How Mastodon made friends with Meta

Founder Eugen Rochko on helping Threads federate, dodging venture capital, and why he hopes Bluesky abandons its protocol

How Mastodon made friends with Meta
(Davide Bonaldo / Getty Images)

The news last week that Bluesky is open to the public left me wondering how Mastodon, the original federated social network, is faring these days. Thanks to Threads’ rapid growth and promise to eventually link with Mastodon, the idea of decentralized social networks has suddenly gone surprisingly mainstream. Two years after Elon Musk bought the company now called X and chased millions of users off the platform, the value of a network that no one person controls has rarely been so apparent.

Mastodon started in 2016. Its founder, Eugen Rochko, had just graduated from college and was living at home with his parents. The idea of decentralization was still novel, but to Rochko, an avid (and at times unhappy) Twitter user, it was already apparent why the model could benefit users. Five years later, he launched a non-profit to build and manage the underlying software. Today, Rochko runs that nonprofit out of Germany. The platform still gets the majority of its funding from Patreon donations. 

Today Mastodon has more than a million users, and a new competitor (and friend?) in the form of Meta’s Threads. The platform now suggests a default server for new users to join in an effort to simplify on-boarding, but Mastodon still battles the perception that it’s too confusing compared to some of the alternatives. It’s also now the smallest of its major decentralized rivals. Threads is up to 130 million monthly users, and Bluesky crossed 5 million users last week.

I spoke to Rochko about what the future of the platform looks like and why he still holds out hope that Bluesky will adopt the ActivityPub protocol. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Zoë Schiffer: You had a big influx of users after Elon Musk bought Twitter. What has growth and retention looked like for you since? Have there been any major events that caused a bunch of people to come to Mastodon? 

Eugen Rochko: You could say that every time Elon Musk made a controversial decision on Twitter we had a mini influx of users throughout last year. I remember that there was a large amount of signups in the summer and honestly, I don't remember what preceded that, but there was a larger influx event between June and August…

Maybe July, when Musk rolled out aggressive rate limiting and no one could use Twitter? 

That could be it. That could indeed be it.

If you look at the numbers, pre-November [2022] the number of active users on Mastodon was 200,000 people. Now it's 1 million. It used to be 1.6 million [in early 2023]. So there was a huge peak in the beginning and it dropped off of course, but actually there is a pretty high retention rate for the people who signed up very early during that migration. For example, I remember the numbers from January. I think 50% of the people who signed up in January 2023 are still active in January 2024, which is actually a pretty amazing number for a year-long retention. 

How has the community changed with the influx of users? 

I'd say it's become more mainstream. I mean, I don't want to talk too badly about the community prior to the influx, because honestly I was quite comfortable in that space and I thought it was already quite balanced. There were lots of enthusiasts, and various interesting hobbyists and artists and all sorts of things. But at the same time there was this feeling that it was a bit niche, a little fringe. Now it definitely feels like it has become more representative of the wider internet. 

I think the extreme of that is also nothing to be super excited about because the average quality of content and users on the internet is rather low. The wider you go, the lower quality drops. So I guess it's all about finding the happy medium. And I definitely think that the change that we've gone through has been positive and good, but also obviously that if you take it to extremes and encompass the whole internet to join, it presents new challenges in what they call eternal September and stuff like that. 

Mastodon users have a reputation as being a bit pedantic. Is there truth in that?I think you could say that people used to be like that, or at least the community was known for that, but I think it's a lot less like that nowadays.

We're trying to address some of this behavior through UI changes. 

When people say that users are pedantic on Mastodon, there's a couple different ways that this surfaces. And one of those ways is, when somebody posts a picture and they don't put an alternative text description for it. Putting a description for a picture or a video ensures that people who can't see or people who maybe lack context on what you're talking about get more information. It allows everyone to participate in a conversation. 

Some people take offense to being reminded to put alt text on pictures. And honestly, I kind of get it, because when you're trying to make a point, or maybe you're out and about somewhere  and you're just posting something quickly, you don't always have the time to type it in. So it's a good attitude to watch out and make sure that everything is accessible, but it can go overboard. We definitely don't encourage that behavior, but we're trying to make that function more obvious in the UI so that people don't have to remind others. 

But yeah, overall, let's say that behavior's just less common nowadays than it used to be.

The other way it surfaces is just people responding. I think that this can be a bit jarring because Mastodon is more like the original social networks that we had at the beginning of the internet versus how they are now, which is a lot more passive. Some are even categorized as entertainment on the app store instead of social networking. You open the app, it shows you something, and you never respond. You never become part of the conversation, you never participate. 

And Mastodon is part of the kind of old guard, culturally speaking, where people actually expect that if you post something that you want to hear what other people think about it.

An overwhelming complaint I hear about decentralized networks is that they’re confusing. As Mastodon has gone more mainstream, what have you done to address this? 

Yeah, it's an interesting problem. What we’re doing is not new in the sense that it's returning to the roots of the internet — to decentralization. It's how the internet started, and then it eventually became monopolized through these large tech companies. And now we are trying to de-monopolize it, in a way. 

So in a way it's a return, but also most people haven't experienced that early version of the internet. So it's new to them. Everything new comes with a bit of a learning curve. And obviously it's a balancing act. We want to educate people about how things can be better, but we also want to make it as easy for them as possible to get started. The platforms that we are competing with, they're also really circumventing this problem because they only have one website. Bluesky only has one server as of now. And so they don't present people with a problem like, Hey, which service provider do I need to choose?

