Mastodon for Newbies: What is Mastodon?

Twitter used to be my favorite social media site. It allowed me to follow a variety of folks outside my social circle, connect with people in my field and just have a good time posting bad jokes. Unfortunately, all good parties come to an end.

If you are like me and searching for a replacement, there are plenty out there, but only one of them features a large extinct elephant as a mascot. Yes, I’m talking of Mastodon. This article will give you an overview of Mastodon. People who go to Mastodon often expect another Twitter, but Mastodon is quite different in a lot of ways.

That said, in a follow-up article, I’ll walk you through the process of using the service. For now, it’s time to break it down.

What is Mastodon

Mastodon is a decentralized micro-blogging service. Whereas Twitter is like a lone skyscraper (or giant birdhouse) filled with folks tweeting to each other, Mastodon is a series of connected villages, sprawling all over the landscape where people toot.

Welcome to Mastodon image

To me, this is the core confusion with new Mastodon users. People come to a Mastodon village expecting to be a centralized directory like Twitter. But in Mastadon, there is a multitude of different villages. This means if you go to the wrong “village”, you won’t find the person you are looking for.

Each village or instance (as I call it for the rest of the article) can talk to each other but also, all the other connected instances in one communal space known as the Fediverse.

In short, when you toot, you are tooting to your followers, the instance, and the external Mastadon population by way of the Fediverse.

Who Pays?

In a typical Mastodon instance, there are no subscriptions. There are no advertisements. The instance does not sell your data. So how does it make money? This is an important question to ask in the age of, “if something is free, you are the product”.

Being that anyone can run a Mastodon instance. It’s up to the instance community to determine how to pay for it. Yes, you can start your own Mastodon instance and pay out of pocket, or you can find a way to get the community to cover the costs.

The patreon for mastodon.social

For instance, mastodon.social has a Patreon page and corporate sponsorships. By contributing to the Patreon, you are keeping the service running.

There are other communities that are self-funding but not connected to the Mastadon network. counter.social used to be a Mastodon server, but cut off ties due to disagreements during development. Donald Trump’s truthsocial.com is really just another branded Mastodon instance that also doesn’t talk to the Mastodon network either.

That’s the beauty of open source and decentralization. You can tailor your instance to the needs of your community.

Moderation

Moderation is a core part of any social network, and Mastodon is no exception. With Mastodon, it’s up to the server owner to determine moderation policies. The server owner has access to all your profile information, toots, and your direct messages.

In short, treat any instance like a public space, even in private. If you need to communicate confidential information, find a trusted encrypted platform outside of Mastodon like Signal. Mastodon is not the place for sharing sensitive information like passwords or anything you wouldn’t share with the public.

Being that Mastadon communities are all connected, moderation policies can have a big impact on the community. For instance, you may have a well-moderated instance but that instance moderation means nothing if the neighboring instance is publishing hate speech.

A list of moderation rules for mastodon.social
Moderation rules for mastodon.social

Thankfully, server owners can choose to block other instances. In fact, mastadon.social maintains an extended list of blocked instances as well as the reason for the blockage.

A list of blocked servers for reasons like spam, misinformation, conspiracy theories and hate speech
Some of the blocked servers at mastodon.social

Better still, you have the ability to block instances yourself so if you keep seeing terrible content from the same source or blatant disinformation, you can block the instance and report the user to your server admin.

Joining Communities

As you can imagine, Mastodon has lots of instances. In fact, some instances require that you apply to them. This is to keep the population to a manageable number (not everyone can afford to host millions of users). Servers can also provide requirements for joining.

A description of the union.place server with a button to apply to join.

For instance, union.place is dedicated to workers and unions. They have their own moderation policies. Joining the server means filling out an application form and creating a new account. They want to know why you want to join so you can fit into their community.

The application form for a new server

Mind you, if you don’t “fit” into a community, you may find yourself expelled from that community for any reason whatsoever. Granted, most instances have policies that are consistently enforced, but instance owners may kick you because you tooted something they didn’t like.

For example, if you join a dog lover instance, don’t be surprised if you get kicked by posting cat photos.

If you are kicked, you may find yourself with few options. You can reach out to the instance owner, but that’s it. There’s no central authority to revert the ban.

Also, some instances may “go dark”. For example, an instance owner may not be able to pay the bills so the instance may be turned off. In that case, all the connections you made are gone. Hopefully, the owner will have given folks to migrate off of it, but you can’t guarantee it.

Migrating Accounts

When you join an instance, you create a new account in that instance. If you want this instance to be your main instance, you can also transfer your account to it (if the instances support the transfer). That said, when you create a new profile on an instance, think of it, like creating a new profile on Twitter.

Remember, you can follow anyone in the Mastodon network so the only time you’d create a new account is if you were interested in communicating with that particular instance community.

For instance, there’s an instance specifically dedicated to game development. If you already have an account mastodon.social but want to rub elbows with like-minded game developers, you’d create a new account on that instance or transfer your account to it.

New accounts will have no followers so you’ll need to start following people. With Twitter, the larger your following, the greater your reach. But with Mastadon, each toot is echoed to the server and Fediverse, so it’s easy to make connections.

This gets you out of the “like and follow” mentality. This means you can talk to folks instead of talking over folks. It’s a small change that results in nicer people. It also means that the block button is a needed tool to curate your experience. Blocking people is encouraged.

Conclusion

As you can see, Mastodon is not Twitter. It’s very different. Once you wrap your head around it, you’ll be able to actually enjoy it versus fighting the system. In the next article, I’ll show you the ropes of actually using Mastodon.

But, if you feel like diving straight into the pool, you can follow this link:

https://mastodon.social/invite/BSzGkJMT

This will lead you to the creation of a new account over at mastodon.social. This is the “official” Mastodon server. Following the link will create a new account and give you a person to follow: me 😀 Just ping me and I’ll follow you back. Pinky swear. 🤙

In the article, I’ll show you how to use it. Until then, enjoy the post-Twitter life. 🙂

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