Basic Mastodon tips for new users

Mastodon social network

Since Twitter’s sale to Elon Musk, there’s been an ongoing undermining of what made Twitter appealing to its users. As such, there’s been a search for alternate social networks that match Twitter’s features. Mastodon has emerged as one (somewhat) popular choice, for a few reasons. Mastodon is: an existing social network; works similarly to Twitter; has some traction; and (important in this day and age) has Android and iOS apps.

That said, Mastodon’s biggest flaw is it’s not as user-friendly as Twitter. Even its default home page feels geared toward technical users: a “find a server” button instead of a “sign up here” button? The average person just wants to sign up for an account and start posting cat pictures/memes/follow their friends or a celebrity.

Thus, I thought I’d offer some tips on how to use Mastodon. The information is based on several user guides (Fast Company, Axbom, Gizmodo, PC Mag) and my own experience/research.

Mastodon basics

Back in 2019, I wrote a post explaining and summing up my feelings about Mastodon, which still mostly stands. But for an overview of how Mastodon works, there’s this video:

While Mastodon has some similarities to Twitter, some things are named differently in Mastodon. Posts are up to 500 characters instead of Twitter’s 280. Tweets are called “posts” (formerly known as “toots,” a name that’s fortunately been dropped), retweets are called “boosts,” and likes are called “favorites.” One big difference: there’s no “quote-retweet” equivalent function.

Sign up via the official website or the Mastodon app

Mastodon iOS app
Mastodon iOS app. (Mastodon / screenshot by author)

Normally I recommend signing up for Mastodon via a web browser, at the official site. But if you’re having difficulty using Mastodon’s site, using the iOS or Android app instead is another option.

To use the app, download the app, then click the “sign up” button. Pick a server (more on that below). You’ll then be directed to a sign-up screen that’s familiar to anyone signing up for an online account. Enter your email address, pick a display name (either your real name or a fun name), enter a username and password, and click the button to finish signing up.

While the official Mastodon app is decent enough, I’ve read anecdotes from others finding alternate apps easier to use. A few popular alternatives include Metatext (iOS) and Tusky (Android).

Pick a well-run server

Mastodon works as a “federated” service. That is, it works similarly to email services like Gmail, Outlook, etc. Different servers (also called “instances”) exist with their own unique identities, but all can talk to each other, just as anyone with a Gmail address can email someone with an Outlook one. In Mastodon’s case, some servers cater to certain audiences, from LGBTQ folk to those that speak certain languages.

That said, some smaller or less popular servers might have fewer resources or staff running them. Such servers are also more at risk of going under, taking user accounts with them. Fewer users on a server means there’s also less variety in accounts that appear on the local timeline feed (a list of all users’ posts on that server). However, smaller servers do have some advantages, including easier moderation and being less crowded with users.

New users might be better off sticking with one of the bigger servers, unless they need a specific niche, such as an art-oriented instance, or an instance for a specific language. However, some servers might be closed to new sign-ups, especially given the current number of users signing up for Mastodon accounts.

Below are my suggested servers. All of them specifically list in their user rules (seen before you reach the actual sign-up page) policies against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. As of this writing, they’re also all open for new users:

  • blacktwitter.io: a server aimed at African American users
  • c.im: a popular general-purpose server
  • mas.to: another popular, general-purpose server
  • mastodon.scot: aimed at users in Scotland, or those of Scottish descent
  • mastodon.ie: aimed at users in Ireland, or those of Irish descent
  • mstdn.social: another general-purpose server
  • newsie.social: aimed at journalists and other communications professionals

If you need to move to a new server, you’ll need to create a new account on the new server, then migrate the old one. Instructions are available here and here. You shouldn’t lose who you’re following (or any followers) in the process.

Mastodon usernames work like email addresses

Your Mastodon username works like your email address. Just as you need to use your whole email address (“username@example.com”), you need to use your full Mastodon username: “@username@mastodonserver.domain”.

For example, my Mastodon username is: @dtgeek@mastodon.social.

Finding other Mastodon users

Join Mastodon main page
Join Mastodon main page. (Mastodon / screenshot by author)

The downside of any new social network is finding people to follow. Fortunately, there are a few ways to find followers. I based the information below on the web version of Mastodon, though the apps should also cover most of this.

Your Mastodon account’s sidebar usually offers the following:

  • Explore: A list of trending Mastodon posts, hashtags, and some suggested users.
  • Local: Posts made on your Mastodon server. A way to find others on your server, and see what they’re talking about.
  • Federated: Like Local, but covers most available Mastodon servers.
  • Trending now: a list of trending tags on your server.

Clicking on hashtags or using the search function can also turn up people to follow, though there’s reports of Mastodon’s search function being mediocre.

And of course, there’s searching for new users on your own. I posted my Mastodon username on Twitter, with a message telling Twitter users I’m also available on Mastodon.

Another source of Mastodon accounts is the Fedi.Directory, which lists some major Mastodon accounts.

Following Mastodon users

To follow a Mastodon user, you can click on the “Follow” button in their profile. If it’s for an account not on your own server/instance, you’ll be prompted to enter your Mastodon username in a pop-up box, and then click “Proceed to Follow.”

Another way to follow an account is by entering or copying/pasting the username into your Mastodon account’s search box. The desired username will be pulled up, as well as an option to follow it.

Conclusion

My Mastodon profile
My Mastodon profile. (Mastodon / screenshot by author)

Mastodon can be usable, but it still has technical roadblocks that make it harder to explain versus Twitter or Facebook. I think for Mastodon to overcome its ease-of-use difficulties and truly catch on, it needs a “Chromebook” moment—how Chromebooks and Chrome OS made the Linux desktop feasible for the average person. Basically, a Mastodon version (or even fork) that’s easy to use, backed by sufficient financial/staffing resources, and keeps most or all of the benefits of Mastodon?

That said, Mastodon as-is does have its positive aspects. For starters, I like knowing my posts won’t be banned by some obnoxious billionaire. Mastodon is also centered around what users want (chronological feeds, ability to post external links, fighting trolls, etc.), and not just catering to commercial interests. It also works similarly to Twitter (text-based features, etc.); as xkcd noted (albeit about the ill-fated Google+), being close enough might be good enough.

Do you have a Mastodon account or your own usage tips? Feel free to list them in the comments below.

Image from Mastodon.

Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

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2 thoughts on “Basic Mastodon tips for new users

    1. Some of Mastodon’s servers have turned off sign ups due to the amount of traffic they’re getting over the past few days. I’d just look for an available server (one of the ones I listed or another available server). Good luck!

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