A n00b’s guide to Mastodon

With Twitter flailing, I spent a week trying to level up my experience on the major social network people are fleeing to. It has a learning curve, but that’s why you’ve got me to help.

A cyberpunk vision of the fediverse, digital art / Generated by DALL-E 2
From user @Ciaraioch@mastodon.ie
  • Our posts
  • Our followers
  • The people we are following
  • What we’ve reshared, bookmarked, liked, etc.
The Mastodon home page. Your feed is in the middle, and the links to Local, Federated, and Notifications content (among other things are at the right. Seems sort of Twitter-like, yes?
  • Your profile page
  • The feeds of people following you
  • Followers of your followers, via retweets
  • All of Twitter (visible for anyone searching for you or keywords)
  • Your profile page
  • The feeds of people following you
  • Followers of your followers, via boosts
  • The feed in the server you’ve joined
  • The Federated feed of people in other servers who are aware of you
  • First, look at your Local Timeline. Particularly if you’ve joined a niche community, you’re interested in the same thing those people care about. Follow them! One big advantage to that is, let’s say you eventually find the rules of a community too restrictive; when you port to a new server, you take those follows with you. You could do this in several servers before joining a general interest server and have a general chat Twitter type of experience over time.
  • Second, there are tools. My favorite one is Debirdify, which will search Twitter profiles of people you’re following to see if they’re on Mastodon.
  • While I’m here, a tip for those on Twitter: Make sure to post your Mastodon profile information in your Twitter bio, because that will help Debirdify work better since it’s crawling user profiles. You should do the whole thing (@username@instance) and not just your username. For example, my Twitter bio has @JeremyLittau@mastodon.social in the listing.
  • Third, an old school Twitter trick. Once you’ve got some good people you’re following, their profiles are good. Look at who they’re boosting. Go to their profiles and look at who they’re following. Lots of ideas there.
  • Fourth, look for lists. People on servers are routinely posting compiled lists of people to follow. Look for ones in topical areas you care about; people are posting links to them but they’re also available on web search. Here’s an example of a list of academics people are maintaining on GitHub. Some have a bulk follow tool using a .csv file (here’s an example of one for journalists on Mastodon).
  • Related to the last point, many of these lists also tell you how to add your name. You should do it if you want to be discovered.
  • DMs are not private. They aren’t private anywhere, really. Elon can read yours on Twitter. But you should know that the owner of the instance you join can read your DMs.
  • If a server dies, your account (and thus your data) dies with it. So pick a reliable instance, and if the owner is pleading for support you should help out if you love the instance you’re on. In the old days, we helped run digital communities. They were places that required our sweat equity. We’re bringin’ it back.
  • There are multiple ways to get banned from a server for breaking their rules. Some admins “ghost” your profile by blocking you from being able to see instance posts and blocking the instance from seeing yours, and the ghost doesn’t know this happened to them. Path of least resistance that doesn’t incentivize creating a new account. But you can also be kicked off an instance. It’s not 100% clear to me what happens to your data at that point, but I would assume your data dies just as when a server dies, because the server is the one hosting your data when you join it. Bottom line, when you join an instance you agree to the rules, so follow them.
  • Don’t mistake abuse controls for the false comfort that abuse doesn’t happen. Anyone can install Mastodon to a server, including bad people. Get to know how to block users and servers, but if you’re being trolled it’s also good to let the instance administrator know because they can defederate (block another instance) on behalf of your whole community.
  • There’s a content warning button you can press on your posts before submitting. You should take some time to learn your instance’s rules and observe the culture to see what should be labeled. Some of it is obvious stuff, but some of it isn’t. Like hiding Wordle results.
  • Related to the last bullet, lurking is probably a good idea at first. Get to know the culture before you speak. You’re learning how to interact in a new community. While instances have their own rules, there is something of a “common culture” I’ve seen that are some unspoken rules many instances abide by. Content warnings, frowning on tagging people with hashtags that can open doors to abuse, etc. The longtimers who’ve been on Mastodon for years are jumping in and trying to guide and teach. They might sound a little stressed, but they’re trying to preserve a culture by teaching newcomers.
  • Light mode, man. It makes the site so much more readable than the default black background. Go to Preferences>Appearances and change the Site Theme at the top of the page.
  • Some people like the default layout because it looks a lot more like Twitter on the PC browser. If you like a flatter design that puts more things in one window by letting you create a column experience for things like notifications (similar to how Tweetdeck works), go into your profile preferences and click on Appearance, check the box for “Enable advanced web interface” to try a different look.
  • In case you missed it above, you can absolutely switch instances. You are not locked in to the one you joined at signup. Here’s how.
  • Federation can be slow because some instances ping other instances less frequently. If you post, people on your server often see it way more quickly than people on others. It slows down conversation, and that’s not necessarily bad.
  • Related to the last one, practice patience. The servers are being run for free and by volunteers. The software is open-source. Not everything you want will be there. Guess what? Twitter is the same way. As the community grows, there will be new features. What I’m saying is that there are disadvantages to a more free experience that lets you own and control your data, so see the tradeoff with clear eyes. More here. But I’ve come to value the slow-roll approach. I feel less wired in, more in control of my mind.
  • Profile verification doesn’t cost $8/month, and in fact you own and control the whole process. All you need is access to a space you own and control, one that lets you have HTML edit access. A Wordpress site you own, a work profile page, whatever. There are two links at the bottom for how to do it, but this explainer for Wordpress would theoretically work with any site where you have HTML edit access.



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Jeremy Littau

Journalism prof • Multimedia • Sociology • Dad • Generation Catalano • #Mizzou • Sabermetrics Justice Warrior • I read retweets for the endorsements