Since Elon Musk’s (forced) acquisition of Twitter, people have been looking around for alternatives. The site hasn’t really changed yet–moderation activity remains the same, for example–but obviously there are changes coming. I don’t think we’re likely to see an experience much different from ~2018 Twitter, but regardless, it’s just sensible to wonder what else is out there. The new place to hang out that everybody seems to be converging on is called Mastodon. It’s definitely the most Twittery of the ‘alt’ social networks, but a lot of people are having trouble getting started there, so I thought I’d write up a little primer. (I last wrote about Mastodon following Trump’s Twitter ban.)
So, what is Mastodon, and how do you join and use it? For the first question, let’s just say that it’s a Twitter clone. You post character-limited ‘toots’, you can ‘boost’ them into your own timeline, favorite them, reply to them, and so on. You follow people; you read their posts in a reverse-chronological feed. If this is all you’re interested in, well, good news! You don’t have to worry about any of the confusing parts of Mastodon, at all. Feel free to scroll down to “how to sign up”.
But it’s the confusing bits that make Mastodon especially interesting to me. Said confusion comes from the fundamental difference between Mastodon and Twitter: Mastodon is a federated social network made up of thousands of separate, interoperable instances. Basically, anybody can create an instance, and then they all talk to each other, creating several layers of user experience. Imagine Reddit, with its thousands of Subreddits, each with its own rules and moderators–except there is no central organization tying them all together. The instances all voluntarily communicate to create a network-of-networks known as the Fediverse. By default, you can follow and interact with anybody on any instance. (If any of this seems confusing, it’s because it was created by Software People… bear with me.)
You can have as many accounts as you want on different instances, but for simplicity’s sake let’s say you have one. You will have access to three feeds: home, local, and federated. Your home feed is like the Twitter chronological feed: you see toots by people you follow, and toots they boost. The local feed is toots by everybody on your instance (and toots they boost). The federated feed is annoying to describe, but you could do worse than quoting the official user guide: “The Federated Timeline shows all public posts from all users ‘known’ to your instance. This means the user is either on the same instance as you, or somebody on your instance follows that user.” The converse is of course also true: if somebody on another instance follows you, all your toots will show up in the federated timeline for all of that instance’s users.
Maybe an example will help. Imagine that there is a Balloon-Juice instance and a Breitbart instance. By default these would all be part of the Fediverse, their toots visible on federated timelines, and so on. Your home feed would be people you follow. Your local feed would be all Balloon-Juice users. Your federated feed would be your home feed, plus toots by anybody followed by any Balloon-Juice user (including you). So if somebody here follows somebody at Breitbart, maybe to keep tabs on them, they’d show up in the federated feed for every Balloon-Juice user. Now imagine that we decide we don’t want anything to do with the Breitbart instance. We could remove them from all Balloon-Juice users’ federated feeds and/or block their users from reading any of ours. Since Mastodon is a protocol, not a platform per se, the owner of an instance has a huge amount of power to tailor the user experience.
(For example, you could block all Iranians and Russians from signing up, as counter.social, one of the biggest Mastodon instances, did. In retaliation they found themselves mostly removed from the Fediverse. Another contentious Mastodon instance you may have heard of is Gab, which is largely unmoderated and therefore where the Nazis hang out. Your credentials from Gab won’t get you very far elsewhere.)
If you’ve made it this far, you might be curious how to sign up.
The first step is to pick a home instance. (Don’t spend too long worrying about picking the wrong one–you can always move your account.) Unless you’re interested in a specific topic, for instance writing or the Bay Area, I’d probably recommend mastodon.online for now. A lot of instances have had to go invite-only due to heavy signups this last week, but that one is still open, and remember, there’s little worry about picking wrong–your account will let you interact with most instances and users regardless. You should Google around for one that works for you.
Once you’ve created an account, it’s customary to post a personal #introduction. From there, I’d recommend searching for hashtags that interest you and big accounts you know from Twitter, a lot of whom have opened Mastodon accounts in the last week, or have been there for a while. Explore your local feed and the federated feed. Make friends, post things. It’s kind of like early Twitter, where finding people to follow was super annoying. It’s also kind of like early Twitter in that the servers don’t always cope with a heavy load… but it could be worse.
You can find me at @[email protected] (an instance that has unfortunately had to go invite-only).
Open thread, also too.