How to Use Mastodon
Also "why" for those of you on the fence.
I've been getting extremely into Mastodon, a social media platform that cleanly replicates (and in some cases improves upon) Twitter's take on microblogging. I've read, watched, and listened to a lot of explainers about the service, and for some reason most begin by claiming how difficult the platform is to use. The truth is that the hardest part of using Mastodon is creating your account — and even that is about as difficult as deciding where to set up an email address. In the end, using Mastodon is wildly similar to using Twitter.
With that in mind, here's everything you need to know about getting started!
If you feel comfortable poking around and figuring things out for yourself and just want the quickest quick-start guide of all time, feel free to skip the rest of this post and just follow these steps:
1. Head over to https://mas.to and sign up for an account
2. Have fun exploring a new social platform
3. Start posting, baybee!
For those who want a bit more, I got you.
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a social network for posting short bits of text or images, just like Twitter. Unlike Twitter, which is an entity that relies on investors and revenue to keep the lights on, Mastodon is an open source project. It has no algorithm and no ads.
It's pretty good!
Why is that better?
It means an Elon Musk style figure can never swoop in, buy the entire platform, fire most of its staff, remove content moderation policies and user safety precautions, ban journalists who disagree with him, etc. While you can only go to twitter.com to access and use Twitter, Mastodon can and does reside on many websites around the internet. Existing through multiple communities — sometimes called "instances" or "servers" — prevents it from being owned and operated by one individual or corporate entity. Anyone can create their own Mastodon server. Some servers have only one user, some have hundreds of thousands.
If there are so many servers, how do I know which to join? What if I pick the wrong one?
That's the beautiful thing, dear reader. Every server speaks to every other server. No matter which you join you'll be able to follow, be followed by, and interact with users on every other server. Because of this, you only need to make one account on one server to join Mastodon¹.
Even better: If you don't like the server you've joined for whatever reason, you can easily move your account to another.
You still didn't tell me which one to join, my guy.
True! To make things as easy as possible, the community I'd recommend right now is mas.to. I had an account there for a few months, and I initially picked it because I liked the name a lot! It's short and it's cute!
If you want to peruse some other options, you can head over to Join Mastodon and check out servers that are based around regions, professions, ideologies, or fandoms. Whichever server you end up picking, that url will be the one you visit whenever you want to use Mastodon. Just like going to twitter.com or facebook.com, that server url will be how you log in and post and do everything your heart desires. So if you do end up choosing mas.to as your server, using Mastodon will mean going to https://mas.to!
How do I make an account?
Head over to your server of choice and click the "Create Account" button (usually on right side of the screen). If you've signed up for any website ever, you'll know what to do here. You'll also notice that your username is presented like an email address — firstname.lastname@example.org — and exactly like an email address this is what you'll send to your friends when you want to follow each other.
For example: My server is located at theaether.space and my username on that server is bb, so my username for the wider world of Mastodon is email@example.com!
Once you've gone through the steps required to join (hey congrats, btw), go edit your profile! Add a profile picture and a header! Add a bio! The works! All of that stuff can be found on the Preferences page.
Note: If you want to send people a link to your profile, just rearrange the order of those elements to server.name/@username. So in my case, it would be theaether.space/@bb. Hey, give me a follow while you're at it!
How do I find people to follow?
Luckily there are some great services for this already, with more popping up constantly. To get started, you can use a tool like Movetodon or Debirdify to search for your Twitter friends and find their Mastodon usernames. To follow them, just copy their whole username (which, again, looks like an email address) and paste it into the search box. Once you've followed some people, you can use a tool like Followgraph to see who those people are following and add a few more people to your home feed.
Speaking from experience, one of the more exciting things about joining Mastodon is getting a clean slate. You don't realize how many people you didn't need to be following until you're building the list from zero again. So go out there and follow people who seem interesting. It's 2008 all over again!
Okay, I've followed a bunch of people. Now what?
Sounds like all that's left is to mess around with the site and start posting! As with most social networks, there are some nuances to learn but absolutely nothing is overwhelming. Posts can be up to 500 characters instead of 240, you can use privacy buttons to decide who can see and reply to your post, etc. You'll learn best by poking around and by doing, because what makes Mastodon different is what makes it interesting. For example, there are no "quote-tweets" on here. That means the best ways to interact with others are to reply to or boost (retweet) their posts. It takes some getting used to², but it's worth it!
Brendon, I don't always want to use Mastodon on my personal computer. Tell me about apps!
Luckily there are a bunch of apps to choose from, and it seems like more pop up on a weekly basis. First and foremost, there is an official Mastodon app you can grab for iOS and Android, and I think it's pretty good!
That said — and in the spirit of Mastodon — there are some great apps by independent developers putting their own spin on it. Just like the early days of Twitter apps, these developers are at the forefront of what Mastodon may one day become. If you're using an iPhone, the two I'd recommend at the moment are Ivory or Ice Cubes. If you're on Android, definitely check out Tusky.
All you'll need to do is provide your server url, then log in as you normally would.
A fun recent swerve: Developers are also starting to create alternate web interfaces for Mastodon that replicate the look and feel of things like Tweetdeck. Check out Elk or Mastodeck for a different flavor.
This is all well and good but if Twitter and other bigger social media platforms exist, why would I use Mastodon instead?
I think that point about Mastodon not truly having any overarching owner is the most important point of all. Servers individually have owners, but Mastodon being run on an open protocol instead of by one explicit company or person means there’s no way anyone could step in and destroy it. As long as there are people out there hosting Mastodon servers, Mastodon will continue to exist.
On a personal level, saying “I choose to invest my time in this space instead of those driven by profit” is a step towards a public good. It helps lay the foundation to make the internet a better place for yourself and for future generations, to take some control back. We've spent too much time building our online presence around and for companies who sell our information to advertisers and use algorithms to manipulate our lives and emotions.
Even if Mastodon has some quirks that make it a tiny bit harder to use than some of the larger alternatives, if there's even the slightest chance using it can help make a statement and build something better than what currently exists, isn't that at least worth trying?
¹ For the people who use and know a lot about Mastodon: Hello! I know I'm simplifying some concepts here, and I know not everyone will agree with my approach. At the end of the day, I think some of the more interesting things about Mastodon are lying just underneath the surface, and users who want to discover them absolutely will eventually. I feel getting people started and understanding why they should get started is more important in the long run.
² Hashtags are big on Mastodon, which I kind of can't believe. It feels weird to be using them again!
Originally published 12/29/22
Added a new section with some app recommendations. There are so many out there and I've probably used at least ten over the past month or so. Ivory is great and my favorite of the bunch, but I know the subscription fee can be a bit much for people which is why I threw Ice Cubes on the list as well. On the Android end, Tusky is so clearly the best. I'd recommend it over the official app any day of the week.