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.

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. 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 @david@tech.lgbt. 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 @david@tech.lgbt, 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 ’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.

@patterfloof@meow.social
profile directory of tech.lgbt Mastodon instance
Users can opt-in to the profile directory to be easier to find

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.

@icewolf@meow.social

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 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.

Examples of Mastodon content warnings
Content Warnings can be included to hide toot content. Images can also be marked as sensitive.

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 @david@tech.lgbt

Also, I’ve rebooted my weekly newsletter which focuses on things that I’ve found interesting around the web. Subscribe and I promise I’ll only spam you in the best way!

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Terminology

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.

Resources

I’ve been re-reading some articles about Mastodon from early 2017, right around the time that it started to get some mainstream notice. I signed up for an account on mastodon.social around that time and launched tech.lgbt less than two months later in June 2017. I’ve been a supporter of the community, and have grown to enjoy my time there far more than my time on Twitter, despite having a longer history with the larger platform.

I’ve specifically been reading articles along the lines of “this platform is a fad and here’s why”, which to be fair could still come to pass. I doubt that will happen anytime soon with an additional two years of hindsight and growing communities.

A lot of these takes are reactionary in a way that suggests misunderstanding on part of the writers, or an attempt to garner more clicks for those stories. I can see both as understandable, based on the fallacies presented and the viewpoints that they represent.

Some Common Misconceptions About Mastodon

I’d like to walk through some of the common misconceptions around Mastodon, which generally would apply to a lot of IndieWeb services if they had the same level of notoriety and name recognition.

It Isn’t “True” Federation

This argument is the one that immediately lets me know the intent of the writer who espouses it. The argument is that technically, since Mastodon instances (the different sites running Mastodon software) are allowed to block other sites or control who has access, they aren’t truly federating.

What is Federation?

First, a definition. Federation in this sense is a bit nebulous, as there are a few ideas of what it means. Generally, the idea is that a user can have an account on a site where all of their information lives. You can have accounts on multiple sites if you want to have separation of identity, but you don’t need to. You can then interact with people on other sites, as long as neither side is stopping the other side from communicating.

In my case, that site is https://tech.lgbt/@david and you can contact me from almost any other instance by using @david@tech.lgbt. This is similar to my Twitter handle of @DavidWolfpaw, but with the addition of the server name that I am hosted at. I can talk to my friend Chris by sending a message to @chris@mastodon.chriswiegman.com, which will notify him in the same way that he would get on Twitter. Both of us are on separate instances of Mastodon, but we can communicate freely between them thanks to federation.

What is True Federation?

When people talk about Mastodon not actually being federated because instances can be locked down, or block other instances, I’ve invariably found that they come from a place of free speech absolutism.

Let’s be clear: I am not a free speech absolutist. I say as much in the Code of Conduct for tech.lgbt, where I have some rules set for being allowed to play in my sandbox. This is not unreasonable, and I state as much when I include that myself and any moderators have the sole discretion of what we consider unacceptable speech in our spaces.

I’ve never had anyone in good faith argue to me that I am silencing oppressed minority groups. The argument has only been used toward me by individuals that believe that a right to free speech includes a right to a platform. You can say things that are hateful or derogatory to others, but not on the server that I manage and am footing the bill for.

There are people using Mastodon that I don’t agree with. People who claimed a cartoon frog as their mascot and believe that my blocking their activity on my server amounts to abridging their first amendment rights. Saying that Mastodon isn’t truly federated because I can block them (as I can do on Twitter) is complaining that you want to say things and you want to force other people to listen. This is less a misconception than an intentional misunderstanding and misrepresentation of community behavior, but one that I see a lot of.

Screenshot of Twitter thread about Mastodon instances blocking other instances.
A screenshot (since Twitter isn’t forever!) of this thread on instance blocking

You Cannot Secure Your Identity

Another common misconception is around identity in the fediverse (the nickname given to communities connected via oStatus and ActivityPub enabled software like Mastodon and others). I admit, it isn’t something that most people are used to thinking about, given that most of our exposure to social media over the past few decades has been through walled-gardens, siloed off from one another. There is only one person with my username on Twitter, and likewise there are usernames that I want that people signed up for accounts with nearly a decade ago and don’t use that I can’t have.

I use @david as my handle on my Mastodon instance, but there are surely people using @david on instances elsewhere. The inclusion of my instance name is what fully identifies me and separates me from the other Davids out there.

