Who pays for Mastodon servers?

How are all these “Instances” (i.e. servers) being paid for (both Masterdon and other Fediverse projects)?

Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, et al. obviously all have massive companies behind them earning advertising money to pay for the massive infrastructure needed. But all these Instances are home-grown affairs AFAIUI, setup and paid for by individuals for each server at the moment.

But when growth happens and tons of bandwidth has to be paid for, those costs are surely likely to skyrocket exponentially. So how sustainable is the whole Fediverse, if it was to grow to the size of just one of these Youtube-sized companies, in terms of running costs?

Right. See this post in another thread. I had joined one of the instances mentioned there (mstdn.party, but only because someone I knew went there first when I was thinking of joining in November and was trying to decide on a server to join), and luckily I noticed a mention a couple of weeks ago that the admin was not responsive since late-December and moved to a new instance. But, yes, so far both instance I joined have some sort of voluntary funding (Patreon, Ko-Fi, etc.) to help defray the costs.

But because of federation, it’s unlikely that there will be any one instance that grows large. One of the most popular, mastodon.social, is essentially closed at this point to new members (I think that you can still get an invitation from an existing member.)

I would look to other historically federated technologies.

For instance e-mail. You can run your own mail server with a small PC and a few hours setup time. If you’re willing to do the work to keep the software up to date and run modern spam filtering, and the number of users is small (e.g. your family and some friends), it’s not that big a deal. But the big servers that handle hundreds or thousands (or millions) of accounts are all run by organizations with a significant IT budget - universities, corporations, etc.

The old USENET was similar. It was never practical for an individual to have his own newsfeed, but anyone with bandwidth and storage could (and still can) set up and run a server. And it pretty much runs itself. Lots of small businesses ran servers, but the servers with massive quantities of users were run by universities and large corporations.

Web servers are also like this. Although not federated, anyone with an Internet connection can run a web server. And the cost is directly proportional to its bandwidth requirements. So small sites that don’t generate much hits are often run by individuals and small groups (usually paying for hosting, but not always), with the bigger sites being run by large businesses or paying large amounts of money for large-scale hosting.

I suspect the Fediverse will be similar. You will see lots of small servers run by individuals and small organizations. But the servers with large numbers of users will be run by universities and corporations. If it catches on the way mail and newsgroups did, you will likely see university and small business servers that only allow their own people to subscribe, with the bigger public ones being run by big companies.

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… And speaking of running your own personal Mastodon server:

Michael Tsai - Blog - Creating a Personal Mastodon Instance

So it’s apparently quite doable if you have your own domain and are willing to put a server on-line (or pay for hosting).

I started running a mastodon server for the family 3–4 years ago, in non-federated mode. I use an old MacBook Pro running Ubuntu at home. On ethernet. With the lid closed. When I first installed, I think mastodon was version 2.6.x or so, and I’ve somehow managed to upgrade over time, to 4.1.

Honestly, I have trepidation every time I upgrade the mastodon server software. Maybe I should have used Docker instead. Or apparently Pleroma is much easier to maintain. In the last year, I had to find out how to upgrade ruby and node.js. And I am not confident to backing up the server or migrating to a newer version of Ubuntu or to a hosting service (e.g. masto.host). But, for now… Linux + Intel MacBook Pro + huge SSD + not much traffic seems to be OK.

For my public mastodon usage, I joined an instance instead, and pay a small regular donation.

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So eventually the biggest ones are going to either rely on heavy donations to survive (unlikely to work longterm), or more likely turn into companies adding advertising to get funds (and profits).

Running a server costs time and effort too, so after the novelty has worn off, how many smaller ones will their admins be willing to maintain all these instances.

Basically business practices move in to most markets after a time, and we’ll have Twitter under a new name, just spread across servers, but with the same regulatory concerns being expressed by politicians again.

I’m not trying to put it down, but rather I’m interested in how these almost utopian platforms almost always eventually turn into businesses, with the same issues and problems the previous platforms had.

