Freedom of speech, moderation, decentralization: how German Eugen Rochko envisioned Mastodon

“_There is no way to control when success happens, only to lay the foundations for it_”. That’s what it said Eugene Rochko in a 2018 interview.

Premonition-like words for the 29-year-old German engineer who has gained notoriety in recent weeks by offering an alternative on Twitter: Mastodon.

A frustrated Twitter fan of free software

Born in Moscow but the family moved to Germany when he was only 11 years old, Eugen Rochko was the first to use traditional social networks such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. If he is a follower of online exchanges, he considers with caution the concentration of these technologies in the hands of large private companies in America.

In 2016, at the age of just 24, he launched Mastodon relied on free technologies (as opposed to proprietary software) when he had just finished his computer science studies at the University of Jena, in Germany.

A project he developed in his bedroom while still living in his parents’ apartment, he wrote in the 2021 activity report.

If Mastodon started as an experiment parallel to his studies and his freelance missions, Eugen Rochko confessed to the media Wired (in English) who have been working fourteen hours a day since the network’s explosion in popularity.

To operate, Mastodon relies on an entire network of interconnected servers, a “fediverse” according to the jargon. A new user joins a server, also called an instance, and can then express himself in 500-character messages.

On his account followed by more than 200,000 people, the computer scientist posts the latest developments on his social network and shares pictures of cats.

A person can also choose to create and host an instance. A voluntary organization tested with an influx of new users: one million since last month.

Based on decentralization, the social network’s vision is the opposite of Silicon Valley’s innovations. A difference in technology but also in philosophy that Eugen Rochko also studied at university. His work is, with a few clicks, accessible to everyone and free of charge.

“_A centralized platform has a hierarchical structure where the rules and their application, as well as the development and direction of the platform, are decided by the CEO, so that the users have almost no way to oppose them_” explains Eugen Rochko in a post in December 2018. For him, decentralization is the “_mark of a healthy ecosystem_” to guarantee Mastodon’s longevity and stability.

A network funded by its users

One difference that will probably please Mastodon users: the absence of ads on the platform. Another notable option: there is no algorithmpublications are presented in chronological order.

Away from the frenzy of the stock markets, Eugen Rochko is paid and financed by Mastodon through donations through participatory platforms.

The bigger a server, the more the hosting costs, obviously. And when you are not interested in making money or finding profit, growth is actually a negative thing.” he told Wired.

However, thanks to his new popularity, financial donations for the development of Mastodon experienced an “_unprecedented_” flight.

Among startups and tech giants, Eugen Rochko has created a UFO whose operation is difficult to classify. According to the Mastodon report in 2021, Eugen Rochko is the only employee and earns €2,400 per month working with contributors freelancer or volunteers.

Open source operation requires, Mastodon has been developed since its creation also thanks to the work of volunteers such as the people who host the servers.

The thorny question of moderation

On the issue of freedom of speech and moderation that social networks have faced since its creation, Eugen Rochko “_doesn’t really agree_” with Elon Musk’s position, he explained in an interview. given to Time magazine.

“_I think it is a very American idea to think of freedom of speech as a system where you can say whatever you want without any limitations._This is very foreign to the German mentality where, in our Constitution, our number one priority is to protect human dignity. Thus, hate speech is not part of the German concept of freedom of expression, for example. I think when Elon Musk says that everything will be allowed, I generally disagree.“, he declared.

At Mastodon, moderation is adjusted on a server-by-server basis more or less strictly. A way according to Eugen Rochko for users to have a social network that looks like them.

Servers that host hateful content are not promoted and may be blocked by users. Hate speech is frowned upon, reducing the echo chamber phenomenon.

As he told Wired: “There is no consensus, no single idea of ​​what should be moderated and what should not be moderated. Some people will have different expectations about what they want to see or about the rules of who can talk to whom.”

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