Now that Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover is complete, many people are suddenly turning to Mastodon in their hunt for alternative venues for tweet-like social media consumption.
Mastodon hews close to Twitter’s overall style, with “toots” instead of tweets and “boosts” instead of retweets, along with mentions, hashtags, and a chronological feed. The key difference is that Mastodon has no ads, no creepy data mining, and no centralized ownership.
It can be a little tricky to set up, though, and you may quickly discover that its attempts to clone Twitter are at odds with its decentralized nature. But don’t let that discourage you from giving it a try.
If you want to see what Mastodon’s all about, here’s how to jump in:
STEP 1: GET THE APP (OR USE THE WEBSITE)
This is the easy part: Just download the official Mastodon app for iOS or Android. You can also get started on the web by visiting joinmastodon.org and selecting “Find a server.”
STEP 2: PICK A SERVER
Unlike Twitter, Mastodon doesn’t have a single place where you can create an account. Instead, you must choose from various servers, each with their own communities and moderation rules:
While it’s possible to follow and communicate with folks across different servers, the one you join will dictate your full Mastodon handle, the content rules you’re subject to, and the address you’ll use to sign in on the web. It also has some impact on which posts you’re able to see. (More on that shortly.)
Here’s how to choose:
In the app: Hit “Sign Up” and select a server from the list. Make sure you’re okay with its moderation rules, then create an account.
On the web: Browse the list of Mastodon servers, pick one to join, then create an account.
Unfortunately, Mastodon’s mobile app still doesn’t let you explore a server’s trending posts or hashtags before joining it. For that reason, consider picking a server via the web first, then joining it in the mobile app.
If you’re still not sure which server to pick, Mastodon.social is widely considered the default with nearly 800,000 members as of this writing. It’s administered by Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s founder, CEO, and lead developer. Just bear in mind that it’s also probably the most likely to be hit with overwhelming demand right now.
Once you’ve joined a server, your full Mastodon handle will follow this format: @yourname@servername. (Rochko’s handle, for instance, is @[email protected].) Keep this in mind as you’ll likely need to reference it later.
Mastodon doesn’t offer an easy way to switch handles. If you want to switch your @name, you’ll need to create a new account, then migrate your old one over. To do that, head to the profile editor, click on “Account settings,” then choose “Move to a different account.” You can also use the same process to switch to a different server.
STEP 3: FIND FOLKS TO FOLLOW
After signing up through Mastodon’s mobile app, it will suggest a handful of people from that server to follow, but it’s a pretty limited list. Here are a few other ways to connect with folks on Mastodon:
Use the search tab: In the mobile app, tapping the search icon takes you to a discovery section, where you can browse through trending posts, hashtags, a “For You” section of recommended follows, and “Community,” which shows a live feed of posts from your server.
Use the Explore section: On the web, the #Explore section serves a similar purpose, with tabs for trending posts, hashtags, and “For you” follower suggestions.
Drink from the firehose: Also on the web, you can use the Local and Federated sections to view a live feed of posts from your server and the entire decentralized network, respectively.
Search for people: Using the search bar, you can look for specific names or handles. It’s better to do this on the web, where results can include people from servers other than your own.
Browse some curated lists: As noted by FediTips, you can also follow people through human-curated directories. The best of these is Fedi.Directory, which organizes people by topic and includes bio information for each.
Follow hashtags: Some servers allow you to follow entire hashtags in addition to individual people. Just click on any hashtag in your timeline or search results and hit the + button at the top-right corner. (You can only set this up on the web for now.)
One thing to note: While you can follow accounts from outside your server, the process can be clunky if you’re doing so from their profile page: You’ll have to enter your full Mastodon handle (as mentioned in the previous section) to confirm you’d like to follow them.
STEP 4: SET UP YOUR PROFILE
Once you’ve joined a server and found some folks to follow, you can settle in by setting up your Mastodon profile:
In the app: Tap on the elephant icon, then hit “Edit Info.” You can then add a profile picture, change your display name, and add info to your bio.
On the web: Click “Edit profile” under your display name, and you can add a bio, profile picture, and header image.
Again, Mastodon’s web interface is more capable than the mobile version, letting you set up a header image along with various rules for your account. For instance, you can set posts to automatically delete and require permission before people can follow you.
STEP 5: START POSTING
If you want to help Mastodon shake its ghost town reputation, you’d better start contributing—ideally by posting about things other than Elon Musk and Twitter.
Compared to Twitter, Mastodon has a more generous 500-character limit, so you can stretch out a bit more. You can also use the icons underneath the post box to add images, create polls, limit who sees your posts, or add a content warning.
A couple things to keep in mind while posting:
Hashtags are more important on Mastodon because the search function only covers plain text for you and people you follow. If you want other people to find your posts, you’ll need to use hashtags.
Mastodon does not have a Direct Message function. The closest equivalent is to use the post visibility tool to limit a post only to people you’ve mentioned.
Mastodon does not have an equivalent to Twitter’s Quote Tweet tool. This was a design decision intended to make the platform less incendiary.
Although Mastodon offers Favorite function akin to Twitter’s Like button, you can also use Bookmarks to save a toot without other people knowing about it.
MORE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT MASTODON
Now that you know the ropes, you can start using Mastodon in earnest.
Understand, however, that your experience will be much different from Twitter. Most of your friends and followers probably won’t be joining you, so you’ll need to find new communities to make the site entertaining. The whole endeavor very much has a nerdy, home-brew, open-source vibe to it, which may or may not be your thing.
Mastodon also still feels like a work in progress, which makes sense as it’s an independent project not backed by gobs of venture capital. Much of its functionality remains limited to the web version, rather than the mobile app, and you should be prepared for technical issues during big waves of interest, like the one that’s happening now.
That’s the price you pay, though, if you want to escape Elon Musk’s influence and try to curb your Twitter addiction along the way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jared Newman covers apps and technology from his remote Cincinnati outpost. He also writes two newsletters,