Last week, thousands of Indian Twitter users signed up for Mastodon, a social media platform set up in 2016. The exodus was triggered by the suspension of the account of Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Hegde twice in a month, once for posting an anti-fascist image, then for putting up a satirical poem. Using the hashtag #BoycottTwitter, users criticized the micro-blogging giant for opaque moderation policies, censoring government critics and failing to control hate speech.

In many ways, Mastodon is similar to Twitter. Here, tweets become ‘toots’ and retweets become ‘boosts’, assisted by hashtags and a 500-character limit. But unlike its larger counterpart, Mastodon is open-sourced, decentralized and comes with stringent anti-abuse and anti-discrimination policies. It also allows users to create their own private networks, or “instances", and lets users have more autonomy over their data.

Over a Skype call on Monday, Mastodon’s German founder Eugen Rochko talked about how his platform was coping with the sudden rise in Indian users, online data security, and why Indian law enforcement can do little to censor free speech on the platform. Edited excerpts:

How many Indian users were on your platform before the Twitter controversy?

Mastodon is built around the idea of collecting as little information about users as possible. Therefore, I will not have statistics on where a user is from. The numbers available to me will be the number of users available per week, and those of last week. Going by that, it is obvious that about 26,000 people from India have joined my server, Mastodon.social.

A lot of Indian users on Mastodon are looking for online security and civil discourse, but one cannot really control the kind of people joining the platform. So, how are you going to address their concerns?

Mastodon doesn’t condone racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia. We’ve extended that policy to include casteism. It was an easy decision: It is, after all, just another form of discrimination. We have a team of moderators working round the clock to address reports. Our team can speak a variety of languages— German, French, Japanese, Russian and English. Today, I added another moderator who speaks Hindi and is more versed with Indian affairs. We’ll also need to get more users who speak other Indian languages such as Tamil and Bengali.

Language apart, are you equipped to address complaints on its merits, say, ones that deal with certain cultural nuances of India?

That principle applies to any conflict or moderation issue. We have a higher ratio of moderator-to-users compared to giants like Twitter. On my server, we have five moderators, excluding myself. We had 40,000 active users this week. So, we can afford to give more attention to reports and issues as they arise.

Mastodon is a non-profit. Is the company in good financial health to afford more moderators and servers?

When I started Mastodon in 2016, I started from zero. Its development was conducted through Patreon and OpenCollective, a platform for crowdfunding. We received a grant for open-source software from Samsung, so that’s part of the funds available for expenses. The hosting of servers is also funded through Patreon. We have the ability to scale up the infrastructure and hire more moderators.

How do you plan to go beyond this one-time trigger of Indian users migrating?

There’s a certain network effect we hope for—the more people join, the likely they are to invite their friends. We’re doing all the essentials—we have a blog, social media presence on other platforms, ambassadors to invite people. But, in my experience, users have way more power in Mastodon’s success than I do.

One of the reasons why many join Twitter is that it allows you to see and read stuff from names like Elon Musk or Donald Trump. There doesn’t seem to be an incentive for such names to move to Mastodon. So, how will you cater to demands of users looking to be connected to the world?

You’re right. Mastodon doesn’t have a celebrity culture. But I see that more as a feature than a bug. Worship of celebrities in a way makes our social media relationship unhealthy. But Mastodon is also beneficial to high-profile users. A platform like Facebook and Twitter can cut off access to anyone if they decide that someone is not profitable to host. On Mastodon, you have a power to host your own server. Whoever follows you, that is an audience entirely under your control.

Whenever a social network gets big, there’s a chance of misuse. That’s when the government comes in. If the Indian government seeks information from Mastodon like it does from other social media firms, how will you respond?

I do not believe Indian law enforcement has jurisdiction in Germany where I am and where Mastodon is hosted. I have no immediate intent to even pay attention to something like that. But a question like that requires legal counsel that I’d seek if that came up, just to make sure everything is watertight.

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