This is more visible than on other platforms, but is not a unique concern. Think of all of the people named John Smith on Facebook. They all get to use the name that they want as a display name and be found by it, but Facebook identifies each of them separately by a unique ID. Or think of email services, which use the same username@domain to identify recipients. There is a david@hotmail.com who is likely different from david@aol.com and david@gmail.com, none of whom are me. With the combination of username and domain name you can identify the person that you want to send a message to. This system is so ingrained into our usage of email that we don’t even consider it, instead calling the full username and domain combo an email address.

You Cannot Bring Your Followers

This can also be described as a lack of portability. Though notably this misconception is less about the portability from Mastodon, which allows you to easily move instances if you choose, and more about the lack of portability offered by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social networks. Their businesses are built upon a locked-in network effect, where you have to use them if you want to interact with others that use them.

Via the settings interface of Mastodon you can migrate your account to another instance. This means that there is a built in way for you to leave one server and move to a different server without loss for whatever reason that you choose.

True, you won’t be able to automatically get all of the people from other platforms to follow you to a new platform, but that’s a network-effect problem that isn’t unique to Mastodon or other federated services. It’s more telling that the issue really stems from lack of interoperability with older platforms than with a service that happily lets you move freely, and allows for multiple integrations like Twitter/Mastodon cross-posters.

There is Poor Discoverability

Related to the prior fallacy of portability, there is an issue with discoverability on Mastodon as compared to sites like Instagram and Twitter which are partly built on being able to search for content. How many people actually use those services in this manner outside of hashtags is up for debate, but it is one difference between them that could be seen as a shortcoming.

By default, Mastodon instances only allow searching via hashtags. This means that someone has to have explicitly opted in to making their content searchable, a key distinction. On Twitter I regularly see people use misspellings and self-censorship of toxic terms to avoid dog-piling that can come from people who cruise loaded terms to find people to harass. There was a time that I did the same, avoiding using the term gamergate directly in any of my tweets, out of the concern that I’d be inviting bad faith interaction.

You can still search for individual users, search for content under hashtags, and on some instances do general searches. But there’s no simple way to do a fediverse-wide search on specific terms, and that’s partly the point. Mastodon is not seen as the place to grow your following and build a brand. It’s still a place to find new friends and rebuild your own networks in a different environment.

One last note about hashtags: you can use them in your profile for discoverability, create and pin an post, which is fairly common, and you can also highlight specific hashtags on an instance as an admin, to let others get an idea of what it’s about.

Mastodon instance hashtags
Hashtags can show up as topics on the intro page to a Mastodon instance

It Costs Too Much

Finally, I’d like to discuss cost, one of the other misconceptions of the older articles that I’d read. As a general user, you can join any number of free instances. The costs are generally borne by the admins of the instance, sometimes helped out by donations, like Patreon accounts (here’s my plug!). There are some instances that are membership only, with or without some sort of dues. Finally, you can host your own instance, which can cost more or less depending on your needs including server performance and number of users.

The cost is not insignificant, but I’m also using Mastodon in a way that is meant to support multiple users. There is a built-in method to limit users of your instance, or even make it a single user instance, so that all activity on it is created and managed by one person. That could run well on the most budget level of VPS. I can imagine that something like mastodon.social can run into thousands of dollars for hosting, but that is a drop in the bucket of hosting costs that are hidden from users by larger social networks.

In my case, I am running https://tech.lgbt on a $15/month Digital Ocean droplet, after migrating recently from Linode. I also pay them for their cloud backup solution at $2/month as a cheap just-in-case extra peace of mind. I pay around $39/year for the domain, which is due to the unique TLD that I’ve chosen for it. On top of these costs I pay for AWS media storage to make it serve faster and cheaper, which I estimate at under $5/month. In total, this brings running the instance to around $25/month, which is honestly around $1/month/user for how regularly active some people are.

Final Thoughts

A word that I’ve been using a lot recently around various people and modes of discourse is disingenuous. Much of the criticism around Mastodon and other federated platforms has been missing the point or simply incorrect. It’s not that there is no true criticism, which should exist for every platform and mode of thinking. It’s that much of it appears to be coming from a disingenuous place, from those looking to further an ideology of division over one of community founded upon mutual respect.

There are flaws in Mastodon, as in every platform and set of communities. But the above misconceptions are not those flaws, and are misunderstandings that I hope to clear up.

If you have any questions about these services, I can try to help answer them, or at least direct you toward resources that may better be able to help. I’m happy to discuss here, or via your own Mastodon account directed toward https://tech.lgbt/@david. See you in the fediverse!

Next week I’ll give a primer on Mastodon and how to get started with it as a user. Subscribe to get notified when this and other new articles are published.

Edit: That followup is now live!

