Ruud Schilders, Administrator mastodon.world, before the acquisition of Twitter in 2022, there were about 100 people on the server. The number of active users peaked at about 120,000 in November, Shielders said. But with all this new traffic, additional hate speech and obscene content has come along. “I learned something I didn’t want to know,” Schilders says. By early February, the number of active users had dropped to around 49,000 active users – still a lot more than the server had before.
Shielders has hired content moderators and receives funds from bank donations to cover monthly server costs. But he says that starting the server now requires extra effort. “You suddenly became some kind of public person,” he says. He plans to separate his personal account from mastodon.world so he can post more freely without being tied to his admin job.
Part of the appeal of Mastodon is that users have more options to block the content they see than on regular social networks. Server administrators set rules for their own instances and can upload users who post hate speech, pornography and spam or troll other users. People can block entire servers. But the decentralized nature of Mastodon turns each instance into its own network, placing legal responsibility on the people running it.
Administrators must comply with the laws governing ISPs wherever their server is available. In the US, these include Digital Millennium Copyright Lawwhich makes the platforms responsible for registering and removing copyrighted material, and Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, which covers the processing of children’s data. Europe has the GDPR privacy law and the new Digital Services Act.
The legal burden on Mastodon server administrators may soon increase. The US Supreme Court will hear cases related to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The position has allowed tech companies to thrive by removing the responsibility for much of what their users post on their platforms. If the court issues a ruling that changes, weakens, or repeals part of the law, tech platforms and smaller organizations like Mastodon’s administrators could be on the hook.
“Someone who runs a Mastodon instance may have a much greater responsibility than him,” says Cory Silverstein, an attorney who specializes in Internet law. “It’s a huge problem.”
Mastodon was just one of several platforms that received renewed attention as some Twitter users looked for alternatives. There are also Post news, Beehive SocialAnd Shed. Casey Fizler, an associate professor of information science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says many new social platforms are enjoying fleeting popularity, spurred on by a catalyst like the Twitter saga. Some disappear, others gradually grow into larger networks.
“It’s very hard to get them off the ground because social media works where your friends are,” Feisler says. “This is one of the reasons platform migration is more gradual. The more people you know join the platform, the more likely you are to join.”