A guide for friends considering Mastodon
A lot of my friends have recently been considering leaving Twitter for other networks, and many are considering Mastodon. There are many guides floating about that can tell you about Mastodon and the Fediverse, which is really exciting! It can be overwhelming to sort through them all, though, and honestly I haven't read them since I know my way around.
So, this is the blog version of me sitting down with a friend explaining what I know about Mastodon and how I'd recommend approaching setting up an account there for the first time and getting oriented.
What's in this:
- What is the Fediverse / Mastodon?
- Why would I want to join?
- Where do I start?
- How do I find people?
- Some guidelines I follow
- Some instances I'd consider joining
What is the Fediverse / Mastodon?
Mastodon is an open source piece of software that uses a protocol called ActivityPub to talk to a larger set of softwares. Anyone can host their own instance of Mastodon, which is basically just someone running a server, and is represented by a different domain. For example, my current accounts @email@example.com and @firstname.lastname@example.org are on different instances. For the most part, though I'll dig into this a bit more later, you can follow posts from one instance from another instance (e.g. I can see posts on sfba.social when logged into my
There are also different softwares that talk via ActivityPub that you can interact with via a Mastodon account—bookwyrm.social, an anti-corporate Goodreads, and Pixelfed, a photo sharing site like Instagram, are examples. Collectively, this set of software that all talks to each other is referred to as the Fediverse.
Lastly, decentralized. Corporate sites, like Twitter, are centralized—one organization owns and controls them. Mastodon and the Fediverse are decentralized—no one owns it, or perhaps more accurately many people own parts of it. Each instance is a person or group of people deciding to run some version of open source software, with their own set of rules, that then still talks to other versions of that software. It's also how big instances like mastodon.social can be struggling to stay up under the influx of new folks, while I don't notice a thing on my instance.
People can make modifications to that open source software—those new, modified pieces of software are called "forks". These forks are why people experience different software features from instance-to-instance. I'll talk more about one specific Mastodon fork called Hometown that I like a lot a bit later.
Why would I want to join?
I'm not sure I can answer this for you. But, for me, I find it interesting to be on non-corporate social media where I can control what I share with who, and where I can be more deliberate about who I interact with. The software being open source means that people can make their own modifications to suit their needs, and that there can be different but compatible visions of the Fediverse.
But, to be more concrete, here are some differences using Twitter as a point of comparison, since that's an easy frame of reference:
- I can choose my community, both through my selection of instance and through who I follow. There are no recommended Tweets or accounts—you only see what you choose to follow.
- I can choose the rules I want myself and people I interact with to follow. Each instance has a different terms of service, which should be enforced by its moderator. This means that if I as a person on that instance see an offensive post I can alert the moderator so they can take action. I can choose these rules either by joining an instance that reflects my values or by making my own. As an example, here is Friend Camp's terms.
- You can straight up ignore entire other instances. This means if Nazis spin up an instance, which they have, your instance can just choose to no longer interact with them at all, called defederating. It's great.
- You can control the size of your community. Joining an instance with open registration is a very different experience (firehose) than joining one that is small and invite-only (house party). And you can do both, at the same time! It's your choice.
- You can control most things about your account and how you engage with it. There are many controls given to you, including setting up auto-delete, turning off all boosts (retweets), hiding images by default, turning off feed auto refresh to slow things down, etc. Also, each instance has an API that allows you to control your account, and partly as a result there are many apps and tools folks have made and open sourced that give you additional control of your experience.
- You can explore instances for specific interests and identities—like HAM radios! It's a natural way to find people into niche things.
- There are many different models for what an instance and sustainability of that instance could look like. Some are run by individuals for themselves alone, others are collectively governed, others by a few people for , others by institutions or for interest groups or physical locations. I think this is fascinating, and an interesting opportunity for experiments in self- and collective governance within technology platforms.
- No ads, and less reward for engagement-seeking behaviors. It's a very different way of interacting with social media
- It's not set up for "content creation"—instances may not live forever, posts stay on one instance even if you move, and I don't think Mastodon is good as an archival medium. I think this is a positive thing for the way that I think about posting, personally, but it's worth keeping in mind. You can download your posts if you want, though
With all this being said, I think the hardest thing for me has been finding people and building a diverse network. You have to be more deliberate about community building. Discovery of content and people is hard, for many reasons. There are no algorithms recommending you posts or people to follow. What posts you see is limited by the instance you're on—both hashtags and the federated view will only show you posts from accounts known to your instance. You have to direct your attention a bit more for a better experience, I think, which is both good and, well, work. But I find it helpful to remember there is no one "Fediverse" or "Mastodon"—the network is literally what we make of it, technically and socially.
A lot of the positive things above also make for some software behavior that may be less intuitive when coming from a centralized site. Things like slowness only affecting certain instances, the way likes and follows work, search at all. Some may be overcome; some I think are just the realities of decentralization.
For more on all of this and in particular why this approach might be usefully and socially different than Twitter, I highly recommend reading Darius Kazemi's Run Your Own Social: https://runyourown.social. My main experience on the Fediverse has been in the instance he runs (friend.camp) that is an expression of that guide (and, more recently, an open invite Bay Area instance, to get a feel for the surge).
And, lastly, being on Friend Camp has been such a positive experience for me. I've made new friends, pursued new interests, and broadened my view of the world and also what we can make on the internet thanks to the community it provides. We've had hard and interesting discussions about what the community is and how it should be governed. I couldn't have done this on corporate or large social media. I want others to be able to have similar online spaces for themselves. (shout out and thanks all friend campers, and to Darius for making the space)
Where do I start?
