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A brief introduction to Mastodon

Table of Contents

What is Mastodon?

Mastodon is Twitter-style social networking combined with email-style instanced servers. It's named after the metal band, but themed after the extinct megafauna.

How is it like Twitter?

You post relatively-short status updates, and you can see a streaming list of your friends' status updates. You can keep notifications (replies, boosts, favorites, and DMs) in a separate column.

Mastodon's statuses are called "toots", like Twitter's are called "tweets". A toot can be up to 500 characters long.

Mastodon also supports hashtags, which are words prefixed by #, like "#gameing" or "#pineapple". You can click on a hashtag to search for other posts containing that tag.

How is it like email?

Each Mastodon instance is independent but networked, like email servers. If you sign up for an email account on, you don't automatically have an account on or, but you can send and receive messages to and from users on and

Likewise, if you sign up for an account on, that doesn't make an account for you on every other instance, but you can talk to users from other instances and they can talk to you.

You can make accounts on multiple instances if you want to talk about different things separately. You could have an account on to talk about technology, an account on to talk about gaming, and an account on for general chatter. You have to sign into each account separately, and keep each open in a separate browser tab or window.

Keep in mind that in general, when talking about Mastodon, "instance" and "server" mean the same thing.

How is it not like either of those?

Mastodon has two additional timelines that you can view: the Local timeline and the Federated timeline.

The Local timeline is every post with a public status posted by users on your instance, with the exception of replies. (A reply is any toot posted in response to another toot - NOT any toot that simply mentions another user!)

The Federated timeline is every post with a public status posted by any user that your instance knows about, even from other instances. Your instance knows about a remote user if at least one user on your instance has EVER followed them.

The Local and Federated timelines can turn into firehoses sometimes. Be careful!


This one's big on purpose.

Picking an instance can be hard. Many instances have a specific focus: is eldritch, is for brands only, focuses on the hosting and development of automated bots. On it's illicit to post a toot containing any "e"s.

If you haven't created a mastodon account yet, try one of the larger instances, like - the flagship instance, with over 100,000 users -, or

(A brief note about it is the largest instance. Many people go there and never check out other instances. If you make an account on, consider treating it as a temporary waypoint while you find an instance that better fits your needs and interests. Once you've found one, you can export all the people you're following, muting, and blocking on and import them at your new account, so you don't have to go around and find everybody again.)

If you've already registered on an instance but you're not sure if it's a good fit for you, try asking around for instances where you might be a better fit. Also, try searching for a #hashtag that interests you; if you see a lot of people on one instance talking about that subject, it might be a good place for you to check out.

You can also try the instance picker on or the wizard at, although these have lots of instances listed and you might be overwhelmed. Take it slow and easy.

How do I mention someone who's not on my instance?

Mastodon usernames take the form @username@instance. My account on is; my account on is If you're mentioning someone on a different instance, you have to type the whole thing (although the toot input box will help you auto-complete the username if it's a name the instance knows already).

If you're mentioning someone on your own instance, you just have to type the first part; if you're on, @noelle will get to me just like will. If you leave off the "@instance" Mastodon understands that you want to talk to the local user.

What are the rules?

The rules depend on which instance you're on. Each instance has a page at https://instance/about/more that contains more information about the instance and often describes the community guidelines. For example, has its community guidelines posted at .

Keep in mind that these are usually guidelines and not hard-and-fast rules. Since each instance is run by a separate team of moderators - often just one person! - they have final say over what's allowed and not allowed on their instance. Your instance admins might even go so far as to block an entire other instance if their users turn out to be incompatible with your instance's values and the other instance's moderators won't help.

How do privacy settings work?

Under each post you'll see three icons: a camera, a globe or a padlock, and the letters "CW". Click on the globe or padlock to choose the privacy settings for your post.

