With trouble brewing at the Twitter headquarters and in its community at large, the social networking site Mastodon has been amassing so many new users that are crashing the servers. The turnover trend started earlier this year with Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter announced as a possibility.
It’s now been weeks since the change of ownership and the controversial changes made to monetize the verification process on Twitter have caused hundreds of thousands of users to start using Mastodon.
So what is Mastodon and how is it a viable alternative to Twitter? Here we’ve decided to provide a basic user guide for the decentralized social networking platform that is witnessing exponential growth in its user base.
What Is Mastodon?
Mastodon is an open-source, self-hostable microblogging platform similar to Twitter or Tumblr. Here users make profiles, post messages, images, and videos, and follow other users. The messages usually have a 500-character limit that follows a chronological order.
Unlike most other social media and microblogging platforms, Mastodon is an independent space that is not under the control of any single individual or a giant corporation. Users get total control of the platform with the liberty to host servers that are customized to provide the best experience for their community with their own set of rules.
Also unlike other platforms, Mastodon does not track your data for selling to advertisers as there are no ads in the fediverse. There are no algorithms that collect or analyze your usage and the whole platform is a part of a decentralized network called the fediverse.
The Fediverse is a collection of thousands of independently run social media servers that communicate with each other seamlessly to form a gigantic web of social networks. It allows the millions of users on these servers to interact with others as if they were on a single social platform. It can be seen as a platform that integrates other platforms in a way that Twitter users could see posts from Facebook and Facebook users could do the same and vice versa.
Mastodon is one of the most popular servers hosted in the fediverse which works like a more peaceful and friendly version of Twitter.
The fediverse hosts many kinds of servers providing vastly different services such as a dedicated photo-sharing platform, a video-sharing, and live-streaming hub, book clubs, and much more.
All these different servers can interact with one another through the open and decentralized social networking protocol ‘ActivityPub’. This means that even if you’re not on the same type of server, you can still interact with each other as if you were. It’s like integrating your web browsing platforms into one large platform.
Getting Started In Mastodon – Signup and Profile Creation Guide:
You can get Mastodon on your desktop or through the dedicated apps on Android and iOS which are simpler to use.
After you have downloaded and installed any app for Mastodon on your phone, just tap on the ‘Get STarted’ button and choose a server to join on the next page.
You will be asked to agree to the ground rules following which you can create your unique ID with your full name (optional) and email ID, and assign a password. You can create your username that will be used on the platform which will be a combination of your chosen name @tted by your chosen platform.
After you’ve completed your signup, the next thing you should do is build your profile. You can start editing your profile under the settings.
Most users traditionally avoid using their real names, but the recent influx of Twitter users has brought a lot of people who use their real names. It’s completely up to you.
Next, you should say a little about who you are and you can upload a picture and put up a banner next to you if you want like a Facebook cover photo. After you’ve set up your profile you may be wondering how to get it verified?
How Do I Get Verified On Mastodon?
Sadly there is no in-built verification on Mastodon as of now. Mostly because a document-based verification is not possible without a central authority. However, they can still verify links by cross-referencing them on the user’s profiles to confirm that they are the owner.
Some Instances or servers may require proof of identity before allowing a user to register, but it’s usually not the case.
How Do I Choose An Instance?
Instances are independently run servers that users can choose to be a part of. Some people may find this a confusing aspect of Mastodon but it’s not a bug that needs to be fixed. It’s the core principle driving the platform is to allow anyone to set up and customize Mastodon to work however they like.
You will be asked to choose an Instance when you signup. You can change your instance easily so it’s not a problem which one you choose initially.
These instances are usually shown based on language, moderation policy, political views, or any other criteria. A well-maintained instance will have its policies clearly mentioned on its homepage and will also put up a list of blocked or silenced instances.
It’s strongly advised that you choose an instance whose admins share your language, culture, and preferably your political views.
Since every instance is completely independent, they can be different from each other. These instances will interact with each other based on how compatible they are. So strongly opposing political instances will probably even block each other although the users within those instances may still be able to interact themselves.
It’s very important that you choose an instance that fits your needs and attributes for a better experience in the fediverse. Joining an instance means you are giving the admins a lot of trust so you should find a server built by someone you know or join a public server which you can easily migrate from later.
Read about the communities you think might be a good fit and scroll through some of the posts by clicking the “See what’s happening” link below the signup form before committing to an instance.
