Of Course Mastodon Lost Users

Scalloped growth is not evidence of a platform in decline.

Cory Doctorow
7 min readFeb 11, 2023

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A chart showing a scalloped, upward-trending curve. The curve is lined with mastodon icons. The x-axis is labelled with an upside-down Twitter logo. The y-axis is labelled with a  trio of person-shaped icons.

This week (Feb 10–17), I’ll be in Australia, touring my book Chokepoint Capitalism with my co-author, Rebecca Giblin. We’re doing a remote event for NZ on Feb 13. Next are Melbourne (Feb 14), Sydney (Feb 15) and Canberra (Feb 16/17). I hope to see you!

Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover plunged the service into chaos: between mass layoffs, sweeping policy changes, reinstatement of known harassers and more ads in feeds that themselves were stuffed full of cackhanded algorithmic suggestions that displaced the posts from people you followed, there was cause for genuine alarm.

Even before Musk, Twitter had dabbled with enshittification, but under his low-attention-span, clownish management, Twitter’s enshittification engine shifted into ludicrous mode.

The enshittification of Twitter drove a mass exodus. Some users — who’d failed to learn the lesson of trusting in the beneficence of a benevolent dictatorship — fled to walled gardens like Hive and Post.

But for the majority of Twitter evacuees, the destination of choice was Mastodon, the federated, open social media service built on the ActivityPub standard, a gateway to the wider “Fediverse” of services that fill the niches occupied by YouTube, Instagram, GoodReads, and a host of other monopolized, enclosed, enshittificaiton-prone walled prisons masquerading as walled gardens.

After half a decade of sedate, steady growth, Mastodon suddenly surged, from 600,000 daily users to 2.6 million in the space of months.

Though the vast majority of servers don’t charge anything to sign up, switching to Mastodon and the Fediverse isn’t free.

Departing Twitter for the Fediverse comes with high switching costs: locating and reconnecting with friends; saying goodbye to friends, family and customers who aren’t ready to move; and mastering a new technology, with its own mechanics and norms. What does it mean to use a “protocol” rather than a “platform?

Services like Twitter have an inescapable imperative to shift surpluses from their users to their shareholders. For Twitter, the more expensive it is to switch to Mastodon, the larger the ration of shit they can serve to their users — more ads, more boosted posts, less moderation, less reliability — without losing those users’ business.

Small wonder that the new “free-speech” Twitter keeps flirting with banning its users from mentioning where to find them on the Fediverse (if you’re looking to re-follow your Twitter friends from your Mastodon account, I recommend the delightful Mastodon Flock).

For a Twitter emigre contemplating setting up home in the Fediverse, first impressions matter. Beyond wrapping one’s head around the notion of having to choose a server (and also mastering the jargon that variously uses “server” interchangeably with “instance”), there are new apps to install, new user-interfaces to master, new conversational norms to absorb.

A certain percentage of the Twitter exodus were always bound to return. This is perfectly normal: new services always experience “scalloped” growth. That’s where an outside event — a positive narrative about the new service, or a catastrophe affecting the old one — drives a surge of new users.

Some of those users try the new service, decide it’s not worth it, and leave — but not all of them. Each event triggers a high tide of new signups, but the low tide that follows is still higher than the old level. Surge after surge, the number of users steadily builds, despite the normal ebb and flow.

Despite the completely predictable dropoff in users after the initial Twitter surge, journalists have published (equally predictable and decidedly premature) obituaries for Mastodon and the Fediverse with titles like “The Mastodon Bump Is Now a Slump” and “Elon Musk drove more than a million people to Mastodon — but many aren’t sticking around.”

As Mike Masnick points out, these stories aren’t just lazy, they are actively misleading, omitting the fact that the users who stayed on Mastodon’s shores after the tide went out are incredibly active:

[A]ctual usage of the fediverse continues to increase month by month, including through January, meaning that while some people signed up and never used it, those who are using it, are using it more and more.

To understand the future of Mastodon, we have to understand network effects — the economists’ term for a product or service that gets more valuable as it attracts new users.

