A Beginner's Guide To Mastodon

The social media network known as Mastodon is sort of an anti-Twitter: quiet, calm, and pretty much free of Nazis. People have been flocking to it lately, only to get confused by the way it's set up — which is a shame, because it's not that hard to get started. Here's how.

Where do I sign up?

Whereas Twitter is a single huge corporate entity, Mastodon is more like a bunch of local mum-and-pop shops. That means you need to choose an "instance" — a server you'll call home. Don't panic! Stay with me here! You can handle this!

It's like how you can choose to keep your money at your local bank or credit union, but your money is still good everywhere. You can pay somebody, or get paid, in any of a hundred ways and it doesn't matter what bank they use.

So even though I have a mastodon account at wandering.shop, and my fellow Lifehacker writer Nick Douglas has one at mastodon.social, I can still follow him and he can follow me. Here is a tool to browse all the available instances and figure out which one is most your style.

If you don't know which to choose, sign up at mastodon.cloud. (Until recently, mastodon.social was the flagship instance, but it's kind of full now.) If you like, you can poke around for a few days and then migrate to another instance once you've realised it would be more fun somewhere else.

What do I do now that I'm here?

Each instance has a web-based viewer that will show tweetdeck-like columns of your home timeline (the people you follow), your notifications, and a third column that you can use for whatever you want.

Just like Twitter, you can follow people, mention them, and direct message. But your instance also has two special timelines:

  • The local timeline is a stream of everybody tweeting from that instance. So if I click there, I see everything that's going on on wandering.shop. It's like listening in on everybody in your neighbourhood.

  • The federated timeline is everything on the local timeline, plus everybody who is followed by someone on your instance. So if I follow Nick, his toots (yep, they're called toots) will show up in wandering.shop's federated timeline.

A few terms to help ease your transition from Twitter:

  • It's not a tweet, it's a toot.

  • It's not a retweet, it's a boost. There is no such thing as a quote-tweet, you just either boost or you don't.

  • Twitter itself is referred to as "the birdsite." Do not bring birdsite drama onto mastodon.

OK, I'm ready to toot!

First, this is not Twitter. Each instance has its own administrator and its own code of conduct, so make sure you read up before you toot. For example, mastodon.social has this in its code of conduct:

The following types of content will be removed from the public timeline, and may result in account suspension and revocation of access to the service:

  1. Racism or advocation of racism

  2. Sexism or advocation of sexism

  3. Discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, or advocation thereof

  4. Xenophobic and/or violent nationalism

The following types of content are explicitly disallowed and will result in revocation of access to the service:

  1. Sexual depictions of children

  2. Content illegal in Germany and/or France, such as holocaust denial or Nazi symbolism

  3. Conduct promoting the ideology of National Socialism

There is also a content warning feature, which you can turn on with the "CW" button when you compose a toot. You can use it to warn people about triggering or unsavoury subjects in your toot, and then they have to click a button to expand the full toot. The code of conduct may require certain things to always be hidden in a CW, such as nudity or gore.

But it's used in other ways, too: it's perfect for hiding spoilers, or for the punchline of a joke. People also often use it for things others might not be interested in. If you're posting something that you feel might be boring or annoying to others, just stick it in a CW and it's easy for people to scroll past. If you want to talk about birdsite drama, definitely put it in a CW.

You can adjust the privacy of each toot, by the way: public, which means it will appear on the local and federated timelines; followers-only, which means only your followers will see it; or unlisted, which is like followers-only, but it will also appear on your profile page.

Unlisted makes sense if you're not trying to keep the toot secret, but just don't want it clogging up timelines or search results. For more on privacy, blocking, and harassment prevention, check out this post from Mastodon's main developer.

What app do I use to get mastodon on my phone?

There's not a single mastodon app, but several. I like Tootdon for iPhone, especially the feature that lets you search for instances, and put another instance's local timeline right onto your home screen.

So I can see what's going on at wandering.shop, but then swipe to check out the firehose at mastodon.social or the lulz at bofa.lol.

Tusky is another popular app, or just ask your tootfriends what they're using. There's also a rundown of Android apps here, and iPad apps here.

There are other web clients as well: Halcyon is a pitch-perfect mimic of the Twitter website. Pinafore.social looks a little like Twitter, but importantly it allows you to log in with multiple accounts, it's fast, and you can use it on mobile if you haven't picked a favourite mobile app yet.

OK, but are all the cool kids hanging out without me?

Probably. To find them, first go to the "Find Twitter Friends" feature on joinmastodon.org, and see where all the people you already know are hanging out. (I also did a twitter search for "mastodon" and filtered the results to people I follow.)

Don't forget you can preview instances' local timelines on their websites, or through an app such as Tootdon that has that feature. I joined mastodon.social at first, then spent a few days browsing a bunch of different local timelines until I settled on one that felt more like home.

When you're ready to jump ship, it's sort of possible to migrate your account, but it's not seamless. Here's what you do:

  • Go to your settings and then Data Export. There, you can download a list of everybody you follow, everybody you've blocked, and everybody you've muted.

  • Sign up for an account on the new instance.

  • On the new instance, go to your settings and then Import. You can upload those lists.

  • Go back to your old account and edit your profile. At the bottom is a link to migrate your account. This just lets people know your account isn't working there anymore. You may also want to edit your bio and change your name to something like "Beth has migrated" for anyone who might stumble across your account not realising you're gone.

Migrating does not retain your followers. Anybody who follows you will be left following your old dead account. Fortunately, they'll all get a notification when you follow them again from the new account, and chances are they'll follow back. (A lot of people on Mastodon follow everyone back, anyway.)


Why go to all this trouble? Well, the vibe on Mastodon — for now, anyway — is similar to old-school Twitter or even (hello olds) Livejournal or IRC. People get to know each other, and are more likely to post about their genuine real-life interests than to share news stories or endlessly discuss politics. (That said, I'm sure there are instances dedicated to activism and politics. If that's your thing, go forth and sign up!)

It just feels like a nice, friendly place to be.


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