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.
From “The Axe Forgets” — S1E5 of Andor on Disney+:
(Old school Rebel device clicking )
Andor: That’s an old one.
Nemic: Old and true. And sturdy. One of the best navigational tools ever built. Can’t be jammed or intercepted. Something breaks, you can fix it yourself.
Andor: Hard to learn.
Nemic: Yes, but once you’ve mastered it, you’re free. We’ve grown reliant on Imperial tech, and we’ve made ourselves vulnerable. There’s a growing list of things we’ve known and forgotten, things they’ve pushed us to forget.
Star Wars’ Andor is an excellent show, and I’ve been thinking about the scene quoted above the past week as Twitter has become a less-stable place. In that episode, Cassian Andor is speaking with Nemic, a true believer in the rebellion against the Empire. They were training for a raid on an Imperial base and Nemic was working on a computer navigator that would help their ship handle the escape. The navigator was decidedly Old Tech, like old cars from the ’50s and ’60s that were less complicated and easy to fix. Sure, new cars have more bells and whistles and do fancier things, but Nemic’s point was there is value to understanding the tech tool you rely on so much. When you know how to build and tinker with the tools you need, you don’t depend on someone to fix it when it breaks. You are free to use it as you like, and free to not take the easier path of an alternate tool where your use is constrained by what you’re told
In essence, it’s a simple idea. There’s a tradeoff when we outsource building and management of critical tools to others. The tools get more complicated, harder to understand, and harder to solve when things go wrong. This is not to laud simplicity per se — old cars are fixable, but those fancy computers on modern models help us guzzle less gas and keep people more safe! Rather, the model is there to help us see the trade so we can choose clearly. To know when we’ve indulged convenience too much and swung too far in one direction between freedom and control.
The purpose of this newsletter issue is to explain Mastodon, one of the emerging alternatives to Twitter. It’s had a hell of a week, nearly doubling its daily active users in the wake of the the Twitter’s sale to Elon (it had a bit over 1 million active monthly users as of the morning of Nov. 7). But Mastodon has a difficult learning curve and does not “look like” the Twitter interface we’ve gotten comfortable with over the years, and in a time when familiarity and use of a digital product can be one in the same, that matters a lot in making adoption less difficult. People are confused by what Mastodon is and by some of the explanations …
… and so I wanted to write an explainer from the point of view of someone new to Mastodon, to help demystify it a bit and encourage you to check it out if you’re a heavy Twitter user looking for possible exits.
Before I do that, though, I want to talk about how we got here.
Longtime readers of this newsletter know I spend a good amount of time writing about the intersection of communication technology and power. Self-publishing created a moment at the turn of the century that shifted power more toward a former audience made up of new creators, but the social network boom era created technologies that asked us to give up those gains in exchange for convenience.
We think of social media platforms as places where we can post, watch, view and read. But the fundamental architecture is built around collection and deployment of basic user data. Data, in this case, consists of:
- Our posts
- Our followers
- The people we are following
- What we’ve reshared, bookmarked, liked, etc.
Think of of your favorite social app and they pretty much are built around executing functions off these facets of data. Our content, our connections, and the things we enjoyed most become drivers of our experience and that of people around us. The genius model of social platforms is to take the power we reacquired from self-publishing and provide a common platform for us and everyone else to do it, then map it across social connections so that it could spread more easily. But in the background, what this really did was create a common set of relationships that we come to rely on to be heard. In other words, distribution. There’s a difference between publishing and being heard.
Being heard requires social relationships. The old blogosphere used blogrolls, links, and recommendations to spread posts. Social platforms mapped our networks and built the recommendation system, then locked us inside it. Anything where we have to do it ourselves, to tinker with it and fix it, starts to feel like Nemic’s old tech.
I want you to see something critical here: modern social platforms built that engine for us, but most critically it owns the map of those relationships and can make it easy or difficult to remap them elsewhere. As a platform acquires more users — and make no mistake, that is the only path that makes sense for their growth — the system locks you in because leaving an app means leaving behind all those people you’ve linked up with. If you are on a social app to spread your work or connect with people in areas you care about, the platforms own critical pathways to accomplishing your purpose.
