“Thousands of scientists are cutting back on Twitter, seeding angst and uncertainty.” And Mastodon was the most common destination if they opened…
We’ve been conditioned by a super-slick glide path to getting hooked into commercial social media. So facing the comparative complexity of Mastodon can be daunting. I don’t think you have to come grips with much, though, to join and start dabbling.
It’s worth giving it a chance. A corollary of the lack of slickness is that there’s no advertising, and your data and contributions aren’t for sale either. It’s social media without having your anxiety and outrage constantly pumped up to keep you scrolling and tapping to line the pockets of the mega-rich and further their interests.
That’s a big change of pace, and it can take a bit of time to get used to. As I wrote here, though, leaving Twitter was a relief in the end. For me, Mastodon has turned out to be a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too experience – the mental health advantages of taking a break from social media, without losing the benefits. Following so many new people is expanding my horizons. It’s like moving to a new job in a new neighborhood, with some of your old friends coming along. And the new perspectives on activism for this moment in history are energizing.
This post is a fairly minimal introduction. You only need the first 2 points below to set yourself up. The next 2 are for having a peek around and getting the feel for Mastodon. And 5 to 7 cover pointers if you’re going to do more than watch what others are up to.
- How – and where – to sign up.
- Setting up your account so people can decide if they want to follow you.
- How to follow people.
- Finding interesting people, posts, and conversations.
- #Introduction culture.
- Three things that don’t work the way you might think.
- A bit of Mastodon etiquette.
1. How – and where – to sign up
The first shortcut is to bypass the official joining point, JoinMastodon.org. That’s because firstly, it sends you to their apps. Those apps might not give you a good idea of what Mastodon can do, though they are being improved. And secondly, I think the “Create account” process there is intimidating.
I think it’s best to use Mastodon on a web browser while you’re getting to know it – even on a phone. That way limitations of an app don’t complicate it. But if you do want an app, the ones I see recommended the most are:
The next step is to pick what part of Mastodon you join. It’s a network of websites, not a single one. When you sign up to one, you’re also signing up to the overall Mastodon network, not just to a single website home base. In Mastodon jargon, these websites are called either instances or servers.
An instance doesn’t have to be your crowd, or focus on your area of interest. I think stability and quality of moderation are far more important. So that’s the basis for the recommendations below. They’re in alphabetical order – you can check them out and sign on via the links. (You can change instances later, and you can also have accounts at more than one instance.)
- hachyderm.io: primarily tech community, welcoming to others.
- mstdn.ca (Mastodon Canada): has an impressive report, including plans for community governance. Primarily Canadian – moderating in English and French.
- sfba.social: San Francisco Bay Area, welcoming to others.
- mastodon.nz: primarily NZ.
- mathstodon.xyz: a community for mathematicians, though not exclusively. Includes LaTeX capability.
- newsie.social: journalism and communications professionals focus.
- zirk.us: humanities focus, welcoming to others.
Specialized community instances:
- blacktwitter.io: a community for black people. Submit application, not an instant join.
- disabled.social: a community for people with disabilities, friends, allies. Submit application, not an instant join.
To see others that clear a minimum bar, there’s a selection at JoinMastodon. There’s a wizard at instances.social, but that includes a lot of instances that are blocked fully or partially by others, so that’s risky if you’re not going to do a fair bit of digging.
Once you’ve got your address, add it to your Twitter bio if you have one, so that people from there can find you at Mastodon.
Disclosure: I joined mastodon.online, and I’ve had a good experience. I haven’t recommended it, though, because its current infrastructure can’t ensure adequate moderation for its ballooning size.
2. Setting up your account
Even if you don’t plan to get active, it’s worthwhile spending the bit of time it takes to make it clear who you are, so people can see who you are.
The minimum is to upload a photo, and a little bio – you can just re-use the one you have from Twitter or elsewhere. You don’t have as tight a word limit, though, so you can write proper sentences.
It’s also common practice at Mastodon to put some hashtags of your interests at the bottom of your bio, but it’s not essential.
If you’re a fan of a setup like Tweetdeck, then try out the advanced web interface (it’s a box to check under “Appearances” in “Preferences”, which has a little gear symbol).
3. How to follow people
This is often straightforward: You’ll see someone’s account, with a follow button, click on it, and you’re done.
It’s more complicated if the person is from a different part of Mastodon. If you click on their address from seeing a post by them, it will take you to their instance. Because you’re not a member of that instance, you can’t follow with one click, though there are instructions for what to do.
You can cut a step out of this by searching for them using the search box inside your own account. You can search for a person’s name, but that gets complicated if people have more than one account, for example. So it’s better to put the full address in the search box. Here’s what it looks like: @firstname.lastname@example.org.
When a person’s account comes up as a search result – whether they are from your part of Mastodon or not – the account shows up with a little sign next to it: That’s the follow/unfollow button. It’s a little gray person icon with a plus sign. Just click that sign and you’re done. (If you already follow an account, the icon will be colored and there’ll be a multiplication sign instead of a plus sign – clicking that will unfollow the account.)
4. How to find interesting people, posts, and conversations
If you’re from Twitter, and want to check out if people you follow there have a Mastodon account, a smooth way to do this is Movetodon. That will ask for access to both your Twitter and Mastodon accounts. Then accounts you follow on Twitter that have a Mastodon address in the bio will show up, and you can follow whichever ones you want from there. That said, it’s a great opportunity to step out of the worst of Twitter energy – one of Mastodon’s strengths is that it’s not-Twitter.
