When Richard Hendricks, the protagonist from HBO’s satirical sitcom Silicon Valley created Pied Piper’s algorithm — a utopian, decentralised Internet — it seemed like a distant future. Yes, Hendricks’ dream is still fiction, but we’re closer than ever to building an internet for all. Case in point — Mastodon — a social media platform with features similar to Pied Piper. This little known platform with just a little over two million users has taken India by storm and emerged as a refuge for those seeking respite from Twitter India’s increasingly divisive, hate-filled environment.
Created by German coder Eugen Rochko in 2016, Mastodon is an open source social networking site touted for its effective anti-abuse tools. Blocking of an account doesn’t warrant hundreds of reports, just one. The implementation of guidelines is strict, and there are moderators on every server, which they call ‘instance’. The platform is decentralised and federated. But that’s not why thousands of Indians (or 20,000 in three days to be precise), are migrating from Twitter to Mastodon.
The mass exodus was prompted when Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde’s Twitter account was blocked twice for dubious reasons. On October 26, Hegde, who had nearly 100,000 followers, uploaded a photo that showed German national August Landmesser refusing to enact the Nazi salute before Hitler. The photo along with the Tank Man from Tiananmen Square is a widely-used symbol of resistance. Hegde’s account was restored, only to be suspended again a day later, when he shared the Gorakh Pandey poem, ‘Usko Phaansi Do’ along with its English translation, ‘Hang Him’. The tweet was mass reported and this caught Twitter’s algorithm. After repeated appeals, Twitter India stated that his account will not be restored, which led to thousands of Hegde’s followers tweeting #RestoreSanjayUvacha.
“There are people who know how Twitter’s automated algorithms work, and they exploit it,” claims Joy Das, an ad agency executive from Mumbai who enjoys a massive Twitter following of more than 61,000, but has been prompted to keep an alternative in Mastodon ready. “The problem is Twitter wasn’t doing anything about it,” exclaims Das.
On Mastodon, no single entity owns the data; instead, a number of independent communities run it and form a network. A user’s feed is non-algorithmic, chronological and ad-free, according to the website. It also claims to be resistant to financial, technical and organisational issues, as well as government interference due to its decentralised nature. It is entirely financed through crowdfunding site Patreon.
Manoj Harit, an advocate from Mumbai, also condemned the way Twitter India rejected every accusation and complaint put forth. “After Advocate Hegde sent a legal notice, Twitter India posted a false, convoluted and meaningless response,” he said. The micro-blogging platform’s response triggered another wave of anger, and users started looking for alternatives, convinced that the platform is no longer a place of equal conversation.
“When a platform exhibits such extreme bias, it needs to know that people have other options. Mastodon, by its virtue of being decentralised and ad-free, offers that,” says activist Saket Gokhale. Hegde and Gokhale are the ones holding Twitter accountable in a parliamentary hearing by filing a formal request with Lok Sabha’s Standing Committee on Information Technology.
“There is no shred of doubt left that Twitter is biased. Kannan Gopinathan, the IAS officer who resigned in the face of the abrogation of Section 370 and I were forced to find an alternate. Media organisations such as News18 and MediaNama have also registered,” explains Prasanna S, a coder-turned-lawyer. He led a 24-hour ‘Twitter boycott’ in solidarity with Sanjay Hegde, which finally triggered a response from Twitter India.
As a 26-year-old coder’s ambitious project becomes the next battlefield of social media wars between ideologies, it remains to be seen if Mastodon can step up, expand quickly and stay true to its founding values — of building a clean and safe social networking haven. It has been around for three years, and it's last burst of popularity was in December 2018, when it saw a rise in users migrating from Tumblr, following their announcement to ban all sensitive content on their platform.
P.S. We reached out to a couple of social media analysts and venture investors for their input on whether Mastodon could sustain its new found popularity and challenge Twitter’s hegemony and for-profit business model. But none of them wanted to be quoted or agreed to share their views.