In conversations I’ve had over the past week, it’s become clear that there’s nothing very self-explanatory about Mastodon as a social network, and that in many ways Twitter users are both prepared and unprepared for the experience. There are a lot of things that are similar in concept, but there’s more to it when it comes to how it’s a “service” that can really throw people for a loop.
The short version is that Mastodon clones features of Twitter with open source software that can be run on any server. Those servers talk to each other and form a larger world than any one server could. The default place most people land is mastodon.social but they have halted admissions because of the large influx of people leaving Twitter at the same time. You can join mastodon.cloud or any other server. Since your server can talk to the others, and you can move your account to another one, there’s no immediate pressure. There’s a timeline which is functionally like Twitter - or at least how it was back when it was chronological. You can mute, block, follow, etc.
The longer version …
Mastodon is distributed across many “instances” that talk to each other. The instances are servers, or virtual private servers. There are unique domain names attached to them. If you use Google, or Duck Duck Go, you’ll wind up at mastodon.social. This is the de facto instance, headed up by the guy who came up with Mastodon. Thus, it becomes the most likely instance people will join. They have been overwhelmed recently by people leaving Twitter, so it’s all the more reason to investigate the other instances. Mastodon.cloud is another very prominent instance. Then there are a bunch of instances that range from general topics, to very specific topics. For new users it is overwhelming, and we naturally want to go to instances that have the most people. It’s counterintuitive though, because of how Mastodon works. You want to be with a group that shares similar interests to you, but has enough variety that certain features are useful. If you join an instance that has a lot of people interested in everything, then their interests will affect your experience with certain features.
Honestly, joining one of these massive instances is fine if you don’t know what to do. You can feel it out for a week or so and move. I will discuss that process later on.
I might be biased, but I find that following admins of other servers is usually a good choice. Usually, they share a lot of content from their users, so you get some insight into their entire community. You might feel compelled to do the same when you get your own users, too.
There’s the Home timeline, the Local timeline, and the Federated timeline. As a user, on any instance, you see those three options. However, what you see under Local and under Federated is shaped by the other people on your own instance.
Some general terms for what’s in a timeline:
- Toot - A post, or status update. This is just another word for Tweet. Confusingly, in some parts of the interface, you will see it referred to as a “status” and not a “toot”.
- Boost - The Mastodon term for a retweet.
- CW (Content Warning) - This is a mechanism to hide your text and images behind a “show more” button. This is intended for spoilers, or sensitive material. There’s a field to enter descriptive text about what you’re hiding behind the content warning. Images can also be hidden.
- The Birdsite - This is a derogatory term used by longtime Mastodon users to passive-aggressively sneer at Twitter. I think you should just call it Twitter, it’s not Voldemort. If anything it’s off-putting to people from Twitter seeking to transition to Mastodon.
- 500 Characters - Toots are much longer than they are on Twitter. Not oppressively so, you’re not going to read Moby Dick in a toot.
- No Quote Toots - I’m refreshed by this. As much as I found quote tweets preferable to “Here’s what I think RT @schmoop whoa RT @doop” text retweets they invented a new problem. In many cases it was easy for people to quote, and not add much, if anything, and it would just make that quoted tweet surface more often in your timeline. This wasn’t a lot of fun when a public figure would say something that might provoke disagreement. Twitter recently tried to algorithmically fold some of these into a single structure around the quoted tweet, but it didn’t do much to cut down on noise. You do need to clink on links to things on Mastodon, you’re not going to get that quick burst of the original post to roll with.
- Delete & Redraft - This is Mastodon’s answer to editable tweets. I, personally, am not satisfied as I would like a system that maintains history, in-place. This is better than absolutely nothing though. Especially when you quickly realize you made an error. The original is deleted, but copied to a new composition view, along with any media you had uploaded. You can make what changes you need to and post again. (I want history.)
- Friend Finding - Mastodon will connect your Mastodon account to your Twitter account and find any Twitter accounts that Mastodon knows have associated Mastodon accounts. This won’t find accounts that eschewed this step, but you can get a healthy swath of people.
- Eugen Rochko @Gargron@mastodon.social - The founder of Mastodon and primary developer overseeing its open software evolution. “Don’t want to be compared to Jack Dorsey, don’t want want prominence, specifically don’t want to be idolized. Just doing my thing” [sic] I provide that for context, not as some sort of ironic idolatry performance.
This is the timeline that’s the most like Twitter. Specifically, Twitter’s old, chronological timeline. You can follow people, and unfollow people, and that’s what you will see here in Home. You’ll see “boosts” the Mastodon term for “retweets” here from users you follow.
Unfortunately, you also see Direct Messages here. Threading them in is very disconcerting for longtime Twitter users who are used to seeing a separate tab for DMs. Don’t worry, it’s still correspondence intended for you, and the person(s) you’re speaking with. You can tell by the envelope icon under the post.
This timeline view is of what all people on your instance are publicly communicating. It can be interesting if you know the people on the instance, or you’re just generally bored and want to see if there’s someone else with similar interests there. It’s not, in any way, a necessary thing for you to look at.
Mastodon is a “federation” of instances that talk to one another, sometimes referred to as a “federverse”. In this view you’re seeing everyone that interacts with your instances, via the people on your instance. If I follow person A, and you follow person B, then when we go to the Federated timeline we see persons A and B. This, of course, is along with anything that they boost (retweet). On a small instance, this is great because it’s friends-of-friends, or based around a topic. On the large instances, like mastodon.social, this creates a firehose of posts that are very unlikely to appeal to you. Since mastodon.social has so many people, connected to so many instances, it’s almost like you’re looking at the entire universe of all of the posts that are happening.
This can be incredibly overwhelming, particularly when you’re just started. Do not feel any pressure to even look at the Local or Federated views until you’re set up and comfortable with your Home view. The Home View is Twitter Classic. The rest is more ways of looking at things.
Many users leaving Twitter right now might be doing it because of the near-death of the Twitter clients that they use. Many people are accustomed to a very polished Twitter client experience with Tweetbot, or Twitterrific. Unfortunately, there aren’t polished apps like that for Mastodon. The majority of apps are wrappers around a webview - fancy browsers. They have certain features, or present user-facing data in a way that is more appealing that the web site. Unfortunately, none of them are much better than the website. I would really suggest getting started on the website just because options for things will be in places you can google or ask any other user about. Pro tip: if you hit Command + on your keyboard it will “zoom” in by scaling the text and columns of the website. I find the default settings assume I have a much smaller screen than I do and I would rather read the posts than have an extra bar of dark gray on the side.
Common iPhone apps:
Common iPad apps:
- No don’t, just use the browser.
Common Mac apps:
- Fluid (a Mac app that lets you create an app container for a web site. Robb Lewis has some customizations for it.)
I’d really say that the web experience, with notifications enabled, is not the worst but it’s not what the users of third party Twitter clients are accustomed to. There are even command line python clients if you want to do some real shenanigans.
You might remember that the last time a lot of people left Twitter in a huff they went to App Dot Net (that name) ADN provided funding to developers to incentivize third party clients. There was even a twin to Tweetbot called Netbot. This time around, those developers aren’t going to jump right in. I don’t blame them for that. Twitter put them through a bunch of mind games, and the other promised platforms never worked out. The developers are on Mastodon though. Paul Haddad, who develops Tweetbot, has solicited feedback on creating a paid Mastodon client in his free time via a Patreon. Sean Heber, of Twitterific, has teased a screenshot of a very barebones client.
I don’t think that anyone should make long term Mastodon plans on this information. You might be using these very webby clients for a while. If that’s intolerable to you (it’s tolerable to me) then there’s not going to be much satisfaction for you in sticking around.
Whether you preferred Tweetbot, or you preferred Twitterific, I don’t think there’s any debate that they had an experience that felt like it was on the platform and not of a web platform.
Since this is a federated experience, anyone can start their own instance. A prominent company to go to for instances is Masto.host. I started a Mastodon account on mastodon.social, but was encouraged to move to an instance started by friends using Masto.host. The advantages of your own instance are that you get to manage everything about it. It’s your own private Twitter. It associates with other Twitters, but it can also block them.
This is similar to email, where anyone can start an email server, send and receive email from other servers, or block a server from reaching it. There’s more to it than that because of the nature of microblogging and nearly real time communication, but on a functional level you own something that talks to other things on the same playing field.
People find this attractive for community building reasons, because of the timelines, data ownership, or because you can pick a really sweet domain name. Seriously, there are so many domain names now to choose from that you’re very likely to find something that is either functional or incredibly entertaining to you and your friends. Also, when I say “community building” I also mean that bad people and entire instances can be kept completely separate from your instance to not only protect you, and your users, but reduce the influence and reach of bad actors in the Federverse by omitting that connection. That level of control might be too much for some people, but other people were just born to be bulletin board moderators so let them do it.
Yes, that does mean that there are bad actors that have mastodon instances, and their goal is to interface with others and provide that same corrupting influence.