There’s also Debirdify. That gets your followers as well – and blocked accounts if you want to pre-emptively block people. That doesn’t have a follow button, but it clicks through to the Mastodon account.
The Fedi Directory is a popular listing of people who have been recommended. And the person who runs it has a Mastodon account you can follow, posting out new additions:
More organic ways:
- Click on hashtags, and put hashtags in your search box – that’s the sure-fire way to find trails to people and conversations that could interest you.
- Follow hashtags that interest you. When hashtags come up after a search, they have the same little follow button as an individual’s account.
- Mastodon has trending posts, hashtags, and the “news” articles that are being shared the most across the network. This should be displayed by your instance, though not all do. The button for that is #Explore on your dashboard. (There’s also a section there of suggested people for you, but I haven’t found it very good – possibly because I follow a fairly eclectic group of people.)
- When you see someone you know of, check out who they’re following.
- If you’re interested in a specific field, you can go to an instance that specializes in that – like ecoevo.social, med-mastodon.com, or genomic.social for example – and click on their “Local” button: You’ll see the stream of posts from people from that instance. Or you can click on their profiles directory.
You can create lists of people you can check to make sure you don’t miss their posts.
If the people you follow aren’t posting much, your timeline won’t be very interesting. Consider starting with a hashtag of feel-good pics, like #NaturePhotography.
Here are some suggestions to consider adding:
George Takei: “I boldly went to this new site”…and he became one of the most popular people there – deservedly so. Address: @email@example.com
#BlackMastodon is a great way to see conversations that matter, and find people to follow to learn from.
Pete Walkden, professional wildlife photographer currently on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. Here’s an example of why he’s unmissable. Address: @firstname.lastname@example.org
Learning about Mastodon: Follow @email@example.com and/or @firstname.lastname@example.org
5. #Introduction culture
Click on #Introduction and you’ll see a stream of these. This is a key part of Mastodon culture. Even if you have no other post, consider doing this. When people who know you see it, some will boost it (that’s the Mastodon version of “retweet”) and people will find you that way.
Many people have their intro post pinned to their account. So you can check out a few people you follow to find a style you feel comfortable with.
6. Three things that don’t work the way you might think
Direct messages aren’t as private as they are on Twitter. This is just posting directly to “named” accounts. Mastodon isn’t for private communication.
Editing is great – just click on your post, then the … at the bottom. It works as you would expect (and so does delete and re-draft). What you mightn’t expect, though, is that anyone who has favorited or boosted your post will get a notification each time you edit it. So keep that in mind.
Numbers of interactions doesn’t work as it does in other places. One of the anti-virality design features of Mastodon is that when you see a post in your timeline, you won’t see how many people have favorited or boosted it. If you click on the post, you can see numbers – but it won’t include interactions from people whose instances aren’t fully linked into your network. And if someone boosts your post from seeing another person’s boost, you won’t be notified of that indirect boost – although that will be in the count when you click on a post. The bottom line: Mastodon isn’t designed to encourage chasing virality.
[Update December 17, 2022] Here’s a post with a great example. I took a screenshot of a currently viral post as I see it, and as it appears in the home instance of the person who posted it. I saw 4.3k boosts and 495 likes. The other view? 8k boosts and 13k likes. (My instance is only showing me the likes from users on my own instance, which explains part of the dramatic difference.) Federation meeting anti-virality design leads to some real head-scratchers!
(And if you’re interested in why there’s no quote-boost, I’ve written a post on that contentious issue.)
7. A bit of Mastodon etiquette
There’s plenty to criticize at Mastodon, but one of the truly great parts of Mastodon culture is sensitivity to the communication needs of people who need to use readers because they’re visually impaired. These are 3 critical habits to pick up, if they aren’t already habitual for you:
- Whenever you post an image or video, use the description section to briefly explain what’s in the image. And there’s an account you can follow that will ping you if you post an image without one: @PleaseCaption@botsin.space Then you can go into edit, delete the image and add it again so the description option comes up.
- Use CamelCase in your hashtags, so the screen reader knows when words start and end: so that’s #DogsOfMastodon, not #dogsofmastodon.
- Be sparing with emojis, because the reader has to read them out and they are really confusing. Definitely don’t use them in your name. And don’t intersperse a sentence with emojis.
The second issue is the CW. That’s an option at the bottom of a post. It stands for “Content Warning”. It’s like a subject line of an email, and the rest of the post is collapsed behind a “Show more” button. You definitely need to use them if you’re posting something distressingly graphic, or if there are spoilers for a movie etc. Because Mastodon posts are longer than tweets, this is also a good practice for things that are of limited interest to most of the people who follow you. For example, if you’re posting about local or national politics that’s not of broad interest, it’s great to let the rest of us opt out by not expanding those – there can be such floods of them when someone has an election, for example.
Finally, a habit that took me quite a while to get used to. When you reply to people, or you’re doing a thread and thus replying to yourself repeatedly, make your reply “unlisted”. (Click on the symbol for the globe to choose the setting for how public your post is.) Making them unlisted doesn’t mean they’re less visible, but it does stop you peppering people with too many notifications in their timelines. And it’s ideal for threads: When people only get notified of the first in a thread, then everyone reads through the thread in order as they unfurl it. So much better!
Update [April 30, 2023]: Added sfba to the list of places to start – a post by Delia Christina reminded me that I’d seen enough to recommend this instance.
Disclosure: I joined Twitter in October 2010, and Mastodon in October 2022. At the time of writing this post, I had over 3,100 followers at Mastodon (growing), and over 31,000 at Twitter (dropping).