There’s nothing to stop the same negative practices making their way across from Twitter, and as soon as a politician has been told to top themselves or similar, they’ll be calling congress/parliaments globally to add parental controls et al. with supervision and moderators.

That’s a very pessimistic view.

Yes, if you want massive servers with millions of users, like Twitter, then it is going to be run by a large corporation, like Twitter.

But that doesn’t mean the smaller sites will have to go away. Just like the fact that there are plenty of smaller news/commentary/discussion web sites (including this one), despite the fact that there are also much bigger sites, that have higher operating costs and are run by bigger businesses.

But even if we don’t find a lot of smaller servers in the future, it doesn’t mean everybody is going to be subject to the whims of the big players. The very fact of how federation works means that one player can’t impose its will on others. If we end up with a few big players that develop objectional policies, then those sites that disagree may choose to not share with them (or the big players may choose to cut off the connections).

So instead of making it impossible for these unpopular groups to have a voice, they will be forked off into an independent ecosystem. Much like what’s going on today, but without the need to deploy a whole new network of servers running new software.

But it’s unlikely to get to that point. Again, I ask that you look at what has come before.

There are many big players in the e-mail space, but there’s nothing stopping you from running your own mail server. Yes, you may need to jump through a few technical hoops in order to get mail from your server to be delivered universally, but these are based on policies that most people support - like blocking spam. Although there are not many mail servers run by individuals, there are hundreds of servers run by every service provider and hosting company on the planet.

The platform doesn’t turn into a business, because there’s a very clear difference between the platform and the servers that implement it.

As for government control, nearly every human being on earth, if given sufficient power, will want to abuse it. Whether they choose to attack Internet services or newspapers or broadcast TV is almost beside the point.

But with a federated communication technoliogy, no government can take it all down. Even if the big players are all ordered to clamp down on content, there will be plenty of servers running in other jurisdictions that will not play along. And unless the government decides they want to censor all traffic everywhere (as China does), there’s not going to be much they can do about it.

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I’ll just add one more point. Look at another technology that big players tried to take over and governments tried to crush: peer-to-peer file sharing.

Although many of the big players (e.g. Napster, Kazaa and Limewire) either shut down or changed their business model into something completely different, the underlying technology is far from dead.

Those file sharing technologies based on open stanards (e.g. Gnutella and BitTorrent) are still used by quite a lot of people. And there are still applications available for all platforms that use these technologies.

Although political pressure and legal action can kill a company or a product, it can’t kill an open public technology. As long as there is a demand for the tech, there will be people who develop it and users who will use it, whether or not they are popular enough to be known outside of the community of enthusiasts.

And don’t forget Apple Music and iPod, which were developed by Steve Jobs specifically to kill free peer to peer music piracy. There’s also Spotify, which hasn’t come close to posting anything resembling a profit in its years of existence.

There’s no doubt that the rise of legal music download services eliminated most of the on-line music piracy. And Jobs was absolutely right when he assumed that most people would be willing to pay a reasonable price for a high quality download.

But I think equating that with government and legal action against file sharing networks is a bit of a stretch. Jobs and Apple were not (and still are not) interested in prosecuting anyone (unless they’re pirating Apple software). They provided a legal option where there previously wasn’t one. They bet on most people being honest, over the objection of the music industry, and they won that bet.

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Jobs was interested in making money, and income earned from the wildly successful and totally legal Apple Music sent sales revenue and Apple stock soaring. I doubt that Apple would have earned skyrocketing revenue it did at the time without the government clampdowns on illegal file sharing.

Remember the spectacular Microsoft Zune disaster?


Not sure about that - it’s still early days after the Eternal September. But there is value in large instances, since hashtags (the closest Mastodon has to search) only work on the local instance.

As to paying the bills, I could see instances offering premium features for those willing to pay extra (even though that may forever remain a small number of users). Not sure what those might be - a search of the local instance maybe, although that may be controversial for some users.