still a work in progress

Scope

Because of, uh, reasons, many Twitter users are newly motivated to look around for alternatives. Mastodon is a Twitter alternative1 that has been quietly ticking along in the background for years now.

I know a fair bit about Mastodon, so I want to write up a brief explanation of what it is, and some important aspects to keep in mind if you’re thinking about trying it out.

Who are you to say any of this, Maya

Despite being a person of no prominence and therefore no profile, I used to use Twitter pretty heavily. In February 2021, I gave Twitter up for Lent, and haven’t gone back yet.

My Mastodon profile says that I signed up in October 2019. Before setting up a Mastodon instance, I had been running something else similar, so my use extends a little further back than that. As of writing, I have >700 followers and >11K posts2. I would guess these are high-ish3 percentile stats for Mastodon, even though both are pretty much nothing by Twitter standards.

I am writing this explicitly from my point of view. Specifically, I’m

  • used to normal contemporary social media. Sometimes you will talk to people who think we should all be doing all our interaction in plain text email mailing groups. Sometimes these people have interesting ideas, but their general attitudes are not calibrated to see the value in e.g. Tumblr aesthetic curatorial reblogging.
  • willing to credit the good and the bad in contemporary tech. I’m not trying to advance anyone into some futurist blockchain fantasy, and nor am I trying to drag anyone back to a romanticized past. I get a lot of value out of social media, but I also see the ways it harms me.
  • technical, but hopefully not too disconnected from normal people. I am a tech worker and understand what’s going on under the hood a bit better than many folks do – but I care a lot more about being able to keep up with e.g. The Locked Tomb fanartists than open source software advocates.

Concepts to know

The most complicated parts of Mastodon are what come from it being “federated”. That’s okay. You already use federated communications software all the time: email!

Terms

Most of these are better explained elsewhere. I will likely replace some of this with links to those better explanations.

Federation
With email, anneke@gmail.com can send an email to bjorn@gmail.com. The gmail.com bit signifies that that can all happen within the Gmail world. However, if Anneke needs to email the Acme Corp., she can send an email from anneke@gmail.com to support@acme.co. The computers that run the email for gmail.com know how to talk to the ones that run the email for acme.co. This is federation: stuff can happen locally, within one server (Anneke emailing Bjorn), or between federated servers (Anneke emailing Acme).
ActivityPub
The specced-out protocol underlying what we're here to talk about. The email equivalents would be like POP3, IMAP, or SMTP – things a normal email user doesn't have to think about much unless you're messing with settings. Those are just the set of rules that let gmail.com and acme.co understand each other.
Fediverse
The world of compatible federating software, mostly what's using ActivityPub under the hood4.
Mastodon
The biggest app in the Fediverse, let's say. Think "Twitter, but federated" to get started, but remember that some of the differences from Twitter are intentional. There are alternatives to Mastodon out there too, but most folks who are doing the Twitter-alternative lifestyle are at least consuming a lot of stuff from the network of Mastodon instances, so it's okay to just think Mastodon for now.
Boosts
Retweets. You will see people referring to "RT". Sometimes this means that they're automating stuff over from Twitter. Sometimes it means that they're leaning into "retoot" as a joke.

Mastodon’s single most important feature

A couple years back, around the release of version 3.0.0, Mastodon gained a feature that I think is crucial to know about early in your use – even if you never end up using it. That feature is the ability to move accounts.

Let’s imagine that you sign up for an instance with loose moderation standards. After a while, you realize it would be nice to be able to check your feed without untagged/unblurred NSFW content showing up – but your instance doesn’t require that people tag it. Other instances do have that requirement. If your instance is running an even slightly up-to-date version of Mastodon, and an instance you’d want to move to is also running an even slightly up-to-date version, you can move your account.

This will automatically move:

  • your followers. Their servers will pick up a notification to point at your new account, and they will have their follow of you updated to your new account without having to do anything.

You will have to take further action to move:

  • your follows. You can export your follows from the old account and import them to the new one in one batch, but if you follow any private accounts that had to give you permission, they have to approve the new account. Still, this is pretty normal, so if you make sure your profile picture and display name are the same on the new account, this doesn’t tend to cause problems.
  • your block/mute settings. Again, there’s export/import buttons, so it’s not a huge deal, but you have to do it yourself outside of the “move”.

