After what feels like a year of “will they won’t they”, Twitter is finally in the hands of America’s Least Mature Man—quite a competitive category. I set up my Mastodon ages ago just to see how it was, but now that I’m finally using it I’m really enjoying it.
This started as a Quick Start guide but ended up much more in depth than I thought. I sorted the headings from most to least important. Mastodon is “complicated”, but mostly in ways you don’t honestly need to worry about. Take your time and learn by doing and asking!
Feel free to share your tips and experiences with Mastodon in the comments below! Or say hi to @[email protected].
What The Hell Is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a decentralized Twitter alternative with individual servers operated by individuals or communities rather than a single corporation. The code is open-source and anyone can create an instance. As a result there is a consistent code base but not a “corporate mission” and the functionality is largely based on “pre-algorithm” Twitter.
The tl;dr is Mastodon is Twitter without a corporation or a glass-skinned manchild CEO. It costs nothing to try, so pop on a server and see if it’s for you. I’m writing a whole-ass article about it, but the best way is to learn by doing.
Most features Twitter has are on Mastodon, some slightly renamed. Lists, Direct Messages, Retweets (Boosts), Likes (Favorites), Hashtags, Notifications. Poke around and you’ll likely find more things familiar than foreign.
Pick a General Use Instance
Mastodon isn’t one site, it has Instances, sort of like Discord Servers. I’ll get into what that truly means in the later, more technical parts of the article. If you’re getting started, just load up the server list and find either a nice general server, or something specific to your interests. “Instance” and “Server” are interchangeable in Mastodon’s context.
Which instance you pick really doesn’t matter almost at all. I really recommend just making an account and poking around before you worry much about which server, as you can move servers later anyway.
I would personally recommend Mastodon.Social, but sadly registrations are closed as of the time of publishing, only due to over-use thanks to Twitter’s plunge into Cringetopia.
Mastodon Is For Humans
This started as an article for my experience on Mastodon and turned into a tutorial instead. But goodness, both the biggest thing to remember and my sincerest accolade about Mastodon is that it’s full of people.
Twitter is mean. Perhaps a titanic understatement, but somehow the site for sharing your bowel movements became one of the most toxic places to be online. People on Mastodon are perhaps best united in also being tired of Twitter. Tired of algorithms, bots, trends, promoted tweets, Brands™ and people they don’t follow popping up.
Always remember the Human, and reach for the Block button instead of the Reply button if someone’s pissing you off. We don’t need Reply Guys.
The best way to find new people is to search hobbies and hashtags, as well as checking out the Local and Federated timelines if you like. Follow often if you want more people to talk with and more posts in your timeline. Unfollow just as freely, it’s your timeline—you can even hide who you’re following in the privacy settings to remove that dreadful “unfollow anxiety” from Hellsite.
Fill Out That Profile!
First impressions count. Perhaps you’ve been on twitter log enough to remember “egg accounts”. On mastodon, they’re elephants—er, mastodons. Take a few moments to set up a bio, display name, avatar and maybe a pretty header for your profile so you look like a person.
Try to be descriptive but minimalist, just a few hobbies or interests will do. If you don’t know what to use for an avatar I’d honestly recommend almost anything, the aversion to blank avatars is very strong to many.
You can set up 4 Profile Metadata items and some Featured Hashtags on your profile. The Hashtags should show what interests you watch or tweet about, and the metadata can be whatever you want, but most people just put links to other social profiles, official websites, etc.
Metadata is also Mastodon’s “Verification”, if you have write access to a website, you can include a specially formatted link to prove you officially control a website you’re linking. A personal website or Patreon is a good example to show you’re the real McCoy, if you care.
Read The Room
It’s probably fair to say Mastodon is primarily ex-Twitter users. The design is based on Twitter, there’s even a Tweetdeck clone (advanced web interface) in the settings. Tweets are Toots, Likes are Favorites, most things work just like Twitter.
But most Mastodon users are on Mastodon because Twitter is hell. There are certain ways Mastodon is explicitly and intentionally NOT like twitter. One of the big ones is no Quote Tweets. If you’ve been on Twitter a long time, you know they’re primarily used for “Ratios” and generally screaming your head off. They also feed the Algorithm and probably do more help to the person you’re trying to “dunk” if they’re a big account. Rage follows are big business now!
