How to Join Mastodon, the Ad-Free Social Network Billionaires Can't Buy

A short primer how to join the great #TwitterMigration and what to expect from the servers you join.

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Illustration: Mastodon/Fediverse (CC-BY-2.0) // Stocktrek Images (AP)

Six months ago, after the news broke that changes were coming to Twitter’s policies against disinformation and hate speech, I decided to give Mastodon a try. Unfortunately, I didn’t stick with the app long enough to develop a habit of using it. After returning to it once again this week, that’s something I’ve come to regret. In the few days since (mostly) ditching Twitter, I’ve gained a new respect for the platform, which is decidedly less toxic and is far more conversational and troll-free. I’m hoping this very brief guide will serve new users as well as those hearing about it for the first time.

Let’s dig in.

So what is Mastodon, anyway?

Basically, Mastodon is a Twitter alternative with a few special distinctions worth knowing upfront. It has most of the basic functionality you get with Twitter (known on Mastodon as “the birdsite”): It has a timeline or “feed” made up of what are essentially tweets, called “toots,” posted by the users you follow. You can favorite these toots or “boost” them to your own followers, which is just like retweeting. When you toot at other users, these posts appear on the timelines of users who follow you both. You can also bookmark toots and create lists of users showing only their toots — features that, as a Twitter user, you should already be accustomed to. All timelines, by the way, are strictly chronological. There’s no AI-based ranking involved.

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[Already on Mastodon and need help? Try Fedi.Tips, an unofficial guide to Mastodon & the Fediverse, or An Increasingly Less-Brief Guide to Mastodon.]

At time of writing, there are approximately 655,000 Mastodon users, with a couple hundred thousand of those profiles created in the last ten or so days alone, part of what the internet has dubbed the Great #TwitterMigration. (Note: This sudden massive influx of users has led to a number of server issues this week; however, most admin report that they’re working diligently to upscale their servers to handle the load.)

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A graph of the growing number of people using Twitter alternative Mastodon after Elon Musk's takeover.
Screenshot: @mastodonusercount@bitcoinhackers.org

If you’ve used Twitter at all for more than a few days, all of these features will seem familiar. What’s likely to cause some confusion, though, is the fact that this network is decentralized — which is to say, Mastodon is not operated by any one company.

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Whereas Twitter runs on servers controlled exclusively (now) by Elon Musk, who alone sets the rules, Mastodon “instances” are run on thousands of servers, each owned and operated by... well, anyone. Anyone can create their own Mastodon instance and write their own rules for it, deciding who’s allowed to join and how content gets moderated. The key thing to know here is, all of these instances are capable of communicating with each other. That means if you join an instance on one server, and a friend joins another, you can still follow each other and share each other’s toots. (That’s never not fun to say.)

This is what’s known as a “federated” network. Mastodon is itself just one app that’s part of a much larger federation of apps known as the Fediverse. This concept isn’t as complicated as it sounds. A common metaphors used to explain it is the cellular network. Maybe you get cell service through AT&T and, let’s say, your neighbor has T-Mobile. That doesn’t mean you can’t call one another. Email also works this way because providers share the same protocol, allowing accounts hosted by different providers to speak the same language. Social media, generally speaking, doesn’t allow for this. Facebook users can’t, for instance, communicate directly with those on Twitter. (Instagram and Facebook accounts can share content, but only because they’re owned by a single company.)

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Mastodon allows for these cross-platform conversations because, despite having many different owners, nearly all of the Fediverse’s apps share a common language. And thanks to Mastodon being decentralized in this way, no single, extremely wealthy individual can just swoop in and buy the whole thing up. For the same reason, Mastodon is (hallelujah) ad free. And with no ads, there’s no real financial incentive to collect data on users. This is one of the core benefits to using Mastodon over apps like Twitter and Instagram. Mastodon has no shareholders to please. Its purpose is not to create revenue — for anyone.