You cannot move:

  • your old posts. Even manually, you can download them, but not upload them to your new account. I hope they change this someday, but I also understand why they might not want to build it.

This feature is important because it means that the stakes of your account don’t have to be that high. Picked a stupid username? Your instance moderator turns out to be a jerk? If it sucks… Hit da bricks!!! All the stuff about picking an instance can be confusing, but it is fixable by moving.

It’s better than email, where getting a new address means you have to print out new business cards, hope everyone gets your notification email to update your contact, etc. etc.

What to expect

Mastodon isn’t Twitter

Look, it’s not Twitter. Yes, a good chunk of the concepts and interface are cloned – the constraints are similar – the appeal is similar – but if you were going to try to understand Twitter, you would have to start with its raison d’etre: to sell ads. Everything then comes back again and again to providing monetizable users with the kind of experience that will keep them on the site, keep them Engaging, and keep their eyeballs marketable.

So all the features, all the effort, all the time has to be directed towards those goals. And Mastodon… just isn’t that. The core development has funding, but the actual network depends on a bunch of weirdo volunteer admins, who are typically motivated by the needs and desires of their little communities.

Mastodon probably isn’t ever going to grab onto users like Twitter; its survival doesn’t depend on providing user eyeballs to ads, so it doesn’t have to aim for addictive product design.

Remember – Twitter hasn’t been on its current trajectory for long. So Mastodon has existed outside Twitter, for users choosing something different even while the good ol’ hellsite was still… ticking along.

In this context, it’s not surprising that Mastodon is different, because everything has been pushing it to be more different from Twitter – its incentives are all different, and its users have intentionally been there for something else.

Yes, there have been people for whom that something else is “I want to be able to use all the slurs I can think of” or “I would like to lightly steam myself in a bath of transphobia” or, uh, even worse.

But there are also some pretty wholesome motivations people have too. I think it’s worth trying to understand what people have thought has been good about Mastodon even before it stepped up to be the Twitter lifeboat. Probably the best thing on that is runyourown.social. It was last updated before the move feature was added, and may have other such outdated details I’m not remembering – but you will Get The Vibe. There are other good reasons, but Darius lays out some of the ones closest to my heart.

Is anyone out there?

It may seem like everything is super dead. This is because you aren’t following enough people. Twitter fills in gaps with other content – liked posts, general trends – but Mastodon will only give you what you ask for. Make sure you are asking for the amount you want.

Even when you start having enough to read, when you post something yourself, you may see far, far lower engagement. Do not let this make you anxious. This is the nature of the platform. It doesn’t reflect on you. While Twitter would circulate your content in a targeted way, the people who see it on Mastodon are… well, whoever of your followers happened to be checking their timeline at that precise moment.

I’ve found over time that the ratio of friendly or thoughtful conversation to drive-by engagement has been much higher for me on Mastodon. However, that may just reflect the little niche I’ve settled into.

Bad times for big names

If you have a large following, beware that Mastodon’s design has heavily prioritized the features useful to average nobodies like me rather than the features that make managing a large following tractable. There also may be Dunbar’s-number-like factors at play that aren’t about the missing technical pieces. I would cheerfully recommend Mastodon to most folks if it meets your accessibility needs – but maybe not to people with big profiles? This is tentative.

Advice

Good practices for newbies

Don’t start with an app.

All the apps are a bit incomplete, feature-wise – and if things don’t work, they won’t always give the most informative error messages. The mobile web interface works well5 and is, importantly, complete.

Choose a generickish instance to start, and read its rules.

Later on, as you follow people whom you’re interested in, you’ll notice patterns in which instances they’re from. Then you can go and see if you can move to those instances. (Don’t miss thinking about regional options, like this if you’re Seattle-based.) The most important part is knowing what the rules are. They likely won’t be that complicated or that big of a deal, but you want to know them up front.

Write your profile and a couple of posts before following people.

You don’t need to put up a picture of yourself, but some kind of picture – and fill out the profile info you’d want to see. This is because when someone sees a notification that you have followed them, they will open your profile. If they see indication that you’re a new user who is some kind of real person, they are much more likely to follow you back (or engage with you otherwise) than if they see blank space. This is more important on Mastodon than on Twitter because people aren’t getting little recommendations of accounts to follow all the time – so those interaction points matter.

Follow liberally, unfollow liberally.

