Last week I wrote an article about misconceptions around Mastodon and the Fediverse. I got a lot of great feedback from that article, but I also got one question a lot: what is Mastodon, exactly?
I didn’t want to address this in that article, as it’s worthy of a full post of its own. I realize that this would be more introductory to the point that it should be read before that article if you just want to create an account and get started using it.
Table of Contents
- An Overview of What Mastodon Is
- How Does Mastodon Compare to Twitter and other Social Networks?
- How do I Create an Account?
- Do I Need Accounts on Each Instance?
- What is Federation Again?
- How do I Find People to Follow?
- What are the Cultural Norms Around Mastodon?
- How Do Locked Accounts Work?
- How Exactly Do I Get Started?
An Overview of What Mastodon Is
Mastodon is a decentralized, federated social network. It is decentralized in the sense that there is no one company running Mastodon, and there are instead multiple websites that exist, allowing for flexibility, durability, and freedom for the network overall, as opposed to one organizational voice and set of servers. Mastodon is federated in that those separate servers (called instances) can converse with one another. This allows for networks of scale to exist as they do on centralized social networks. An individual instance may have a few dozen or hundred members (or even just one!) and still be able to connect to hundreds of thousands of other accounts with ease.
The aesthetic of the web and mobile apps to access Mastodon are similar to Twitter and Tweetdeck. If you’re comfortable with Twitter already, you’ll be able to mostly navigate Mastodon with little help.
The idea of Mastodon is to create small communities with their own spaces, as opposed to one large forum like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Think of it more like how Reddit has separate communities in subreddits, or how Facebook has groups that require membership to access.
Unlike Reddit and Facebook however, Mastodon is not hosted monolithically by one large company that contains all communities. Instead, different system administrators maintain their own Mastodon groups (instances), and each instance functions separately of one another on different domains. I run a Mastodon instance of my own at the domain tech.lgbt.
Within an instance, the admin has complete control. This is seen as a positive or negative, depending on the community and the user (see my section on “What is True Federation?” in my misconceptions article). They can set the tone of the conversation in the space, and police as they see fit.
How Does Mastodon Compare to Twitter and other Social Networks?
On Twitter, you have to follow the Twitter Code of Conduct, for better or worse. Twitter can choose to block your account for a limited time or ban you permanently if they think that it is required. Considering the scale of Twitter and the number of messages posted daily, it’s no surprise that moderation is mainly handled algorithmically, which leads to a very opaque process. This can lead to gaffes including the temporary ban of Twitter’s own CEO, Jack Dorsey.
Mastodon, on the other hand, has all moderation handled by individual people, often one person for an instance, or maybe a small handful of admins and moderators. This doesn’t mean that the system is necessarily better, but it does allow for a human touch that is so desperately needed where human speech is concerned.
If you do want to keep your Twitter account and use both, as I do, you can use a cross-poster to let you use both services together. I use moa.party, which allows you to link your Mastodon account to both Twitter and Instagram and cross-post between them. These services aren’t perfect, in part because the platforms work different, and because of limitations in the APIs of the closed networks.
How do I Create an Account?
There is no one place to create a Mastodon account. Instead, you choose a community that you want to be part of and create an account there. As an example, my instance, tech.lgbt is for LGBTQIA+ folks and allies with an interest in technology. One of the faster growing instances for furries that I’ve seen is snouts.online. Some users who got banned from Tumblr in late 2018 after their adult content ban have gathered at humblr.social (no longer online). A community for artists exists at mastodon.art, board gamers at boardgames.social, and even a private instance for video game slimes at slime.global.
The last instance is an example of a private instance. This means that the administrators set it up so that new users are either barred from creating accounts, or need to have one created for them by an admin. This is another one of the ways where Mastodon separates itself from Twitter and other networks. Users and admins are welcome to create their own spaces, manage them as they see fit, and interact in ways that are comfortable to them.
The account that you create will be findable via your username and instance name. For instance, I use the rather clever username of david, and am on the instance tech.lgbt. Therefore, my full username to send messages to is @email@example.com. Think of it like a hybrid of Twitter and email addresses.
Do I Need Accounts on Each Instance?
Long story short: no, you only need as many accounts as you want identities. You can probably interact with others that you want to from whichever instance you choose.
At this point you might be thinking about where to signup for an account and how much that matters. After all, you may be interested in both art and technology, or a specific political ideology as well as something more esoteric like fairies. Thankfully, you don’t generally need to worry about where you sign up for an account, because you can still interact with people on separate instances thanks to the most powerful feature of Mastodon: federation.
What is Federation Again?
Federation is, in simplest terms, how users at various Mastodon instances (or other, compatible websites like micro.blog, Pleroma, and Write Freely) interact with one another. If a Mastodon instance federates with (allows connection to) my instance, then users there can send a message to @firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll receive the message, get notified, and be able to respond just as if I was using Twitter.
The reason that federation is such a powerful tool is because it provides options. I have a defined Code of Conduct on my instance that I enforce, and I take all moderation requests seriously. You may not agree with my moderation standards, but may still want to interact with me or other users on my instance. You can then join another instance and still be able to hold those conversations.
By default Mastodon installs fully federated, with the ability for users on any instance to interact with any other. I’ve blocked a few instances based on the needs of my community and my own views. For instance, I’ve blocked instances that are created solely for spam, or instances that are more toxic in general for either harassers or migrations from Gab. Many instances also block others for spamming, or for hosting content that may be illegal in other countries, like the instances run by Pixiv in Japan.
How do I Find People to Follow?
