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.
Which instance should I choose?
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!
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.
- 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, I pay for managed hosting by masto.host. $6/month. If you are a group of friends you could set up own your instance together at a very low cost!
- 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.
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.
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 @email@example.com.
My username is @firstname.lastname@example.org since I chose a subdomain of one of my own domains to be my mastodon instance.
So there could be a user @email@example.com who is not the same person as @firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 @email@example.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. You can also explore directories of users and find people who seem interesting to you.
Quick path to following
- 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.
- 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.
- Following people on other instances will mean that you have to specify your own full username when doing so. This can feel frustrating. Breathe, it's hardly a showstopper. Pro tip: On Mac I use text replacement to write my username. So now when I type "!m" my full username is written out.
- 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.
That was a lot of new words maybe. Here are some clarifications:
- Mastodon = Another word for mammoth (yes, the extinct elephant-like animal)
- 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. Do 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 select 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
- 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.
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.
The iOS app I've found myself using the most is Metatext, and the web app I use the most is Pinafore (which I've now also bookmarked on my phone as a progressive web app). Both are built and maintained by independent developers. Pinafore also has some neat Wellness settings that I'm really fond of.
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 AcitivityPub 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.
Writer? Consider micro.blog as well
You may want to explore going down the path I went of also having a micro.blog account. Micro.blog gives you space for writing brief updates as well as long posts, and those can be cross-posted to Twitter, Mastodon, LinkedIn, Medium, Tumblr and Flickr. On micro.blog you can follow Mastodon users and also feeds from other services to get a comprehensive reading list.
My micro blog is on memo.axbom.com - this means you can also use Mastodon to follow @firstname.lastname@example.org and see all the blog posts I make there (as well as on my other blogs that are pulled in from RSS feeds). But yes, I'll still have my other primary Mastodon account as well for interacting with people.
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.
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.
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.
- Guide under development and with a growing catalog of people in different subject/topic areas: https://fediverse.info
- Fitness-tracker: github.com/SamR1/FitTrackee
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.