Last week I asked my followers on Mastodon, the 14-month-old open source social media service that has been billed as a nicer version of Twitter, what advice they have for new users. The one common thread that kept popping up in the responses was that people who arrive expecting it to be a replacement for Twitter will be disappointed: Mastodon isn’t conducive to virality or building your personal brand.
“I'd recommend letting folks know that they might not replicate their experiences on Twitter or Facebook and that is okay,” one user wrote. “Also I think it's important to understand that you can't win Mastodon. On Twitter and Facebook you can try to have the most followers and the most engagement. But distributed systems don't cater to that thinking.”
Having been on the service for nine months myself, I can confirm Mastodon is not a replacement for Twitter. It’s much better. It is the first place on the internet where I have felt comfortable in a long time.
Not exactly a high bar to clear given the garbage pile Twitter has become. It’s where the president goes to retweet hate groups and threaten North Korea. It’s the place where being a Nazi will result in the severe consequence of losing verification. It’s where, if you somehow fall on the wrong side of a popular account, your experience will be immediately rendered unusable as that person’s fans descend upon you with a vengeance.
So, why Mastodon? The new social media service is a non-profit, open-source project that has attracted many Twitter refugees over the last year, including myself. Founder Eugen Rochko (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote in March that Mastodon was aiming to learn from the “mistakes” of Twitter and be an inclusive, decentralized microblogging platform. The result is a social media service where users actually feel comfortable being themselves, as opposed to a performative, more sarcastic version of who they actually are.
I was attracted to the idea of Mastodon because I was completely fed up with Twitter, but like many people, I found it basically impossible to use. Mastodon is filled with friendly users waiting to help if you ask, but diving in and trying to figure it out yourself can be a daunting task. The user interface looks like classic Tweetdeck, but the decentralized nature of Mastodon means usernames are twice as long, looking more like e-mail addresses than Twitter handles. This left me with many questions. What does it mean that someone is on a different “instance” than you? Can they see your posts? Will you be able to see theirs? Who here is worth following? What’s the difference between the regular timeline, the federated timeline, and the local timeline? Who is Gargamel and why do people keep asking him to “fix the emojos”?
I signed up on Mastodon.social, one of the confusingly named websites that make up Mastodon’s network, and tried to recreate my Twitter account. I used the same screenname, the same bio and followed mostly other Twitter expatriates who I already knew. This turned out to be equal parts boring and frustrating as I didn’t understand how Mastodon worked and most of the people I followed were also struggling and lapsing into inactivity. I felt like I was shouting into an empty room, and I didn’t even know how big the room was. I gave up after a week. At the time, the ability to delete your account had not yet been added, so I just deleted all my posts and left.
I eventually came back when a Twitter friend announced she was going to start her own Mastodon community, Mellified.Men, that would have closed registration and would only be open to a limited number of users. This time, I started over, with no links to my Twitter life, and built a timeline from scratch. I found being on a smaller community to be more educational in terms of the technical differences between Mastodon and Twitter, and the new social group I built was funnier, kinder, and more interesting.
Over time, my posting habits began to change. I spent less time sharing links or commenting on the news and more time talking about my hobbies and interests. I would get in long conversation threads about how to cook a proper meat pie or the weirdest cell phone form factor of the 2000s. I would write about my mental health problems without feeling the need to put a joke at the end. I was able to stop pretending to be this person my Twitter followers expected me to be and just be myself instead. It felt great.
Finding people to follow on Mastodon is a bit like being on the internet in the late 1990s and visiting a message board for the first time, or joining Twitter during its early days in 2007. I had to introduce myself, survey the environment, find people whose posts seemed interesting and figure out how I could contribute, or if I even wanted to at all. That sounds stressful, but formally going through those motions led to a much more satisfying online environment.
It’s gotten to the point where my Twitter and Mastodon accounts, side-by-side, look like they were written by different people. On Twitter, @phogan is curt, snarky, and sounds a little depressed. But on Mastodon, email@example.com is expansive, has a lot of interests and occasionally drops little nuggets about the importance of being positive. My Mastodon persona sounds a bit more insufferable, but he’s happier and probably has lower blood pressure.
Mastodon recently passed the milestone of one million users, but its setup can be confusing to newcomers.
A lot of that confusion comes from the way Mastodon is structured. There is no single website that comprises the whole of Mastodon. Mastodon.social is the “flagship” server run by the service’s founder, but people thinking Mastodon.social is the same as Mastodon has led to that server becoming a bit over-taxed and over-populated. The network is made up of multiple servers, usually called “instances,” each with their own users and content that get shared with each other. Anyone with the technical know-how can set up their own instance and join this “federation,” as it’s called.
My Mastodon persona sounds a bit more insufferable, but he’s happier and probably has lower blood pressure.
A good comparison for this system would be cell phones and text messaging. My phone provider is T-Mobile and my mom is on Verizon, but we can both text each other because the protocol is the same, and the providers share messages with each other. Similarly, my Mastodon.Social account can read, favorite, or comment on messages posted on my mom’s Mastodon.Xyz account (my mom does not actually have a Mastodon account, she’s holding out for the third coming of MySpace).
While everyone on Mastodon is connected to each other through the federation, the instances add flavor to their users’ experiences. There are hundreds to choose from. Do you want an instance with a particular theme? If so, there are instances that cater specifically to writers, artists, witches, technologists, socialists and many more groups. Do you want an instance with a particular moderation policy? Some instances have teams of moderators and aggressively blacklist other instances that don’t meet their standards, while there are other servers where literally anything goes. How about an instance with weird domain name? You will not have to look very hard.
This aspect of Mastodon is the most common point I see new users getting confused about, most famously William Shatner. I don’t blame them, as I struggled with the system myself. If I’ve convinced you into giving Mastodon a try (or, if you’re like me, a second try), here’s some advice from me and the other Mastodon veterans who answered my call.
Choose an instance. As I said before, there are all sorts of instances, each with its own personality and policies. Instances.social is a good resource if you’re just starting out, as its questionnaire will help narrow down the range of choices. “My most important advice is start on a smaller instance, follow lots of people, and don't be afraid to butt in on conversations as long as your goal is not to be offensive,” writes DialMforMara@wandering.shop.
Learn the lingo. Tweets = Toots. Likes = Favorites. Retweets = Boosts. And if you see posts that appear to be nonsensical about jorts, pineapples, and rotating coyotes, keep in mind that Mastodon grows and harvests its own memes and it might take a bit for you to pick up.
Meet the neighbors. Waiting for friends and celebrities to join will result in a boring timeline. Try the local and federated timeline features to see the other people on your instance and who they’re following. “Reply to people in the federated feed who seem nice for a little while, follow people you make conversation with and just let the ball roll from there,” writes Kato@icosahedron.website.
Be safe. Mastodon has a lot of tools available that make posting a bit more complicated than Twitter. There are multiple levels of privacy as well as content warnings that you can assign to any individual post. Blocking and muting work much like on Twitter, however they also can now be applied to entire instances in addition to users. “Don't hesitate to mute people or instances that you find too annoying. And don't be a crybaby if you are muted. Nobody has to be able to read or like what you say. Just move on,” writes firstname.lastname@example.org.
Relax. If it’s stressful or making you feel bad, you might as well just use Twitter. “Stop worrying about engagement metrics and boost/fave counts, remind yourself that you’re here for human interaction and enjoying everyone’s company,” writes email@example.com.
With these steps, along with the other advice I received, I hope you too can find a new internet home on Mastodon. And Twitter? Trump can keep it.