If you look at some of the concern over Twitter since the sale was announced earlier this year, a lot of it revolves around the idea that leaving comes at the cost for all the time we spent building connections. It’s the sunk cost fallacy at work, wherein we judge the value of future choices in part based on past investment even if the returns are diminishing and the tradeoffs are ever more tilted against the benefits. It can be hard to leave behind something you’ve spent years building.
A real, sustainable reimaginging of a Twitter or Facebook, then, needs to not look at follower counts but rather the underlying architecture that starts with data capture and control. What if we could decouple the platform from the data ownership? What if you exist as a person in an online space, but neither you nor your data are owned by a single platform but rather free to migrate to spaces you find more useful, or welcoming, or interesting?
That is the logic of the fediverse, which redesigns social platforms around user control instead of platform control. Mastodon is a fediverse project. BlueSky, which is coming sometime soon, is another one. Instead of the social network being a platform that hosts everything from content to user data, the fediverse uses software that acts as a way to organize a community and create connections between communities without controlling any of it.
Like a lot of newly designed things, a Twitter alternative is going to feel less refined. The comfort Nemic spoke of in the lead quote is very real. We get used to a place, get comfortable. An alternative comes along and doesn’t feel right, and so we stay in the old thing we know. Sunk cost. But at some point we look around and see a place trending downward and have to make a choice about whether to stay.
I’m staying on Twitter for now, as I’ve said, but I’m building a presence in Mastodon too just in case. But as I’ve looked around for what I’d do if I had to leave Twitter, I’ve centered on the fediverse as the place where I’d invest my time. I can’t migrate to more of the same. I spent a long time cultivating the wonderful community I know on Twitter, but Twitter owns that and it’s made me hesitant to leave that behind. If I have to rebuild, I want to own my data and in turn my experience.
I’ve been diving in hard on Mastodon for about 10 days. Because of the learning curve, I wanted to share what I’ve learned so that perhaps it’s easier on the next person. This is not an all-encompassing explainer — that’s why I’ve added links to other sources below that will explain some of this in more and perhaps better detail — but rather a type of FAQ through the eyes of a newbie, detailing answers to questions a newbie might ask when they’re just getting started. Basically enough to get you going so you can learn as you go.
I’ve read about Mastodon. It sounds complicated. Can you describe it simply?
Mastodon is not a social network, but it gives us the means to create one that we own and manage without a common server controlling everything. Mastodon is software, not a website.
Rather than everything being on a central platform, Mastodon is open-source software installed on tens of thousands of servers all over the world that enables someone to create a community. Those servers become like a town square that hosts what you post and share, and you join one based on your interests, needs, and the rules governing them. But there are also connections between those town squares all over the globe. How much you venture out is up to you, but Mastodon owns none of it. It just provides the building materials to make the town and a way of making introductions between communities.
Mastodon enables users to create a posting mechanism (your profile) but doesn’t own or host your content. It allows users to join communities (known as “instances”) but doesn’t own those communities. Finally, it sets up the means to build roads between communities so that you can see content outside your town square rather than be isolated (known as “federation”), but it doesn’t own the roads. All the functions of Twitter without central control. Mastodon’s role is making introductions by creating the process for instances to connect by handshake.
“Fediverse” sounds daunting, but you already use one. It’s called email. Fediverses are sprawling networks of servers running the same software protocols that let them communicate in a common language.
What problem does Mastodon aim to solve?
Twitter has always had subcultures. Think of #academicchatter or #BlackTwitter. But these subcultures had fluid boundaries and no control over membership because all of these subcultures were hosted by a single platform. That means Twitter’s rules and moderation are everything, because all these communities are permeable while being on a centralized platform. It also gives communities no control over where they exist, binding them to a platform that might become abusive over time but without any real options to port itself elsewhere.
What if instead each of these subcultures could have their own space to set rules, control membership and ban abusers while also not cutting themselves off from other subcultures? By returning control to community owners instead of centralizing control, that’s what Mastodon does. These niche communities become formal communities rather than hashtags anyone can join by using, communities with known membership that control who can join, rules for content, and dealing with abusers on their own terms. It gives them the power to decide to affiliate with other communities, or not. It takes the power away from the central controller and gives control to the people most invested in that space.
Who runs instances/servers?
First off, in this post I am using “instances,” “servers,” and “communities” here interchangeably. Sometimes I like one word more to help you visualize what I’m talking about, but they are the same thing.
