Six months ago, after the news broke that changes were coming to Twitter’s policies against disinformation and hate speech, I decided to give Mastodon a try. Unfortunately, I didn’t stick with the app long enough to develop a habit of using it. After returning to it once again this week, that’s something I’ve come to regret. In the few days since (mostly) ditching Twitter, I’ve gained a new respect for the platform, which is decidedly less toxic and is far more conversational and troll-free. I’m hoping this very brief guide will serve new users as well as those hearing about it for the first time.
Let’s dig in.
So what is Mastodon, anyway?
Basically, Mastodon a Twitter alternative with a few special distinctions worth learning about upfront. Mastodon has most of the basic functionality you get with Twitter (known on Mastodon as “the birdsite”): It has a timeline made up of what are basically tweets, called “toots,” that are posted by the users you’ve chosen to follow. You can fav these toots or “boost” them to your own followers instead, just like retweeting. You can toot at other people, and these posts will appear in the timelines of users who follow both you and the person you’re tooting at. You can also bookmark toots and create lists of users showing only their toots — features you’re likely accustomed to as a Twitter user.
At time of writing, there are approximately 5.8 million Mastodon users, with a couple hundred thousand new profiles created in the last ten or so days alone, part of what the internet has dubbed the Great #TwitterMigration. (Note: This sudden massive influx of users has led to a number of server issues this week; however, most admin report that they’re working diligently to upscale their servers to handle the load.)
If you’ve used Twitter at all for more than a few days, all of these features will seem familiar. What’s likely to cause some confusion, though, is the fact that this network is decentralized — which is to say, Mastodon is not operated by any one company.
Whereas Twitter runs on servers controlled exclusively (now) by Elon Musk, who alone sets the rules, Mastodon runs on thousands of servers, each owned and operated by… well, anyone. Anyone can create a Mastodon server and craft their own rules for the people using it, deciding who’s allowed to join and how content will be moderated. The key thing to know here is, all of these servers are capable of communicating with each other. That means if you join one server, and a friend joins another, you can still follow each other and share each other’s toots. (Boy, that’s fun to say.)
This is what’s known as a “federated” network — known on Mastodon as the Fediverse. The most common metaphor for explaining this is a cellular network. Perhaps you get cell service through AT&T and, let’s say, your neighbour has T-Mobile. That doesn’t mean you can’t call each other. Email also works this way because providers share the same protocol, allowing accounts hosted by different providers to speak the same language. Social media, generally speaking, doesn’t. Instagram and Facebook accounts can share content, but that’s because they’re owned by the same parent company. You can’t, however, speak to Facebook users using a Twitter account. Mastodon does work this way, though, and because it is decentralized — not owned by any one company — a single, very wealthy individual can’t just swoop in and buy it.
For the same reason, Mastodon is (hallelujah) ad free. And with no ads, there’s no reason to collect data on users. This is one of the core benefits to using Mastodon over apps like Twitter and Instagram.
Moderation-wise, the owners of each server set their own rules. And while, yes, this technically means they’re free to allow any kind of content they wish, there’s nothing forcing one Mastodon server — known as an “instance” — to connect to another. If an admin of one instance chooses to block another, such as to protect their users from harassment, they’re free to do so. This creates a natural incentive for admins to enforce a certain amount of etiquette, since the more an instance gets blocked, the less access its users ultimately have to the Fediverse.
To quote Feditips: “The worse a server behaves, the more other servers will block it, and the very worst-behaved servers will find themselves completely isolated.”
How do you join Mastodon?
You can check out this website for a list of ways. (As an iPhone user, my personal preference so far is the Toots app versus the official Mastodon app.)
One thing few people realise is that Mastodon is just one part of a much larger open-source community known collectively as the Fediverse. There are many different kinds of apps in the Fediverse, and almost all of them use the same protocol as Mastodon, known as ActivityPub, which allow for different degrees of interoperability. The chart below shows some of these apps, which include platforms for writing, hosting videos, music, and books, and even include a few paid subscriber-based services.
Below are a few additional things you might need to know prior to before taking the plunge.
What server should you join?
As we’ve discussed, Mastodon operates across a large number of servers — colloquially known as “instances.” If you decide to give it try, picking an instance to join is one of the first decisions you’ll have to make. You’ll find a list of open instances at joinmastodon.com, but be aware some may be locked down, likely while admin work to expand capacity and prevent lag amid the influx of users
Instances are often distinguished by common interest, region, or language. If you’re into a specific type of tech, such as Linux, or programming language, like Ruby, there may a dedicated server. There are servers dedicated to serving the queer community, musicians, painters, gamers, and, of course, furries.
Each instance is run by a different person who decides the rules. Check the “about” page on each before joining to make sure you’re comfortable with the rules before making a decision. That said, in the settings, you’ll find an option that allows you to transfer your account to another server if you so desire. I believe you can do this once every 30 days.
