What is Mastodon, the Twitter alternative everyone is talking about

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Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has prompted many users to search for alternatives to the microblogging platform and one, in particular, has received a lot of attention: Mastodon. In the week after the acquisition was announced, the “alternative social media platform” reportedly attracted more than 176,000 new users. Described as an open source and distributed or federated social network, Mastodon allows users to create their own networks or “instances”, essentially returning control and ownership of data to the user. Each instance has its own policies relating to content moderation, code of conduct, terms of service and privacy, etc.

Users can select which instance they want to be part of, based on the policies that best match what they want from the social media platform. But even if you are part of a certain instance, you can still communicate with users who are part of other instances.

This is intended to give users the ability to select an instance whose policies they prefer while giving them the benefit of accessing a wider social network. Mastodon.social is the service’s flagship server and it’s operated by Mastodon gGmbH, a non-profit organization funded by Patreon donations. But there are many other servers you can join.

In most cases, joining a server will allow you to communicate with users on most other servers, unless those other servers are filtered, throttled, or suspended by the server you are a part of. These actions can be taken by a server for various reasons.

For example, Mastodon.social blocks many other servers for reasons such as spreading false information, conspiracy theories, and hate speech. But this does not completely prevent users from accessing the content of these servers: all they have to do is join a server that does not block these servers or even join the blocked servers themselves.

Apart from this decentralized nature, Mastodon works much like Twitter. Instead of tweets, you have “toots”, which have a character limit of 500. And just like on Twitter, you can follow someone as long as you know their full Mastodon handle.

Mastodon also gives users three options when tweeting: public, private, and direct. Public toots are public for everyone to see while private is only for your followers. Direct toots will only go directly to users you mention in the toot.

Much like after Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, there was a similar interest and migration to Mastodon in 2019 when Indian users began to criticize Twitter for its content moderation biases after senior counsel Sanjay’s account Hegde was suspended from the platform. Prior to that, the 2016-founded platform briefly went viral in 2017 due to Mastodon.social’s strong stance against neo-Nazi chatter, excessive advertising, unlabeled pornography and sexually explicit content.

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