Since Mastodon is a bit decentralized, it can be hard to find people to follow at the start. There’s no suggestion tool like Twitter has, and no tailoring based on who else you follow and where you live. Part of the allure of Mastodon is that it does so little algorithmically, and instead you are in control of your feed. There are also no trackers to help give the insight that other social networks have.
There used to be a search tool at joinmastodon.org to connect your Twitter and Mastodon accounts together then find who you follow on Twitter also has a Mastodon account. That tool is sadly down, and I don’t know if it is making a return.
A lot of users do #FollowFriday’s, similar to what used to be more commonplace on Twitter. There is also a nice opt-in directory called Trunk that has users on various instances, sorted by topic that they like to talk about.
I reached out on Mastodon to ask how people find others to follow. One response reminded me of a feature that I didn’t highlight before: instance directories. This response from patter gave a few suggestions covered above, and the following advice:
there are profile directories on some instances, you can browse those & add your own profile to them, and your profile isn’t in this public directory by default.@email@example.com
Additionally, I got a suggestion from one of my favorite mutuals, Winterfang, about using who you already follow to find new people to follow. This is how I found most of the people that I follow now on Mastodon, which is a good alternative to only finding people that I already know IRL.
I just look at the local timeline and follow people who look interesting. I never use the federated timeline at all, personally. Then the local people I’m following boosted some really great people, so I followed them too.@firstname.lastname@example.org
What are the Cultural Norms Around Mastodon?
Most instances have policies around what is acceptable behavior and what is not. A good instance will have some form of Code of Conduct for users to abide by. Having some rules in place makes a safer and more enjoyable space, and having the rules written out publicly makes moderation more transparent.
We’re not a free speech absolutist, and there are instances available for that. We’re not interested in Nazis, TERFS, or hate speech of any sort, which we will define at our sole discretion as moderators.
This instance is meant to be a friendly, welcoming space to all who are willing to reciprocate in helping to create that environment.Short Version excerpt from the tech.lgbt Code of Conduct
Users are generally encouraged to create introductory posts that they can then pin to their profiles. Use the #Introduction hashtag, as well as hashtags for things that you’re focusing on in your account. Let people know who you are so they have reason to follow you!
Content Warnings are also encouraged on most instances. These are notices that you can place over the content of your messages, which will the require viewers to acknowledge and click through before reading the content. These are used for things like nudity, charged topics like politics and mental health posts, or even more benign content that all users may not want to see. Using CWs where appropriate is being a good neighbor to other users, as is adding descriptive text to images that you post.
How Do Locked Accounts Work?
Accounts on Mastodon can be locked, not unlike Twitter. What sets them apart though is that locked accounts can still make public toots. Instead of having to have an all or nothing approach to privacy, you can set it on your own terms. You can even post toots that are unlisted, visible only on your profile page.
Many people on Mastodon lock their accounts to control who is allowed to follow them or not, and you may have to have a follow request accepted. Best behavior is to have your profile filled out with a name and profile photo, as well as a pinned post with the #Introduction hashtag to make it easy for people to learn about you and decide whether they want to allow you to follow them. We’re here to make friends, not broadcast announcements!
*hat tip to @email@example.com for this tip, in their post on using the fediverse
How Exactly Do I Get Started?
First, you sign up for an instance. This is easier to do from the web, since most mobile apps only allow you to login to existing accounts. Usually you can go to the homepage of whatever instance that you want to sign up for to create an account, provided that it’s not a private or closed instance.
When you’re signed up, you can use a mobile app to interact with Mastodon. I recommend Amaroq if you are on iOS, and Tusky if you are on Android. You’ll notice that these and most Mastodon apps have very mixed reviews, often lots of five-star reviews pulled down by one-star reviews. Read some of the reviews and you’ll often notice that low ratings are based around coordinated campaigns from users on instances that are unhappy with built-in blacklists. When Gab abandoned their own codebase and moved to Mastodon they brought all of their existing community issues with them.
If you are looking to find an instance to join, instances.social is a database that lists some information about various instances, including the main languages of the instance, how many users there are, what kind of content is allowed or prohibited, and what the focus of the instance is. The website is a good guide to find some instances to start with, but some of the data isn’t always correct. As an example, my instance currently shows as down, closed to registrations, and with poor uptime. All of which I’d question considering I use it daily 😂
With all of that out of the way, get started on the fediverse! You’ll learn a lot more by jumping in and joining the conversation. If you want more technical details, documentation, or getting started guides, check out https://joinmastodon.org/. See you there, and if you want to say hi, I’m @firstname.lastname@example.org
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Toot: An individual status update. Analogous to a Tweet on Twitter.
Boost: Sharing a Toot to other users who follow you, dependent upon the visibility of the original Toot and your account. Analogous to a Retweet on Twitter.
Content Warning: An optional field while composing a Toot that allows you to hide the content of your Toot behind a button with some notice text. Often used as a warning for content such as nudity, mental health, politics, and other subjects that some users would prefer to control visibility of. Some instances police Content Warning (shortened CW) notices more than others.
Instance: A specific server running Mastodon. Generally denoted from one another by the domain name that accounts are registered at. An instance can be made for only one user, or can be open to hundreds or thousands of users.
Federation: The ability for Mastodon instances to interact with one another. Open by default, can be modified or closed down entirely by admins.
Fediverse: An informal name for the network of sites that federate with one another, This includes Mastodon, as well as other ActivityPub or oStatus based services like micro.blog, PixelFed, Pleroma, and others.
birdsite: An often derogatory term used to describe Twitter.