With the number of major events happening on the big social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, you may have started thinking about moving to something else. It's always good to look around. One of the biggest of the little guys is Mastodon, a social media system that is somewhat similar to Twitter. This guide is written to give a gentle, painless introduction to the world of Mastodon, and to help newcomers get settled in.
Welcome to the Archipelago
When you think “social media” most people think of sites like “twitter” or “facebook”. To access one of these networks you just go to twitter.com or facebook.com and you're in.
Mastodon is different. Instead of a single central server run by a corporation, Mastodon is a network of loosely federated “instances”. There are a number of technical and sociological reasons for this, but it can take some getting used to. For example, when I want to see what messages I have in Mastodon, I go to My personal instance.
Each instance has its own administrators, its own rules, it's own social norms. There may be instances that allow or even encourage political discussions, and other instances where politics is considered “off topic” or even forbidden. Many instances are centered around a specific interest, like art or writing or cars or computers or, well, anything. Others are more “general purpose”. Some instances have many users, others have only one, or just a few. Some instances welcome anyone to sign up, others require you to have an invitation from a current member, and some are literally single-user instances, with no interest in adding additional users.
Choosing an Instance to Join
You have several choices: you can find a friend who can recommend an instance for you, you can join one of the big instances, like Mastodon Social and use that as a jumping-off point to find another instance more to your tastes, you can self-host Mastodon on your own hardware, or pay a hosting company to create and run an instance for you. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks. The larger instances are “noisier”, which may be a good thing if you like a lot of new things to read each time you sign in. The smaller or more focused instances are often more applicable to your actual interests. Having accounts on different instances is not uncommon, nor is moving from one to another when your needs or tastes change.
If you choose to join an existing instance, here are some guidelines:
Know the Instances Rules
Each instance has a code of conduct, delineating what is an isn't acceptable on that instance. Reading through this code of conduct will help you know if this is the kind of instance you want to join. If you don't feel like you can or want to abide by an instances rules, don't sign up on that instance.
Moderators are Not (generally) Paid
Each instance's moderation staff is different, but in general they are volunteers who are doing this for free, or commonly paying to keep the instance running out of their own pocket. Most moderators and admins have a vested interest in making their instance as pleasant and useful as possible, and will enforce the instance's rules. Be kind to them.
Instances Can, Do, and Should Block One Another
The upside to having self-hosted, decentralized social networking is that anyone can set up an instance for people to discuss any topic. The downside is that anyone can set up an instance for people to discuss any topic. There are instances out there that were set up specifically to spam other people, or to host third party bots, or to push political or social agendas. The moderators of a particular instance have the power to block individual users from interacting with their instance, or even entire other instances. This is part of the system. It is not “censorship”, as an instance is not a government, and is not stopping the other instance from existing. It is a feature of Mastodon, not a bug.
Welcome to Mastodon!
Once you've chosen an instance to join you get to look at the weird, wild world that is Mastodon. In general instances will set new users up to follow a few accounts, maybe just the admins. Since Mastodon doesn't use an algorithm to keep your feed full at all times, you only see people you follow. It can be unsettling at first. There are a number of ways to find people that you want to follow. Fellow members of your instance will show up in your feed by default (unless someone has changed that setting on your instance...) but what if you want to follow someone else, from another instance? In general the pattern is
@email@example.com, so if you want to find me from your new Mastodon account you would search for
@firstname.lastname@example.org and there I am!
Another way to find people is to search using your old friend the
#hashtag. They are a thing here too! People who tag their posts with tags you like might post other things you like...and so on.
DM's also work, and you can mark your posts (or toots, as they are sometimes called) as fully public, for your instance only, or only for people that specifically follow you. Using these different kinds of permissions gives you a lot more freedom to connect with people in a more intentional way.
Use Content Warnings
When you create a new post on Mastodon you have the option to add a Content Warning (or CW). It's easy to think that content warnings are only for “naughty” stuff, like dirty pictures or political views, but in reality Content Warnings are a way for all of us to respect one another. For example, it's common to see a Content Warning that simply says “EC”. This stands for “Eye Contact” and lets users know that if they expand this post, they will see a picture of someone looking directly into the camera. This is a way to let people know what to expect, and give them a chance to interact with your post when they are ready to do so.
One of the known problems of social media is that it gives people the ability to inflict their emotional state on others without first considering if their audience is in a place where they can handle said emotional state. Content Warnings are a way to protect one another, to recognize that just because I need to say something right now doesn't mean that you are responsible for reading it.
So you might see a post that has a content warning of “USPOL(–)” meaning “this post contains negative emotions about United State Politics” and you can decide if you can handle that right now or not. Content warnings don't have to have abbreviations like “EC” or “USPOL”, but they have definitely trended that direction out of ease of typing.
The point is that using content warnings doesn't mean “I'm posting smut!” It means “I am sharing my experiences if you want to experience them”. It's just a good thing to do. Use them freely.
Add Metadata to your Images
Mastodon gives you the ability to describe your images. This is major! Many people can't interact with your post in a visual way, and a description on an image helps them participate more fully in the discussion. It only takes a few moments and it enriches the experience for everyone.