The people who stay on Mastodon make it a busier, more exciting place, which means that the next surge will find an even higher equilibrium, as users who try Mastodon find more fully acclimated users who can hold their hands as they get settled in, and also provide the vibrant community that presents a good reason for doing so.

Make no mistake, there will be future Fediverse surges. The internet’s corporate social spaces are in terminal decline, having arrived at the final stage of enshittification, where impatient investors insist that managers reel in the hooks they set in both users and suppliers, using their lock-in to extract every iota of value we wring from the platforms.

The managers and shareholders driving these enshittifying grabs will continue to overestimate how valuable their services are to us, and thus how much value we will forfeit if we go over the battlements of their walled gardens.

Meanwhile, the experience of the Fediverse will only get better and more obviously valuable to users. Fediverse developers will continuously improve the service, even as the technical concepts one has to master to establish oneself become more widely understood and less esoteric.

Skeptics of the Fediverse repeat three common fairy tales about why it can never catch on:

1. Twitter is easy, the Fediverse is hard: This is what Robin Sloan calls the “pantomime a kind of technical realism.” It hand-waves away the many frustrating growing pains and new technical concepts that users had to master while Twitter was establishing itself, while insisting that the new technical challenges of the Fediverse are uniquely and transcendentally hard.

This is a common fallacy, one that dominates our current debate over solarization. As Sloan writes:

Did people say, at the dawn of the automobile: are you kidding me? This tech­nology will require a ubiq­ui­tous network of refueling stations, one or two at every major intersection … even if there WAS that much gas in the world, how would you move it around at that scale? If everybody buys a car, you’ll need to build highways, HUGE ones — you’ll need to dig up cities! Madness!

2. Operating a Fediverse server will get you sued into oblivion: Unlike Twitter, Mastodon is decentralized. It’s not owned and operated by one company — instead, it’s composed of hundreds (perhaps thousands, now!) of servers of varying size that are “federated” with one another. Many of these are operated by volunteers, or co-ops, or as small businesses. As Glenn Fleishman writes:

You can think of Mastodon as a flotilla of boats of vastly different sizes, whereas Twitter is like being on a cruise ship the size of a continent. Some Mastodon boats might be cruise liners with as many as 50,000 passengers; others are just dinghies with a single occupant! The admin of each instance — the captain of your particular boat — might make arbitrary decisions you disagree with as heartily as with any commercial operator’s tacks and turns. But you’re not stuck on your boat, with abandoning ship as the only alternative. Instead, you can hop from one boat to another without losing your place in the flotilla community. Parts of a flotilla can also splinter off and form their own disconnected groups, but no boat, however large, is in charge of the community.

The legal danger story claims that operating one of these small servers is nearly impossible because of the enormous legal liability and high compliance burdens placed on those who operate servers where the public are welcome to post and read. This is simply untrue: US internet law was designed to support and protect small services (something that is swept aside in the stilted, misleading, ill-informed debate over CDA 230). Setting up a public forum for online participation requires some attention to legal formalities, but it’s neither transcendentally hard nor is it legally reckless.

3. The Fediverse is full of porn and Nazis: People move to new services when the old ones stop working for them. If you’ve already mastered Twitter, installed the apps, and followed your friends, why would you incur the cost of hopping to a new service and doing all that all over again?

That means that the early adopters for any new service will be people who can’t use the existing, dominant platform. Sex workers and pornographers have always adopted new technologies, but not because there’s something about the sex trade that makes you a technophile or a novelty-seeker.

Rather, when you aren’t welcome in the existing spaces — movie theaters, telephone services, financial institutions, payment processors, postal networks, etc — then learning to master a new service is cheaper than using the default system.

This explains the typical composition of any new service: sex workers and pornographers, sure; but also kids seeking to escape the scrutiny and censure of parents and teachers; criminals hiding from law enforcement, and people with socially disfavored views (including Nazis, but also advocates for social justice, Amazon and Uber union organizers, Iranian dissidents, etc.) seeking a place where they can air their views without fear of sanction.

It would be amazing — and a bad sign — if the first Fediverse cohort wasn’t full of people who aren’t welcome on large corporate servers. But there’s no reason that the rest of the world shouldn’t enjoy life without the constant scrutiny and control of manbabies like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).

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