Overview of Mastodon & Why I Like It

This user guide is a bit overwhelming but also has some great straightforward stuff like how you can pin a column for a hashtag search (hashtag searches are a great way to find new people & using hashtags matters more there).

Some folks I really like on Twitter have asked me about Mastodon and why I enjoy being there. Apparently more faves are experimenting with leaving Twitter for it. I'm going to try to be as brief as it's possible for an excitable Ruth to be.

First, it's not Twitter 2.0. It's a bit like Twitter/message boards/Slack… it's not an all-in-one out-of-the-box and maybe that's good. There are rough tech bits. There are lags between servers. There are bad rollouts when a dev opportunity or patch goes awry. That's not all bad tbh. Once you've signed up, you'll want to get an app for your phone… I've been using Amaroq, Tusky is ok, I'm gonna try Tootle, I think.

A Quick Definition of Terms

  • Toot — a 500 character Mastodon update. I'm gonna use “post” because various instances rename them. Some instances have more/fewer characters. A few play with stuff like “you can only use ‘e’.”
  • Boost — a reblog or RT of someone else's post. To be boosted, a post must be Public or Unlisted. It cannot be Followers-Only or Direct.
  • Instance — a single place running Mastodon. If I'm on dice.club and a friend is on wandering.shop, those are two instances.
  • Local — the instance your account is hosted on. The Local stream is the stream of all the posts of all the users on that instance, see below for what this looks like.
  • Federated — a network of instances. If you follow someone on an instance nobody else on your instance followed anyone on, you make those two instances aware of each other. My Public posts from glammr.us show up on wandering.shop's Federated stream. Admins can change this to mute instances (my posts appear in your feed but not Federated) or block them.
  • CW — a “content warning.” This hides the post from users who may choose to click to expand. It's used for all kinds of tagging and even joke setups. It's great. A must-use for stuff like politics or sexual assault. I use it for all kinds of things people may find boring or whatever.

Kinds of Posts

Besides Direct Messages, Mastodon has three kinds of posts.

  • Public — goes to everyone who follows you. Also goes into the Local stream of your instance (see diagrams below). Also goes into the Federated stream of any instance where one or more users follow you (again, diagrams will help). Publicly viewable from a link. Anyone can Boost a Public tweet.
  • Unlisted — goes to everyone who follows you. Does not go into Local or Federated streams. Publicly viewable from a link. Anyone can Boost an Unlisted tweet, which then goes to all their followers but not into their Local or Federated streams.
  • Followers-Only — goes to everyone who follows you. Cannot be Boosted at all. (Like any private thing online including DMs someone can still screenshot it, etc.). There's an issue in to make this something which can go to all your followers on any server (this is how it's been explained to me by an admin).

The terms Favorites and Direct Messages are how they're used elsewhere. DMs function slightly differently in that you just make it a DM and tag the one or more people you want included in the convo. They show up in your Home feed and Notifications. If you don't tag anyone, only you can see it. As an important note Instance Admins and Mods Can See Your DMs If They Look. Use things like Signal for the most private and vulnerable stuff. (Twitter can also access your DMs and apparently FB is reading your messages so /expressive shrug emoji, just know this is a thing your admin could choose to do.)

Public and Private accounts both have the options to make any kind of post, but Private accounts require approval to follow them and Public don't. I think it also sets the default for your post in the app you're using.

Mastodon includes Mute, Block, and Report which seem to work about like on Twitter except that I'm not 100% sure whether Report goes to the person running your instance or the person running the instance on which the other person's account is if it's a cross-instance post. You can personally block an entire domain.

Biggest Perks of Mastodon

I've found there to be three major good things about mastodon.

  1. I have wanted the ability to control how far my posts spread on Twitter for years. I've been on it since 2007. Super public, semi-public, and private, essentially? It's great.
  2. Longer character counts and CWs create such a different culture.
  3. Culture/federating. I have presences on a number of instances. It's full of furries, trans people, tech-non-bros, women (cis/trans/etc.), and generally people I enjoy engaging with.

…see farther down about where you should join…

What Mastodon Looks Like

In web, only Home and Notifications are open by default. You can toggle between Local, Federated, and Favorites. You don't have to have a third column open. I mostly leave open Home and Notifications, sometimes turning on Local (or viewing Favorites if I want to check something out). In the app I use, all are just column options.

Home, Local, Federated

These images are linked to larger versions. They include alt text description which tries to convey what they're doing. There are five columns (up-to-three are laid out side-by-side in the “classic” web view or one-at-a-time in phone apps), three of which I've illustrated here:

A sheet of paper divided into three columns. The lefthand column is headed Home. Underneath is written Private or Unlisted or Public posts of people you follow. Also DMs by people you you follow. The middle column is headed Local. Underneath is written Public posts of everyone on this instance. The right column is headed Federated. Underneath is written Public posts of everyone followed by anyone on this instance

All DMs to you will show up in your Mentions column. Anyone you haven't blocked (pretty much) can DM you. It's just like @ing you while making the post completely private to people tagged in it.