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I haven’t been doing a good job of recapping most of the WordCamps that I’ve been to. I did a recap of WordCamp Atlanta back in May, but since then I’ve been to Jacksonville and Montclair. I also have a few coming up, including Denver this weekend. My goal is to better do write-ups of things that I’ve learned at these events. Hopefully I can pass along some useful information to you, or at least remember the events better for future me.

With the number of WordCamps that I’ve gone to this year and the number still coming up, I’ve opted to make trips a bit shorter to better fit my schedule and budget. I’m immensely grateful to SiteGround for making it easier for me to attend WordCamps as an ambassador, not least because I am already a regular user of their hosting and services, and recommend them at our Meetups.

Travel

I flew into Boston on Friday and left Saturday evening after the full day of sessions. I did miss a few talks that I wanted to see on Sunday, which is even more disappointing considering the quality of the talks that I saw on Saturday. It was easily one of the best collections of talks I’ve attended at any event over the past few years.

WordCamp Boston 2019 venue

I started the morning off with a train ride from my hotel to Boston University, where the event was held. The transit that I used was pleasant and affordable, and it makes me wish that we had a more robust system in Orlando for public transit. While I know that I should use our bus system before complaining about it, the inconvenience is immense. I’m grateful that I don’t have to rely on it regularly. I have to make the decision to drive 15 minutes or take three buses over the course of 90 minutes (which leave only once per hour) to join my weekly blogging group, and that doesn’t include the mile of walking to get to and from those buses.

I arrived early with the intent on getting coffee and some pre-event work done. I was derailed by the coffee shop that I was going to opening an hour later than expected. I took the opportunity to take a walk through the neighborhood, sitting in a shaded park for a bit to just think and look at animals that we don’t get in Florida. Boston was going through a heat wave, which amounted to a pleasant autumn day in Florida.

Sessions

The first session that I attended was “The Future: Why the Open Web Matters”, delivered by Aaron Campbell. Aaron walked us through a bit of history of the web, some of the challenges that it faces, and what we can do about it. Considering that I was delivering a talk about IndieWeb later in the day, I knew I’d want to see what he had to say. After the talk I spent a bit of time chatting with him, where it became clear that even when a problem can be agreed upon, solutions aren’t quite so easy.

Aaron D. Campbell delivering his presentation "The Future: Why the Open Web Matters" at WordCamp Boston 2019
Aaron D. Campbell delivering his presentation “The Future: Why the Open Web Matters” at WordCamp Boston 2019

Following that talk, I went to see Kathy Zant deliver her presentation, “The Hacking Mindset: How Beating WordPress Hackers Taught Me to Overcome Obstacles & Innovate”. Kathy shared her experience getting started in security, some common mistakes that people make, and ways to fix them. She made a great point that WordPress is so large that you’re going to be regularly attacked just for using it on your site.

Kathy Zant delivering her presentation "The Hacking Mindset: How Beating WordPress Hackers Taught Me to Overcome Obstacles & Innovate" at WordCamp Boston 2019
Kathy Zant delivering her presentation “The Hacking Mindset: How Beating WordPress Hackers Taught Me to Overcome Obstacles & Innovate” at WordCamp Boston 2019

I also spent a bit of time at the Happiness Bar helping with website issues, as well as the hallway track of chatting with friends and sponsors. Some of my favorite conversations come from these moments where we have a chance to dig deeper than we do in online conversation. I do sometimes get deep into a conversation and realize that I’m missing a talk that I would otherwise have attended, but the memories and actionable advice that I get during these impromptu chats are just as important.

The final talk of the day stood out to me most. That was “The World-Wide Work”, delivered by Ethan Marcotte. He touched on some of the same topis that Aaron and I did, but focused even more about biases encoded into design, both intentional and unintentional. He similarly bemoaned the darkening of the web, and what he sees as a potential path forward. Ethan was unfortunately cut off near the end as he ran over time, but I would have loved to discuss the points that he brought up at length. Alas, I was unable to stick around for long or attend the trolley tour, as I flew out a few hours later.

Ethan Marcotte delivering his presentation "The World-Wide Work" at WordCamp Boston 2019
Ethan Marcotte delivering his presentation “The World-Wide Work” at WordCamp Boston 2019

My Presenation

Again, I’m thankful for the opportunity to attend so many events, meet new people, share ideas, and receive support for doing so from SiteGround. I try not to swoop into events just for my portions, and prefer to stay and interact for the full duration. It is nice to be able to spend the night in my own bed after giving a talk though.

My slides for my presentation, “WordPress and the IndieWeb: Why You Should Own Your Voice”, are available here: WordPress and the IndieWeb: Why You Should Own Your Voice. I welcome conversation about that here, via Mastodon, or on Twitter.

Let’s work together to make the web a more open, equitable place for everyone!