Even before Elon Musk acquired it, Twitter was a nightmare. The great power it has to amplify voices also plays on some of our worst societal instincts. We can speculate endlessly about the causes, but I believe it all boils down to deliberate design decisions. Twitter, like other social media, is built to encourage maximum interaction.
Now imagine if Twitter were optimized in a different way. Like what exactly? That’s why Mastodon and the ActivityPub protocol it runs on are so liberating: they allow you to do just that. Not just another startup, this one. The entity in question is not a business. This is not just a group of people; it’s a community.
There are zero opportunities for advertising, tracking, or monetization. In order to get away from the trolls and Doomscrollers that define social media, people of underrepresented populations shaped this space culturally, aesthetically, and technologically. A social hub where chit-chat takes precedence over competition.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you thought that was a load of hooey. Various pieces of nonsense that sound the same are floating about at the moment (see: crypto). We’ve all evolved to a world where we automatically assume that each service we encounter online is a ploy to grab our attention and make money off of us.
Users of the ActivityPub have coined the network that has sprung up around it the “Fediverse,” but it isn’t a social network. I published a call for assistance seeking advice on how to initiate my venture. While hundreds of people gave me advice, one rickrolled me, and another sent me a fantastic Beatles/Pokémon mashup.
Such reactions are usual in this society, which consists of jovial people who, in the main, only want to strike up talks with individuals. If you make an effort to learn about the culture and interact with people on their terms, they can be quite helpful. I’ve done my best to include the advice and background information they gave me. Come on, we need to get started.
What The Hell Is The Fediverse?
It’s understandable to see similarities between Mastodon and Twitter at first glance. Both are microblogging sites where others can subscribe to your updates, feature ‘like’ buttons and share capabilities, and let you subscribe to the updates of others. It’s not quite comparable, though. To begin with, I’ve already established that Mastodon is not a corporation but rather a community-based open-source software project.
That software is based on ActivityPub, a protocol that can communicate with a wide variety of other programs. I will admit that this does not sound that interesting. By now, the primary function of every major social networking site is to facilitate the distribution of screenshots taken from other social networking sites.
Twitter is flooded with screenshots from Reddit, and Instagram is flooded with screenshots from Twitter. This is happening because it is now unable to share content created for one platform on another. The Fediverse is where this idea can be put to use.
Envision a world where social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook were all interconnected and you could do things like follow an Instagram account on Twitter or respond to a YouTube remark on Facebook. The Fediverse operates in this fashion. The ActivityPub protocol can be used to power a wide variety of different programs.
Pixeled is another online gallery that aims to fill the void left by Instagram (before it tried to become TikTok). OwnCast is a streaming service, and PeerTube is a video-sharing website. Mastodon’s competitors include both Friendica and Gnu Social, both of which have been around for longer than Mastodon itself.
In fact, I have more to say. In other words, anyone using any of these apps can also follow Mastodon users and vice versa. The entire network is linked together. Perhaps we would all take fewer screenshots if that were the case with today’s most popular social media platforms;
users could just copy and paste the relevant content into their own posts instead. Don’t worry if you don’t understand. You need just be aware that Mastodon is not alone in its connectivity capabilities. Let’s speak about how to kick things off.
Find a Mastodon Server
The requirement to pick a server can be baffling to Twitter users making the switch to Mastodon. I can see why people would want to do rid of this rule because it adds unnecessary complexity. However, this is not a flaw, but rather the central concept. Mastodon is open source, so anyone may install it and customize it to their needs.
These are more commonly referred to as “instances,” but they are also known as “servers.” Since everything on Discord is hosted by the firm itself, the term “server” has become muddled thanks to Discord. That’s not how Mastodon works. When I say “Mastodon server,” I mean a machine that is not part of any larger network.
The Mastodon app was downloaded and installed on a server under their control. That individual or collective has the authority to change the way the software functions, exercise moderation discretion, and even delete user accounts. Like Twitter workers, they can also view your direct messages (if you want secure communications, you should check out Signal.)
Joining a server is equivalent to placing a great deal of faith in the server’s administrators. Your best bet is to track down a server that was created by a friend or acquaintance. There are public server lists available if that fails, and you may always downsize at a later time if you so choose.