You can also make an instance for just one person. You’re not going to see any utility in the Local or Federated timelines, but you’ll be on your own little plot of land and can correspond with everyone you choose to.
Twitter has a truly awful verification system in place. It provides little public benefit because it promotes bad actors as well as good actors while also distorting the things people see based on verification. None of that exists on Mastodon. Anyone could be anyone on any instance. Naturally, that means that you should not trust that an account you see on Mastodon is the account of a person you might know from elsewhere. Just like before the verification system on Twitter existed, you’ll have to look at that person’s website, and other things to see if that mastodon account is associated with the person.
Frankly, I think this is a good thing. The verification system on twitter was easily gamed. By the decentralized nature of mastodon, instances would have to verify people, which seems silly because why would anyone else accept their word? They would be an instance of one. The solution is to just not have any verification and to have to confirm that the account belongs to someone through other reasonable sources.
One thing I’ve noticed on Mastodon is that there are quite a few Twitter users that joined around the time I did freaking out about privacy. That DM’s aren’t end-to-end-encrypted, and that instance administrators, or server administrators, could snoop on all their stuff. That is, of course, unlikely, but no social network should be used to share sensitive data. Facebook Messenger isn’t encrypted, Twitter isn’t encrypted, etc. If you need to tell someone something private do that for real. There is a level of trust that we have with large corporations, something that America is very good at instilling in its citizens from when they are kids, but you shouldn’t be passing sensitive data on Twitter or Mastodon. The privacy you have on Mastodon is even more in your control than it was on Twitter. Follow and following lists can be hidden. People were totally fine using Tweetbot to send DMs before, which requires a circle of trust. Suddenly suspecting that everyone is compromised or snooping seems misplaced. If anything, it feels like an excuse you’d use if you really wanted to stay on Twitter. Also, no one is scraping your messages for things to sell ads against. The incentive is for you to stay on an instance and be a valuable member of the community.
There are also settings for the security of your account. Two-factor authorization is an option, and you do have a list of all the authorized apps, their IP addresses, and the last time they accessed your account. That authorization can also be revoked.
One thing that seems very onerous is moving accounts. We’ve been trained by businesses that are disincentivized to let us leave, that we’re fucked if we ever want to go. This isn’t the case with Mastodon.
Whatever instance you signed up for is one that you can move away from and leave a redirect behind. There’s no system that just picks up all of your stuff and moves it, but it is comparatively stress free next to Twitter.
Go to the instance you want to join and create an account. Once you’ve made the account go back to the instance you want to move from (preferably in a separate browser tab, or separate browser.)
Go to Settings, then to Data Export. You’ll see a little spreadsheet of “You follow”, “You block”, and “You mute” each with numbers, and a CSV download button. Those lists can be uploaded to the instance you’re moving to and you’ll follow the same people, block the same people, and mute the same people. There’s also an option to request an archive. This takes a bit to process, and you’ll get an email at the email address you used to sign up for the account with all the data to download. (In some cases you can refresh the page and there’s also a download link.)
The archive is functionally useless for your Mastodon move, but it’s just nice to save things, ya know?
Once you’ve exported all that, go to the “Edit profile” section and scroll to the bottom. There’s a link to move to a different account and leave a redirect. You can leave a toot that you’re moving to your new account, and provide a link, or mention the instance.
On your new account, go to Settings, and Import. There are radio buttons for each of the lists and a choose file button. (Personally I would have made this look like the same spreadsheet you use for the export process and not like radio buttons that need to be toggled for what to do with the uploaded file.)
Once you go through each toggle, and upload each list, you’ll have all that in there. Go back to Edit Profile and set your avatar, head image, and bio manually. Unfortunately the migration process does not carry those over.
That’s it. You’ve moved instances. Your old account stays up with a redirect at the old instance, and if you needed to you could move back there just as easily.
A lot of people can’t leave their Twitter presence behind completely. They may not want to be there, immersed in the misery-outrage-panic machine but they have a business reason to maintain a tether. There are ways to do that. Any mastodon profile is an RSS feed, just add “.rss” to the profile URL, and then you can use that do all kinds of automated stuff. There are also crossposting apps to help you out like the open source project moa.party. You can use it through moa.party, or you can download the code and do it yourself. It can take Mastodon posts and put them on Twitter, or Twitter posts and put them on Mastodon, or even throw Instagram into the mix.
This is all the information I’ve gleaned that I feel is important to disaffected Twitter users using iOS/macOS that would read this blog. There’s way more information out there