Mastodon Introduction and Overview for GLAM

Note: While this was first published in 2017, I significantly revised it in October 2022 after Musk’s Twitter buy and my own 5 years of experience on the platform.

Because I’ve been on Mastodon for a while, folks have asked me to explain how I use it and why I like it. First, don’t expect it to just be Twitter any more than Twitter was Facebook or Instagram is Tumblr or anything else is something it’s not. But it’s similar.

For library workers, a good metaphor for transitioning to Mastodon might be starting a job at a new library with an ILS you haven’t used before. You’re familiar with a lot of the concepts. You’re immediately good at some things. Some things are a little different. That will be frustrating. Some things, like mastodon’s content warnings, are new. That could be frustrating or exciting or a mix.

You’ve done a lot of work over the years learning how to use Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, whatever platforms you’ve used, but you probably don’t think about that any more. For me, Mastodon’s the same–I almost never have to think about it, I just use it. Sometimes you’ll be frustrated. You weren’t automatically good at doing any of these things, you’re just used to them now. Trust your capacity to learn.

Basics

My mastodon setup resembles my Tweetdeck column setup in a lot of ways. When I open it, it just looks like this:

Home Notifications Other
All the posts/boosts (RTs) from folks I follow Mentions, favorite notifications, follow notifications. Or can switch to just see Mentions. You can open Local timeline, Federated timeline, lists, etc. here. You can pin something long-term if you want.

That’s how I use it 99% of the time. I see posts in chronological order. I can limit notifications to just my mentions to make sure I haven’t missed anything. I can block or mute a person or mute a conversation (or a keyword, more on that in the advanced post).

I mostly meet new folks after a friend boosts their post or I’m tagged into a conversation with them–again, much like on Twitter. I almost never have to think about which instance they’re on, though that can occasionally make a small difference.

TL;DR

If I were to sum up my advice, it would be not to worry about figuring it all out at once. Instead:

  1. Join an instance. Either GLAM-related or generic larger (see list below).
  2. Find and follow friends–search for them by pasting their whole username in the search box, like an email. Now their posts and boosts will appear in your home column.
  3. Start posting. Try to use the unlocked status (or locked for privacy) vs. the public one. Tip: go to yourinstanceurl.com/settings/preferences/other to set default post visibilty
  4. Do your best to describe images and put content warnings on posts about sensitive topics.
  5. Meet new people/block people/mute people as you go.
  6. Ask questions!

If you’re interested in vocab, post privacy, and some possible instances, keep reading. Also if you’re not cool w/trans people existing, you may just wanna stay over on Twitter.

Defining Terms

These are a few terms you’ll encounter. First, terms about posting/interacting with posts:

  • Post or “Toot” — a Mastodon update. Generally we just call them posts, not “toots.” These default to 500 characters, but some instances allow more.
  • CW — a “content warning.” This hides the post and shares a meta description. Users can click to open it. It’s used for all kinds of tagging, hiding super long threads, 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, for pics and in-depth discussion of food, etc. You can also mark an attached file as sensitive without CWing a post.
  • 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.
  • Favorites - basically the same as anywhere else. I get a little notification each time one of my posts is favorited
  • Bookmarks - a different way to save posts so you don’t have to rely on favorites for both liking a post and saving something for later.

Second, site-level terms:

  • Instance / Server — a single site running Mastodon. If I’m on glammr.us and a friend is on wandering.shop, those are two instances, like gmail and yahoo mail. You can still talk across them.
  • Local Timeline — The Local Timeline is the stream of all the Public posts (see below) of all the users on the Instance you’re hosted on.
  • Federated Timeline — The tl;dr of this is just “think about it as a place to ignore or find more people.” My Public posts show up on the Federated Timeline of every instance where someone follows me. Sometimes mods will make changes to this, but it’s the rule 99% of the time.

Post Visibility and Privacy Levels

Mastodon has four default kinds of posts. You can choose your default type of post in yourinstance.com/settings/preferences/other

  • Public:
    • Goes to all your followers.
    • Goes into the Local stream of your instance.
    • Goes into the Federated stream of any instance where one or more users follow you.
    • Publicly viewable from a link.
    • Might be indexed in search engine.
    • Anyone can Boost a Public tweet.
  • Unlisted:
    • Goes to all your followers.
    • 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, like a RT.
  • Followers-Only:
    • Goes to everyone who follows you.
    • Cannot be Boosted at all.
    • Private, in theory. Only as private as any private thing online, as it could be screencapped, etc.
  • Mentioned People Only:
    • Basically a DM.
    • Only people you tag in it can see it.
    • If you don’t tag anyone, only you can see it.
    • Like on Facebook, Twitter, etc., an admin can see it if they’re determined. It can be screencapped, etc.

Public and Private accounts both have the options to make any kind of post (so you can Boost a post from a private account if it’s unlocked or global), but Private accounts require approval to follow them and Public don’t.

Blocking, Muting, Reporting

Mastodon includes Mute, Block, and Report, which all work about like on other sites. You can block a person OR the whole domain they’re on.

Report lets you choose whether to report it to your instance’s admin and/or to their instance’s admin. Admins can block an entire instance for everyone – normally only happens if the people on it are being abusive.

What Instances Should I Join?

You could just join one of the big instances. I'd suggest not joining mastodon.social because it's harder to find people, but you can. 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. These are really basic summaries.
  • 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 welcome here! I’m now one of the admins.
  • 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. Registrations currently closed, but you may be able to get an invitation.
  • mastodon.art - artists! Not just drawings, but all kinds of things.

There’s also larger semi-generics like:

After 5 years, I can say that while really cool concept instances can be fun, they can also get you involved in some drama. So I’d advice not starting there, test the waters, then figure out what you want to do. You can download your posts and move your follows/blocks with you if you change instances, so don’t worry that you’re getting locked into your only option ever.

Places sometimes have really specific codes of conduct, so be sure to check one before joining.

(lists updated 10/28/2022)

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Ruth Kitchin Tillman
Sally W. Kalin Early Career Librarian for Technological Innovations

Card-carrying quilter. Mennonite. Writer. Worker.