Open servers can be found on the official list, which has been carefully compiled to include only those that are beginner-friendly and adhere to certain moderation guidelines. Here’s a handy wizard you can use to zero down on the perfect niche if that’s what you’re after.
Before deciding on a certain group, do some research on the people who frequent there and go through some threads to see if the atmosphere feels right. Click the “See what’s occurring” link that usually appears below the sign-up form to begin browsing posts.
The good news is that your followers and follows will remain intact even if you decide to transfer servers in the future. Learning the ropes on one of the larger servers first makes moving over to another one much simpler.
Oh, and right now, most of these Mastodon servers are slightly overloaded, so many are asking new users to apply for a waiting list. The server administrators are doing their best to eliminate malicious bots and users. You can usually receive access within a day if you leave a note.
Complete Your Account Information (and Get Verified)
Setting up your profile in the preferences menu is a good place to start. The vast majority of Twitter’s first users never revealed their real names, but now everyone uses them. (I’m a journalist, therefore I’m going by my given name for the time being.) Introduce yourself, but make it about more than just work (or better yet, leave it out entirely).
You are a social creature with the intention of making human connections. You should also include a profile picture so others can quickly recognize you, as well as a banner if you’d want to highlight something fun on your profile.
It’s also important to note that the verification process is entirely distinct. Simply embed a link to your Mastodon profile using the rel=”me” property (there’s a sample code available in case you get stuck). This verifies your identity as the owner of the domain to the server, which will then label you as verified.
Explore and Get Comfortable
At first glance, Mastodon seems quite similar to the popular microblogging service, Twitter. First, understand that there is no algorithm at work here; instead, you are just seeing the posts and boosts of the individuals you are following in reverse chronological order. Popular content is hidden from your timeline, but you may find it by clicking the Explore option.
Concerning the sequence of events: Posts (also known as “toots”) from the individuals you’re following are displayed. Any comment made by a user is open for discussion. A post can be “boosted,” which functions similarly to a retweet on Twitter.
An additional option is to “like” or “bookmark” a particular entry. The “like” button does nothing to increase the visibility of a user’s post because there is no underlying logic; it simply lets them know that you found something about their post to be agreeable.
While going through your timeline, you won’t be able to see how many likes or boosts a certain post has received. This was done on purpose so that you’d evaluate a post based on its content rather than its popularity. You’ll also discover that Twitter lacks a feature similar to Facebook‘s Retweet With Comment.
This is on purpose as well; it’s a safeguard against the “dunking” and “character of the day” dynamics that characterize so many Twitter exchanges. Last but not least, you cannot conduct a search of the entire post, only its hashtags. This is also on purpose.
The marginalized people who shaped the early Fediverse sought refuge from trolls, who utilize the search function on sites like Twitter to find and interject themselves into conversations. Meanwhile, the use of hashtags makes it possible for those who are posting to have their messages discovered. Obtaining someone’s permission is key.
Every once in a while, someone tries to make a search tool, but most of the time, that kind of service gets restricted. Several locations exist outside of your chronology for you to investigate. The Explore tab displays trending content and provides quick access to trending hashtags and news stories. (It should be pointed out that many servers do not provide this menu option.)
It’s especially helpful if you’re using a less populated server because the Local tab displays all posts made on that server. The last option, Federated, displays every single post from the entire Fediverse, which may be a lot to take in.
Keep tabs on those that pique your interest. If you want to read posts, you’ll have to start following people, as there is no algorithm-promoting stuff for you. If it helps, I wrote about how to locate your Twitter followers on Mastodon; however, don’t only stick to those folks; take advantage of this opportunity to meet and converse with new people.
Post Through It
The posting process is very similar to other social networks. You have complete freedom of expression; you can write anything you like, upload photos and videos, and even include a poll. However, there are a few considerations to bear in mind. The first noticeable difference is the increased prevalence of hashtags compared to other social media platforms.
Due to the platform’s limited search capabilities, hashtags are essential for reaching an audience outside your immediate circle of followers. (Or don’t use them if you don’t want strangers to find your post—consent is the fundamental design philosophy behind many features here.)
But the most notable distinction is the presence of a warning mechanism for potentially offensive material. Understanding this is nuanced, but crucial. Fediverse and Mastodon’s early culture was shaped by underrepresented communities, particularly the LGBTQ+ population. They had a hand in developing the content warning system, which, to my knowledge, is not used by any other social networks.