My recommendation is not to think about it too much—just to sign up for an instance. If you have a friend currently on an instance that can recommend joining (or invite you), great. If not, just find one that's interesting that is accepting new users. Don't worry about this first step too much—you can easily move your account to another instance (or, at least followers and followings—not your posts, if that's important to you). For the most part, people on other instances can see what you post so it doesn't matter that much where you join.*
If you join a large instance like mastodon.social, you may see performance problems like slowness or downtime since there has been a huge influx of new users. It is also not as closely moderated as smaller instances, so you may experience harassment. But, you'll also see the most here—if you view hashtags or search you'll get much more responses than on other instances, and the local (the huddle icon, which shows you public messages from everyone on your instance) and federated timelines (the little globe in the interface, which shows you public messages from every account your instance knows about) will be like a firehose. If you like a firehose, this could be an okay place to start.
If you join a smaller instance, you may see fewer posts. The local and federated feeds and hashtags will likely be slower and have fewer posts, but may be more relevant to your specific instance and have more engagement from people on the instance. It also will likely, though not necessarily, have better performance at least during this initial load. It may also have more specific instance rules, and hopefully better moderation for those rules. They might also have more specific attention given from moderators to making sure newer members are oriented and integrated into the community. This is all very dependent on where you join, but in general I'd think of smaller instances as somewhere between a mixtape from a friend to an algorithmicly generated playlist, whereas the big open registration instances are terrestrial radio—at least content-wise.
I also recommend signing up for multiple instances and getting a feel for what you want at the start, if you're interested. You can always consolidate and delete your old accounts later, once you figure out what you want. Take some time to explore!
I don't recommend starting up your own solo instance to start, personally—finding people is too hard. (See my own notes on that here). But, if you have a group of friends and want to start your own instance together, go for it! And use Hometown so you can talk just to one another, if you choose. The Fediverse is better together.
Okay, I think it's finally time to address the "anyone can see what you post from any instance". For the most part this is true. This is not always true, though, in that instances can choose to defederate from other instances—so, if you're on an instance that another defederated from, people on that other instance won't see your posts.
I recommend that folks find a Hometown instance to join long-term. On the Hometown Mastodon fork there is the option for "local-only" posting, where people can choose to post messages that can only be seen by other members of their instance. This is another example of how saying "anyone can see what you post from any instance" isn't quite true. I think this feature is wonderful, and leads to rich communities on specific instances, and is why I encourage friends to join an instance running Hometown. In my experience the local timeline on Hometown instances is more community-oriented and introspective, whereas on vanilla Mastodon instances it tends to be an outward-facing reflection of the diverse interests of that community.
How do I find people?
People you know
The easiest way to find people is to know where they're located. Ask your friends their full address (including instance domain, e.g.
@email@example.com). Put that into the search bar and click follow.
If you follow people on Twitter, you can use this search to find names or use one of the many tools that folks have spun up to help with finding people.
People you don't know
For just generally finding interesting things or accounts, I have a few recommendations:
- Look at your instance's local and federated feeds (the huddle and globe icons)
- Look at who people you know are following or followed by
- Use and look at hashtags that are of interest on your instance (they're the only thing that is searchable; full text is not. what shows up in hashtag search is still limited to posts your instance knows about—hence the following point)
- Browse hashtags on larger or niche instances (they may have different results than your own instance; this is usually at /tags/, eg https://sfba.social/tags/STS)
- Browse the public feed on larger or niche instances (this is usually at /public, e.g. https://friend.camp/public)
- Browse the public directory of users on larger or niche instances (at /explore, e.g. https://friend.camp/explore)
- Join a group at https://gup.pe
Some guidelines I follow
There has been a lot of posting about conventions on Mastodon. I'm not that interested in telling others what they should do, but want to share what I choose to do since the network is what we make of it and I think it's good to rethink what posting norms look like when migrating from Twitter.
Here are some things I try to abide by:
- Add alt text to images (Hometown allows you to visually note when images don't have alt text, which is helpful both as a reminder to add and to not boost images without it)
- Use the content warning field as a subject line, especially for when I post publicly, at length, or for topics others might want to avoid
- Try to be intentional about whether I make a post public, unlisted, or for followers only. Public will go on all of the public feeds and be generally accessible (and is the only type of post that shows up in hashtag searches), unlisted is for things I want to be accessible by everyone but not in peoples faces, and followers only is more private.
- Use the report button if I see posts I think are hateful or violate codes of conduct. I expect my admin to respond to reports, and want to proactively make our instance better by muting and defederating where necessary
- Monetarily support the instance (e.g. through a Patreon)
- Think about what posts make sense for the different instances I'm on. For example, I am on a San Francisco instance and no longer bother friend.camp with my local political takes—mostly; just the macro ones. Thanks for dealing with them so long, camp.
Some instances I'd consider joining
Here are some instances I find myself interested in or recommending to friends:
- https://assemblag.es/about (critical tech instance; Hometown)
- https://onewilshire.la/about (for folks in Los Angeles; Hometown)
- https://mastodon.publicinterest.town/about (a brand new instance for public interest / gov tech folks; Hometown)
- https://social.coop/about (cooperatively run instance for folks interested in coops; on vanilla Mastodon)
https://sfba.social/about (general open instance for folks in San Francisco Bay Area; on vanilla Mastodon)edit: I no longer recommend this server; while it's a nice place, I think it's too big
- any instance on this list: https://github.com/hometown-fork/hometown/wiki/Hometown-servers
Will expand this list over time!
Idk this is probably long enough. Thanks for reading this far; hope this is helpful! Let me know if you have any questions or if there's anything I should add. And let me know where you land on the Fediverse!
*~ christa ~*
thank you to Jim, Elisabeth, Peter, and Scott for proofreading and giving feedback! and to folks on Camp for all the good times and goofs