Exploring Mastodon – What You Will See
The posts on Mastodon aren’t shown based on an algorithm that tracks your likes and interactions with other posts. So what you are seeing are the posts and boosts from the people you follow on a “newest-first” basis. There is the option to explore popular posts but these aren’t generally pushed to your timeline.
Posts are called “toots” on Mastodon (Twitter impersonation much?) and you can “boost” other posts which is the equivalent of retweeting on Twitter. You can also “like” and “bookmark” posts but these aren’t used to generate the posts you will see as there is no algorithm running behind them. It will simply notify the user that you liked what they said.
You won’t see how many likes and boosts a given post has on your feed – that information can be accessed by clicking that toot. This was intentionally programmed to discourage judging posts based on how many boosts it has instead of what it says. There is also no retweet with a comment function like that on Twitter, the boosts only show that post.
The exploring function does not allow a full-text search. So you can only search for hashtags. This is another intentional element to avoid trolls from finding and inserting themselves into conversations, which was uncomfortable for the marginalized users in the early days of the fediverse. But there could be a search tool soon that allows this with some better ways of protecting the users.
The hashtags do show posts and news articles that are currently popular and let you browse directly through the explore option. The local section will show you every post on the server that you are in, which is good for smaller servers of course.
Following people that you find interesting and want to see more from is very important due to the lack of algorithms for suggesting posts.
With so many users flooding into the platform, we are sure to see more customized versions of Mastodon that offers better ways of interacting with each other.
Posting On Mastodon:
Posting works in the traditional social media way with users allowed to type whatever they want with attached photos and videos. The option to include a poll is also available.
Remember to use hashtags a lot more here as the lack of search functionality makes hashtags the only means of finding other posts and users. So if you want other people who don’t follow you to find your posts, you should use as many hashtags as relevant. And of course, you can avoid using these hashtags to avoid overly publicizing your posts as well.
There are four options while your toot that renders the accessibility of your toots, these are:
- Globe icon (Public): Your toots are made public and it appears on public timelines where everybody can see them. The globe icon next to the post signifies that posts are public.
- Open padlock icon (Not listed): Your toots are made public but don’t appear on the timelines of others. Only those people mentioned can read them along with those who come to your profile and scroll through your posts. The open padlock icon is the symbol that your posts are not listed.
- Closed padlock icon (Followers Only): Your toots are partially public as only your followers will be able to see them. For your followers, they appear as a public post on their feed.
- Mail envelope icon (Direct): Your toots are private and only viewable to those who are mentioned in them.
Mastodon is designed to spread interactions and not solely for private conversations. So even your private posts can be read by the admins of your instance, just like it’s accessible to the server owners of all social media platforms. However, for sending encrypted messages, Mastodon is not the right platform.
What Do You See On Your Timeline & Searching On Mastodon:
There are three kinds of timelines for Mastodon:
- Home: Just like on Twitter it is the general page that shows all the posts of everyone you follow across all instances.
- Local: It shows all the posts of the members in your instance
- Federated: It shows all the posts of the members of your instance and also the posts of people on other Instances that are followed by other members of your instance.
All the posts or toots are shown in chronological order so there are no algorithms behind the presentation. You will see posts that are boosted by those you follow and you might see the posts several times based on other factors such as the number of starts.
As we’ve mentioned above, the search boxes do not explore the entire fediverse but only the portion of it that your instance is connected to. So if you search for a user it will search among all the users of your instance and of the instances you are connected to but not those who are on instances you aren’t connected to. Similarly, when you search for a hashtag it will only show posts from instances that your instance knows and interacts with.
How Do I Move To Another Instance?
So what if you want to change your instance? Can you keep your data and followers in the new instance?
Yes. It is possible to transfer all your data including the posts you’ve made, the followers you have, and even your blocked user lists into the new instance that you are joining.
Make sure that both instances (the old one and the new one) are updated. Some instances that are still using older Mastodon software use a different transfer method and the process will only partially work in such cases.
First, open a new account on the new instance that you are looking to join. The data transfer is made through several steps that show some options which you can select and deselect. Inform both instances about the existence of the other account and confirm that you are the owner before transferring your followers.
After that, you can export from your old instance other data such as your posts, people you follow, blocked lists, etc., and import them into your new account.
Lastly, you can set a redirect: that links your old account and new account so that people who search for your old account will be redirected to the new one. Once the transfer is completed you must wait for a while to gain permission from your instance to transfer your account again. You can choose between more options such as keeping the old account but redirecting the users to the new one or completely deleting the old one and transferring only the followers.
What Other Kinds Of Servers Are There On The Fediverse?
Here are some of the most popular instances like Mastodon that are made for a dedicated community:
BookWyrm – It’s a social reading and reviewing platform that is made as an alternative to GoodReads. Here users can talk about books they are reading, track their reading, and discover new books to read.
Friendica – Much like Facebook, Friendica is a social network for connecting with friends, acquaintances, or those with similar interests. You can share, comment, and publish posts and photos and create events. There are no space limits for posts, just like on Facebook, and you can include multimedia materials, links, and even geolocation.
Funkwhale – It’s a community-driven project that allows users to listen to and share music and audio. You can connect to Funkwhale through various apps available on iOS and Android.
Mobilizon – It’s an event organization tool that helps you manage events, your profiles, and your groups. It helps create, publish and share detailed pages for your events. Members can participate in discussions and manage a common resource folder for their campaigns.
OwnCast –It is a self-hosted live video and chat server very much in the style of Twitch. It provides deep customization features for hosting videos.
PeerTube – It is a YouTube-style video-sharing site that uses P2P technology to reduce the load on individual servers when viewing videos. It is said to have a superior privacy and security policy compared to Youtube.
PixelFed – It’s an image-sharing social network service similar in style to Instagram and Tumblr but it’s decentralized so it does not store your data.
WriteFreely – It’s a minimalist publishing platform for writers where the focus is on the text, like a calmer version of Medium.
What’s That Rainbow Pentagon Thing That Everyone Is Using On The Fediverse?
The Rainbow pentagon is seen as an unofficial logo of fediverse. There’s no central authority on the fediverse to choose an official logo but from the many suggestions published by the many communities, the rainbow pentagon become the most popular. It’s probably the nearest the fediverse will ever get to an official logo so it’s widely accepted now.
The creator released the logo into the Public Domain so anyone can use it for any purpose. It is considered the flag of the fediverse and used to represent it in discussions, videos, apps, and in many other places on the instances.
Why Are Medium And Small Instances Considered Better?
A huge problem that large instances invariably have is that content moderation becomes extremely difficult. The lack of connection to a specific community or identity and making it more complex brings a lot of the problems of the large social networks relating to user behavior.
Smaller instances are also easier for discovery as your timelines are trimmed and it’s easier to find people you want to follow.
There are obvious benefits to being a part of a large instance too but it’s difficult to effective moderation. Mastodon.social is one of the largest instances which is run by the creator of Mastodon, but each instance has an equal standing to others and you can still view activities in other instances and change your instance whenever you want.
Content Warning Feature On Mastodon:
Mastodon comes with an in-built content warning system that allows users to cover their posts with an editable warning message. Your followers will have the option to read the content warning message before choosing to view your post. This feature can be used to cover content that is permitted by your community policy but may still hurt people like spoilers, nudity, depiction of violence and gore, or threads about sensitive topics.
Harassment & Content Moderation On Mastodon:
Mastodon is renowned for its anti-harassment environment thanks to its basic structure and moderation tools that allow immediate actions against hostile accounts or inappropriate instances. Many communities help inform and warn each other about instances that spread hate speech and actively block them from interacting with their communities.
Every instance will have its own content moderation policy and will outline what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Mastodon vs Twitter – Which Is Better?
Mastodon’s user base is obviously only a fraction of what makes up Twitter. It’s not nearly as well-funded either which causes sluggish service from time to time. The recent influx of new was something many servers could not handle immediately.
Mastodon is not very user-friendly either in terms of navigating the fediverse.
But all of that is soon expected to change with a large pool of talented developers expected to join the projects in the wake of the fall of Twitter.
Mastodon also has several unique and innovative features like the content warning system, a decentralized and non-profit structure, a lack of algorithmic personal data tracking and selling, and the general customizability of the platform.
Is Mastodon Here To Stay?
It’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen in the near future nowadays with the rampant pace at which things develop. But the need for a decentralized social media platform that isn’t looking to sell your data has been long overdue. And the mass migration of users into Mastodon seems to indicate that it’s satisfying some of that need and it’s probably going to grow exponentially in the coming days.
Very recently Google’s Search Liaison account was officially established on Mastodon’s social network and it is likely that various developer accounts like @AndroidDev, @googledevs, will join before others.
If their user base continues to expand, we can expect large corporations to follow suit and establish their presence, and then before long, Mastodon’s the next thing!
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