Flipping the Bird: How to Mastodon

Last time, we talked about the options for replacing Twitter if you want to “flip the bird.” I’ve made the choice to switch to Mastodon, at least to start; and I’ve really been enjoying it. If you’d like to make the jump, even if only to try it out, I’m here to help.

First of all, you should know that, despite Mastodon’s reputation for complication, that’s really more of a messaging problem than a real problem. Don’t worry; despite a couple of hiccups and bumps in the road, it’s actually set up pretty much exactly like email. If you have set up an email account, you can set up a Mastodon account. And I’m here to help.

tl;dr: If you can understand email, you can understand Mastodon. Don’t stress about choosing a server (instance); it changes very little about how you use the network, and switching is easy and lossless if you change your mind later.

What is Mastodon?

On the surface, Mastodon looks like a capable Twitter competitor (more technically known as a “microblogging social network”). It offers a 500-character limit on text posts, the ability to upload up to four pieces of media per post, the ability to edit posts, a “feed,” hashtags, following…all the basics.

But it’s different from Twitter in one key way: Mastodon is federated. We’ll talk more about that in the next article, as well as answering some other frequently asked questions; but what you need to know now is that it is not run by or beholden to any one operator. You can access the entire social network from any server, and you can pick up and move from one server to another in seconds.

The How-To

How do I join Mastodon?

People try to make a big deal out of how to join Mastodon. But don’t fall for it. It’s dead simple: just go to joinmastodon.org and click “Create Account,” or download the mobile app and tap “Get Started.” And here, admittedly, is where Mastodon’s first messaging hiccup can be found.

How do I choose a server?

This honestly isn’t as big a deal as it sounds. Most guides start with a long diatribe about this part of the process, but it’s actually pretty simple: scroll down the list at joinmastodon.org/servers (or in the “get started” section of the app) and choose one you vibe with. The exact one you choose doesn’t really matter any more than the exact email provider you choose really matters.

But if I want to follow my friends, don’t I have to be on the same server?” Nope! With a few minor exceptions (usually related to bad behavior), anyone on any server can interact with anyone on any other server if they want. Just like email; you don’t have to have a Hotmail account to email people on Hotmail.

Do they have different features?” Not really, for the most part. Again, just like email, there are a couple of standard features; some servers might add a couple of bells and whistles (a longer post character limit here, a different visual design there), but for the most part you’ll get the same features on any server you join; and the Mastodon Server Covenant is an attempt to make sure they’re all safe.

But what if I choose wrong?” If you find that the server you’re a part of doesn’t meet your needs for one reason or another, just pack up and move to another. It’s easier than getting a new email address, because your follows and followers come with you.

Can you just decide for me?” Okay, okay. Check out mastodon.social, universeodon.com, and mindly.social. See if any of those catch your fancy.

How do I finish setting up my account?

After you’ve chosen a server, you’ll need to click “Create Account” in the top right if you’re on the desktop version; but if you’re on the mobile app, you should be taken straight to the next step.

After that, on both platforms, you’ll see the rules for the server in question. Note that this isn’t some super duper long license agreement; on most servers, you’ll have a half dozen, maybe ten rules to follow; usually in the general vein of “don’t do anything illegal and respect others.” You don’t have to give away any rights to participate on Mastodon. Kinda nice, isn’t it?

Once you’ve accepted the rules, just fill out the signup form and verify your email, exactly the way you would on any other online service.

How do I follow people?

Like any other social media service, you follow other people by typing in their username in the search box and clicking “follow.” The wrinkle is that usernames on Mastodon are composed of two parts—exactly like an email address. First comes the user’s handle (mine is “@ilinamorato”). Then comes the server where the user is based, which is formatted just like the end of an email address (mine is “@mastodon.social”). Put them both together, and you have a full Mastodon username (@ilinamorato@mastodon.social).

Here’s where the second Mastodon Messaging Mistake comes in: if you’re on the desktop version of Mastodon, you should always look up profiles this way when you want to follow them. The search bar is at the top of the “Explore” tab; just paste the full Mastodon username into that bar and follow them from the search result that comes up. If you view a profile on their server instead of yours, you’ll be faced with a login page—and that can get confusing. So just copy the username (the full username!) into the search bar on your server and follow them from there. And if you use the mobile app—you probably don’t have to worry about any of this!

How do I tell people my handle so they can follow me?

On your profile, you should see a Share link. You can just use that, simple as anything.

Or you can tell people your Mastodon username the way you tell them your email address: by giving your handle first, then your server. They can paste that into their search bar and follow you easily.

Why is it so empty here?

Probably because you aren’t following anyone! Mastodon has no algorithm; you just get a chronological feed of every post by the people you follow, with no recommended posts. You can watch the “federated” feed (which is a firehose of every post by every user on every other server that your server knows about) or the “local” feed (a slightly less overwhelming firehose of every post by every user on your server); but the best way to get content on Mastodon is to follow people, or hashtags.

• • •

And that’s it! Everything after this is just answering FAQs. I’ll have a follow up post in a bit with some of those questions, but this is all you really need to know to have a great time on federated social media!

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