Mastodon is similar to Twitter. But it’s not the same. Some things are different; some aren’t there at all. This is frequently by design. The way Twitter does things has been bad for some people, and the idea is to make Mastodon be better. Here’s a good introductory video.
Choosing a Mastodon instance
This isn’t as hard as it looks at first. While Twitter is one company, and one website, Mastodon is literally thousands of websites. But you only need to join one. You can follow people on other Mastodon (or other Fediverse) sites.
Think of email. You have an email address, and it’s hosted somewhere. Perhaps gmail, or yahoo, or outlook, or hotmail, or zoho, or your company. It doesn’t really matter where, because all the email platforms send email to each other. They are all federated, so they work together.
The biggest instance (server) is mastodon.social, which is run by the same person who created most of the Mastodon code, Eugen Rochko. While you might think that you want to join the biggest, you may feel more at home at a smaller server. There are other general purpose servers (mastodon.world, mstdn.social, mindly.social, universeodon.com, etc.) Some are for more specialized use (infosec.exchange, defcon.social, dice.camp, etc.) Others are for certain geographical regions (glasgow.social, pnw.zone, mastodon.nz, etc.) Some use different languages (italian, german, etc.) You can start on one server, then move to another if you decide you’d rather be there.
While many of these are for different purposes (dice.camp is for tabletop role playing games) they aren’t exclusively for that. While you can expect to see lots of talk about D&D, Traveller, GURPS, and other games on dice.camp, they also talk about lots of other stuff. But there will be more talk about role playing games than on other servers. If you play D&D, you might want to be there.
All you have to do is pick one that you think you’d like. Personally, I like mstdn.social, but that’s just me.
OK, I’ve created an account. Why is my feed empty? That’s not very social, is it?
Here’s where it’s a bit different than Twitter or Facebook. Twitter exists to make money, and they want you to stay on their website as long as possible. So they put lots of stuff on your feed that they think you’ll “engage with”. Sadly, the best way to get engagement is to show you stuff that’ll upset you, as you’re more likely to respond.
Mastodon doesn’t have this driving need to shove content down your throat. Your feed consists of what you’ve told it you want, and you haven’t done that yet. Here are some things to do:
- Take a look at the local feed (all public posts by people on your server), or the fediverse feed (all public posts your server knows about). Pick a post you like and click on the name of the poster. You’ll see that person’s profile. Click on the Follow button. It helps to start following lots of people.
- Search for some famous people and follow them. George Takei is a favorite (@georgetakei). There’s also Stephen Fry (@stephenfry), Kathy Griffin (@kathygriffin) Greta Thunberg (@gretathunberg), Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), Wiki How (@wikihow), Astronomy Picture of the Day (@APoD@botsin.space), NASA (@nasa), Star Trek Minus Context (@nocontexttrek), etc.
- People add #hashtags to posts to help people find them. You can follow hashtags, so do some searches for your favorite things and follow them. I like boardgames, so I typed boardgames into the search box and scrolled down the list to click on the #boardgames hashtag. Then I clicked the follow button. Do this for a few different hashtags and things will start showing up in your feed. Try #mosstodon; it’s surprisingly neat.
- You should really consider following fedi.tips (@feditips) and fedi.follows (@FediFollows@social.growyourown.services). This person runs a few different accounts trying to help you use Mastodon and find people worth following. They’re much better at it than I am.
Since Mastodon isn’t about grabbing your eyeballs and not letting go, when you get to the end of your feed, try closing the browser and doing something else. Take a walk, read a book, talk to your sweetie. It’s much better for your mental health.
💡 Sometimes I feel that I’m not posting enough, and boosting too much. Then I remember that one of the best ways to do it is to find an interesting post (perhaps something that someone else has boosted, or from a hashtag I follow), click on it to get the thread history, and find something to reply to in it.
Edit your profile, and add a profile picture and banner. It’s sad, but people will interact with you more if you have a profile picture. It doesn’t have to be your face. It could be from a google image search of your favorite TV or movie character (guilty).
Post some things. What’s something special about your favorite hobby? Don’t forget to add appropriate hashtags, so people who follow them will see them. Be genuine.
After you’ve made some public posts, you should add a post telling a bit about yourself. Make a post about yourself, and include lots of hashtags for things you like (sports teams, music, games, shows, movies). This is important: include the #introduction hashtag. Then, click your avatar to pull up your profile, find your introduction post you just made (it should be the first one, click the … icon, and choose “pin on profile”. This makes the post show up at the top of the list, so others who view your profile will see it. (this is how it works on the website, it may be different for apps)
Do this after you’ve made some posts. This way when people look at your #introduction, they’ll see what kind stuff you post.
💡 You know how Twitter posts are called Tweets? Well, on Mastodon they’re called Toots. 😄
☝ This list is based on the website interface. It should be similar for apps.
You can reply by clicking the reply arrow (the first icon under a post ↩️). The reply will have the handles of the people you’re replying to already filled in at the top of the reply.
You can also boost a toot. This is the double circular arrows (the second icon 🔁). This pushes the toot you’re boosting to your followers.
