Mastodon became one of the many alternatives Twitter users flocked to when Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter went through.
But the platform is vastly different from centralized entities like Facebook or Twitter in that users are the ones who operate each server.
In summary, Eugen ‘Gargron’ Rochko, who started Mastodon back in 2016, is the sole owner of the legal entity that underpins mastodon.social and mastodon.online.
With that being said, let’s take a deep dive into how Mastodon actually came to be, why it technically isn’t owned by one single person, and whether it can even be sold.
Detailing the Founding Story of Mastodon
Mastodon is the brainchild of German software developer Eugen Rochko who goes by the name of Gargron on the server he administers (mastodon.social).
He has been working on the project more or less his entire professional career. Rochko essentially paid for his studies by taking on jobs as a Ruby on Rails developer, which is the software development framework Mastodon is build on.
Mastodon was, in fact, his first ‘job’ when he graduated from the University of Jena back in 2016 – all at the tender age of 23. But why would a young computer science grad take on the seemingly impossible task of competing against social media juggernauts like Facebook or Twitter?
The answer is rooted in Rochko’s belief system and his deep conviction that decentralized entities are more conducive to “smaller, tight-knit communities” and are consequently “less prone to harbouring toxic behaviour.”
Interestingly, this are the very same believes that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey holds – a preference he revealed in leaked private conversations with new owner Elon Musk when the two discussed a potential takeover.
Meanwhile, Mastodon itself, which officially launched in October 2016, was named after the namesake extinct animal that now graces its logo.
After sharing his little invention with tech enthusiasts on forums such as Hacker News, the press quickly picked up on Mastodon and began featuring it.
Within a matter of six months, the main mastodon.social server would already boast over 40,000 members, thus prompting Rochko to temporarily halt registrations.
In the meantime, Mastodon would be financed by company and government grants as well as Patreon donations – both of which still represent the firm’s key revenue drivers to this date.
However, Rochko would soon learn what it means to oversee a burgeoning social network (or collections of them).
In early 2019, the Daily Dot published an article highlighting the moderation issues the young founder grappled with. For example, trans users and people of color left the platform in bunches after being harassed by other users, seemingly without any form of repercussion.
The piece also pointed out that Rochko would take ideas and even code commits from Mastodon’s mostly volunteer users and claim them as his own.
“Like it or not, he is in charge of the main branch of a huge community project and he promises various advantages over Twitter to attract members,” one member wrote. “The users of his software have needs that he refuses to address […] but he wants to remain the sole decision-maker and have complete control. He has a right to do that, but it is unhealthy for the project overall.”
Those moderation issues would only increase as Mastodon’s popularity kept rising. In July 2019, the social network Gab, which was primarily known for being a cesspool of discriminatory and extreme viewpoints, migrated over to Mastodon.
This was particularly ironic considering that Mastodon was often referred to as the ‘Twitter without Nazis’ by many in the media. In fact, a significant number of Mastodon users migrated to the decentralized platform to avoid the toxicity many traditional centralized networks exemplified.
Despite those hiccups, Mastodon continued to grow at a steady clip. It would oftentimes add thousands of new users when its centralized counterparts screwed up majorly (which they did plenty of times).
As a result , and to formalize Mastodon as a legal entity, Rochko registered the Mastodon gGmbH in August 2021, which is a non-profit limited liability company in the eye of the German tax law.
As a non-profit gGmbH, shareholders may not receive any revenue from the company’s activities and can at most withdraw the funds that they originally paid in while employees cannot receive extraordinarily high wages.
Therefore, Rochko remains the sole founder and shareholder of the legal entity that underpins Mastodon to this date. And the move certainly proved to be a great one.
When Elon Musk disclosed his desire to acquire Twitter back in April 2022, hundreds of thousands of users departed the platform, many of whom began joining Mastodon. And once again, the servers of mastodon.social would be overwhelmed.
“I’m working on making it go fast again, but in the meantime, do remember to invite people to joinmastodon.org instead of directly to mastodon.social. People don’t have to be on the same server to follow you.” He then followed it up by stating that “I’m stressed out. I just want to play Dota. But I realize this is a kind of ‘do or die’ moment.”
Meanwhile, other entities, such as the European Union, started setting up servers of their own as well while financially supporting Mastodon.
Even users from oppressive countries like China flocked in masses to the service, in large parts due to its decentralized and thus independent nature.
Throughout 2022, Mastodon managed to grow from around 250,000 monthly active users to over 2 million by the year’s end. Over 230,000 joined in early November alone after Musk completed his acquisition of Twitter.
Technical issues continued to persist as well, largely due to users not understanding that Mastodon is split up into hundreds of different servers. Instead, many simply just joined the main mastodon.social server managed by Rochko.
However, those numbers still paled in comparison to Twitter, which boasted close to 240 million users at the time of the acquisition. But Twitter still felt the user drain, thus even prompting it to block users from tweeting links to their Mastodon profiles and content.
Unfortunately, Mastodon wasn’t necessarily able to capitalize on Twitter’s various blunders. By January 2023, its users began to depart the decentralized network, largely because of how confusing it is to navigate.
“Everybody went and signed up [on Mastodon] and realized how hard it was, and then got back on Twitter and were like, ‘Oh, that’s, that’s hard. Maybe we won’t go there,’” said social media strategist Meg Coffey in an interview with The Guardian.
It remains to be seen whether Mastodon can ever become the Twitter replacement that the media made it out to be – and whether Rochko actually wants that to happen.
So, Who Owns Mastodon?
Mastodon is based on the open-source protocol ActivityPub, which then allows users to set up individual servers that they maintain.
As such, it is the user running the server that technically owns it, especially considering that they are responsible for registering a domain name and paying the monthly hosting bill.
With that being said, the most popular servers, namely mastodon.online and mastodon.social, are technically owned and run by the non-profit Mastodon gGmbH.
The non-profit itself is consequently owned by Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko who registered it back in 2021. Rochko had to pay €25,000 in fees to register the company.
Therefore, he could technically sell that entity to outside investors who could turn around and establish it as a for-profit company.
Meanwhile, Rochko himself has contemplated to expand the firm’s business model from just donations and grants towards offering ancillary services like hosting. In fact, he outlined his plans in a previous interview with TechCrunch:
For now, it seems unlikely that Mastodon will ever be sold. Instead, Rochko will likely continue to operate the non-profit based off of the contributions he receives.