Anyhow, instances are run by individuals, mostly. There are some organizations running them, but generally it’s people volunteering their time and money. They installed Mastodon on their private web space much like people install Wordpress on their websites. These people set the rules and run the community, but they don’t decide whether you get to be on Mastodon. They only decide whether you can exist in their particular slice of community.
It’s a very good idea to the read the rules before joining. From Fedi.Tips:
If you go to a server’s website and click the “Learn more” link, you will be taken to that server’s info page which includes the server’s rules. It’s worth reading these before joining a server. They’re usually relatively short and written in clear plain language, so it’s not a big task.
You’ll want to know the rules before joining, because getting completely banned likely means losing your data forever (there are other softer ways to get banned without data loss, as covered below). But rules are rules. If you don’t like them, find an instance whose rules you can abide.
OK so these individuals running instances seem pretty powerful! How are they different from Elon?
Well, that’s the thing. The individual owns the server, but you own your posts and data. Individuals can set their rules how they like, being as permissive or restrictive as possible. They can be a total tyrant, absolutely. But with so many servers available, because you own your own data (posts, followers, people you’re following) you can migrate to a new one whose rules you like. Elon says “this is Twitter, deal with it” but Mastodon allows you to find an experience that works more with what you want.
Servers set their own rules. That sounds … interesting
Yeah, there are good communities and bad ones. There are servers devoted to some pretty hateful and extreme stuff. But there also are niche communities around tons of different interests. If you’re old like me, it feels like USENET. If you’re slightly younger, it feels like AOL chatrooms or bulletin boards.
But if there are Nazis, how is that different than Twitter?
Servers can decide to stay isolated if they want (like a closed online message board), but they can also use those roads to connect to others (known as “federation”). Servers also can also cut off access to particular users, or even entire servers that are toxic, a key way to isolate abusers. Individuals have the power to block people or servers, but so can servers themselves. What this setup does is allow servers to create a better social network architecture.
OK, so how do I join Mastodon?
You create an account that looks like your Twitter feed. Think of it as a blog. Hey, did you know that in the early days of media studies, we referred to Twitter as a “microblogging service?” Everything old is new.
Once you’ve created an account, you’ll need to join an instance (aka “server”). This makes you a part of a community, so that when you post the posts go out to that community as well as on your profile page. That’s why I think online message boards are a nice reference point for Mastodon.
But just as with Twitter, you also can follow people not on your server, and they can do likewise. This is federation in action, those roads that allow content to travel between communities.
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?
When you join, you’ll have access to a Local Timeline that is all the posts in the community you joined. There’s also a Federated Timeline, which is posts from all the different servers your community is aware of. How does it become aware of them? Every time someone in an instance follows someone on a different server, your community becomes aware of them. So the Federated Timeline is built by community members, via their interests. That this has to happen is sort of an example of how Mastodon is designed. The software is all over the Web, but those servers don’t talk to one another unless someone tries to shake hands across servers. It’s decentralization, something I wrote about last month, in action.
So how does Mastodon function differently than Twitter?
On Twitter, when you post it gets posted to:
- 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)
On Mastodon, when you post it gets posted to:
- 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
So you see the difference? There is no all-encompassing Mastodon. Your posts’ reach is limited to your community and followers and their followers. The key difference is you’re not going to show up in search because you’re not on a single platform. Now, for some this might be a deal-breaker. They rely on Twitter for exposure, and the wider the opportunity for reach the better. This is the tradeoff between quality and quantity.
“Tweets” are “toots” on Mastodon. I will not be using this term because I’m a self-respecting man.
The community choice at signup seems pretty daunting. How do I choose?
I like the Instances Wizard tool as a first crack at it. Most of us are choosing the suggested mastodon.social instance first to get our feet wet. As you find other people to follow across servers, you’ll learn about other ones. Remember, you can switch to a new server any time because you own your own data (link below on how to do that).
One big thing to consider is that, again, every server has rules and you have no say in them (unless the admin chooses to involve the community in the rulemaking). Some servers might be ok with general chatter, but a niche server might want you to stay on topic. If you’re one of those types that has specific interests but likes to talk about anything on your mind, be aware of the rules. When you look to join a server, the community rules should be posted from that page. You definitely should read them and keep them in mind as you post.
