay online. These admins aren’t just glorified users; they become more like Internet service providers themselves, says Silverstein, and therefore responsible for keeping their servers compliant with copyright and privacy laws. If they fail, they could be attacked for lawsuits. And they have to follow complex legal frameworks around the world.

In the United States alone, there is the Copyright law of the digital millennium, which makes social platforms liable for copyrighted material posted there if they don’t register to protect themselves and work to remove it (registration takes only minutes and costs $6). There is also the Children’s online privacy protection rule, which determines how platforms handle children’s data. If administrators become aware of child exploitation material, they should report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Then there is Europe, with its own General Data Protection Regulation, a privacy and human rights law. Europe is new Digital Services Act could also apply to Mastodon servers, if they get big enough. And administrators must comply not only with local laws, but also with laws that exist wherever their server is accessible. It’s all daunting, experts say, but not impossible.

“I’m afraid people won’t want to host instances at all, because they’re like, ‘this is too scary,'” says Corynne McSherry, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit focused on civil liberties in the digital world. “But it doesn’t have to be scary.”

Eugen Rochko, the founder of Mastodon, did not respond to an email asking questions about Mastodon’s legal liability for content published in instances using its open source software.

MacLeary says server administrators are vulnerable in a few ways: to harassment from users who don’t like their decisions and to legal troubles. MacLeary is still learning about the various laws that may affect mas.to and has already established clear rules against discrimination and harassment. Mas.to also bans illegal content in the UK (where MacLeary lives) and Germany (where the servers are hosted). “We’ve learned what rules to put in place over time,” says MacLeary. “There are rules in there that I wouldn’t have thought of. It’s a constant piece of education.

These are growing pains startup social networks are used to, but they’ve had different goals than Mastodon, chief among them: making money. The intent of Twitter is to grow and earn, while Mastodon it was not launched with such ambitions. Twitter and Mastodon are not twins and are far apart in capitalist identity. But they are inextricably linked: as Twitter stumbles, Mastodon soars.

Twitter had a major surge in popularity after that appearing at SXSW in 2006. But it became ubiquitous and unignorable after the role it played during the Arab Spring, which began in late 2010, in helping protesters organize and spread breaking news around the world. The Bird app has proven powerful beyond the expectations of its creators and investors. And it has become a part of the mainstream news cycle as celebrities and politicians have used it to make their announcements. Barack Obama, for example, took to Twitter to announce that he had won his bid for re-election as president of the United States in 2012. The tweet circulated throughout the press and media.

People fear losing Twitter for both the valuable news insights and the spectacle that comes with it. Mastodon is not there, yet. But it has become a benchmark for reporters suspended by Musk last week. Muira McCammon, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication who has studied the death of the social platform, says Mastodon is currently less performing and more “negotiating and fussing” about its purpose and evolution, which could prove less attractive to some . People may be spending more time on other networks or trying them out, but it’s too soon to tell if they’ll fill the Twitter void.

“It’s a natural tendency for people to go elsewhere online to try and find a Twitter replay,” McCammon says. “But Mastodon is not Twitter. It’s not built like Twitter. And it’s not aimed at turning a profit. So there will undoubtedly be frictions that arise at that time of migration.”