Eugen Rochko looks exhausted. The 29-year-old German programmer is the founder of Mastodon, a distributed alternative to Twitter that has exploded in popularity in recent weeks amid confusion among users over Elon Musk’s ownership of the platform .
Rochko started developing Mastodon in 2016 shortly after graduating from college. He’s a fan of Twitter, but wants to create a platform that’s not controlled by any single company or individual, arguing that online communication is too important to follow the whims of business interests or CEOs. He argues that there is no profit motive and savvy design can stop harassment and abuse and give users more control.
Rather than creating a unified platform, the protocol used by Mastodon, called ActivityPub, allows anyone using open source software to spin up a server that hosts a Twitter with its own rules style community. These servers and other non-Mastodon servers form an interconnected community collective known as the “Fediverse”. People can join servers that match their interests and community criteria, connect with users on other servers, or completely block all content from a particular server.
Mastodon was first released in 2017 and appeals mainly to free software enthusiasts. Then Elon Musk took control of Twitter for $44 billion. His promise to weaken moderation, slash staff and messy changes to the platform drove many loyal Twitter users away from the platform. Over the past few weeks, Rochko said, some 800,000 new Mastodon accounts have been created, overwhelming the popular servers and flooding existing users’ timelines with newbie introductions, questions and complaints. Last year, donations to the nonprofit that runs Mastodon and of which Rochko is CEO totaled €55,000; it only cost €23,000.
Since Musk took over Twitter, Rochko has been working long hours to keep his own server, Mastodon. Spent time video chatting with WIRED from home in Germany. Dialogue has been edited for length and clarity.
Will Knight: How have the last few weeks been?
Eugen Rochko: People probably want to hear that it’s great – all this growth and success – but I’d rather be watching from the sidelines. There is more work and more fires to put out. It’s unbelievably stressful. I worked 14 hours a day, slept very little, and ate very little.
The whole story coincides with the release of a new version of the Mastodon software. You have to be very focused on this. Then all of a sudden, you also have to deal with responding to media inquiries and running social media accounts to capitalize on opportunities.
Despite the challenges, is it comforting to see Mastodon as a direction for people away from Twitter?
Yes, it is good and satisfying on an objective level. I’d love to lean back and enjoy the fact that Mastodon is being used by so many newcomers, like Stephen Fry. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to relax and enjoy it. Funding has increased like never before due to all new Patreon donations in the last 10 days.