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Elon Musk
Elon Musk, the man who paid $44 billion so more people would look at his memesVia Wikimedia Commons

What is Mastodon, and could it really be the ‘Twitter killer’?

The decentralised social network has grown rapidly since Elon Musk’s much-hated Twitter takeover – but why is it named after a dead elephant? And WTF is a ‘toot’?

In case you haven’t heard, Elon Musk officially took over Twitter at the end of last month, following a $44 billion deal that put him in control of one of the largest public forums on the internet. What has he done with it so far? Well, he’s shared some corny memes and struggled to make up his mind about who gets a little tick next to their name. But it’s all part of his master plan! Trust me, I heard it from a reply guy with a US flag and the word “crypto” in his bio.

At the same time, Musk’s buyout has seemingly prompted a mass exodus. Maybe people don’t trust an impulsive billionaire to champion free (read: hate) speech on the internet. Or maybe they just can’t take the levels of cringe.

Without hordes of Twitter users jumping ship, many of us might never have heard of Mastodon, the so-called “Twitter killer” that has emerged into public consciousness as a kind of life raft. As of October 28, the decentralised platform had a little under 400,000 users – a drop in the ocean compared to Twitter’s 206 million daily active users.

On November 7, though, Mastodon’s founder Eugen Rochko announced that the network had rapidly grown to more than one million users, meaning that we might need to get more familiar with toots (that’s what Mastodon calls tweets) in the near future. To help you get started, we’ve compiled a short guide to Mastodon below.


Despite the social media platform’s relatively small user base, Mastodon has actually been around for some time. In 2016, founder Eugen Rochko devised the decentralised social network in response to rumours that another billionaire, Peter Thiel, wanted to buy Twitter. Mastodon was the result, and it seems appropriate that it would be the refuge of today’s disgruntled Twitter users, since it was born out of the idea that one person or company shouldn’t be able to control such a massive public forum.


Mastodon may be billed as an alternative to Twitter at the moment, but it doesn’t function exactly the same. It’s actually a “federated” network, which means that the whole thing is made up of thousands of separate social networks run on servers across the world, and linked by Mastodon’s overarching technology. This makes up what’s known as the “Fediverse”.

Basically, anyone can set up a server as long as they sign up to the “Mastodon covenant”. No, this is not a cult devoted to bringing back extinct elephants, but an agreement to provide “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia”. If you bore witness to the outpouring of hate speech that followed Musk’s takeover (though God forbid you have a laugh at his expense) then we don’t have to explain why this is important. Otherwise, you can join other servers according to your interests, location, or friend groups.


Good question. According to Rochko, the platform is, in fact, named after the eponymous creature, an extinct relative of mammoths and elephants. Not entirely sure why, so instead I’ll dedicate this section to some animal facts. The mastodon lived in North and Central America until around 10,000 or 11,000 years ago, and discovered bones tell us that it looked like a small elephant, weighing in at as much as a small jet. It had five metre tusks for fighting, but only really ate grasses, leaves, and tree bark (vegetarian kings). Oh, and its name means “nipple tooth”, because the French naturalist who named it thought its teeth looked like boobs.


A toot is basically Mastodon’s name for a tweet; it’s a post that can be shared within one of the aforementioned servers. Unlike Twitter, though, the maximum toot length is 500 characters, giving users a bit more space to work with. It also includes some other features, like clickable spoiler warnings. Unlike on Twitter, Mastodon users also have more control over who sees their toots (honestly? I hate the name – sorry Eugen). These posts can be tailored to be shared with several different groups, from everyone on the server, to only the people that were directly mentioned.

On a related note, there’s the controversial topic of verification. Mastodon allows anyone with their own website to be marked as verified. It does not make them pay for the privilege, like Elon Musk – in fact, all servers are funded by the communities who set them up, or by donations, meaning that there are no pesky ads, either.


First of all, migrating from Twitter over to Mastodon isn’t going to be an easy process. Users with existing audiences may be reluctant to let go of the former for obvious reasons, and finding all of your friends again could prove tedious. However, with Twitter reporting massive revenue drops (sure Elon, it’s the “activist groups” pressuring advertisers), risking billions in fines, and facing abandonment by its once-loyal users, it’s not entirely clear how long the bird app will stick around. After all, you can’t maintain an entire social network for the poor souls on the Tesla waiting list.

Maybe Mastodon can stake its claim as Twitter’s replacement. That being said, the wave of new users has put significant strain on the platform. Since Musk’s takeover, the platform has run into issues with servers going offline, and emails failing to send due to a lack of preparation for the sharp growth in new users. Mastodon also comes with a learning curve – a familiar problem for most decentralised platforms. 

All in all, Mastodon has some way to go before its toots bring down the billion-dollar walls of Twitter.