Incase you've been spending the last four months focusing almost entirely on the day-to-day grind, so haven't been paying attention, things at Twitter are not going well to put it charitably, and so a lot of people who used to be on Twitter have migrated over to Mastodon. So we at World Blind Herald thought it would be helpful to put together a non-exhaustive guide to Mastodon for those who have already migrated as well as those who might be considering migration but don't know where to start or how to keep as many pieces from Twitter as intact as possible. This article covers everything from finding a server to rebuilding your network of followers and those whom you follow, and then discusses the larger social ecosystem in which Mastodon lives.
What Is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a social networking application that is similar to, but not a clone of Twitter, based on a decentralized protocol called ActivityPub. It's a descendant in the same line as Gnu Social, and other distributed social networks meant to be distinct from centralized services like Twitter or Facebook/Instagram. Those of us who adopted Mastodon early did so because we were not happy with the way things were going on the centralized services, so we left and started forming smaller communities. Mastodon has since become at least a waystop for lots of Twitter expatriates since the end of October last year.
Mastodon calls its servers "instances", and they tend to form around common interests or common human group membership, although they're not always strict about who can join and who can't. Joining is a lot like signing up for email, because members of one instance can talk back and forth with members of other instances, but to get the most out of Mastodon I'd recommend finding an instance that aligns most with your interests or the group of people you like to hang out with. There are a few ways to find instances: the Join Mastodon service, instances.social, or recommendations by friends that are already on Mastodon. Joinmastodon groups instances by their size, while instances.social will allow you to filter by interest group. Instance membership isn't permanent. So if you start out on an instance, and you find that you don't agree with its moderation policies or you find your administrators aren't doing a good job enforcing said policies, you can move to another instance once every 30 days, and bring your followers with you. (More on migrating here)
Smaller Is Better
There are large Mastodon instances, like mastodon.social or mastodon.online or mastodon.world, but you'll have a much better experience on Mastodon if you find a smaller instance. They tend to be better moderated and otherwise better run, and the local timeline tends to be a great place to find new people to interact with (more on timelines below).
Unlike the centralized social networks, there are a plethora of apps for interacting with Mastodon, for all platforms. The one I like most for iOS is Ivory which is a third-party client, although the official app has gotten some major accessibility improvements. There's also Mona which is currently in beta. On the Android side, we have Tusky which has extensive support for Talkback’s custom actions which provide an experience similar to roter actions on IOS. If you search your app store for Mastodon you can get a full list.
Mastodon has a few different timelines, and which one your browsing will determine which content you're seeing. Your home timeline contains posts from the people you're following. Your local timeline contains all public posts from those on your instance, and your federated timeline contains public posts from everyone on every instance that federates with yours. This one can get quite busy, but you'll still find some interesting stuff on there as well as interesting people to follow. Finally, notifications contains your replies as well as notifications that people have favorited or boosted your post, as well as notifications when others follow you.
Types Of Posts
There are several different types of posts on Mastodon: Public posts, followers-only posts, replies and direct messages. Public posts can be seen by anyone, followers-only posts are limited to the people who are following you, and direct messages are between yourself and one or more users. Direct messages are not encrypted on Mastodon, just like they're not encrypted on Twitter.
You can follow individual accounts on Mastodon, but you can also follow hashtags as well, and these can be a great way to surface new content. Bookstodon, for example, is a hashtag devoted to all things books, and if you're someone who likes reading, it'll get you in trouble. My want-to-read pile has doubled since I started following that hashtag and I love the book reviews.
Interacting With Things Outside Mastodon Itself
The thing that really makes Mastodon shine is that it is a part of a larger whole known as the fediverse and you can interact with people and even groups outside of Mastodon. For example, if someone starts a group on Friendica, (a fediverse alternative to Facebook), you can follow that group and interact with it from Mastodon. There's also Funkwhale for music, Bookwyrm for keeping track of the books you read, and you can use fediverse.party to find other federating projects to cover just about any use.
Getting Attention On Mastodon
Mastodon, unlike Twitter, does not have a curation/recommendation algorithm. The way things get noticed is by being boosted and with liberal use of hashtags. And culturally speaking, it's a give-and-take affair. If you want people to notice and share your posts, you need to return the favor and boost their stuff, if you find it boostworthy of course. You also need to interact with people, either by favoriting their posts (which is kind of like an internet hug and is used culturally to let someone know you noticed), or by replying assuming you find their post worth replying to. If someone comments on the article you shared, for example, thank-you goes an incredibly long way.
Blocking, Hiding, And Muting
With Mastodon becoming more and more active, you'll probably want to know about the options it offers for further curating your timeline.
First, there's blocking. Unlike centralized social networks where you can only block a user, on Mastodon (and the rest of the fediverse, for that matter), you can block at the user level or the instance level. For example, if a user is behaving badly, you can block them, you can report to your administrator or moderator, and assuming they're running the server well and depending on what's going on, they can block the user from interacting with anyone on the instance. You, or they, can also contact the administrator or moderator of their instance, and if those on the other end decide to take no action, you or your administrator or moderator can block their entire instance. There's also the fediblock hashtag which you can use to let others know they might want to block an account or an instance. And if someone is being a jerk, I strongly encourage you to report them to your administrator or moderator.
Boosts are great. But sometimes, they can overwhelm your timeline. So you can hide them either on a per-user basis, or hide them entirely. The quickest way to hide boosts entirely is to go to your Mastodon instance on the web, and under settings, check the box to hide boosts.
Hiding Content Through Filters
Another way you can hide content is to use filters. You can get pretty granular with these, including how the content is actually handled: hidden entirely or behind a content warning. For example, if you don't want to read anything about Taylor Swift, you can create a filter with her name and hide that content. If you want to hide everything from the Twitter domain, you can add twitter.com to a filter.
You can also mute users and hashtags, either for a set period of time or indefinitely. This can be useful if, for example, one of the people you follow is going on and on about something you don't care about.
Learn By Doing
I've covered a lot in this article already, and I could cover more and turn this into a dissertation. None of us want that. So the final bit of advice I'll offer is that it's best to learn by doing, and the best way to learn about Mastodon and the communities using it is to join and start interacting. You'll want to introduce yourself, and of course feel free to ask questions. Speaking for myself, I think Twitter and the communities who use it deserve better than the death by a thousand screw-ups we're currently experiencing with Twitter. And Mastodon isn't an exact copy of Twitter. But as long as we're all having to adapt, I think Mastodon and the fediverse can get the job done when it comes to maintaining communities, and more than a few of us who have been on Mastodon for a while are willing to make improvements where we need to with regard to making communities trying to make the switch feel more welcome. I hope you'll come join us and help create a better social networking experience with us.