We've made a very large emphasis on throwing people into this system and saying, look, here's a curated list of servers. We've made sure that your choice can't be wrong, but you have to choose something, because we want to decentralize. That turned out to be a bit of a mistake because that's still too difficult. 

And even if we say we've already done some vetting on these results, and there shouldn't be a wrong choice here, just the act of choosing is too unexpected for people. So what we've done is we've leaned back from that a little bit and said, okay, [the nonprofit that makes the software that powers Mastodon], we’re going to run a server and we're going to put that as the big starting option. If you're a power user and you want to go deep and choose your own service provider, self-host, whatever, you can still do it. But if you don't know about any of that, you don't care about any of that, just click the big button and you can sign up. That's our current strategy. And now the challenge is getting the word out there. 

Why is this approach better for users than a centralized service?

The idea behind decentralization and Mastodon is that you don't give anyone power to basically do whatever they want with the platform. 

Let's just take X, for example. All of the politicians were on it, all of the journalists were on it, the conversations that were being held on that platform were extremely valuable. And when it belongs to one company, what can happen is that it can be bought by somebody who doesn't understand it and starts ruining it. It can go bankrupt. They can start charging you for basic functions. They can start injecting ads and tracking you and whatnot. 

I think people should have the freedom to basically use whatever apps they want and have whatever experience they want. And lots of people built these third party applications on Twitter. There were companies building their own businesses around this, and suddenly the rug was pulled from under them. 

But with a platform like Mastodon, nobody owns it. I don't own it. I simply make the software and people choose if they install the software, if they upgrade the software or not. So I have no ability to pull the rug from under anyone, and the API can never be closed down. If somebody builds an application for using Mastodon, they can be sure that they can continue building it and people can continue using it pretty much forever. And the platform itself will remain around pretty much forever because it's built on these protocols, and because there's no single company running it. It's a network of different providers, like email. And even if one provider shuts down or disappears or goes bankrupt, there's always going to be others that continue. 

What if the person who runs the server I signed up with decides to shut it down? Could I transfer my followers to a new server?

Yes, we support transfers of followers. Let's say a meteor hits the data center where all of the backups and servers are, and everything disappears immediately. In that case, you would have to start from scratch on another server. But if we ever get in a situation where we shut down, we're going to announce that ahead of time and you'll be able to transfer your followers from your old account to your new account and continue posting to your audience just like before. And one of the unique things that no other platform offers you is that instead of using a platform offered by me or by any other provider, you can self-host it on your own infrastructure, and then nobody can shut it down except yourself. There are Mastodon servers operated by governments for their official government accounts, and this is the perfect use case for them — because they get to control their entire IT infrastructure, and we get to see and subscribe to these important announcements.

So far, Mastodon has relied largely on community funding to pay its bills. And you've said that you don't want to raise venture capital. Do you feel like it limits your ability to grow and compete?

It's an interesting question. In the short term, if you get a lot of money, obviously you can throw it at a large team of engineers, designers and everything. And you can get pretty far with that. But VC money isn't free. They want returns. And the thing is that VC-funded companies, if they don't get an exit, they tend to just sort of shut down. So I think that not having any VC funding, even though it's a bit of an obstacle in terms of just getting the resources to have enough engineers and designers and everything, it also allows us to continue as long as there are people willing to donate. We don't have to reach any specific goals, and we don't need to change our business model to suddenly start extracting as much value as possible to try and salvage the company, which is the typical thing that happens. 

A VC-backed company usually goes through the stage where everything is great and fantastic, everything is free, and it works great. Then they get enough users for the VCs to get curious about getting a return on the investment. And then suddenly there's ads, there's paid tiers, there's limitations. Cory Doctorow coined the term “enshittification” for this. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the term just because it's a bit crude, but I can't argue that it is a very apt descriptor for what happens very commonly to tech companies. 

Also, in this landscape of endless tech layoffs, I felt relief in not being involved in anything VC-funded, because basically we have been so far immune from this wave of layoffs and shutdowns.

What’s the current state of the ActivityPub protocol? What do you see it enabling now and in the future?

The state of the protocol is that it is a published W3C standard. Certainly there are areas where it can be expanded upon and improved, but also it is kind of done. It can be used and is used by Mastodon and other platforms on what we call the social web to interconnect and interoperate. So there's no particular need for any major changes, in my opinion. And as for what use cases it might enable, well, we're hoping for a couple of things, one of which being quote posts, which we're working on. But long term, really there are no boundaries to what can be done with it in my personal opinion. 

I know you’ve resisted adding quote-posting on Mastodon.

Well, the thing is, quote posts arrived on Twitter right about the same time I switched over to Mastodon, so I've never felt a particular fondness for them. What I saw from how people were using them was that they introduced this kind of toxic flavor to everything. It's very much a, “Hey, look at this fool,” kind of thing. I still feel like it's a feature that has a lot of potential for misuse. 

At the same time, different platforms have different takes on the same features. And if you think of Tumblr, their reblog system is very similar to quote posting. You have the original post and then you have your own comment underneath. I’ve never personally seen anybody use it for dunking. 

And honestly, all of these new platforms coming out, like Bluesky and Threads, they all seem to emulate Twitter almost one-to-one, right? They always just try to get the same user experience, the same features and everything. And I think that's a little bit boring because what if, I mean, why not emulate Tumblr for once, maybe go in that direction, create something unique? I think that there is space for making quote posts less usable for toxic purposes and just more for education.

Assuming Meta follows through with its plan to link threads to ActivityPub, its user base will dwarf Mastodons. Will Mastodon still be in control of its destiny when that happens? And do you worry about how Meta will exercise its power?