If you are a Twitter user, the overall Mastodon experience will feel pretty familiar to you. It’s a microblogging platform. You have a box to write words in; and a timeline of words you read. You have a notifications tab. You can reply to the posts other people have made, and you can favorite or boost (retweet) things. The sum total of the day to day experience is likely to not be hugely different than using Twitter.
Mastodon Accounts Are Not Segregated By Topic
There is a common misunderstanding that Mastodon accounts are segregated by topic. They are not. The content you can see is not separated based on the “instance” you are on: you can (and will!) follow people from a wide mix of servers, and content from other servers can be seen in your timeline (and even from people you don’t follow, you will see them as “boosts”/retweets). Some things this means:
- You are not expected to post only about a specific topic based on the instance/server you are on. The “identity” attached to a server has approximately the same weight on content expectations as your Twitter username.
- You do not need to worry that your server will limit the content that you see.
- You can follow anyone, from any server. They can follow you, regardless of what server you’re on. You are not entering a silo.
Many people and UIs encourage the use of Mastodon servers that are topic-based. This offers a little value, in the same way that getting added to a Twitter Group DM of people who care about a topic does: that is, it can be a little bit of an identity helper, and let you find some people to connect with more easily, but largely doesn’t impact your day to day experience. However, you do still have to choose a server to be on.
You should choose a Mastodon instance based on trust
Because you can see the content of anyone from any server, and they can see the content from yours, the “topic” of the server is less important than trusting the people who are running it. There are a handful of different elements of trust that matter:
- Other individuals or (or entire servers) can block an entire server from their feeds. This means that you don’t want to be on a server that is seen as being a “bad actor” in the community. Check the moderation policies and rules for the server to make sure that they indicate admins who are thoughtful about moderating content.
- Is the server going to be up 6 days from now? 6 weeks from now? 6 months from now? 6 years from now? Mastodon is experiencing a serious influx of users; are your instance admins relatively capable (or willing to ask for help)? Are they prepared to be around to help fix the server if it goes down — or are you okay with it going down for a weekend, and know it will come back later?
- Do you trust them to take appropriate care with your account? Things like “messages limited to followers” (or “only visible to those tagged”, the equivalent of “Direct” messages) are visible to server admins, as are details like your email address. Ensure your server is run by folks who are not going to abuse that access.
It’s Mostly Okay To Move Later
Mastodon instances have a feature that lets you move your followers from one account to another. That means that I was able to move my followers from my @email@example.com account account to my @firstname.lastname@example.org account. You can also export and re-import the list of people you follow, so you can move the people you follow as well. If you make a mistake in where you set up camp, and want to move, your social graph can come with you.
Your post content, on the other hand, will remain in the old location. So long as the server stays up, this probably isn’t a huge deal–most people aren’t going to reply to old content anyway, and it will still be accessible. But it does mean that people who reply to things I wrote on Mastodon before this month will be replying to “me” in a way I will never see. On the other hand, I’ve been posting on Twitter for 15 years, and the number of times when I get interactions on posts older than about two weeks is about twice a month, so this isn’t a huge problem.
In general, this means that moving does not mean abandoning your network; but will leave your posts behind. Given how microblogging works, this makes moving relatively low cost.
Does Local Instance Matter At All?
There are a few things that which server you’re on does influence.
- Each instance has a “local” feed. This is a handy way to get started finding some new people. On smaller instances, this will be more meaningful than on larger instances.
- The content that shows up in search will be limited to content that has made it to your instance for some reason or another. This means that things like searches for hashtags will be across “the content on the local server, and any content that anyone from the local server follows.”
- Mastodon does not have a lot of experience to scaling to massive servers. Joining an instance with 250,000 active users is likely to be a bad experience. Instances with 1,000–20,000 active users have a much longer history and are likely practical.
The first of these is a feature: It’s a nice local discovery tool. The second of these is a limitation: it would be better if search was more federated and you didn’t get a different view of search from each server. The last of these is just a veiled warning to not join mastodon.social (or whatever the next “big instance” that comes after it is).
Twitter Features You May Miss
Mastodon doesn’t have quote-tweeting. Usually people instead encourage for you to create a reply (possibly including some more context, since the original post won’t be as visible) and then boost your own reply.
Mastodon doesn’t have full-text search. Finding “That tweet I saw go by a couple days ago” will likely be impossible. Aggressive use of the bookmark feature may help you somewhat here.
Mastodon only has the “Latest” feed equivalent from Twitter, not the “Home” / algorithmic feed that is the default. As a regular use of both on Twitter, I think that people sometimes overestimate both the positive and negative impacts of algorithmic feeds. It does mean that your content will be influenced more heavily by who you follow, and what time of day you’re reading, and you are likely to see very popular content (with many boosts) more often than on Twitter.
Likes are not used to surface content to other people in your network, so if you want other people to see something, boost it, rather than liking it.
Engagement statistics on posts are largely not intended to be complete. (Specifically, they are only accurate on the “home” instance where the post was made.) You will see accurate stats on your own posts, but don’t assume that you are seeing a full list of “who has boosted / faved this post”; the “ratio” that people talk about on Twitter largely isn’t visible by default on Mastodon.
Direct messaging doesn’t really exist as a first class feature. You can create a post which is limited to visibility of “people mentioned”. It is just a mention that only a limited number of people can see. Some UIs (including the main Mastodon web UI) surface this in a tab that says “Direct Messages”. But it’s not similar to most other DM platforms. There is no “Group Chat” equivalent.
Things You May Want To Know
People use hashtags more often. Hashtags are an explicit search signal: If you want something to be visible to other people in search, tagging it with a hashtag will be more likely to let them find it. However, most people don’t use search to find other things on Twitter, and they likely aren’t going to on Mastodon either; building up a stronger social network of people to share content is much more likely to be effective. “I hear that you’re supposed to use hashtags for things to be found here” is often said; I consider that to largely be a misunderstanding of the most likely way for people to discover content.
Hosting servers is not free. Twitter, overall, makes about $50/year/user in the US from advertising. Hosting Mastodon is more technically involved, and done at smaller scale, which means higher cost per user. Self-hosting an instance as a small user would probably cost you about $5-$10/month. While most servers at the moment are done on a volunteer basis in spare time and resources, you should look to your instance’s server pages and see if there are ways you can contribute, if you’re able.
There are no “Mastodon Moderators”; no paid staff or centralized review board. Reporting posts will go to instance admins and moderators, who are largely volunteers. You may want to offer to help your instance admins review moderated posts on your server, if you’re on a small server where reported content is likely to be not painful. (Moderating content on a large instance will be a horrible job; stay as far away from it as possible.)
You can block posts from an entire instance. Since instances are often grouped by interest, topic, or social community, this can be useful as a tool: while not every bot will be on the “botsin.space” instance, the majority of posts from that instance will be from bots, so you can block it rather than each account from that server individually.
Mastodon is still an early adopter community, and the growth in the past 2 months is drastically changing it. What this means is that there are still a lot of things that are evolving rapidly. The community has existed for more than 5 years, and there are some norms that existed for 4.5 years that are now evolving with a massive influx of new users.
Mastodon users are trying to maintain norms that are kinder to marginalized communities. These include the use of the “content warning”/content note feature (which hides words/photos behind a click-through; similar to “spoiler tagging” on some other platforms); doing more work to include image descriptions (which exist on Twitter, but are often skipped; try not to do that); and use of #TitleCaseHashTags, which make reading hashtags easier for screen readers. (Basically, because the community is still small, people are kinder than they will be as the community grows. Be one of the people making it more kind, not less.)
I hadn’t intended to write nearly this many words, but since I keep thinking a lot of these things but not writing them out (especially 280 characters at a time), I guess I had a lot to write. Hopefully these comments help some people a little bit in making Mastodon more approachable.