Mastodon does not do Algorithms. Mastodon does not yet have the large body of trolls that thrive on Twitter by posting bad takes so people rage-Quote Tweet them, only causing the troll’s numbers to grow. If you’re a Twitter native, please keep the lessons of Hellsite in mind, and try your best to leave bad habits on Twitter.
Block trolls. Mute stuff you don’t like. Resist the Ratio. Don’t reply to literally every toot. Keep your followers in mind when rooting and retooting. Mastodon has features like Content Warnings to help you spoiler stuff, and generally the community is much better about helping people find what they want to see and avoid what they don’t.
Mastodon’s Growing Pains
The biggest problem you’re likely to have with Mastodon is it’s currently in a growth surge and many servers are one step below “on fire”. Not one as big as you might think considering the Twitter migration, but these things are slow and we are helplessly addicted to our favorite sites. Be patient, it’s nothing inherent to Mastodon and things worked quite smoothly pre-Twitter crash and surely will again soon.
How banal, right? What a meme. Those stupid internet things.
While it looks a bit silly, I try to include 2-3 relevant hash tags when posting so people can find (or avoid) my post as they wish. When sharing Mario Party screenshots for example I’d share the generic #gaming so gamers in general can find it, as well as the more specific #nintendo or #nintendoswitch so players of the same platform can find it, and finally the most specific #marioparty hashtag so players of that specific game can find it.
And of course, the main use for hashtags: actually reading them! I’m pleasantly surprised that despite my low following count (~50 vs ~2,500) on Mastodon versus Twitter, my Toots actually get more engagement than my Tweets. How? People actually read their timelines and the Hashtag pages!
Free of Algorithms, as well as most celebrity accounts, and aggregates, Mastodon seems flush with real actual meat humans reading page after page of toots and personally deciding what to engage with! What a concept! It really is wild. If you used the internet 10+ years ago, you might just barely recall a time when people actually followed things and then websites showed them that content. It sounds so foreign now, but it really was a treat at times.
Mastodon also lets you “feature” hashtags at the side of your profile, which is a great way to both let people know what you post about, as well as help them find very specific hashtags. I find it useful to have a mix of personal hashtags—say, a running story you update once a day or week—and some general ones so people know what you’re posting about.
You can see above I have hashtags for my cat (Parker), and a generic #Gaming one. I should probably include #Cats now that I think of it, since if you’re not familiar with me you might not know what a Parker Pic is. That’s the sort of thought you should put into how your profile reads; personal, but clear.
Use Content Warnings and Mutes
On Mastodon I notice a much higher level of respect for the concept that not everyone wants to see all things. I see the Content Warning/”spoiler” functionality used extremely often. Clicking the CW button at the bottom of the Post UI lets you attach a content warning at the start. This works for any form of content warnings from nudity to spoilers to potentially offensive or upsetting material.
Users will see the top line, the Content Warning, first before the text OR image you show. Both will have separate “show” functionality, making it much easier to share potentially upsetting images and text while letting people decide for themselves if they want to see it.
Hashtags similarly help people both avoid what they don’t like through mutes, another Twitter feature Mastodon makes evenbetter:
Mastodon lets you mute much like Twitter, but much more granular. You can not only set the words to mute and how long, but which contexts you want to filter. My favorite is the ability to hide with a warning instead of hiding completely. This is a great way to hide spoilers or NSFW material so you never stumble into it on accident without completely removing it from your experience.
Protect Your Privacy
I know, I know. “What the hell is privacy”, you might ask if you’re as familiar with Twitter as I. Mastodon has some pretty amazing privacy options, my favorite is Automated Post Deletion. If you’ve used Semiphermeral on Twitter you’ve got the idea, but it lets you set an age and optional favorite/boost thresholds to delete old, uninteresting posts.
This way your timeline is more readable and embarrassing old posts quietly handle themselves. You have pretty granular control, allowing you to manually pick which posts to keep by favoriting them or automatically save Bangers Only by setting up a required boost/favorite count.
Next up there’s the ability to hide your “Social Graph”, meaning the people who follow you/who you follow. It can be feral out there on this internet, and I and many others have been harassed not just for who we follow…but who follows us.
