A Brief Mastodon Guide for Social Media Worriers

Tips and advice for getting started with Mastodon. Especially if you're used to Twitter.

A Brief Mastodon Guide for Social Media Worriers

Let's face it, Mastodon can at first be as confusing as it later is rewarding. Especially if you are used to something else (like Twitter). The trick is always to minimise the frustrations and get on with the social benefits. And breathe. And find amusement in the chaos. Here are some tips to help y0u on your way.

This guide is also available in Swedish.

Which instance should I choose?

💡
I've now created a page with 10 instances to choose from, to make this step easier for you if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Mastodon isn't one place, it's software that runs in many different places. But wherever you are you can follow and reply to other people wherever they may be. So one installation of Mastodon on a server is called an instance. Each one is operated by a different organisation or individual. Just like email actually: there are many different organisations offering email services but we can all email each other, wherever we are.

Examples of different instances: mastodon.social, social.linux.pizza, mamot.fr and fosstodon.org. There are literally thousands of them with one to tens of thousands of members and you can join any one that will have you. Some offer instant sign-ups and for others you need to request an invite.

People will tell you it doesn't matter where you sign up because you can communicate with any of them. But you may want to at least feel comfortable with the instance name, maybe check if any of your friends are on a specific instance and double-check the rules for the instance you choose. All instances can have their own rules for membership – the admin decides.

Things to look at when evaluating an instance:

  • Its members, do you know any? Explore the directory and maybe get insider information from someone.
  • How long has it been running? Not always data that is easy to find. But sometimes you can see how long it was since the rules were set.
  • How many members does it have? I'm thinking many hundreds of participants will indicate that the instance is sustainable. I also place higher trust in the ones linked by joinmastodon.org.
  • Are the rules reasonable? Look for clues of anything that may conflict with your own values. Find the rules on the About page of an instance.
  • Do you know who the admins are? Anything you can find on the founders of the instance can be helpful in your decision as well.
  • I'm more and more encouraging people to choose small, niche instances with less noise due to sheer volume. Number of members in the low thousands or less I'm thinking. You can always move your account later. Some people move instances regularly!

Pro tip: if you want a specific account name (the part before the domain name) you may choose an instance where that account name is available.

✍️
Update! At the end of this post I've added links to about 20 different instances so you can get a feel for the different types of focus areas.

Quick summary to start

Recommendation: Start by creating your account in a web browser, not in a mobile app. Apps often ask you to specify what instance you want to log in to, and you may not know yet until you've actually created the account!

  1. The easy choice is to join the big one:  mastodon.social , a general instance created by the Mastodon founder~. A better choice is to browse and select an instance on joinmastodon.org. Go with a reasonably small one rather than huge. Huge often means more noise. When the page on joinmastodon says community, that is the same as an instance. In Sweden you may want to try mastodon.se for example.
  2. Alternatively start your own instance like I did. It means you yourself control the domain name and all the rules. And you don't need to be terribly technical. My first time around I paid for managed hosting with masto.host at $6/month, via helpful advice from Aral Balkan.  If you are a group of friends you could set up own your instance together at a very low cost! Today I host my own instance on my own VPS.
  3. Do not fret:  You can move your account to a different instance later without losing your followers. Provided the account you are moving from still exists, of course. When moving you will however not be able to bring with you all your posts.

Set up your profile page

I'm not going to get too much into this. Just choose a picture/avatar, describe yourself in a few sentences, put in a link and get on with it. Don't get stuck here, you'll likely be changing it several times over the first weeks anyway. But many do read your profile to decide if they want to follow. Especially since they can not  easily see your toot history inside an app before following you. You're welcome to look at mine for inspiration.

Start following

Just following people can feel daunting at first. If you are on other social media, maybe you ask around and see if your current friends or idols have any Mastodon accounts.

Mastodon usernames are made up of the account name you choose followed by the domain name of the instance your account is on: for example @accountname@mastodon.social.

My username is @axbom@social.xbm.se since I chose a subdomain of one of my own domains to be my mastodon instance.

So there could be a user @mickeymouse@mastodon.party who is not the same person as @mickeymouse@mastodon.club. But they could follow and talk to each other since the domain names are right there in their usernames.

When talking about Twitter users, Mastodon users use the same nomenclature even though Twitter is not part of the system that enables following across sites. My account would be referred to as @axbom@twitter.com. So you see how the syntax still makes sense.

When you use the search box (after creating and logging in to your Mastodon account) you can type a full username into the search box and easily find whoever you are looking for. Provided you know their username. Or paste the full url to their profile in the search box. You can also explore directories of users and find people who seem interesting to you.

Quick path to following

🐘
The two directories I recommend looking at are Trunk and fediverse.info
  1. Find one person worth following. This can sometimes feel like the most time-consuming part, but maybe you're already there. There are two directories with people organised by subject areas, the first and oldest is this list called Trunk. The other one that just launched and is growing is on fediverse.info.
  2. Look at the people that person follows and is followed by. You're bound to find some more interesting people.

    Note: It's not always obvious how to see a person's followers and follows. The method that always works is visiting their web profile. The syntax is instance.domain/users/account, so mine is social.xbm.se/users/axbom. This also works (note the use of the @-sign): social.xbm.se/@axbom. Also be aware that when you visit accounts this way it may look like you're not following a person even when you are. That's simply because that web page doesn't recognise you when you are logged in on another instance.
  3. I've found that the easiest way to follow people on other instances than your own is to use the search box in your own instance. Type the full username or the url to a person's Mastodon profile. They will appear in the search result and you can click follow from there.
  4. Keep going until you're following at least 7 people. That's enough to get you going. Those people will then also likely be boosting other people (known as a retweet on Twitter) and so you will see toots from more people. See, you know how this works.

Don't worry too much about the part where you also want followers. It will happen.

Quick vocabulary

That was a lot of new words maybe. Here are some clarifications:

  • Mastodon = The extinct elephant-like animal that predates the mammoth. Both inhabitants of the ice age they briefly coexisted before the mastodon became extinct. Mammoths were a species of the extinct genus Mammuthus, while mastodons were a species of the extinct genus Mammut. Both were muscular, four-legged mammals with a trunk, curved tusks and a tail. The mastodon was slightly smaller than the mammoth. Learn more about the mastodon.
  • Toot = a post (equivalent to tweet) because you know: elephant 🐘
  • Boost = a retweet/reshare
🗒️
Note: the only way to spread a toot you like is through a boost. A like will not show the toot to others or increase its 'value' or visibility in any way. A like is more personal than on other platforms you may be familiar with. Use like to show appreciation, indicate agreement or save in your favorites. But remember to boost if you want others to see the content. Don't let others coax you into boosting things you wouldn't normally boost yourself. Worst-cast this can make you less interesting to follow. The common practice on other platforms where people message each other behind the scenes and ask others to like and share is hopefully still rare on Mastodon.

Writing your first toot

Toots can be 500 characters (or longer if the admin changes the settings). Replies can be really long as well. But don't overdo it.

Your first toot can obviously be anything but it's always nice with an introduction. And if you do choose to describe yourself then by all means use the hashtag #introduction.

🏕️
If you post images, be inclusive and always add image descriptions (ALT-text). I recommend this general guide on how to think when adding ALT-text, written by Daniel Göransson, a web developer with vision impairment.

Good to know about toots

  • Toots can contain polls, images,  videos and audio files. Up to four images per toot.
  • You can add a content warning on a per-toot basis. The words in your content warning are yours to write. People who see your toot will see the content warning text and have to tap a button or link to read the whole toot.

People on Mastodon tend to be generous with content warnings because of the ease with which they are added. This contributes to the pleasant atmosphere. While Twitter is ablaze with politics, rage, hot takes and triggering photos I have seen content warnings for all these types of content and more on Mastodon. It's  thoughtful, and calming to browse knowing I have been given more control over what I see. Some instances will include descriptions of how to use content warnings in their rules.

