How Musk Made Vivaldi Build A Mastodon Server… In A Fortnight

How Musk Made Vivaldi Build A Mastodon Server… In A Fortnight

“Setting up a new service from scratch in two weeks is usually not the way we do things,” says a chuckling Hlini Melsteð Jóngeirsson, system administrator at browser company Vivaldi, talking about the breakneck speed at which the company launched its own Mastodon server.

A month later, and Vivaldi Social has become one of the fastest growing instances on the alternative social network, with Mastodon now integrated into the Vivaldi browser. Here’s the inside story of Vivaldi’s race to get its social network ready, and how Elon Musk gave the company the shove to do so.

Firing the starting gun

Even before Elon Musk set his sights on Twitter, Ruari Ødegaard, Vivaldi’s QA lead, was getting sick of life on the platform. There’s “something about that community getting intensely negative” that was driving him away from Twitter, the constant need to foster disagreements to drive engagement, “because that’s how they make money, because of advertising”.

Ødegaard had been toying with Mastodon for while, and began idly wondering if it was something Vivaldi should get involved with. He brought it up on a company off-site meeting in the U.S. earlier this year. “I mentioned that this is an interesting technology and maybe we should do something with it at Vivaldi,” he said.

“And in my mind, obviously, I would have hoped that we’d run an instance and that would be a big deal. But I tried to tone it down and say, look, let’s just have a presence there. Maybe one day we’ll have an instance for our users… and I’m thinking like a five -year plan.”

Then Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter was suddenly announced, and that five-year plan was rapidly accelerated. The company was on another away day in Iceland at the time of the takeover and CEO Jon von Tetzchner latched on to Ødegaard’s idea. “He started talking about it all the time,” said Ødegaard. “And instead of me being the one who’s spearheading it, it was pretty much Jon at that stage. And Jon likes to do things real fast.”

Two-week sprint

The team took the decision to go for it. “The catalyst was a lot [to do] with Elon and the Twitter situation after that, and when we looked at it again, now in November, there were a lot more factors that sort of pushed it along,” said Jóngeirsson.

“We just decided, hey, let’s just throw this up and see how far we go. And it was a little bit of a rollercoaster ride for not even two weeks, and we had everything ready.”

Advertisement

Setting up a Mastodon server in a fortnight isn’t a huge technical challenge – you can set one up yourself in a couple of hours, in fact. But setting up a server that will cope with a rapid influx of users does require planning and resources, which is where many other Mastodon instances have come unstuck.

The rush of Twitter users looking for a new home has posed problems for those using cloud servers to host their instance. “I have seen bills of $2000, and up to $4,000 a month,” said Jóngeirsson.

Vivaldi, on the other hand, is using its own server infrastructure to manage the load. “We just collectively decided we’re going to use our resources to support this community… first and foremost for our users, but for anyone who wants to engage in this community and be able to have a secure and stable environment.”

Everything in moderation

It’s not only computing resources you need to maintain a social network, it’s human resources too. As Elon Musk has rapidly discovered, moderation is a hugely challenging, labor-intensive task, and here Vivaldi again had a headstart.

The company operates its own forums and blogs, so already had a moderation team of staff and volunteers ready to tackle the Mastodon challenge. However, Ødegaard admits that keeping on top of the spam and abuse is already a stiff task. “I’m a QA but I do have more [admin] rights that allows me to see the reports coming in, and it’s significant. I would say more than I would have expected,” he said.

“I think that we handle it fine at the moment and hopefully we can carry on scaling up, but there are reports coming through all throughout the day. Constantly.”

The federated nature of Mastodon, where each instance is responsible for moderating its own members, also poses unique challenges. For example, a Vivaldi Social user might report another user posting pornographic images, but the person posting the images may belong to an instance that permits pornography or is even devoted to the topic. Vivaldi can prevent its users from seeing posts made by that person, or set rules that say you must actively follow that person before you can see their posts, but it can’t ban the user outright, unless they are on Vivaldi Social. It is, in a word, complicated.

Mastodon for the many?

What does the future hold for Mastodon if it continues its rapid growth? Accurate figures are hard to come by, because of Mastodon’s disparate nature, but some sources claim Mastodon user numbers have climbed to 8 million since Musk’s Twitter takeover. Vivaldi said it had around 11,000 users when we spoke earlier this week, but now Mastodon is built into the browser it’s seeing more than a thousand new sign-ups a day, making it the fastest-growing instance one day this week.

Will Mastodon eventually come to be dominated by big organizations, who have the computing and human resources needed to maintain instances with a large number of users? Ødegaard think it will settle down into a blend of big and small.

“I hope it would be a bit more like email,” he said. “Yes, there are big providers like Gmail and Outlook… but all companies have their own email service, and organizations do as well, and I would like it to be and expected it to be like that.”

“I think the number of single-person instances might go down [in relative terms], but the total number of instances will go up, and there will be a few big players. So, I would hope it would somewhat mirror email, but maybe not quite with someone as big as Gmail.”

“But who knows? If Google suddenly appears, then, you know, that’s problematic.”

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *