At this point, you should have a good idea about what Mastodon is and how it differs from something like Twitter. If not, read my previous article. In this article, you’ll learn how to configure your profile, browse the various timelines, and most importantly, follow people.

Before you get started, you should already have a Mastodon account on an existing instance. If you don’t have one, I suggest that you create an account over at mastodon.social.

This is a large instance with hundreds of thousands of people. It’s probably your closest match to Twitter. This is a good starting point because it will expose you to lots of people using Mastodon in a variety of ways. You’ll also get a lot of support from the community as a whole. Once you get your “sea legs”, you can move to another instance that matches your interests while still keeping your followers.

The Mastodon life is a good life!

Just a quick note before you start – I’m hearing a lot of criticism that Mastodon is “too hard for the typical user”. This is incorrect. Mastodon is just different. If you try to use Mastodon exactly the same way that you use Twitter or any other social network, then yes, it’s going to be very frustrating. But if you leave your assumptions at the door, and just embrace the beginner’s mindset, then you’ll find it’s no harder than learning any other web service.

In summation, Mastodon is just different, and soon, you’ll discover it’s actually better.

Adding an Avatar

Okay, you’ve found a Mastodon instance and you’ve created a Mastodon account. At this point, you are staring at an empty timeline (a listing of messages sometimes called posts).

This is a blank timeline found at mastdn.party
Note: In 2022, the folks who develop Mastodon stopped using the word toot. The lead developer, Eugen Rochko, didn't realize that toot in English also means passing gas, aka farting. I'll be following their example by dropping that nomenclature and using the word post instead.  

Consider this your blank canvas. Soon it will be filled with thoughts and feelings of those you “follow”, but first, you need to prepare your account. At this moment, your account appears to be a generic new user. You need to breathe life into it.

On the left-hand side of your screen, underneath the search bar, you’ll see your profile with an Edit Profile link underneath. By default, you have an elephant icon representing your avatar. Every new user has this avatar, so the first thing you should do is customize your appearance. Click the Edit Profile link.

Your Edit Profile page is where you can add all your details. Your Display Name is how your name will appear in the central timeline. Undeath is your Bio or biography. You can write about yourself or what you do. A few sentences should suffice.

Underneath your Bio is the Header and Avatar. The header is your background and the Avatar is a photo that will represent you. It doesn’t need to be a real photograph of you. Choose anything you like. Make sure to at least upload an Avatar, but I’d suggest adding a Header as well.

Here is my Edit Profile page at mastodon.social

Scrolling down, you’ll find other useful settings, but the most important thing to do is to set your Avatar and Header.

Setting Your Preferences

You should now have your basic profile all set up. Remember, it doesn’t need to be “perfect”, just enough for people to get a basic understanding of you. Later you can change it.

At this point, you may be ready to dive into the Fediverse, but there are a few other things to adjust that can enormously affect your time using Mastodon.

In the left-hand column, click the Preferences link.

The first thing you’ll notice is that Mastodon features a “dark” theme. Programmers tend to prefer this theme since looking at white screens over a period of hours can cause eye strain. Chances are, you’re not a programmer. You can change the theme to something you prefer back to light mode if you prefer.

Mastodon features three different modes: Dark, High Contrast, and Light

Switching to Light Mode definitely changes the experience. I prefer Dark Mode so all my screenshots will be using it. That said, here’s what light mode looks like:

Mastodon in light mode

Back in the Preferences page, you’ll see the Advanced Web Interface checkbox.

If you’ve used TweetDeck, then you’ll be right at home with the advanced interface

This enables your layout to be composed of columns so you scan your mentions, posts, and a variety of things that you may choose to follow. You can add columns, arrange them, and basically alter the UI to fit your use case.

An example of the advanced web interface

At some point, I’ll write a tutorial on how to use it, but for now, it’s beyond the scope of this article.

The next option is Slow Mode. By default, your timelines will automatically update. For timelines with lots of activity, the updates can move at light speed. By keeping this checked, you must manually update your feeds.

Slow mode keeps things manageable

Personally, I believe this should be checked by default so I would check it if you want a manageable experience.

