Ruud Schilders, admin of mastodon.world, had about 100 people on the server before the acquisition by Twitter in 2022. New signups led to a peak of about 120,000 active users in November, Shielders says. But with all that new traffic came additional hate speech and obscene content. “I learned things I didn’t want to know,” says Shields. By early February, the number of active users had dropped to about 49,000 active users—still significantly more than the server had previously had.
Schilders has hired content moderators and has bank donation funding to cover monthly server costs. But he says running the server now brings added pressure. “You suddenly became a kind of public figure,” he says. He plans to separate his personal account from mastodon.world so he can post more freely without being tied to his work as an admin.
Part of the appeal of Mastodon is that users have more options to block the content they view than on traditional social networks. Server administrators create rules for their instances, and they can ban users who post hate, pornography, and spam, or troll other users. People can block entire servers. But Mastodon’s decentralized nature makes each instance its own network, placing legal responsibility on the people who run it.
Administrators must follow the laws governing ISPs wherever their servers can be accessed. In the US, these include the Digital Copyright Act, which requires platforms to register and remove copyrighted material, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, 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’s server administrators may soon increase. The US Supreme Court will hear cases involving Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The regulation has allowed tech companies to thrive by absolving them of responsibility for much of what their users post on their platforms. If a court ruled in a way that changed, weakened or overturned that law, tech platforms and smaller organizations like Mastodon’s administrators could be on the hook.
“Someone running a Mastodon instance may have a lot more responsibility than they do,” says Corey Silverstein, an attorney who specializes in Internet law. “It’s a huge problem.”
Mastodon was just one of several platforms that gained attention when some Twitter users were looking for alternatives. There’s also Post.news, Hive Social, and Spill. Casey Fisler, an associate professor of information science at the University of Colorado Boulder, says many new social platforms are experiencing fleeting popularity, spurred by catalysts like the Twitter saga. Some disappear, but others gradually grow into larger networks.
“It’s very hard to move them from dead center because social media is where your friends are,” Fisler says. “This is one of the reasons why platform migration tends to be more gradual. The more people you know are joining the platform, the more likely you are to join.”