This is what that would translate to on an instance of GLAM-adjacent folks (note I was using “library workers” when drawing) (4/5 - hey GLAMMR.us is now open for biz!):

A sheet of paper divided into three columns. The lefthand column is headed Home. Underneath is written People whose posts I don't want to miss; people with whom I want to have more personal convos. The middle column is headed Local. Underneath is written Allllllllll the library workers. The right column is headed Federated. Underneath is written All the folks all of us think are interesting

So now that we've established terms and what it looks like, the above is why I find the idea exciting. There are a LOT of glam-adjacent folks I don't actually want to follow-follow. There are just tons of y'all and many of you are quite interesting. I would love to see your Public posts in Local. If I wanted to, I could mute you, of course!

Then my Home stream would allow me to see all the posts of the people I follow, including Followers-Only & Unlisted. Some will be glam-adjacent and some will just be friends who happen to use Mastodon on other instances. Maybe I never want to miss a post of yours or see the stuff you don't think would be of as wide interest to the broader community. Maybe we're close. Maybe I just think you're interesting. I could follow 50 or 200 or 2000 if I were mastodonchistic (I'm sorry).

Then there's the Federated column, which would be full of people from other instances who anyone on our instance happens to follow. Honestly, I almost never use this column. I mostly use Home, Notifications, and maybe turn on Local half the time. However we COULD choose to see all kinds of people whom others are following. And again block or mute people we don't like…

Notifications, Faves, Profiles

Notifications has all your…wait for it..Notifications: DMs by anyone, )including people you follow), @s, Favorites, Follows, and Boosts.

Faves, Profiles, etc., will show up in the third column. The only feature I really miss is lists. [update, they've been added]

What's This I Heard About No Nazis?

This is long already so I don't want to get too far into it. The basics are that, first, user removal is handled at an instance level, kind of like old-school bulletin boards. This can be great if you have a responsive admin (TIP YOUR ADMINS) who actually follows through on Reports of abuse.

Second is that Instances of Mastodon may silence or suspend traffic from an entire Instance. Suspending is the big one, it means that if one instance becomes a proverbial hub of scum and villainy (or in net parlance “full of gators”), your admin can say “ok nope, we're not letting that hub's posts onto our feed and we're not letting their users follow ours.” AFAIK Silencing is just muting anything from that Instance in the Federated stream (I see the toots of a person I follow on a Silenced Instance, but they don't display in Federated). It's important for admins to be transparent about who they're blocking just in case you have a friend who was uninitiated enough to sign up on unsafe.space. If they did it on purpose, your friend is probably a jerk and you'll have to find a less moderated instance from which to interact with them.

What's Wrong With Mastodon?

Not much, though the UI bugs some new people (look, you've been on Twitter forever and you hated every UI change there, so give this a shot and contribute code if you can to improve it). There's growing pains. It's still too white and needs to prove instances can be safe, decent places for POC. Of course it's a herd, not a monolith, so “Mastodon” isn't really a thing.

I'd like to see the ability to turn off Boosts and to have Lists and maybe those are coming. There's dev work and issues you can upvote.

Biggest problem with it so far? NOT ENOUGH OF YOU ARE THERE. But I've gotten to know some lovely people, I've had really peaceful convos with friends, and honestly you can just pick, choose, and follow 15 people and only see their stuff.

What Instances Should I Join?

You could just join one of the big instances. There's actually nothing wrong with that, even though it's not my thing. I'm putting up a list just based on my own experiences... I'd suggest finding a way to support your admins with Patreon or regular tips if you can. These seem pretty good, any may get taken down by the admin. Also if you're not cool w/trans people or furries existing you may just wanna stay over on Twitter. These are really basic summaries, I'm noting themes I've seen and ones which seem to have a lot of trans people particularly for the trans folks I know who might want to join.
  • glammr.us - GLAMMRus! For alllll the GLAM folks plus Memory workers and Records Managers! Students, long-time workers, part-time, full-time, retired, unemployed, underemployed…academic, public, private, whatever, you're welcomehere!
  • code4lib.social - a libtech type!
  • digipres.club - a libtech type one!
  • scholar.social - meant for academic types, etc., a handful of librarians there. I have a legacy account there.
  • tootplanet.space - friendly, smallerish, has fanfiction writers and some neurodiverse folks and a friendly crew
  • dice.camp - tabletop/RPG folks
  • mastodon.art - artists!
  • wandering.shop - originally SFF types but includes lots of people now, including my alt!
  • cybre.space - tech folks (admin is a dragon, Win95 theme exists, lots of trans tech folks few bros, periodic open windows or join by backing patreon)
  • awoo.space - furries!
  • glitch.social - “hi!! we care about trans girls a lot!! if your a trans girl we care about u!! we run the latest code for mastodon as a community service, which means sometimes things break here!! but that's better than them breaking everywhere!! we should all care about each other more!! and ourselves!! stay safe!!”
  • occult.camp - weird/witches/occult/gothy/all good

Places sometimes have really specific codes of conduct. That's better than generic IMO. I may periodically update this list (last update 04/2018). octodon.social seems largeish and niceish (based on folks I know). Also try joinmastodon.org to find places!

My friend Tuesday walks you through making an account.

You can move your follows with you if you change places, so don't be afraid to try a few on at first and see what you like.

Questions? Comment!

I'm happy to take questions in the comments and write more posts. Follow me by searching for @platypus@glammr.us and finding my profile!

Ruth Kitchin Tillman
Cataloging Systems and Linked Data Strategist

Card-carrying quilter. Mennonite. Writer. Worker.