A how-to guide for joining the rapidly-growing social network
Now that Elon Musk is thrashing around inside the Twitter headquarters, many Twitter users are joining Mastodon — jussssst in case Twitter goes down in a flaming wreck.
I’m on Mastodon myself: I’m @firstname.lastname@example.org! I’ve been using it on and off for several years, and much more intensely in the last week.
Are you interested, too?
Read on and I’ll explain how you can try Mastodon yourself. Here’s my quick primer on The Most Simple Basics of Mastodon …
1) There’s no one big “central” place. Mastodon is lots of little places
Twitter has only one big server, which everyone logs into.
Mastodon doesn’t work that way. The way it works is you join a Mastodon server, and get an address at that server. Then you can follow people at nearly any other Mastodon instance. You and your followers don’t need to be on the same place!
When you see my Mastodon address, @email@example.com? I signed up at saturation.social, a Mastodon server run by a Twitter friend of mine. On that server, I picked the name @clive. So my full address becomes @firstname.lastname@example.org.
2) You can join an existing server, or run your own
How do you join a Mastodon server? There’s a big list of them here. You can search for one that’s focused around a hobby, or your industry, or a common obsession, or one run by people you know. Or you could host your own Mastodon server for a few dollars a month, point-and-click easy.
Check the rules for a server before you join. The person running the server gets to set whatever rules for behavior they want! If you like ’em, join. If you don’t, find another place. Some servers require you to apply, by explaining who you are and why you want to join.
(By the way, Mastodon “servers” are sometimes called Mastodon “instances”. The two words mean the same thing. I use “server”. When you post something on Mastodon it’s called a “toot”; I can’t type that without wincing so I just call it a “post”.)
One big piece of advice about joining a server?
When you join up, do it using a browser — on your phone or on your computer. Don’t sign up using a mobile Mastodon app. The apps are kind of buggy for sign ups. The browser works great, though! After you’ve got your account set up you could switch over to using an app.
3) You can share your Mastodon user address with anyone
Once you’ve joined a server, you’ll have your username and the address of your server. Again, mine is @email@example.com.
If someone wants to follow you on Mastodon, give them your full address. They type it into the search bar on Mastodon, and your account will come up; one click and they can follow you. Vice versa is true.
The cool thing about Mastodon is that it’s “federated”. That means the servers are all generally able to talk to one another. If you and I are on different servers, we can still follow each other.
4) Get used to the four main feeds
When you’re in your Mastodon account, there are three feeds you’ll see. It can be a bit confusing to figure out what appears in each feed. The feeds are …
- “Home”: This is a feed of everyone you follow. Even if they’re on another Mastodon server, you’ll see their posts here. It’s probably most analogous to a traditional Twitter feed. If you like to follow a big array of diverse people, this is where you’ll probably spend most of your time.
- “Notifications”: This is very Twitter-like. It shows you anyone who’s responded to a post of yours, faved a post, reposted you, followed you, or a Mastodon DM.
- “Local”: This is a feed of everyone on your server. It won’t show people you follow if they’re somewhere else out there on a different Mastodon server. If you’ve joined a server specifically because it has a crew of folks you like — or a subject matter that interests you (it’s “hospitality Mastodon” and you work in the hospitality industry — then you might spend more time looking at this stuff.
- “Federated”: This one’s a bit weird. It’s a big bucket ‘o stuff. It includes everything in your “home” and “local” feeds, but also posts from many other folks you don’t follow. If someone on your server follows @randoOnMastodon, then the posts of @randoOnMastodon will appear in your “federated” timeline — even if you yourself do not follow @randoOnMastodon. If someone on your instance boosts a post by @randoOnMastodon, it’ll be in “federated” (again, even if you yourself do not follow @randoOnMastodon). So it’s really wide-ranging.
“Home” and “local” are simple, but this graphic might help clarify the weirdness of “federated” …
5) Control who sees each of your posts, one by one
So if you post something on your server, it’ll be seen by your Mastodon followers — no matter wherever else are online — as well as anyone on your own server.
Your posts will also be visible in a ton of other “federated” feeds all over the place, though, too — even on servers you’ve never heard of. Keep in mind how “federated” works.