Changing Your Other Settings

You are almost ready, but there are a few other system settings that can make a world difference. These are the Other settings. In the Preferences menu, click the Other link.

Here you can configure your privacy settings. A lot of these are self-explanatory, but again, they make a big difference in how much information you want to be shared with the rest of the scroll.

The Posting Defaults determine how you want your posts to display as well as the selected language. These apply to all your posts, but you can also apply privacy settings to individual posts if you need to.

Your posting defaults will apply to all your posts

Scroll down to the Public Timelines section. This is a list of languages supported by Mastodon.

Being internationally developed, Mastodon supports a wide variety of languages

Check the languages you want to see. Mind you, every so often, you’ll still see other languages appear in your timeline. Mastodon does an okay job filtering per your preferences, but it’s not uncommon to encounter different languages.

There are a lot more options and preferences. For example, there are filters so if you are sick to death of hearing about Elon Musk, you can filter out posts with his name. That said, if you run into some pain points, chances are, there’s a preference that can fix it for you.

Viewing Other Posts

You now have an account all setup. Now it’s time to find people. Mastodon features three timelines: Home, Local, and the Federated. Once you close your preferences, you can access them on the right-hand side of the interface.

These are your three main timelines

The first timeline is your local feed or Home feed. This is composed of all the accounts that you are currently following. It’s empty because you aren’t following anyone just yet. You’ll change that soon.

The Local feed represents your current instance. I currently reside in mastodon.social which has hundreds of thousands of users. Every public message is published to this timeline from the most recent.

There is no other algorithm based on engagement or what you like. You see the posts as they arrive. For big instances, this can happen pretty fast which is why I recommend slow mode. In slow mode, you must manually fetch new posts.

In slow mode, after a period of time, new statuses will start to queue

To fetch new posts, just click the X new items found at the top of the timeline. Otherwise, with slow mode disabled, your timeline will automatically update.

Finally, the Federated feed contains all the posts for the connected instances. Well, not exactly everybody. Your instance may block other instances that promote hate speech or known distributors of misinformation. But even then, there are still millions of people out there connected in the Fediverse.

When you follow a person on another instance, that person will appear in the Federated timeline whenever they write a post. This occurs for everyone on your instance so the Federated timeline is a collection of follows from the entire instance.

There is something to note about the Federated timeline. You are browsing messages from all different instances with different moderation policies. This is where you may run into all sorts of content. People are mostly good about using a Content Warning but sometimes, some weird stuff slips through. Just keep that in mind.

Engaging with Statuses

When you see a post, you can do a few things with it. The first thing you can do is reply to the post. This is the first option of the post.

This is a reply to myself

By responding to a person, your response will be positioned under the post as well as published on your own timeline. This allows other people to observe or even join the conversation just like every other social network.

Boosting gets the word out to everybody

Next is the boost. When you boost another person’s post, it is sent to all of your followers. That’s really it. There is no “quote boost” like the quote tweet on Twitter. This is a controversial decision. It’s meant to prevent “internet pile-ons” whereby someone writes something dumb and everybody lets them know they are an idiot.

If you want to “quote tweet”, you’ll have to screenshot the post in the question and add that screenshot to your own post.

Next up is your favorite button. Click this when you like a post. All this does is let the creator know that you like it. That’s it. Your like is not published on your timeline. It does not affect the “algorithm” since there isn’t one. Only two people know about the like: you and the post writer.

This isn’t the case when using Twitter. Ted Cruise famously didn’t realize this when he liked a clip from an adult video. His like was published to the whole world who proceeded to dunk on him.

Bookmark messages that you want to read later

Use the bookmark button to save posts. You can access them by clicking the bookmark link. There it will list your saved posts. The same goes for your favorites.

Those are the four main ways to engage with other people’s posts. There are others as you’ll learn soon enough.

Following People

Once you start reading posts, you can start following the people who made them. When you follow someone, all their posts will appear in your local timeline. You can get started by browsing through both the Local and Federated timelines. Read the various posts, and when you find someone that you like, click their profile name.

Click on the profile name to go to their profile page

Once you click on a person’s profile name, you’ll be taken to their profile page. This is where you’ll see their avatar, header, and biography. You’ll get an idea if this is a person you’d like to hear from. If you like the person, click the Follow button. You do the same to unfollow as well.

The user profile gives you greater detail about a person such as this legend

Conversely, sometimes you may want to mute someone or just block them outright. Maybe they are posting way too much or being a jerk. If this happens, look for the three dots on their post and click it.

The three dots opens up a whole series of options (this is a joke account, btw)

This flyout menu provides you with a ton of different options from blocking, muting, reporting the person to their instance’s moderation, or straight out blocking the entire instance.

If you are coming straight from Twitter, you may be hesitant to block or mute people. Oftentimes, blocking was a sign of “losing the argument” or something equally dumb.

In Mastodon, blocking is encouraged. Use the block and mute tools to curate your own experience. If some stranger is being a jerk, simply remove them from your timeline. If some person keeps showing up in your timeline even though you don’t follow them and it’s getting annoying, then block them.

I often block folks who write in different languages that slip through my preferences. Sometimes the translation is wonky and oftentimes the unreadable posts just clutter my timeline. It’s not personal in the least.

Finding People

Finding people is probably the biggest pain point when coming to Mastodon. The search functionality is very different than Twitter’s search. With Twitter, you can search for anything and everything. In Mastodon, you have only four categories: hashtags, usernames, user URLs, and post URLs.

That’s it.

Here’s a great article on the reasoning behind the choice. The TLDR:

People from marginalized communities helped to encourage controls that allowed the network to emphasize community, not reach. - Ernie Smith

In short, marginalized users didn’t want their communities to be flooded by folks looking to harass them. By limiting search, they were limiting the ease with which harassers can find them.

This begs the question – how do you find someone in the Fediverse? The answer: look outside the Fediverse.

Every profile has an address. Think of it like an email address. Mine is the following:

@[email protected]

This address contains two parts – my username and instance location. My user name is @vegetarianzombie. My instance is @mastodon.social. If you go to Maston search and look up my address, you’ll see my listing.

Now you can just click on my profile and follow me. This search works across the Fediverse.

To find notable people, you’ll need to find those people on the web and ask for their mastodon handle. There are lots of directories out there for notable people. Twitter used to be a great way to find Mastodon handles, but they are cracking down on it.

Even going to any Mastodon instance from Twitter brings the following warning:

The last bullet was specifically written with Mastodon in mind

Your best bet is to ask people in your instance and do some sleuthing on the internet.

Verifying Users

In this article, you will have seen Elon Musk in a screenshot. Surprising absolutely no one, that is not the real Elon Musk. It’s obviously a fake account, but in the age of misinformation, it is essential to know fake accounts from real ones.

Twitter used to provide a verification service. It was an opaque service with few published requirements. It often resulted in a background check and once it was confirmed that you were “notable”, you received a blue checkmark.

Being decentralized, Mastodon doesn’t have a team of verifiers. Rather, users are verified by external websites.

When you click your Edit Profile link and scroll down to the bottom of the page, you’ll see a section about verification.

You copy that verification code and paste it into a website that you list in your Profile metadata. So if I were a reporter for the Washington Post, that verification code would be included on the official Washington Post website.

When that occurs, you’ll see a green field on a person’s profile page like so:

My profile is being verified by this website

The more verified sources, the better it is. As Mastodon takes off, more and more sites will include verification options.

When following notable folks like celebrities or journalists, always check their verification status. If they aren’t verified, then check the links on their profile to see if their Mastodon profile is listed. Never assume you the person is legit. Follow the adage, ‘trust, but verify’.

Where To Go From Here?

Wow! That was a lengthy article and you didn’t even get to post yet? Don’t worry, you’ll be learning about posting in the next article and how to leverage the power of hashtags. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Mastodon both the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have released free guides (no paywall) on how to use Mastodon as well.

And of course, if you found this article to be useful, post your Mastodon handle below so that we can all find you.

By Brian Moakley

Brian Douglas Moakley is a writer and technologist who lives amongst the quiet hills in New England. When not reading tales of high adventure, he is often telling such stories to all who will listen.

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