This lets you keep things extra private for whatever reason you like, a feature Twitter really could have used.
A Certified Federated Feature™ is that you can also block ALL accounts on an instance. This is most useful if, say, someone set up a 4chan instance or whatever and exclusively uses it to harass other people. Would trolls be so obvious? Probably, but hopefully most users won’t need to worry about this. Blatantly abusive instances are usually blocked by public instance owners anyway.
What The Hell Is The Fediverse?!
I’ll upset some dedicated Mastodon stans when I say this (I already have on Mastodon), but the biggest thing to remember about the Fediverse and Instances and Federated Timelines is that it basically does not matter at all 99% of the time. If it’s too confusing, you should honestly just ignore it and just pick a server. Aside from having to take 1 extra step to follow someone from another server, you will probably never notice this in real use.
For a deeper dive, is Mastodon is Decentralized—the real way, not like some buttcoin ponzi scheme—but also connected. If you ever added your AIM contacts into your MSN Messenger account as a kid, it’s basically that. Technically, everyone is on their own server, which has a “federated timeline” and that’s why I’m @SirTapTap instead of just @SirTapTap. There’s no ONE mastodon server like with Twitter.
Since each instance has it’s own set of users, there is a instance-wide timeline for all users on that timeline, under the Local tab of your sidebar. The Federated tab is the Global timeline of all connected instances. If you don’t care, you never need to use these timelines. I haven’t.
The reason this doesn’t matter much is instances are not just decentralized, they’re “Federated”, sort of like the US states. Florida is still America, even if pretty much everyone isn’t happy about that. People on Florida servers can still interact with California servers, unless the server manager actually bans an instance. This generally only happens to servers deliberately engaging in illegal/extremist behavior much like extremist discords.
The most dangerous Fediverse thing that could affect users is that since federated servers are run by different communities, some of them could shut down. This is a good reason to focus on healthy and long-running servers. For better or worse, Mastodon isn’t supported by any company or advertisers, so it’s up to the server owner/community to keep the lights on.
So while it’s a slightly good idea to pick a Mastodon server semi-relevant to your interests and geography, the generic, worldwide servers with the longest uptime are probably the best choice for most people. Plus, you can migrate your account, so there’s really no reason to worry. If you ever feel the need to pack up and flee, Mastodon will help you pack your bags.
If you do care about a close-knit, narrowly defined server, it’s best to think of the whole thing as closer to Discord than Twitter. But there really aren’t that many (public) narrowly focused instances yet anyway.
Who Pays For All This?
Mastodon isn’t a corporation and doesn’t have a CEO. Mastodon instances are run by people and communities, and it’s worth a quick read of who runs the instance you’re about to sign up on. As per above, the instance going under is pretty much the only consequence most people need to be concerned with. Of note, Mastodon.social has been running smoothly for 6 years.
It’s much like the old internet—and the current internet, for people who run their own sites like me!—someone keeps the lights on but ads and revenue aren’t the main focus, and might not exist at all! That said, your instance might likely have a Patreon or similar to help keep the lights on—that’s what I do!
Find Your Friends! Twitter To Mastdon Migration Tools
There’s some tools to help your transition from Twitter to Mastodon:
Moa.Party is a nice bridge that lets you post to both Twitter and Mastodon, even supporting Mastodon’s popular CW feature. If you can’t quite flip the bird just yet it’s worth a shot.
Debirdify is the best way I’ve found to locate your Twitter followers/followings—and even blocks and mutes!—in Mastodon’s Fediverse. You log in with Twitter, and it scans your followers/etc profiles for Mastodon links and usernames. Since it works by links, add your Mastodon link to your Twitter profile so your friends can find you too!
Mastodon supports RSS for generic interoperability. If you need to integrate it with services like Discord bots, drop your username in the proper URL format. My URL is https://mastodon.social/users/sirtaptap.rss, start with the full URL of your instance, then /users/YourUsernameHere.rss. Not as many bots interface directly with Mastodon’s API as with Twitter’s. Instead, RSS is a lovely old open web interface that most bots can touch.
Got more tips, questions, or experiences to share? Let’s talk it over in the comments!