Elon Musk has decreed every Twitter user must pay him $8 per month or he’ll set fire to their tweets and throw them in a bin. He added that comedy “is now legal on Twitter”, but actual comedians impersonating him in a satirical manner will be banned, before relenting when celebs and advertisers started to flee.
Having noticed the direction of travel, many Twitter users aren’t keen on staying put in a bus driven by an egomaniac towards a cliff. Hence the exodus to Mastodon. The service is named after an extinct beast and looks a lot like Twitter, but in much the same way Linux looks a lot like Windows. Take that as both a warning and a compliment.
What is Mastodon anyway?
Until recently, the official Mastodon website said that “getting started was easy”. On a very long page that talks about servers, feeds, regions and topics. If you’re used to single-button sign-ups, it was enough to make you run for the hills.
But get over this hurdle and it turns out Mastodon is easy. Well, easyish. And you need to understand why the hurdle exists. In short, Mastodon is decentralised. It’s like a bunch of little Twitters, on their own servers, with plenty of interoperability between them. This makes good on Mastodon’s assertion that it’s “social networking that’s not for sale”, given that you can’t sell something that’s decentralised to this degree. Which is just as well, given what’s going on at the bird place.
So how do I join a Mastodon server?
On the official website, explore the list of servers, check out their policies and rules, and choose one you like. You can always ask friends who’ve bolted from Twitter if they’re happy with their choices. Alternatively, instances.social can help you narrow things down.
Next, sign up with a username and password, and then sign in. Only do remember you subsequently need to sign into your chosen server – try logging into another Mastodon instance and you’ll be met with an error message.
Plenty of folks argue it doesn’t matter which server you pick, but that’s only true in as much as you can follow people on other servers. If you are warned your server will close, it is possible to move to another. But doing so is a faff and you retain only your social graph, not your post history. Worse, if you don’t move in time (or don’t get the chance, due to the server abruptly vanishing), you lose everything.
So err on the side of caution by regularly backing up your posts from Mastodon’s preferences. And if you value the server you use, support its upkeep by donating.
How do I introduce myself on Mastodon?
Once you’re signed in, that’s the tricky bit done with. So head to Preferences > Profile and complete your display name and bio. To help people to more easily find you from Twitter, mirror your profile from there, as far as possible, including imagery. If relevant, add metadata title/URL pairings, which appear on your profile page as a table. This avoids cluttering your bio with links.
Next, craft a first post that says a bit about you that includes the #introduction tag. This is browsed by many Mastodon users and helps them find and follow interesting people and build their personal Mastodon communities. So do also regularly dip into #introduction yourself.
But how do I find all my Twitter friends?
There’s no magic wand for getting your Twitter follows to Mastodon. Services like Twitodon, Debirdify and Fedifinder can help, but are reliant on publicly available data. In practice, you’re likely to end up with a list comprising a fraction of your follows, even of more of them have Mastodon accounts. If you get CSV output of your follows from a service, this can at least be quickly imported into Mastodon. (Use Preferences > Import and export – and then merge the new items with your existing follows.)
Elsewhere, you can search on Twitter for ‘Mastodon’ and filter replies to ‘People you follow’, to find Mastodon handles, along with keeping an eye out for them in Twitter bios. You can then search for these people individually in Mastodon itself (using #Explore) and follow them. Additionally, Explore > For you on Mastodon can help you find more people you’d like to follow, as can #followfriday and the hand-picked Fedi.directory.
If you want to let others know about your Mastodon account, there are two ways. Share your handle online – @[username]@[server] (eg @[email protected]) – which people can use to search for you. But you can also provide a link to give people more direct access; this takes the form https://server/@username (eg https://mastodon.social/@craiggrannell).
Any other important stuff?
- Posts on most servers allow up to 500 characters, polls and images (to which you can and should add descriptive text) .
- Content warnings/wrappers are baked deep into the culture of Mastodon. Apply one (usually using a CW or ‘!’ button) to screen a sensitive post until it’s clicked/tapped. It’s recommended you do this for topics like politics. A secondary CW use case is temporarily hiding long posts, thereby helping users scan feeds more easily.
- Videos can be attached to posts, but add to server hosting costs – any many servers are run by individuals. So consider uploading to YouTube or Vimeo and linking instead.
- Posts can be edited (online, click … and then Edit), but be mindful revisions remain available. There is also a ‘delete and redraft’ option.
- Boosts (akin to retweets) push posts into friends’ feeds, but favourites (likes) do not.
- Hashtags are a vital means to group and discover content – far more than on Twitter. But #do #not#hashtag #every #word #or #people #will#hate #you.
- Direct messages exist on Mastodon, but there’s no end-to-end encryption. They are potentially visible to admins so do not use them for sensitive information.
- Usernames exist per server, and so don’t be surprised if someone else also uses ‘your’ username. Brands beware.
- You have three default feeds: Home is your follows. Local is everyone on your server, regardless of whether you follow them. Federated is everyone across all servers known by yours – and not filtered by your admin.
- You can block individuals – or even entire servers. And you can create lists, like on Twitter, if your Home feed rages out of all control.
- Mastodon’s preferences panes have many options, including post auto-deletion. Spend a bit of time exploring them.
- Advanced view in desktop browsers gives you a Tweetdeck-like multi-column view. In fact, do all heavy lifting in the browser.
- Mobile Mastodon apps are often feature-limited, but ideal for your phone. Beyond the official, free Mastodon app for Android and iOS, there are third-party options, such as Tusky for Android and Metatext for iPhone and iPad.
Got all that? Fab.
So is Mastodon worth all this hassle?
That depends on you. If you like Twitter but hate what’s happening to its current incarnation, Mastodon is the most Twitter-like alternative out there. Onboarding is bumpy and the service sometimes feels clunky, but it has great features that Twitter users have been crying out for, no ads, and a friendly vibe.
Also, there’s no insanely rich owner, who spent 44 billion dollars on the service and yet steals and reposts a meme about Twitter being in the grave. That’s got to be a plus.