You can change post-privacy for every toot. The options are:

  • Public: default, anyone can see your toot and it's listed in other people's timelines
  • Unlisted: Visible for all but not in public timelines (essentially one has to visit your profile)
  • Followers-only: Visible only for people who follow you
  • Direct: Visible only to the people who are mentioned in the toot

Good to know about conversations

  • If you want to mention someone on another instance, don't forget to write their full username, which includes the domain name. When you reply, this is managed for you
  • Replies on Mastodon are not threaded
  • You can mute, block and report individual accounts
  • You can also block entire instances!

Sync toots and tweets

If you're not quite ready to abandon Twitter for Mastodon (understandable), one way to keep them both in sync is through a third-party syncing service. There are several, but the one I would recommend is moa.party.

Note: If your toot is longer than will fit on Twitter, there will be a link back to your toot from the Twitter post.

I tried this out but it didn't feel right for me. I most often prefer when posting isn't automated. Unfortunately some people also misuse syncing and never visit Mastodon to look at replies to automated posts.

Download mobile or web apps

There are official apps for iOS and Android. When you first start up and are asked to log in, your instance may not be in the shortlist (mine obviously wasn't). In that case, type the entire domain name of the instance and it will be found. Then log in.

The apps are relatively new and not widely loved. One thing that bothers me a bit is how often a click leads to opening the browser, even though I'm still interacting on Mastodon. Hoping for some improvements there. But you may also want to check out the myriad of third-party apps.

After a half year of being active on Mastodon I've personally settled on just using the web interface. I've saved the website as a shortcut on my phone. This also removes all possibilities of on-device notifications, just the way I like it.

Note that you can not always edit your profile in mobile apps. You can always log in to your instance via the web if you want to do this.

Neat things about Mastodon

  • You can follow other types of services as well, that also use something called the ActivityPub protocol. So the Instagram clone PixelFed and the YouTube alternative PeerTube are examples of services you can use and integrate with your Mastodon presence. They work like Mastodon, so they aren't single websites, they are also software which is used in many different places, or you know: instances.
  • Everything is presented in chronological order. There are no algorithms trying to keep you on the platform by anticipating what you like or promoting enragement. Bliss.
🌃
When people talk about the Fediverse, it's a way to talk about all the different systems and services that can communicate with each other via ActivityPub or OStatus protocols. But you really don't need to know what those are unless you are a developer building something to interact with the fediverse. Just appreciate that they all these different places can exchange information with each other.

Strategies

Sit back and relax. You don't have to be thinking about posting and replying too much. It's nice to take time to discover and learn something new and there's no need to rush it. I personally like how calming it is compared to Twitter. That's not saying it will stay that way of course.

Anyway, just wanted to recommend taking a moment to export and save all your data on Twitter as well. You never know when you'll want it.

Being aware

There is a rumor that admins can read your direct messages. This is essentially true. In essence, if someone hosts their own instance they can always look in their own database. But the general working of the software is that admins can only read if someone reports content to them. Anyway, this is a good reminder to never use direct messages for sensitive information, on any social media system. And yes, dishonest people can also start Mastodon communities. Awareness is good for making informed choices.

Updated post

My intent is to update this post a bit over the coming month to address more specific questions and troubles in need of a helpful explanation. But I also want to keep the page relatively short. It will be a balance. But do reach out if there is something you'd like me to clarify.

This post is also available in Swedish.

Follow

Interested in following me on Mastodon? The most straightforward method is to copy and paste my username into the search box on your home instance/server, or in the app you're using:

@axbom@social.xbm.se

10 quick Mastodon tips
There has recently been a huge rush of people trying out Mastodon. This is also noticeable in the number of people reading my earlier Mastodon Guide. I wanted to take this opportunity to provide a brief list of usage tips that I wish I had at hand when first setting
Why I left algorithm-based social media and what happened next
This is a blog adaptation of a recent 15-minute talk I was asked to do at an Ambition Empower event. Having noticed that I am no longer on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn people are naturally curious as to my reasoning and how this works for a small business owner.
Indieweb and self-hosting my own space
As I’m moving all my online assets to a VPS (Virtual Private Server) I wanted to share my current setup. I also want to emphasise that I’ve been able to set this all up with decent technical knowledge and an understanding of how the internet works, but far from adept

