A few years ago, the social network Ello became a punchline. It billed itself as an ad-free alternative to Facebook–and though some took to it for a few weeks, the luster waned and people inevitably returned to their normal social media habits. Then came Peach; then came Vero; there are surely others I’m forgetting.
Last year, the decentralized social platform Mastodon got a little bit of press for providing just that–an alternative to giant tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter. While it was quickly forgotten, it seems to be making a resurgence again. BuzzFeed News reports that Switter–a sub-network on Mastodon for sex workers–has amassed over 26,000 users.
Here are a few things to know about the network:
- Mastodon looks a bit like Twitter’s Tweetdeck function–it has a series of columns that fit posts (or “toots” as the network calls them) into categories–be it notifications, overall feed, sent posts, etc. But instead of everyone logging into the Mastodon website, the social network is divided into many individual networks–or “instances,” as the platform calls them–which are not centrally hosted.
- In light of the upcoming SESTA legislation, which essentially criminalizes any company that hosts people discussing anything related to sex, websites known to provide a platform for the sex-work community–like Craigslist classifieds–have begun shuttering the services they once offered. This means that people will no longer be able to share vital information with each other online.
- Assembly Four, an Australia-based organization that builds technology for sex workers, decided to create a Mastodon instance in light of these upcoming changes. Switter works like every other instance on the social network, but is meant for people in the sex community to connect and interact with each other, reports BuzzFeed News.
- Assembly Four is able to control the data and host the server. Since the organization is based in Australia, where sex work is legal, the network is less likely to be intercepted by authorities.
Ultimately, the hope of Switter–as well as Mastodon as a whole–is to create a digital place that is less centralized and better protects its users. While it’s true that every Facebook or Twitter alternative has been met with a certain derision, this example shows how the social network space could be ripe for a certain type of disruption that gives users more control and freedom. Though only a small percentage of the sex-work community is on Switter, it does seem to be gaining steam as more people fear the consequences of the upcoming legislation.
You can read the full BuzzFeed News profile of it here.