Mastodon is a social media platform that is similar to Twitter in that you can post short(ish) updates (called toots!) to a network where people can like and share your posts as well as interact with and follow you.
Mastodon is decentralized, so there is no one single website for it, just like there is no one central website for email. You can have an email on any server and talk to any other email account anywhere in the world, and the same is true for Mastodon accounts.
While many of the comparisons are to Twitter, Mastodon has already surpassed Twitter in many ways in terms of features. It’s building fast, and without those pesky CEOs who’d prefer to treat you as a commodity instead of a person.
So first you need to decide where you want an account.
Anyone with the tools and knowledge can run a Mastodon server (called “instances”) and run it however they like. You can open an instance just for yourself, your friends, or open it up to the general public. But for the casual user, you’ll want to find an existing instance that meets your needs.
The biggest challenge for Mastodon right now is finding an instance. There are thousands to choose from, but no real system to match users with instances they might like. It’s currently being worked on, but right now the portal for Mastodon (https://joinmastodon.org/) will simply link you to the general instance list at https://instances.mastodon.xyz/list.
I would suggest checking out Kitty.Town (that’s me!) as well as Toot.Cat, elekk.xyz, witches.town, mastodon.dotopia.dk, mastodon.art, a.weirder.earth, and awoo.space. All of these have different Codes of Conduct, etiquette, and themes, so you should be sure to read their rules before making a decision on where to join. There are plenty more as well, and you can make accounts on multiple instances, either to try them out or use them for different purposes.
Remember, anyone being able to start up an instance means just that. There are some bad instances out there run by less-than-great people. So be careful!
HOW’S IT WORK?
Mastodon’s interface functions a lot like TweetDeck.
When you first log in, you will see:
- Home: posts (toots!) from people you follow
- Notifications: shows you who boosts (when someone re-posts your post onto their home timeline – boosts are only shown in the home timeline), favourites (likes), and mentions (when someone @’s you. This also includes private posts/DMs)
- Getting Started: this links you to a number of useful things, including where you’ll see the rest of the posts on Mastodon
And in that menu you’ll have all of your settings, lists and:
- Local timeline: every public post by people on your instance
- Federated timeline: every public post from every Mastodon user your instance has interacted with throughout the entire network of Mastodon.
The federated timeline fills with more posts as more users from your instance interact with and follow users from other instances. Connecting with other instances is called “federating”, and the whole of the network is referred to as the “fediverse”.
If you are coming from Twitter and are not comfortable with the TweetDeck-esque nature of Mastodon, you can log into your instance on https://halcyon.social, which replicates Twitter’s layout.
Now, on to the toots. Yes, posts are called “toots”!
You can toot:
- publicly: anyone can see
- unlisted: bypasses posting to the public timelines
- followers-only: only your followers can see
- direct: is shared only with the people mentioned in the toot
There are also options to mark your posts as sensitive that will hide the content until clicked on. Content Warning (CW) will hide text and NSFW will hide images.
@’ing (mentioning) people is a little more like email than Twitter. For example, my instance is Kitty.Town. I’m @GinnyMcQueen@kitty.town, so if you are part of my instance, you only need to @GinnyMcQueen. But if you are on a different instance, you need the whole address (don’t worry, Mastodon will autocomplete your contacts for you). And my url is https://kitty.town/@GinnyMcQueen, which is how to access the whole profile outside of the Mastodon interface. This is helpful to view accounts you have not yet federated with.
Mastodon uses hashtags much like most other social media, and are searchable. In fact, hashtags are the only thing you can search for besides user names. However your search will only show the posts/users that your instance has federated with.
Your first defense against harassment will be the instance you choose. Your admin can silence or block any user or whole instance that is causing problems, but you need to be on an instance that has a decent Code of Conduct and a responsible admin.
When you report a user/toot, that report is only sent to your instance’s admin. So if the offending user is from another instance, it is the responsibility of your admin to decide how to respond and hunt down the other instance’s admin if need be. Again – choose your instance wisely.
But you also have the control to mute or block individual users. And you can now mute whole instances, just be careful about it, as there is currently no list to check like your blocked and muted user lists.
You can read more about how Mastodon works on the official FAQ.
WHY SHOULD I JOIN?
Mastodon is open source, which means no company is running the show trying to sell you anything or using your information to inform an army of bots used for nefarious purposes. There are no algorithms to tell you who or what you should see in your (chronological) feed. And there are hundreds of instances to choose from, including some inclusive, friendly spaces.
I’m someone who glances at the manual for maybe a few seconds before diving into things, and honestly I have fun figuring stuff out like this. I know some people are hesitant to try out new social media platforms, but I also remember 9 years ago when I asked people about Twitter they said it didn’t make sense to them and didn’t see the point.
What I can tell you is that the vibe is very counter to the social media you are used to. It’s different than the corporate, cynical cycle many people have been stuck in. Most of us aren’t on Mastodon to acquire followers like Pokémon (I’m of the thought that we should remove follower counts all together, but that’s a topic for another day) or have the hottest take about whatever nonsense is happening that day. We’re here to do more (and post cat photos), at least in the communities I roll with.