Why Mastodon Can’t Fail

If you’ve been following the world of tech news, then you’ve probably heard of Mastodon. The hottest fad that, according to most, is totally doomed to fail.

If you aren’t already familiar, Mastodon is a new social network, in a more literal sense. It is an interconnected network of servers running the same piece of software, Mastodon. It’s built on what’s called the OStatus Protocol, which is more akin to email than to Facebook. A Mastodon server is called an “instance” and, akin to an email server, gives you a mastodon account to interact with the broader Mastodon network.

The Mastodon application itself is a micro-blogging site, akin to Twitter, which explains the comparisons.

Google News demonstrating top headlines on Mastodon

Just a few days has seen endless headlines on “6 Reasons Mastodon Won’t Survive” and “Mastodon is Dead In The Water.”

My name is Shel Raphen. I’m a part-time Mastodon developer and I’m here to explain what sets Mastodon apart and why, Twitter-Killer or not, Mastodon can’t fail.

Define Failure

What do these articles mean when they say that Mastodon will “fail?”

Typically when we talk about a web-app succeeding or failing, we are talking about a Venture Capital funded tech start-up with a development team of fresh talent hoping to make big bucks off of advertising and data-mining. To many of these journalists, it seems the “success” of a social network is predicated on its ability to “kill” another social network that has come before it. A rather violent approach to how we socialize on web.

It’s all about market-share. That’s what it means to succeed, to make profit.

Mastodon, however, is not a start-up, and it is not for-profit. Eugen Rochko, the founder, project lead, and only full-time developer, asks only for donations on Patreon; with a humble goal of just enough to make “rent, insurance, and food” which he estimates to total $800/month. (A goal he is currently surpassing.) Funding from Patreon also goes towards hosting the largest Mastodon instance, Mastodon.social, run by Eugen Rochko himself.

The purpose of Mastodon is not to make Eugen money. The purpose of paying Eugen is so he can work full time on Mastodon.

This is often cited as one of the reasons Mastodon cannot “succeed.” Without major funding from Venture Capitalists and investors, how will it accumulate wealth? What’s the profit model? How will it become a Fortune 500 company and ruin the livelihood of Jack Dorsey? How could Eugen Rochko possibly not be in it for the money?

Redefining Success

A non-profit website is far from unheard of. Firefox and Wikipedia are some of the biggest examples.

Unlike Firefox and Wikipedia, there is presently no Mastodon Foundation backing a team of developers. Mastodon’s “development team” comprises Eugen Rochko and a Discord chatroom of eager volunteers, myself included.

We work on the project not for money but because we enjoy using Mastodon. Mastodon has had a strong, active, user-base for a long while before it captured the attention of journalists. Mastodon has brought together people from different walks of life (and a lot of very similar walks of life) and created strong communities and friendships. On Mastodon, users have discovered love, heartbreak, new interests, new identities, and plenty of in-jokes.

If a social network’s success is not defined by its ability to earn a profit, using the users as a product to sell to faceless corporations hoping to “thinkfluence” their minds, then how do we define success? There isn’t much point in evaluating a non-profit in terms of market share.

If we define a social network’s success by its ability to form and maintain strong bonds, and it’s ability to be a forum for discussion, then Mastodon has already succeeded.

Define Death

So maybe Mastodon doesn’t need to earn a profit, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stick around. Soon it will go the way of Ello, Myspace, and Friendster. Even in the world of non-profits there are still projects that live and projects that die.

Usually when we say that a social network has “died,” it is because the company has ceased turning enough profit to keep the servers up and could not find anyone interested in buying it. The company announces they will be closing their doors and the landing page is replaced with a cute illustration and some kind of statement like “It’s been fun everyone, but it’s time we move onto new pastures.”

This is the fate that is foreseen by those predicting Mastodon’s death, but this is a future that is not possible for Mastodon. Mastodon is not a single website hosted by one company’s servers, remember? It is a decentralized network of servers running the same software.

Why Mastodon Will Survive

The decentralized nature of Mastodon is often cited as why its death is inevitable. New users will be confused and put off and give up on using the site. Eventually nobody will be using it and Eugen will pen a letter about moving onto greener pastures.

We love Eugen, but if Jack Dorsey hired German assassins to murder Eugen in his sleep, it still would not kill Mastodon. And decentralization is precisely why.

Like Firefox, Mastodon is Free Open-Source Software. Not only can anyone set up their own instance, the code on their servers is entirely theirs to modify as they wish. Mastodon is software. Users who wish to keep using Mastodon can continue to set up instances using the software, even if development halts. Users who wish to continue developing can “fork” the software (make a copy) and continue development on their own. Even if it splits into many smaller projects, as long as they continue to use the OStatus protocol they will be cross-compatible.

Mastodon’s predecessor is not Twitter, but GNU Social, the most popular implementation of the OStatus protocol before Mastodon blew up in popularity. GNU Social has been around for ten years and has had an active happy stable user base. Another implementation is postActiv, a fork of GNU Social. While fewer users use GNU Social than Twitter or Mastodon, that isn’t important to them. They are a community that has stuck around and persisted and formed bonds for years. And no, Mastodon did not “kill” GNU Social and doesn’t intend to. GNU Social “nodes” are compatible with Mastodon instances.

So OK, “Mastodon the Software” is not dependent on market share or even a living full-time developer. Users who wish to keep using it will just run their instances and life will move on. But what about obsolescence? What if something else comes around that supplants OStatus? Something vastly superior in every way? Already some have talked about creating a decentralized micro-blogging network based on the Matrix protocol instead.

But must we frame that as death? Nobody’s livelihood will be destroyed by such a piece of software nor would any communities be tarnished. With the success of Mastodon, Eugen has plenty on his resume to get him hired at some big tech firm, should his Patreon funds run out. The developers who work on Mastodon can just join this new project and work on that.

If something comes around and replaces Mastodon, it will not be the Mastodon-Killer but the Mastodon-Successor.

Mastodon will not go extinct. It will only evolve.

For now, it’s irrelevant. The users on Mastodon are happy and we will continue to use it and be happy. Nobody cares about killing anyone or turning a profit. Most of the users and developers are decidedly anti-capitalist in some form or another anyway.

Mastodon is not the new Twitter. It is Mastodon. And that’s how we like it.