In addition to your “Home” timeline, which shows only toots from people you follow, you’ll gain access to a “Local” timeline, which show public messages from everyone on your instance. And this is the big advance of picking an instance that comports with some personal interest. (Additionally, on the web-based platform, and in apps like Tootle for iOS, you’ll see a “Fediverse” timeline, which displays posts from across many instances. This Fediverse timeline isn’t visible in the official Mastodon phone app, however.)
You may encounter some limitations in interacting with accounts on other instances, like not being able to look at the list of accounts they’re following. Just know that this is normal.
What’s the vibe of Mastodon?
I’m going to refrain from trying to characterise Mastodon in political terms because few people on the network would say that’s appropriate. That said, the Fediverse is a very inclusive place and I haven’t seen any instance willing to put up with bigotry of any kind. It’s also more common among people with technical careers and hobbies, and there’s been a recent wave of scholars joining the network.
Another feature, which users seem encouraged to apply very liberally, is the content warning. You can hide any media behind a warning and people use them for all sorts of reasons. (There’s almost no reason not to.) The warnings just blur images and allow users to decide whether or not they’d like to see them.
A lot of people are using content warnings to hide posts about Twitter, and a common experience after joining Mastodon is the realisation of how damaging Twitter has been for people’s mental health. Users are waking up to the fact that they’ve been addicted to the birdsite and that it encouraged them to behave poorly toward others. So while it’s still common to see screenshots of tweets on Mastodon, at least some users are kindly doing what they can to help others move on and restore emotional balance to their lives.
Why is it slow?
Instances cost money to run, so admin usually only pay to accommodate the volume of users they have at any given time. The Great Migration has seen a huge influx of new accounts, leaving admin scrambling to scale up their instances to make room for all the new people. My best advice here is just to have patience. (If you only try Mastodon out during a big migration, and quit because it’s slow, you’re cheating yourself out of a new experience.)
It’s also worth noting, while Mastodon may look like Twitter, people use it very differently. A bit of helpful advice I received early on was to try and refrain from replying to every post I saw. The pace is generally much slower. And for that reason, it’s also less addictive. When I use Twitter, it’s nearly always open on my screen and I’m checking it constantly. Conversely, I only check Mastodon once every few hours. The community on my instance (mastodon.lol) seems to actively encourage this, and there’s a big emphasis on how this is much better for your mental health.
As one user wrote yesterday:
“this site is so weird. how do I know how many internet points I won? how do I know what to be outraged about? I feel like I could just put it down at any moment and go to bed at a reasonable hour, and then check it again tomorrow if I felt like it, in a healthy way. what the fuck”
If you end up finding a server you really enjoy and are in a position to do so, consider checking to see if the admin has a patreon or is raising funds some other way to help cover the cost of keeping it running. This is entirely voluntary, of course, so don’t feel obligated if it’s something you can’t afford.
Why can’t I quote other posts?
Everyone asks this. It’s almost like a right of passage. This isn’t a missing feature. The lack of a QT-like ability was an intentional decision. Here’s the lead developer’s explanation (via fedi.tips):
Another feature that has been requested almost since the start, and which I keep rejecting is quoting messages. Coming back to my disclaimer, of course it’s impossible to prevent people from sharing screenshots or linking to public resources, but quoting messages is immediately actionable. It makes it a lot easier for people to immediately engage with the quoted content… and it usually doesn’t lead to anything good. When people use quotes to reply to other people, conversations become performative power plays. “Heed, my followers, how I dunk on this fool!” When you use the reply function, your message is broadcast only to people who happen to follow you both. It means one person’s follower count doesn’t play a massive role in the conversation. A quote, on the other hand, very often invites the followers to join in on the conversation, and whoever has got more of them ends up having the upper hand and massively stressing out the other person.
How do I get followers?
Like birdsite, Mastodon uses hashtags, which are a great way to gain a few followers and find people to follow. Your instance probably has an “Explore” tab showing the most popular hashtags. You should make a post to #introductions when you get started. #TwitterMigration is pretty hot right now.
A large of number of academics seem to have flocked to the Fediverse recently, and they’ve been creating and putting out lists to attract followers. Here’s a few I’ve found over the past couple of days:
One of the more advanced features on Mastodon, which you won’t find on Twitter, is the ability to auto-follow accounts by importing lists. But by the time you get the hang of using Mastodon you should have no trouble figuring out how to do this.
Can I get verified, and does it cost $US8 ($11)?
Because there’s no central authority, it is not possible to verify accounts. However, there’s still a way you can verify yourself if you have your own website.
In your profile settings, you should find an option for “Link verification.” This will explain that you can add a line of code to your personal website, and then add that link to your profile under “Profile Metadata.” Mastodon will check the link for the code, and after finding it, add a verification tag next to the link in your bio. It only takes about five minutes, and it costs you nothing.
Is there a video I can watch that explains this a bit better?
Tons. Feel free to browse around on YouTube. There are a lot of explainers out there. But here are two short little videos that should help you conceptualize how Mastodon and the Fediverse work a little bit better.
For additional tips, try browsing the #feditips hashtag or following the Feditips account on Mastodon. And otherwise, just ask around. Users are very friendly and are quick to respond to inquires.