Mastodon is crumbling—and many blame its creator Eugen Rochko. It was hailed as a progressive

Mastodon is crumbling—and many blame its creator

It was hailed as a progressive alternative to Twitter. But marginalized, queer users are being alienated by well-off tech bros.

Author: Valens Posted on Jan 18, 2019

It’s 9am on a Tuesday, early morning by’s standards. Few have logged on to the microblogging social network, and it shows: A follower feed filled with more than 31 users updates at a snail’s pace. It’s much slower than one would expect on Twitter. But then again, isn’t Twitter. It runs off a decentralized social media software called Mastodon, and is part of a much larger network of Mastodon communities.

Over on Twitter, users post jokes about President Donald Trump, this time of a fast food feast he prepared for the Clemson Tigers football team amid the ongoing government shutdown. But the words “Trump” and “shutdown” only appear once each on’s “local timeline,” which shows posts on the site and any other connected “instances,” or Mastodon communities. It’s even more barren on this reporter’s home timeline: No one is talking about hamberders.

Posting works differently on than Twitter. It’s much more like living in a queer house, one that prefers to talk about political theory over current events. Some users chat about democratic socialism and queer identity, while others talk about games, music, fandom, or their difficulties navigating trans healthcare. One user posts a message that reads “re: hrt” with a few lines about their hormone replacement regimen hidden underneath, accessible only via the “show more” content warning (CW) button next to it. Another boosts a post praising Tallahassee by the Mountain Goats, calling it a “visceral experience.” has just over 2,000 users. Over on Mastodon’s flagship community,, there are over 300,000 users. But despite the larger userbase, discussions are even less political. On the community’s local timeline, one user troubleshoots installing a Linux distribution. Another shares a news story about a man who tried to turn his home into a restaurant. A third links to an article about Gearbox Software’s Randy Pitchford. Here, Trump is not the sun; tech, gaming, and the occasional NSFW post largely prevail. It’s as if the outside world doesn’t exist.

Visiting Mastodon feels like strolling through the first “apolitical” social network. There’s no urgency to talk about the Trump administration’s policies or break down ongoing political events—but while that may seem like a pleasant reprieve, it’s actually an indication that all is not well on Mastodon.

Mastodon has long been hailed as a friendly and inclusive safe haven, one by and for people who want the far-right out of social media. But instead of losing the far-right, the platform has lost all politics entirely. That’s a problem for its queer userbase, who cannot be apolitical by nature. Being queer isn’t a hobby; it’s a political identity. And so while Mastodon seems fine on the surface, there is a much larger schism at play across the social media project regarding who should run it: its community, or its creator.

The creator
It’s impossible to understand Mastodon without considering its architect and understanding its structure. Eugen “Gargron” Rochko, a 25-year-old German programmer of Russian and Jewish heritage, began working on Mastodon while studying computer science at the German public university Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (or “University of Jena” in English). Rochko had experience with decentralized social networks as a teenager, and by 2010 he had already decided Twitter’s corporate-driven structure just wasn’t the proper way to handle online messaging. But it wasn’t until early 2016 that he decided to sit down and look at GNU social, a decentralized social network software and precursor of sorts to Mastodon.

Originally, Rochko considered making an app for GNU social, but he ultimately decided to start from scratch and create a custom implementation of GNU social’s protocol. This became Mastodon.

Simply put, Mastodon is a microblogging software where users can communicate with one another through character-limited messages, called “toots.” The project, which released to the public in October 2016, supports embeds for images, GIFs, and videos, and there’s even a “boost” system similar to Twitter’s retweets. But Mastodon’s biggest feature by far is its “fediverse.” Instead of throwing every account into a gigantic melting pot on one main website, Mastodon users can splinter off into dozens upon dozens of miniature Mastodon instances, which are servers governed by their own rules and with their own communities. These create one large federation, and while each of these instances—like—runs off of Mastodon’s software, they simultaneously exist separately from one another and as part of a larger whole. Instance users can interact with one another or blacklist other instances.

Mastodon is a free and open-source software that functions entirely on community contributions via GitHub. Over Discord, Rochko described Mastodon’s development flow: Features, changes, or fixes are submitted as pull requests on GitHub. A contributor codes the feature for Mastodon within the pull request. The pull request must pass through tests for review. But even if a pull request passes those tests, “only the owner of the project can decide” whether a pull request is merged, as Rochko puts it—although he has given that ability to “three or four more people than me” for redundancy’s sake (“in case I get hit by a bus,” as he says).

Since graduating in 2016, Rochko has given Mastodon his full attention. Today, he works on Mastodon full-time with support from over 900 patrons on Patreon (at the moment, he receives over $4,400 per month in total, or over $50,000 per year). But he’s far from the only person making Mastodon a reality, and many of its users take umbrage both with what features Rochko implements and how he credits the project’s contributors.

Mastodon’s former project manager, Maloki, founded a separative community that criticizes Rochko’s “Benevolent Dictator For Life” (BDFL) model for negatively impacting “already vulnerable and marginalized people.” Many queer critics feel Rochko implements features into Mastodon that make it easier for users to discover—and by extension, harass—people of color, queer posters, women, trans folks, and other marginalized groups.

The community
Decentralized social networking isn’t a new idea, nor is the “fediverse” as a concept. But the Mastodon project quickly became popular with queer and left-wing users after Trump’s election in November 2016. Most of Mastodon’s early users shared a common background: Some were furries, others worked in tech, some even developed video games. Many identified as queer and trans. As one Mastodon user said on Nov. 23, 2016: “Holy shit everyone Mastodon is basically gay furry-adjacent Twitter without risk of racist eggs, get here immediately and help us en-culture.”

After Trump’s election, Rochko paraded Mastodon as a Nazi-free alternative to Twitter, pointing out that, which is personally administered by Rochko, bans Nazis. To this day, Mastodon is the progressive Twitter alternative, one repeatedly praised everywhere from Motherboard to Wired.

But Mastodon’s politics are more complicated than merely banning Nazis. White, queer, middle-class tech workers migrating to Mastodon treated it as an escape from the outside world. CWs effectively hid politics from plain sight, and to this day, the occasional Trump conversation is concealed and tagged under the warning “uspol.” This turned Mastodon into an apolitical space, one where users debate queer theory but try to keep the outside world’s happenings out.

Mastodon’s apolitical approach reflected larger problems at play on the platform. One early Mastodon adopter named “voz” left the platform in February 2017 after feeling increased alienation from Mastodon’s predominantly white userbase. Voz, who is a brown queer trans woman, considered Mastodon “a very white space” that gradually mirrored real-life versions of gentrification: White users made the service “more and more hostile to the Black and Brown users” that were among Mastodon’s initial adopters

“Whiteness insists on hiding itself, and a veneer of respectability given by ‘banning (overt) Nazis’ is really just a kind of fig leaf for the more mundane white supremacy at work there,” voz said via Keybase.

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