It feels like ages since I’ve done one of these exhtolling-the-virtues-of-a-new-tech shiny thing and, given that I think the last product I was really into was Google Wave, I will be the first to admit I don’t have a good track record of picking “winners”.1
Still, with that disclaimer out-of-the-way, I’m gonna say this: Mastodon is great.
What is it?
Very briefly, Mastodon is a replacement for Twitter (yes, another one). It’s been around for a while, but it gets a little more traction every time Twitter flubs its Nazi problem. So, yanno. It’s actually been doing not-too-badly.
More broadly, and the main thing that separates Mastodon from Twitter Replacements of Ages Past, is that it’s decentralized. In other words, rather than being a closed-source, ad-revenue-driven, mass-surveillance machine held by a single entity beholden only to billionaire corporate sponsors, Mastodon draws its business model from an earlier age—the age of WordPress, (the original) LiveJournal and, well, email—and is available as source code anyone can set up on their own server.
In fact, “it’s like Twitter crossed with email” is probably the best way of conceptualizing Mastodon. It feels like Twitter—users post short status updates, respond to other users’ statuses, and so on—but operates like email. You know how you can use your @gmail.com address to email your mom’s @1990s.isp address just as easily as your boss’s @corporate.com address? So it is with Mastodon: users on one instance/domain can follow and interact with users on other instances. It’s all very Web 1.0. Which is why it’s great.
Sitting on a Mastodon instance that suddenly decides to serve ads, or host Nazis, or introduce modding policies you hate? No worries; you can just pick up and move to another (there’s even a handy import and export feature to help you do it). Paranoid about any online presence you don’t control yourself? Again, nbd brah; just roll your own single-user instance.2 Mastodon is exactly as difficult or as simple as you want it to be.
That sounds great! But hard. Where do I start?
First, pick an instance. Or don’t, because we’re starting simple, so…
Simple is mastodon.social, which is the “official” Mastodon instance; like the WordPress.com to the WordPress.org community.
Alternately, if you’ve got friends moving to Mastodon, pick their instance. Instances tend to appear around communities; for example, a bunch of the online SFF community has started to congregate around wandering.shop.
Whichever instance you choose, register an account, and you’re good to go.
The curse of all new social media: How to follow people?
Well, first, you need to find the person you want to follow. Do that by typing their full username (@firstname.lastname@example.org) into the search bar:
Hitting “enter” will bring up the searched-for-user’s info in one of the Mastodon UI’s columnar panels, usually the one furthest to the right. From there, just click the little “follow person” button, and… voilà! Followed.
Okay. But how do I know who to follow?
Each Mastodon instance has two special timelines, known as Local and Federated. If they don’t, by default, appear in the UI, you can find them from the far-right Getting Started column:
The Local timeline is all the toots (i.e. status updates) made by everyone on your home instance of Mastodon. It’s how you can check out your immediate neighbors, participate in the community, and find cool new people to follow.
When you initially click its link, the Local timeline will open in the Getting Started panel. If you want to “stick” it to the home UI, click the icon in the upper-left of the column (the one that looks like sliders on an audio mixing board… for some reason) to open the options pulldown. The click “Pin”:
A new column with the Local timeline should now appear to the immediate left of Getting Started… and will stay there (you can “unpin” it in the same way it was originally pinned).
The second important public timeline is the Federated timeline. This is a bit more complicated but, in essence, it’s status updates from everyone followed by everyone on your instance. You can view it and pin it in the same way as the Local timeline.
Wait. So does that mean—?
That all your toots are being broadcast to any instance on which someone is following you from? Yes. But don’t worry, because Mastodon has privacy settings:
Seriously. Goddamn privacy settings. Oh, how I’ve missed thee. These are worth the price of entry alone. (Also see: text-cuts/content warnings.)
This all looks pretty cool, but…
… my friends are still on the Blue Hellsite
Yeah, I know.
There are a bunch of tools emerging to help users migrate from Twitter. I personally like moa.party, which tl;dr is basically a cross-poster. I have one minor quibble with it—I’d prefer if it had an option to not crosspost quoted tweets—but otherwise it works pretty well, and will help you start to shift your presence from one platform to the other.
… what about mobile?
There are mobile apps! I’ve been using Amaroq, mostly because I liked the little wolf-head logo. It’s not quite as feature-rich as longterm Twitter apps—niggles include it notifying of replies but not the content of replies, for example—but it looks pretty and works smoothly.
Okay. I’m convinced. What now?
Well, if you’ve got some spare cashmonies you could always donate to the project. Or, yanno. Nag all your friends to join up as well!
Either way: Happy tooting!