Moderation-wise, the owners of each server set their own rules. And while, yes, this technically means they’re free to allow any kind of content they wish, there’s nothing forcing one Mastodon instance to connect to another. If the admin of one chooses to block another — maybe to protect their users from harassment — they’re totally free to do so. This creates a natural incentive for admins to enforce a certain amount of etiquette, since the more an instance gets blocked, the less access its users ultimately have to the rest of the Fediverse.

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To quote Feditips: “The worse a server behaves, the more other servers will block it, and the very worst-behaved servers will find themselves completely isolated.” This kind of public accountability, at least in theory, would seem to be the ideal solution to most of the moderation challenges that have long plagued major corporations like Meta, costing them billions, over the course of more than a decade.

How do you join Mastodon?

You can check out this website for a list of ways. As an iPhone user, my personal preference so far is the Tootle app versus the official Mastodon app. But starting off on a laptop or PC might make things a bit easier to begin with.

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One thing few people realize is that Mastodon is just one of many open-source apps in the Fediverse. The Fediverse hosts apps with all kinds of purposes and nearly all use the same protocol as Mastodon (known as ActivityPub) allowing for many degrees of interoperability. The chart below shows some of these apps, which include platforms for writing, hosting videos, music, and books, and even include a few paid subscriber-based services.

The many branches of the Fediverse
The many branches of the Fediverse
Illustration: Axborn (CC-BY-NC)
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Below are a few additional things you might need to know prior to before taking the plunge.

What server should you join?

As we’ve discussed, Mastodon instances operate across a growing list of servers. If you decide to give it try, picking an instance to join is one of the first decisions you’ll have to make. You’ll find a list of open instances at joinmastodon.com, but be aware that some may be locked down, likely while admin work to expand capacity and prevent lag amid the influx of users

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Instances are often distinguished by common interest, region, or language. If you’re into a specific type of tech, such as Linux, or programming language, like Ruby, there’s likely a dedicated instance for you. There are instances dedicated to serving the queer community, musicians, painters, gamers, and, of course, furries.

Each instance is run by a different person who decides the rules. Check the “about” page on each before joining to make sure you’re comfortable with the rules before making a decision. That said, in the settings, you’ll find an option that allows you to transfer your account to another instance if you end up not liking your new home. (As far as I know, you can do this once every 30 days.)

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In addition to your “Home” timeline, which shows only the toots of people you follow, you’ll gain access to a “Local” timeline, which only shows public posts on your instance. This is the big advantage of picking an instance that aligns with one of your personal interest. (Additionally, on the web-based platform, and in apps like Tootle for iOS, you’ll see a “Fediverse” timeline, which displays posts from across many instances. This Fediverse timeline isn’t visible in the official Mastodon phone app, however.)

You may encounter some limitations while trying to interact with accounts on other instances, such as not being able to browse the list of accounts others follow. Just know that this is normal and due to some inherent limitations.

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What’s the vibe of Mastodon?

I’m going to refrain from trying to characterize Mastodon in political terms because few people on the network would say that’s appropriate. That said, the Fediverse is a very inclusive place and I haven’t encountered any instance myself willing to put up with bigotry of any kind. Mastodon is also more common among people with technical careers and hobbies, like programming and hacking, and there’s been a recent big wave of scholars joining the network.

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Another feature, which users seem encouraged to apply very liberally, is the content warning. You can hide any media behind a warning, and people use them for all sorts of reasons. There’s virtually no reason not to do this. All the warnings do is blur images and give users more freedom to decide what content they’d like to consume. You can add a brief description to give them an idea of what’s hidden, such as “politics” or “NSFW”.

Many people are using content warnings to hide posts about Twitter. New users realizing how damaging the birdsite has been to their mental health is a pretty common experience. A lot of people seem to be waking up to the fact that they’ve been addicted to it, and that it’s encouraged them to behave very poorly toward others. So while it’s still common to see screenshots of tweets on Mastodon, at least some users are kindly doing what they can to help others move on and restore emotional balance to their lives.