Your post can be hidden behind a user-defined warning if it contains content that some people may find offensive. You could put “nude pasty white male” as a trigger warning if I posted a nude photo of myself. Anyone who, for whatever reason, would like to view me can do so with a single click, but everyone else can relax.
Not only is this helpful for discussing nudity, but the culture of Mastodon also employs it when discussing sensitive topics such as mental health and past familial trauma. From there, the system progressed. It evolved into a means to avoid boring the vast majority of your followers with posts about boring topics.
I can therefore put up a content notice to explain why I’m posting about politics even though I don’t normally do so. People can then choose whether or not to read it as they scroll. As the late 2010s were difficult for many marginalized communities, Mastodon became a safe haven for many. It’s not supposed to devolve into an acrimonious wasteland as some other social media sites have.
Please do your best to honor the instrument that makes that possible. Learn from other people’s examples of effective use. In addition, please provide a brief explanation of each photo you upload. It’s good practice in general and also beneficial for those who are visually impaired.
In Defense of Trolls
Harassment exists in the Fediverse, but there are methods to combat it. First and foremost, you should be aware that there are entire servers whose sole purpose is to troll and harass users of other servers. They are usually blocked by the more popular servers, so if you use one of those,
you won’t have to worry about running into them. However, you can report the user to the server’s moderators and then block them if necessary. Keep in mind that you, as an individual, can even prevent access to whole servers.
The Revolution Will Not Be Optimized (For Engagement)
The Internet was never meant to become the service we use to access a small number of social media sites. There was a time when the internet was a very decentralized environment, where people with varying interests congregated on various online forums. There was a genuineness about it, even if the old internet was a mess and I’m not claiming it was better.
People used to make websites and blogs from scratch just for fun and customize their RSS feeds before “optimizing for engagement” became common practice. We let it die when we stopped spending our time on the internet in small, self-sufficient communities based on common interests and instead used apps that were optimized for the release of dopamine, leading to widespread feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger while providing a windfall for a select few in Silicon Valley.
What makes the social internet enjoyable is its ability to bring people together from all walks of life, and the Fediverse does a terrific job of combining this with the small, independent communities that made the early internet so great. Since joining Mastodon, I’ve had more meaningful conversations in only two weeks than I have had in the prior year on Twitter or Facebook.
Mastodon is optimized for direct communication between users. However, it’s not easy to get started, especially at the moment when many servers are swamped with new users. The software has a bit of a learning curve even if that weren’t the case. While venture capitalists spent billions on social media platforms, the Fediverse is run and monitored by unpaid users. It’s going to be rough sailing.
Keep in mind that you are not a customer, and this is not a startup that is solely focused on expansion. You are someone who is considering joining any of these communities. Even though it may be difficult to accept in the late stages of capitalism, you can’t treat it like a business and you shouldn’t think of it that way.
Remember that being a part of a group is more rewarding than making money on your own. As a whole, the current Mastodon community reflects the fact that Mastodon and its ilk are designed with connectivity in mind rather than participation. I’m hoping it stays that way, so I’ve included a lot of information in this guide. I really want to do it justice.
Resources More on the Topic
I could elaborate for quite some time, but I believe I have covered the essentials. Ultimately, what I hope to convey is that Mastodon and the Fediverse are more than just a piece of technology; they are also a vibrant online community.
It’s true that a community’s identity can change with the influx of new members, but there’s a good reason why so many people are ditching places like Twitter in favor of the Fediverse: the vibe there is far superior.
Anyone who joins that group must do their part to keep it thriving. For this reason, I’d want to direct your attention to some materials written by persons who have given this topic far more consideration than I have.
- You can learn a lot of useful information from Fedi. tips.
- If you want to host your own social network, the summary at RunYourOwn.social is invaluable.
- The official Mastodon documentation is also worth reading.
- This comment on wordsmith. social.
- In conclusion, the lessons I’ve been trying to express here are largely covered in my post on GitHub.
Learn the ropes by reading the aforementioned materials, but don’t be afraid to venture out on your own. Jump in and strive to be a kind person all around. Given how toxic the web already is, it’s important to preserve the pleasant environments we manage to locate. Until we meet again, have fun in the Fediverse.