Related Links

Mastodon
Mastodon is an open source decentralized social network - by the people for the people. Join the federation and take back control of your social media!
  • Guide under development and with a growing catalog of people in different subject/topic areas: https://fediverse.info
Trunk for the Fediverse
Pinafore · Home
An alternative web client for Mastodon, focused on speed and simplicity.
Fediverse Guide – An accessible guide to federated, decentralized services
Pixelfed
Federated Image Sharing
Join Bookwyrm
BookWyrm is a decentralized social network for tracking your reading, talking about books, writing reviews, and discovering what to read next.
JoinPeerTube
PeerTube is a decentralized video hosting network, based on free/libre software. Join the federation and take back control of your videos!
Funkwhale - Your free and decentralized audio platform
A social platform to enjoy and share music

Instances

People I follow and interact with come from many different instances. I thought I'd list some of them here for you to see the type of diversity that exists.

Free Radical
Infosec and privacy and technology and leftward politics and cats and dogs and...
Mastodon for Tech Folks
This Mastodon instance is for people interested in technology. Discussions aren’t limited to technology, because tech folks shouldn’t be limited to technology either!
Scholar Social
Scholar Social is a microblogging platform for researchers, grad students, librarians, archivists, undergrads, academically inclined high schoolers, educators of all levels, journal editors, research assistants, professors, administrators—anyone involved in academia who is willing to engage with oth…
The Dragon’s Cave
A fun, happy little Mastodon/Hometown instance. Join us by the fire and have awesome discussions about things, stuff and everything in between! Please read our rules before doing that, though; applications without the password that confirms you have done so will be rejected. Admins: Talon and Mayana…
Cloud Island
A paid, early access, strongly moderated Mastodon instance hosted entirely in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Mastodon.se
Mastodon-instance for Swedish. Requires a written motivation in a language listed in the FAQ for account approval.
Requires a join request in Swedish
Fikaverse.club
Det här är en instans för talare av skandinaviska språk. Välkommen!
Scandinavian-language members
Write Out
A small instance for writers.
Mastodon 🐘
A general-purpose Mastodon server with a 1000 character limit.
Qoto Mastodon
QOTO: Question Others to Teach Ourselves. A STEM-oriented instance. An inclusive free speech instance.All cultures and opinions welcome.Explicit hate speech and harassment strictly forbidden.We federate with all servers: we don’t block any servers.
Fosstodon
Fosstodon is an English speaking Mastodon instance that is open to anyone who is interested in technology; particularly free & open source software.
chaos.social
chaos.social – a Fediverse instance for & by the Chaos community
mastodon.design
A Mastodon instance for and by people who make things!
Climate Justice Social
Welcome to this official Fediverse instance for climate justice activists. There is also:climatejustice.rocksalso for activistsclimatejustice.globalfor climatejustice groupsfunk.climatejustice.globalfor podcasts and music
Toot Café
The social network of the future: No ads, no corporate surveillance, ethical design, and decentralization! Own your data with Mastodon!
Indieweb.Social
INDIEWEB.SOCIAL is an instance focused on the #Openeb, #Indieweb, #Fediverse, #Mastodon #Selfsovereign #identity (#SSI), #Humanetech and #Calm technologies evolution.
Mastodon.ART
Mastodon.ART — Your friendly creative home on the Fediverse! Interact with friends and discover new ones, all on a platform that is community-owned and ad-free. Admin: @Curator. Currently active moderators: @ScribbleAddict, @TapiocaPearl, @Otherbuttons, @Eyeling, @ljwrites
Mastodon.lol
A Mastodon server friendly towards anti-fascists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, hackers, and the like.
FLOSS.social
For people who care about, support, or build Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (FLOSS).
Eldritch Café
Une instance se voulant accueillante pour les personnes queers, féministes et anarchistes ainsi que pour leurs sympathisant·e·s. Nous sommes principalement francophones, mais vous êtes les bienvenu·e·s quelle que soit votre langue. A welcoming instance for queer, feminist and anarchist people as w…
mas.to
Hello! mas.to is a general-topic instance. We’re enthusiastic about Mastodon and aim to run a fast, up-to-date and fun Mastodon instance.
botsin.space
A Mastodon instance for bots and bot allies.

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