Mastodon is a fast-growing Twitter-like social network that seeks to re-create the service’s best parts while eliminating its whale-sized problems. The distributed, open-source platform offers better tools for privacy and fighting harassment than Twitter does, but it also comes with a learning curve. Mastodon’s federated nature means there’s no single website to use, and learning how to wade through its timeline of tweets (which it calls toots) takes some time to adjust to.
But for anyone who misses “the old Twitter” — the days of purely chronological timelines, no ads, and an inescapable flood of harassment — Mastodon can feel like a haven. So before you evacuate the blue bird hellmouth, here’s everything you need to know.
What is an instance?
On Twitter, everyone logs into the flagship site or app to use the service. On Mastodon, you log into a specific “instance.” Think of Mastodon as a series of connected nodes, and instances are the specific node your account lives in.
Mastodon.social is considered the flagship instance and has more than 41,700 users. There are many others you can join, which can vary in what kinds of posts they will allow. You can register an account on as many instances as you like.
How does it work?
Mastodon cops the basic feel of Twitter, especially its professional app Tweetdeck. The interface is separated into columns that stream your notifications and the timeline of people you follow. There’s also an option to access a “local timeline” or “federated timeline,” which we’ll get to in just a second.
Instead of tweets, you’ll write a “toot.” Or a “noot,” “awoo,” and so on — some instances use their own lingo for their version of tweets. A retweet is a “boost,” and a like is a “favourite.” Mastodon ditches the 140-character restriction and gives you up to 500, as well as several options for privacy. Clicking on the tiny earth icon will open a menu for Public, Unlisted, Private, and Direct. Public is what it sounds like — your message will post to the local timeline. Private will go to your followers only, while direct will go to only users mentioned in the toot. This is in addition to being able to make your account totally private, which you can do by editing your profile.
Mastodon also includes a “content warning” feature, which you can use to hide content with a click-through requirement. So far, Mastodon servers encourage the CW feature for things like spoilers, NSFW content, or trigger warnings, but it’s also an easy way to indicate a specific link or comment that followers may want to skip, like politics.
What are local and federated timelines?
Aside from your home feed of accounts you follow, most Mastodon instances include two timelines for you to read: a local timeline, and a federated timeline. Local is what it sounds like — a stream of posts from everyone posting publicly on that particular instance.
The federated timeline is a little more complicated. Mastodon developer Eugen Rochko likened federation as a whole to email. “It means that users are spread throughout different, independent communities, yet remain unified in their ability to interact with each other,” he wrote in a Medium post. You can send an Outlook email user a message from your Gmail account, even though you’re not using the same service — Mastodon works the same way.
This means that you’ll be able to see messages or follow users on other instances — for the most part. If you check out the “extended information” tab, you can see how many instances your home base is connected to. If you and your friend are on connected instances, great! If not, you won’t be able to find them, and their toots, noots, or awoos won’t show up in your federated timeline. This is easy to spot if you have two instances open at the same time and compare federated timelines; there’s bound to be some inconsistency.
So which instance should I choose?
Mastodon.social may be the flagship instance, but it’s not currently accepting new members. Mastodon has a list of other instances for you to examine, as does GitHub. Both include information on whether or not an instance is accepting new members.
If you want a loud, bustling place to toot, you’ll want to find one with a high user count that’s accepting registrations. Some will offer you basic platforms to socialize, while others are more specific. The memetastic.space instance is a place for people to share memes; fern.surgeplay.com is Minecraft themed; mastodon.technology is for, yep, tech people. It’s worth noting that not every instance is federated. Some keep local timelines only, while others only federate with specific instances. And people say Twitter is confusing!
How do I find specific people?
This is where it gets tricky. Where on Twitter you’d just search someone’s handle or name, you often need to be more specific to find the person you’re looking for.
I grabbed the @megan handle on the main instance I use, mastodon.xyz. (On others, I’ve tried different variations of my name.) When I type @megan into social.targaryen.house, the only @megan I pull up registers as existing on the @social.tchncs.de instance. To find my mastodon.xyz account on the social.targaryen.house instance, I need to specifically search @email@example.com. Think of it like email, as Rochko said above.
If you’re trying to locate friends on other instances, or they’re trying to locate you, the easiest way is to include their @handle and their @instance.
How are so many people already verified?
My dude, they’re not. Those little green checks you see are just emoji people have added to their names.
What’s to stop Mastodon from being clogged and horrible like Twitter?
In theory: moderation, community-specific posting guidelines, and a smaller user base than that of Twitter, which has upwards of 300 million people. Harassment is one of Twitter’s greatest problems, and it’s something Rochko is tackling head-on.
Motherboard has an excellent deep dive on Mastodon that discusses how the service works, and how it’s a “Nazi-free zone.” Notably, mastodon.social and many instances like it strictly ban "content illegal in Germany and/or France, such as holocaust denial or Nazi symbolism," as well as sexism, discrimination, and xenophobia.
Like Twitter, Mastodon also allows you to block someone outright and report accounts. The ability to customize the audience for your toots, or even add content warnings, is an effective touch. “Smaller, tight-knit communities are less prone to harboring toxic behavior,” Rochko wrote on Medium. “You could think of it as moderation work of the entire network being spread somewhat between countless administrators of independent but compatible communities, which makes it way more scalable than a single multi-million-user company with a small safety team.”
Should I use it?
Mastodon still feels like a small community, and your reaction to that statement might just be your answer. It wants to be Twitter but better, yet Twitter has long been a mainstream social media platform. It has the size and seniority that Mastodon, as only an improved clone, hasn’t achieved — and might not want to. Social media like Twitter is good because of the people you follow: your friends, celebrities, hilarious shitposters. To enjoy Mastodon, some of these people will need to join you.
Mastodon has yet to establish its personality, and it seems like its culture may depend on which instance you call home. If you’re not looking to outright replace Twitter, or are interested in helping a community expand, this platform is for you. It’s a rare chance to join a growing network in its infant stages. That is, before it succumbs to the fate of so many of its contemporaries, and is overrun with politics, birthday updates, and mindless rants.