November 26, 2022

The Man Behind Mastodon, Eugen Rochko, Built It for This Moment


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 as Elon Musk’s ownership of the platform has rained chaos on its users.

Rochko began developing Mastodon shortly after leaving university in 2016. He was a fan of Twitter but wanted to create a platform not controlled by any single company or person, reasoning that online communication is too important to be at the whim of commercial interests or CEOs. He believed that the lack of profit motive and canny design could discourage harassment and abuse, and provide users more control.

Instead of creating a single unified platform, the the protocol that Mastodon uses, called ActivityPub, allows anyone to use open-source software to boot up a server that hosts a Twitter-style community with its own rules. Together those servers, and other, non-Mastodon ones, form a collective of interlinked communities dubbed the “Fediverse.” People can join a server that matches their interests and community standards, but also connect with users on other servers, or block all content from a particular server completely.

Mastodon grew slowly after the first code was released in 2017, appealing mostly to free software enthusiasts. Then Elon Musk took control of Twitter for $44 billion. His promises to weaken moderation, deep staff cuts, and chaotic changes to the platform turned many dedicated Twitter users off the platform. In the past few weeks, Rochko says, some 800,000 new Mastodon accounts have been created, overwhelming popular servers and flooding existing users’ timelines with introductions, questions, and complaints from newbies. Last year, donations to the nonprofit that runs Mastodon and where Rochko is CEO totaled 55,000 euros; it spent only 23,000 euros.

Since Musk took over Twitter, Rochko has been working long hours to keep his own server, Mastodon.Social, running, while also preparing a major upgrade to Mastodon, but he took time to videochat with WIRED from his home in Germany. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Will Knight: What have the past couple of weeks been like?

Eugen Rochko: People probably want to hear that it’s been great—all this growth and success—but I would prefer to be watching from the sidelines. There is more work, there are more fires to put out. It’s incredibly stressful. I’m pulling 14-hour workdays, sleeping very little, and eating very little.

The whole story coincides with the process of releasing a new version of the Mastodon software. You have to put a lot of focus into that. And then suddenly, you also have to deal with responding to press inquiries and running social media accounts to take advantage of the opportunity.

Despite the challenges, is it gratifying to see that Mastodon is where people turning away from Twitter have headed?

Yeah, it was good and gratifying at an objective level. I would love to just lean back and just enjoy the fact that so many new people are using Mastodon, like Stephen Fry. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to lean back and enjoy that. There has been an increase in funds due to all the new Patreon donations in the past 10 days, it’s been unprecedented.

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