Finding followers seems pretty hard
Before I get there, allow me to gently suggest you build slowly and thoughtfully. There’s always a mad rush to populate your timeline, but that often comes with later regrets. Go slow. Anyhow …
- 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.
What other critical things have you learned the past week that aren’t hella obvious to a n00b?
- 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.
Those are kind of serious lessons. Any lighter-hearted tips?
- 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.
Do I need to join Mastodon? I’m kind of stuck in my ways.
Nope! You can certainly wait to see what Twitter ends up being. I am keeping a foot in both camps. This is a time to play around with the possibility of a new space and build community before the one you like gets wrecked.
So what’s your best pitch on why I should join?
One thing I’ll say is the past week has been illuminating how much, as Nemic said, that I came to rely on Twitter as a singular source to control my experience. Most of my process was automated. I was less intentional in building community. I stopped using hashtags because #some #peoples #use #of #them #was #beyond #parody. #fact
When we aren’t actively building and designing our experience, someone does it for us. That becomes the window by which we see the world, and also puts some constraints on what we think is or should be possible on a platform. Ten days on Mastodon has taught me we could have and should have been demanding much more.
My past week on Mastodon has felt very much like my early days on Twitter in 2007–08. I’m learning what the network is, what the norms are, how to interact, and how to find people. I’m using hashtags to find communities. A lot of the chatter on there right now is “how to use Mastodon” chatter, which reminds me of the old days on Twitter when a lot of the talk was tips and tricks before it gave way to everyday conversation.
There’s another level Mastodon needs to get to. I remember Clay Shirky hosting a session at SXSW over 10 years ago and saying something that has always stuck with me about new technology. You’ll know a new technology has become ubiquitous, he said, when we stop talking about the wonders of the new tech and start doing things with it that cause their own stories. In the early days, Twitter was the main topic on Twitter (and thanks to Elon, that seems to be the case again, sadly). But once it grew and became ubiquitous, what people were doing with Twitter and what we could learn from one another became the experience, became the way we thought of the platform itself. A lot of the sadness about what’s happening on Twitter is about that, about those stories we’ve created and told ourselves. But anyhow, Mastodon is not there yet, and it’ll be a minute before it is. This is normal when you’re building something new, but already there are pockets of non Mastodon/Twitter conversation among the people I follow. It’s happening. The academic migration is already underway, and I suspect other niche communities are going to follow. Maybe not to Mastodon, but somewhere if Twitter continues on a less-safe path.
Finally, I have come to value the slowness that is a feature/bug of Mastodon and realized what it’s like to detox from a platform built to feed me new things constantly via an algorithm. With Mastodon you get the most recent posts first, and because of that it appears things are slower than they are. Corporate platforms are in the business of keeping you engaged and coming back, so they use algorithms to serve up recent-ish things you missed so everything feels new. This is another example of what I mean by the comfort of what’s known. I forgot what it was like to not feel like I needed to check constantly about what’s new.
I want to know where you gathered a lot of this information. Gimme the links, man
Yup. Some of this I’ve learned by hacking my way through it, but I’ve found a lot of helpful tips, explainers, stories and lists. All my links are belong to you.
- Get it from the source. The official guide from Mastodon. Pretty good explainer in plain language.
- Mastodon and the Fediverse: Beginners Start Here (from Fedi.Tips)
- Thousands Have Joined Mastodon Since Twitter Changed Hands. Its Founder Has a Vision for Democratizing Social Media (TIME magazine article)
- Hopes for a Post-Musk Net (Jeff Jarvis)
- Instances Wizard (helper for picking an instance to join when you sign up)
- Debirdify (tool that looks for Twitter friends with Mastodon presence)
- Academic Directory (GitHub)
- Getting verified on Mastodon (thread, make sure to click to see the self-replies)
- How to verify your Mastodon profile (specific instructions if you have your own Wordpress but also useful if you have HTML edit access on any other space you own)
- A great explainer of Mastodon’s architecture (thread by Casey Fiesler, who is also a good follow, be sure to click to see her self-replies)
- How to switch instances (Mastodon post)
If you’ve got tips, drop ’em in the comments. You can follow me on Mastodon here if you’d like to connect and ask questions.
Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Find him on Mastodonor, if you’re into that sort of thing, Twitter.