And you can like a toot. This is the star (the third icon ⭐). This tells the toot author that you appreciated the toot. No one else will be told (unlike Twitter). While this doesn’t tell anyone anything except the author that you liked it, please do this a lot. It helps people know that other people appreciate what they write.
Then you can bookmark a toot. This is the tag (the fourth icon 🔖). This will add it to your bookmark list so you can find it again later.
You can share a toot. This is the share icon (fifth icon). This will let you share it with other people or apps.
Finally, there’s the menu button (last icon, three dots). This lets you copy the toot, mention the author, mute or block the author, and more.
There is NO algorithm
This may seem strange, but Mastodon shows you posts in reverse chronological order. Always. There is no algorithm choosing something that will piss you off just to get you to reply angrily. All posts in your feed are one of:
- Someone you follow said something.
- Someone you follow boosted something.
- Someone posted something with a hashtag you follow.
- Someone mentioned your account in a post.
What about apps?
Lots of people use apps on their phones to access Mastodon. What’s kind of surprising is that you don’t need to.
- The website for your server works great on phones, and lots of people just use that.
- There are also alternative front ends like Elk or Sengi that will work with whatever Mastodon server you’re on.
- Android—some recommended apps are Tusky, Trunks (I use this), Megalodon, and Fedilab.
- iOS—lots of people like Ivory and IceCubes.
Hey, I clicked on a person’s profile, but when I try to follow them, it tells me to log in again. What gives?
This is another aspect of the decentralized nature of Mastodon and the Fediverse. So you have an account on some site, say universeodon.com. Now you’ve clicked on someone’s profile, and it brought it up in its own tab. That tab is from that person’s server, not yours. Thus, when you click Follow, it doesn’t know that you’re logged in at universeodon. What to do?
Well, just find the user’s account handle. It will look like @valen. Copy this, then go back to your server’s tab, and paste it into the searchbox. That will pull up their account and you can follow from there.
They are working to make this work better, but it’s what it is for now. In the meantime you can get browser plugins that will take care of this for you.
By default Mastodon sends all your posts to everyone. Well, OK, that’s a lie. There are 4 places your posts can show up:
- Public timelines (local and fediverse).
- Your followers’ home feeds.
- Your profile. When people look up your profile, they’ll see your posts in reverse chronological order (with pinned posts first). Your posts show up here.
- Permalinks. All posts have a permalink on the server they’re from. If someone has the link they can go straight to the post.
There are also 4 privacy levels available: Public, Unlisted, Followers only, and Direct message.
|Timelines||Followers’ home feed||Your profile||Permalinks|
|Followers only||No||Yes||If logged in||If logged in to the same instance|
|Direct message||No||No||If logged in||Logged in and mentioned in the post|
By default posts are public, but you can change this in Edit Profile.
For the paranoid: posts aren’t encrypted in the server databases. So a server admin can poke around in the database and see direct messages (you know, just like on Twitter or Facebook). If you really don’t trust anyone else you should look into running your own Mastodon server.
You’re not going to get to see everything
I’ve seen lots of people complain about this one. Your server won’t see every post ever made on Mastodon. On Twitter, if you had incredible bandwidth, and superman vision, you might be able to see everything scrolling by. While you can see lots of stuff on the Fediverse feed, it’s not everything. There are servers that your server doesn’t talk to, so you won’t see stuff people there post. Given that some servers have really nasty stuff on them (nazis, child porn, and more) you probably don’t want to see that stuff anyway. These are servers that your server won’t talk to, because your admin has blocked the whole server.
But there are lots of perfectly fine, small servers out there. If @firstname.lastname@example.org posts something, it probably won’t show up on your fediverse feed simply because your server doesn’t know about her. But if someone else on your server (@email@example.com) follows amy, then her posts will start showing up because your server now “knows” about her account.
This graphic might help here:
Some people get upset that not every post everywhere will be available to them. I urge you to take the position that what you see is great, and more would probably be too much. Don’t forget to put down the phone and interact with reality for a while. It’s better for your mental health.
Curating your feed
As I mentioned before, your home feed will only show things from people and hashtags that you follow. So you should follow lots of people. Hundreds. Search for hashtags you’re interested in. Follow them. While searching, pick some people who have interesting things to say about the topics and follow them.
Remember, you can always unfollow people later on if you find they aren’t a good fit for you. The idea to is get stuff you’re interested in showing up in your home feed.
But with all that you will also get stuff that you’re not interested in showing up. I’m not into sports, so seeing stuff about football, cricket, basketball, baseball, and other sportsballs just doesn’t interest me. I’ve made filters to stop these things from showing up.
So, you’ve seen lots of stuff on #UnderwaterBasketweaving on your feed, and you wish they could just not be there. Edit your profile, then choose “Filters” on the left. Click “Add new filter” and give it a name, say “wet baskets”. Check off where it should apply (I use “Home and lists”, and “Public timelines”). And add the hashtag #UnderwaterBasketweaving as a word to block. Save it and you’re all done.