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Why is it slow?

Instances cost money to run, so admin usually only pay to accommodate the volume of users they have at any given time. The Great Migration has seen a huge influx of new accounts, leaving admin scrambling to scale up their servers to make room for all the new people. My best advice here is just to have patience. (If you only try Mastodon out during a big migration, and quit because it’s slow, you’re cheating yourself out of a new experience.)

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It’s also worth noting, while Mastodon may look like Twitter, people use it very differently. Some helpful advice I received early on was to try and refrain from replying to every post I saw. The pace is just generally much more calm. And for that reason, it’s also less addictive. When I use Twitter, it’s nearly always open on my screen and I’m checking it constantly. Conversely, I only check Mastodon once every few hours. The community on my instance (mastodon.lol) seems to actively encourage this, and there’s a big emphasis on how this is much better for people’s mental health.

As one user wrote yesterday:

“this site is so weird. how do I know how many internet points I won? how do I know what to be outraged about? I feel like I could just put it down at any moment and go to bed at a reasonable hour, and then check it again tomorrow if I felt like it, in a healthy way. what the fuck”

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If you end up finding an instance you really enjoy and are in a position to do so, consider checking to see if the admin has a patreon or is raising funds some other way to help cover the cost of keeping it running. This is entirely voluntary, of course, so don’t feel obligated if it’s something you can’t afford.

Why can’t I quote other posts?

Everyone asks this. It’s almost like a rite of passage. This isn’t a missing feature. The lack of a QT-like ability was an intentional design decision. Here’s the lead developer’s explanation (via Feditips):

Another feature that has been requested almost since the start, and which I keep rejecting is quoting messages. Coming back to my disclaimer, of course it’s impossible to prevent people from sharing screenshots or linking to public resources, but quoting messages is immediately actionable. It makes it a lot easier for people to immediately engage with the quoted content… and it usually doesn’t lead to anything good. When people use quotes to reply to other people, conversations become performative power plays. “Heed, my followers, how I dunk on this fool!” When you use the reply function, your message is broadcast only to people who happen to follow you both. It means one person’s follower count doesn’t play a massive role in the conversation. A quote, on the other hand, very often invites the followers to join in on the conversation, and whoever has got more of them ends up having the upper hand and massively stressing out the other person.

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How do I get followers?

Like the birdsite, Mastodon uses hashtags, which are a great way to gain a few followers and find new people to follow. Your instance probably has an “Explore” tab showing the most popular hashtags. You should make a post to #introductions when you get started. #TwitterMigration is also pretty hot right now. If you want people to follow you back, though, make sure you set your profile up. Add a profile picture! No one follows greyed-out accounts.

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A large of number of academics seem to have flocked to the Fediverse recently, and they’ve been creating and putting out lists to attract followers. Here’s a few I’ve found over the past couple of days:

One of the more advanced features on Mastodon, which you won’t find on Twitter, is the ability to auto-follow accounts by importing lists. By the time you get the hang of using Mastodon you should have no trouble figuring out how to do this on your own. And if not, just ask around.

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Can I get verified, and does it cost $8?

Because there’s no central authority, it is not possible to verify accounts. However, there’s still a way you can verify yourself if you have your own website.

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Thanos was right again.
Thanos was right again.
Image: Unknown

In your profile settings, you should find an option for “Link verification.” This will explain that you can add a line of code to your personal website, and then add that link to your profile under “Profile Metadata.” Mastodon will check the link for the code, and after finding it, add a verification tag next to the link in your bio. It only takes about five minutes, and it costs you nothing.

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Is there a video I can watch that explains this a bit better?

Tons. Feel free to browse around on YouTube. There are a lot of explainers out there. But here are two short (and pretty cute) videos that should help you conceptualize how Mastodon and the Fediverse work a bit better.

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For additional tips, try browsing the #feditips hashtag or following the Feditips account on Mastodon. And otherwise, just ask questions. Users are very friendly and are quick to respond to inquiries.