  • Public means that everyone can see your post.
  • Unlisted means that everyone can see your post, but it won't appear on the public timelines - either Local or Federated. Anyone who follows you or views your profile can see the toot, though.
  • Followers-Only means that only people who follow you and people mentioned in the post can see your post. If someone who doesn't follow you views your profile, they won't see this post.
  • Private means that only people who are mentioned in your post can see it.

Keep in mind that some servers, which run software that's compatible with but not the same as Mastodon, will ignore these privacy settings if you send a message to their users, so be careful!

What does "CW" mean?

CW stands for Content Warning. It hides your post behind text (which you get to choose); it's like a Read More link.

You might use CWs for:

  • Politics
  • Sex
  • Gross topics
  • Common phobias, like spiders or blood
  • Health discussions
  • Punchlines to jokes
  • Long posts that might otherwise fill up people's timelines

In general, just use your best judgment; think "is there a reason someone might not want to see this?".

I just attached a picture to my toot. What's with the new 'eye' icon?

Clicking that will hide your image behind a "Sensitive content" overlay. This is good for nudity, gore and violence, political topics, etc.

You'll notice that if you have both an image and a CW on a toot, the "Sensitive content" overlay is turned on automatically and can't be turned off. That's on purpose.

How come my friend on another instance can use this emoji, but I can't?

Each instance can define custom emoji for their users to use, and many have taken advantage of this. Your instance admin can copy emoji that they like from other instances. If you see an emoji that you like and it's not available on your instance, ask your admin to copy it over.

The Mastodon culture seems pretty weird?

It can be! But it gets to be a comfortable weirdness.

Here are some common weirdnesses:

  • 🍍: nobody really knows. Someone posted it, someone else picked it up, and it's been going ever since. It's just silliness. When in doubt, just post a 🍍.
  • AWOO: Awoo.Space was one of the earlier Mastodon instances. "Awoo" is the sound of a wolf howling. It's fun to say. Awoo! ( has nothing to do with this; in Japanese, "pawoo" is the sound of an elephant trumpeting.) Someone got irritated at the awoos and instituted a $350 fine for awooing. Nobody's ever actually paid it, don't worry.
  • #gameing: There was (and still is) a perception that #gaming is "hardcore" and elitist, and there were (and are) worries about certain breeds of gamer overrunning the #gaming hashtag. #gameing was a pre-emptive strike; it's about a fun, lighthearted, and accessible approach to games, video and otherwise.
  • IT'S BEEN/SOME as CWs: a reference to the Barenaked Ladies song One Week and the Smash Mouth song All Star respectively. A common meme on Mastodon is to put the first word or two of the song into the CW and then subvert expectations by posting something else under the cut.

You'll get used to it.

What does red_candle mean?

In early November 2017 we lost a popular Mastodonian to suicide. red_candle and lattentacle commemorate our friend Natalie Nguyen.

I like mastodon but I prefer the way Twitter looks.

Try, which is a web-based Mastodon client that replicates the Twitter appearance.

I like mastodon but I want to use it on my phone.

Mastodon has a responsive design, so you can use it in your phone's browser. Alternately, there are many apps available for Mastodon. The most widely-used are Tusky and Subway Tooter for Android, and Amaroq and Tootdon for iOS.

I have other questions.

Ask around! People are usually pretty happy to answer questions and help out. If you really get stuck, ask me:

zellk commented Nov 14, 2017

Thank you for this shirt and helpful sum-up of Mastodon !! Im still learning how to use it and trying to understand how it works, as I'm completely unfamiliar with instanced stuff etc xD

Tootdon is now available on Android.

deutrino commented Jan 7, 2018

Thank you so much for writing this! A couple quibbles:

  • Mastalab (Android) has as many downloads as Subway Tooter, and has a very active and responsive developer.
  • I respectfully disagree with the advice to join a large instance. Not only is the local timeline a disjointed firehose on large instances, but it's counter to the goal of decentralization. "How do I pick an instance" is not a question that has yet been rendered smoothly answerable, and I also have issues with promoting the Dzuk list over and over and over, but "join a bigger instance" isn't great either.
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