Because Mastodon isn’t recommending people and content in the way that Twitter does, you will have to follow people much more liberally than you do on Twitter to get things started. Because it isn’t using anything beyond sort-by-time to order your timeline, you will want to mute or unfollow people as soon as you recognize that their posts are too frequent or otherwise uninteresting to you. This is all much less symbolic than on Twitter, because everyone is doing their own timeline maintenance and knows how it goes.

Remote follows can be confusing; click through to see what’s really there.

h/t Per Axbom

When you navigate to someone’s profile, if their account is based on a different instance than yours, you may not see much. You will need to go to their profile on their instance to see what’s there. There are technical reasons this is like this, but everyone agrees that it is annoying.

Try turning off replies and boosts and seeing what settings you like.

In your main timeline, you have options as to whether to see boosted (equivalent to retweeted) posts and reply posts. Spend a day with different configurations of these settings. I find that turning off replies is helpful to not feel like I’m on the outside of arbitrary friend circles, but flipping boosts on every now and again is useful to find new people to follow. Some find that turning boosts off reduces meme content that they’re not interested in. I generally leave boosts off. Not because I don’t like memes6, but because it cuts out a certain amount of “takes”, leaving my TL a much more conversational place. However, this is much less like Twitter, so if you’re new, you may want them on. This is a good experiment to do as soon as you’ve followed enough people that you’re not reading 100% of what they post.

The mute features are excellent. Use them.

You will have a much better time if you keyword-zap posts out of existence when you start to recognize patterns getting you riled up. This isn’t intellectual dishonesty, it’s just providing yourself with some of the filtered user experience Twitter was doing behind the scenes.

For example, in my corner of Mastodon, even the non-Europeans get real into Eurovision. The timeline can be scarcely uninterrupted Eurovision for days. If you’re not into Eurovision, you… would want to check out those keyword muting features.

Use the content warnings that the people you follow are using.

These are valuable through being consistent enough for people to know what to expect, so even though I find “ph–” unreadable, I CW my complaints of illness (physical health, negative) because that’s what my corner of Mastodon tends to do. It’s fine to use a different/clearer wording for the same kind of content people CW. Once you’ve been around for longer, you can figure out what you do and want to CW on your own terms, but when you’re getting started, try matching what others do.

Remember DMs aren’t private.

This is similar to Twitter or most other messengers; if someone sends you harassing DMs, you can report that to moderators, and they can see what was said. However, it means that you shouldn’t put anything in DMs that you wouldn’t be comfortable with server admins seeing (including the admin of the server of the person you’re DMing). If this seems complicated, just… don’t put anything private in DMs.

Fav more than you’re used to from Twitter.

On Twitter, liking a Tweet may shove it into your follower’s feeds. It increases its “engagement” such that it will show up for more people. It also increases counters that are used for social signaling.

None of that is true on Mastodon. A fave sends a little notification to the original poster, and everything is broadly so much lower-engagement that this is a good thing. It is like smiling briefly on making eye contact.

Ignore 80% of all meta.

Some features of Mastodon’s design are aimed at maintaining a less combative environment than Twitter, but all of the meta / instance moderation discussion gets extremely heated. If you’re not a mod or an admin, you want to skip four-fifths of it, maintaining awareness of the remaining fifth just so you know if your instance really has been taken over by Nazis or whatnot.

Once you settle into an instance, consider kicking the admin a couple of bucks.

This is especially true if you post video. The most expensive cost of a typical instance is the donated time of the admin and moderators (so also be nice to them!)7. There are also costs associated with the actual computers and network the admin sets it up to run on. These latter costs are way, way, way higher for video than for other stuff. A good number of instances have Patreons or OpenCollectives where they’ll typically break down the instance finances, so you can get a sense of what the costs are like.

Give it some time before you start complaining about how things ought to be different.

There are a lot of things that the long-time users hate just as much as you do, and there will be time for the camaraderie of kvetching later once you’ve gotten warmed up to the thing. However, there are also aspects you may not like that Are That Way For Good Reasons8. Mastodon may feel to you like something brand new, but it has been used for years by a good chunk of people as their main driver. If you come in and center yourself and your own preferences over trying to understand how people have been using the site, you’re going to come off as an asshole.

Why is everything so XYZ?