There’s a way to limit who sees your stuff, though.
Suppose you have a post that you want only your followers to see. You don’t want a million randos seeing it in their “federated” timelines.
Well, when you’re writing the post, there’s a little “earth” icon at the bottom of the box where you write posts. Click that icon, and you can choose to set that post to be “followers only”.
6) There’s no quote-tweet; get used to it!
On Mastodon, you can retweet something. (They call it “boosting” a post, but it’s the same thing.)
There’s no analog for a “quote tweet”, though.
Why? Because the original creator — and the original community of users — decided that quote-tweeting was too often incentivized a lot of “would you look at this bullshit” activity. So they didn’t offer that option.
7) There’s no algorithm promoting posts based on virality. They’re all just reverse-chronological
There are no Twitter-like algorithms on Mastodon. There’s no system promoting posts based on their popularity or virality, or whether someone paid to promote them. Posts appear in reverse chronological order. That’s it.
You can “fave” things to show the author that you like them, and you can repost someone else’s posts. But your approval won’t juice that post up higher in anyone’s feed, because … there’s no algorithm sorting things.
Personally, I love this. But it may not be to your taste.
8) Use a mobile app if you want — but sign up using a web browser (on mobile or a computer)
There are a bunch of mobile apps for Mastodon. The two I’ve most often seen people enjoy are Metatext (for iOS) and Tusky (for Android)
One thing, though: As I mentioned above, the mobile apps sometimes don’t handle signing-up well.
So I’d recommend that when you first sign up, use the Chrome browser on your phone or your desktop. Then after you’ve created your account you can start using a mobile app.
9) Decide you want to go to a different server? Take your followers with you!
One of the problems of Facebook and Twitter is that they have lock-in. You spend a few years there, you build up a lot of followers you have great conversations with. That means it’s hard to leave. If Facebook or Twitter turn into septic pits, you still want to hang around because it’s your only gateway to those folks.
That’s not true with Mastodon servers. If you should decide at any point that hey, you’d rather decamp to another server? Maybe there’s one with better rules you like? Or with a community of like-minded folks?
You can move … and take your followers with you. Mastodon offers a couple of ways to do this in its settings. (Specifically, preferences → account → account settings → move to a different account). You can set up a redirect page, or you can even migrate all your followers to the new server; you start posting over at your new pad, they’ll see it all.
It’s very cool. It means you’re not locked into any particular server.
Which is good, because …
10) Servers can have rules that constrain or enable what you do
Mastodon is open source. That means anyone can run the code — and they can also tinker with it, to change how it works.
All the ways I’ve described Mastodon working? They’re generally true. But not always true.
For example, if I’m running a Mastodon server with 100 people on it, and I decide that another server is filled with totally toxic nightmare people, I could just block that entire server. Nobody on that server will see anything the 100 people post on my server. Nobody on my server will see anything being posted by the toxic crew at the other server. That includes in our “federated” views.
This is, as you can imagine, a powerful tool for moderation.
Or sometimes someone running a server will change the code for Mastodon to affect how posting works. There are some that alter how long a post can be. The default is 500 characters, but some have increased the limit to hundreds or thousands of words; it’s more like a blogging site. And some have created a “quote tweet” option. (Technically someone could even encode their own local algorithm? It wouldn’t affect what other people see on their other servers, though.)
What if the folks running the server decide to do something you don’t like? To block another server you don’t want blocked, etc? Or conversely, you want some other ghastly server blocked, but your server folks don’t want to do it?
Well, you can always decamp for a new place. Hell, set up your own at a point-and-click hosting provider. Block any servers you want (or don’t). This, again, is the usefulness of a “federated” social network, where there is no single point of failure.
So, this is just a verrrrry simple guide to some absolute navigational basics of Mastodon. It doesn’t go deep.
I’m not touching at all upon standards of best behavior, though you should always govern yourself by the general rule of the Internet and IRL: Be nice. There are lots of other guides out there too — google around and read ‘em.
And hunt me down at @firstname.lastname@example.org and say hi, so I can follow you back!
(Enjoyed this one? Why then, hustle on over to the “clap” button and click madly away. It’s good for up to 50 clicks per reader!)
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Clive is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. He’s the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. He’s @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram.