An introduction to Mastodon

It’s no surprise that some social media users have a tendency to keep an eye out for an alternative platform. We’re hooked on the many positives social media can offer but uneasy about what lurks beneath.

The Elon Musk fiasco was the push I needed to seek out a Twitter substitute. It wasn’t much of a push – I’d already lost my faith – but it was enough. My life and work is so wrapped up on Twitter that I’ll probably stay if Musk loses interest. In the meantime I decided to try something new.

In this post I’ll provide an introduction to Mastodon. I’m not technical or scientific, nor an expert when it comes to the stickiness of new social media platforms or the often baffling subcultures that blossom within. It will, therefore, be light – and when I say I’m in my early days as a Mastodon user, I mean early. But I hope it’ll be useful.


What is Mastodon?

Let’s begin by getting the pertinent information straight from the prehistoric elephant’s mouth.

In short, Mastodon is social media by way of micro-blogging. It’s a platform where users can post text updates, images and videos, and connect with one another in the same way as Twitter: by following one another and interacting.

But there are a couple of important differences. These are the reasons Mastodon is growing and the advantages it has over the platforms its users are leaving or dialling back.

How does it work?

It’s free and open source. It’s 2022; we’re familiar with open source by now. In essence, Mastodon is like WordPress, Audacity, GIMP and thousands of other packages in that it is developed collaboratively. Anyone who’s awesome at Ruby on Rails and JavaScript can contribute.

Mastodon isn’t a monolithic, ad-riddled data collection platform but the software upon which devolved “instances” are built. Each of these instances is a server with its own moderation, terms and policies. Users sign up for Mastodon via one of these instances, selected based on size, locality, preferred rules and restrictions, or whatever criteria takes priority.

Irrespective of a user’s chosen instance, they can interact with users in another. Each instance or server operates as a federated social network, i.e. it’s autonomous within Mastodon, but it’s still part of a broader federation of Mastodon instances.

That explains a good deal of the platform’s potential as an alternative to Twitter in particular, but what does it actually mean for the user?

Signing up for an instance

The first step on the road to Mastodon nirvana is to select an instance through which to plug yourself into the beast. You’ll be presented with a list of your options and you can see how many people are part of each instance, what its purpose or ethos is, what its rules are, how it’s funded, and so on.

Based on nothing more than size and a relatively cool URL, I signed up to mastodon.social as my instance of choice. Here it is, with its agreeable rules and robust list (not pictured) of filtered instances, whose content I cannot see by virtue of the mastodon.social rules.

And that’s that. I have easy access to things like mastodon.social feeds, recommended users, etc. that are instance-specific, but for all intents and purposes I could have parked myself anywhere.

By the way, Eugen – who administers mastodon.social – is Eugen Rochko, the creator and original author of Mastodon. You can follow him on the platform, too.

Setting up your profile

Once you’ve signed up, you can set up your profile in the same way as any other social media platform. Here’s the profile I’m experimenting with, which is for my football blog, Sphinx Football.

You can see my profile picture, cover photo, bio text and posts/follower/following counts. Below those is my posts feed, which is filterable by Posts, Posts/Replies and Media. Standard stuff.

Your profile picture must be a JPG, PNG or GIF of no more than 2MB in size. It will be scaled down to 400×400 pixels.

Your cover photo must also be a JPG, PNG or GIF of no more than 2MB in size. It will be scaled down to 1500×500 pixels.

In addition to the usual elements, you might have spotted a couple of links above my bio text. This is my profile metadata – it allows users to add up to four rows (each with a label and ‘content’, links in my case) to a table in the bio section.

As well as the ability to verify ownership of those links by adding code to a website, the Edit Profile page offers options including: Require follow requests, This is a bot account, Suggest account to others, Hide your social graph.

Posting on Mastodon

If you’ve ever published a tweet, you can post on Mastodon. Type in the box – there is a 500-character limit. Hit Publish!

You can attach images, video or audio. You can add a poll. You can change the privacy of your content on a post-by-post basis, include a content warning, or change its language.

Here’s my first post.

Username, copy, hashtags, link, image. It couldn’t be easier or more familiar.

The post metadata provides a timestamp, indicates the post’s privacy settings, shows that I posted using the official Android app, and counts how many times my post has been boosted (Mastodon’s retweet – in this case, zero) and favourited (also zero).

While we’re looking at a post, let’s cover the options available in the tray underneath: the actions that put the ‘social’ in ‘free and open source software underpinning a network of federated social media nodes’.

From the main tray we can Reply, Boost, Favourite, Share and Bookmark a post.

From the additional menu we can mute a conversation or copy a post’s link. Our own posts can be embedded, pinned, deleted or deleted and redrafted. Neat.

Navigating your feeds

When you follow other users from any instance of Mastodon their posts are added to your Home feed. This is the main feed you’ll see – it works identically to the other social platforms when they were good, i.e. in reverse chronological order and populated entirely by what you’ve asked to see.

There are other forms of feed, too.

On the browser version Mastodon offers a Local feed, which serves up every post by users of your instance – all 719,000+ of them in the case of mastodon.social – in reverse chronological order. In the Android app, it’s behind the Explore tab under ‘Community’.

Honestly, that one’s a bit much. So the Federated feed, which assimilates everything that’s happening across every Mastodon instance in real time, well, it’s a technically impressive but functionally useless achievement outside development via the API. I’m all for that.

The good

In fact, Mastodon is just pretty impressive overall. As an open source, decentralised, federated network of social networking nodes, its advantages over the inherently problematic Big Tech names are clear.

But that’s structural stuff. In terms of the day to day, the visual quality looks good and what makes Mastodon an easy user transition is the familiar style of conversation feed and a method of posting that’s intuitive to anyone who’s used Twitter. It’s like Twitter, but not Twitter. It’s what we all liked about Ello.

Yes, Ello.

Among other features there are filters for posts and a really nice set of filters for understanding the nature of the connections with one’s followers and followees – whether they’re mutuals, which are primary or moved accounts, and how active or indeed dormant they are.

There’s also a built-in mechanism to delete posts automatically after a certain period of time depending on whether they do or don’t meet a set of customisable criteria. While not new, it is a positive and it certainly looks – without actually having tested it – easy to use.

Likewise, there are Direct Messages. When I find a friend, I’ll let you know how they work.

I’ve been primarily using Mastodon through the official Android app, which works slightly differently from the browser-based web version in a couple of largely insignificant ways, and there’s an iOS app too.

Naturally, the open sourceiness of Mastodon means the API is open and unofficial apps are ten-a-penny. I haven’t tried any of them, but they can be found directly on the joinmastodon.org website.

As you can see, some are free and some are not. Right now, I couldn’t conceive of paying for a Mastodon app because…

The bad

Let’s be honest: it’s not all completely positive because it’s so new that it can’t be.

Merely understanding the federated system of instances is a massive barrier to entry and restrictive to the platform’s growth. Broadly, I see that as a positive. But it does reflect the fact that Mastodon is, in places, a little difficult to understand and navigate.

One minor example is that it’s incredibly easy to find and update account settings on the web. On Android, it’s more difficult to find and the app bumps you to a browser and a sign-in page, from which the least intuitive route is the one that gets you where you need to be.

Additionally, there’s a lot of porn. So. Much. Porn. On a decentralised platform it was never going to be any other way.

And the ugly truth

mastodon.social’s censored smut rule and my own aversion to absorbing anything remotely resembling anything like a firehose of posts mean I don’t have to look at anything sensitive or obscene unless I choose to do so. And there’s porn everywhere on social – this we know.

The other thing that the established social platforms have is users, and that’s where Mastodon currently falls flat on its trunk.

I’ve enjoyed using it. I plan to continue to experiment, to post Sphinx Football content there, and to see how the platform develops.

But it’s new. And it’s very, very quiet.

No social platform, no matter how pretty or simple or gloriously federated it may be, can stand up without users. If you search twitter for #football, there’s something new (rubbish, almost entirely) every few seconds. Here’s the same hashtag and its related search results on Mastodon.

It is, I hope, a diminishing problem. But at the time of writing the trending topics displayed on my home feed have 23, 64 and 13 people talking about them – and none of them are in English. (That’s completely fine, of course, but it doesn’t do much for my own user experience.)

Hiding away underneath account settings is an unassuming little link: Invite people.

And that, my friends, is the piece of infrastructure most crucial of all to Mastodon’s strategy and progress from this point onwards.

Mastodon could catch on. But it needs people, and just being a less toxic Twitter – albeit technologically very different under the bonnet – probably isn’t enough.

And with social media use trending away in some regards from all-encompassing platforms towards simpler and more specific apps like TikTok, who knows if it’s even right?