You will read a lot of claims, even from Mastodon users, that “Mastodon is like XYZ”. You may get that impression yourself.

Well, everything probably isn’t.

Mastodon does not give you a top-down view of anything. While Twitter is famous for having a main character of the day, very little spreads that virally on Mastodon. Please always remember that your view of the network is equivalent to picking five random people in a random grocery store and aggregating all of their cousins – that can’t tell you much about the country that store is in. Whatever you’re seeing is only a slice of the corner of the network you attached yourself to. This is both liberating and exhausting; you can change your experience by changing the kinds of people you follow, but you also… have to do work to do that, since there’s no recommendation algorithm helping.

Things that, for better and worse, are not universals on Mastodon:

  • using content warnings for any given thing9
  • using content warnings at all
  • adding alt text or not adding alt text10 to images
  • relying on unpaid labor11
  • talking a bunch about open-source software and nerd shit generally
  • posting hentai
  • uwuposting
  • using hashtags
  • norms around getting in arguments with strangers
  • norms around how much is reasonable to post without being considered spammy
  • pretty much any norms, actually

I think it’s worth keeping this diversity in mind, because you can run into people who have different expectations of etiquette who will “explain” to you, as a newbie, that things work in such-and-such a way. This may be true in the speaker’s view of the network! And if they’re speaking to you, it’s probably your chunk of the network too – so you should probably respect those local norms… but also, don’t believe they’re universal to the fediverse. (Fediversal?)

If what you want is people posting pictures of their gardens, you can find that. If what you want is fandom nonsense, you can find that. If what you want is internecine politics thunderdome-style “debate”, you can definitely find that. However, for absolutely anything you want to find, you will have to go look, and it will take more effort than the equivalent on Twitter.

Partially just so you can see I’m not making this up. 😉


  1. Technically one could say the generic “microblogging” rather than Twitter, but many of Mastodon’s design choices are specifically meant to make it appealing/comprehensible to people used to Twitter specifically. 

  2. Generally, I believe strongly in calling them “toots” rather than “posts” because I want the non-corporate web to have a sense of humor, but I’m trying to keep this understandable for people less used to the lingo. 

  3. I interact with people and get nice back-and-forth doing that, but I’m not saying 700 followers makes you a Luminary of Mastodon. 

  4. Sometimes people include software that federates but not using ActivityPub in their definition here – notably a messenger software, Matrix – but that can get even more confusing so I won’t. 

  5. The exception would be some absolutely ghastly layout decisions made in the Mastodon 4.0 visual refresh. I am working on bits of CSS to help fix this. 

  6. Incomprehensible surrealist meme content makes up about 2% of my grey matter. 

  7. It does feel weird to acknowledge, but the skills it takes to set up and maintain a Mastodon instance technically are highly in-demand among employers – so the replacement cost, if you were going to hire someone to do it individually rather than use a service, would be pretty huge. That doesn’t mean you should grovel before your techie admin! Just remember that this is what all those Twitter ads were paying for for you. 

  8. Matt Blaze thinks I am wrong to give you this advice! I stand by it. It’s not that you shouldn’t bring up your confusion! It’s that there are a whole heap of things you may find odd – missing features or weird choices. Some of them might be “no one has gotten around to fixing this”. Some of them are “technically necessary”. Some of them are “ideologically necessary”. Some of them are “objectively rad ideas not included because the main developer of the software doesn’t like them”. Some of them are “XYZ feature very intentionally omitted to avoid the effect XYZ feature has had in corporate social media”. You will be better situated to participate in these discussions – to understand your community’s values, to contextualize things in your own use – once you’re not a newbie. 

  9. I read, for example, someone complaining about how “Mastodon wants people to CW mentions of Twitter with ‘birdsite’” and I can promise you, I can swear it on my life, that this is not an attribute of “Mastodon” generally. You are only ever in a corner of a corner, never surveying the crowd from the middle of a room. 

  10. Alt text is used to describe images as for people using screen readers. Some sight-impaired users have said that Mastodon users do add these much more reliably than Twitter users, which is great! But also, I can think of at least one major Mastodon instance where the norm is, somehow, not to describe images – so the point that these norms are local rather than universal remains. (Write alt text please.) 

  11. I don’t think there are instances that have gotten to the point where they’re compensating admins/mods at true market rate, but there are a hefty chunk of meaningfully user-supported instances.