For years we’ve been hearing from folks in government that Twitter is a monopoly—in need of government regulation to either cut it down to size or enable alternatives. This has never been true, as there are both established alternatives (Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.) and newcomers (TikTok, Gab, Parler, Truth Social, Clubhouse). In light of the many alternatives already available, the recent rise of Mastodon is not that surprising.
But Mastodon’s peculiar setup and history make it both an unlikely heir apparent to an imploding Twitter and an appealing one.
Founded in 2016, Mastodon has been chugging along quietly for years until Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover spurred sudden mass interest in the decentralized social media service. Monthly active users are now up 576 percent, to 2.5 million, according to the Mastodon website.
Want to get on Mastodon (or at least understand what all the hubbub is about)? Here’s what you need to know.
How Mastodon Works
In many ways, Mastodon works a lot like Twitter. It’s a text-dominant “micro-blogging” platform designed for short posts and real-time interaction. Users create basic profiles, follow other users, and see posts from those they follow in their Mastodon feed.
But there are also a lot of differences—the biggest being that a single, centralized entity doesn’t run Mastodon. Instead of one corporation owning, maintaining, and setting the rules for all of Mastodon, it consists of thousands of independent servers—or “instances”—that share the same open-source code.
These servers are run independently by individuals or groups and come with their own sign-up policies, privacy policies, codes of conduct, and other rules. Some Mastodon servers are open to anyone, some are invite-only, and some you can apply to join. Some are more general, while others are organized around a particular region, interest, profession, or common theme. For instance, Liberdon bills itself as “a Mastodon instance for libertarians, ancaps, anarchists, voluntaryists, agorists, etc.” Federated.press says it’s “a Mastodon instance for all who pursue the journalistic ethic.” Epicure.social is “a Mastodon community with a food and wine focus.” And so on.
When first joining Mastodon, you pick a particular server to join. You can search for servers on the Mastodon app or find a list of many of them here. You might seek a server whose content moderation policies you find most agreeable or one based on your interests. But don’t sweat this decision too much—users can switch servers anytime and take their followers. More importantly, you can still follow and interact with people on other servers no matter which server you join.
Essentially, Mastodon is a federation of independent but interconnected servers. It’s common to see Mastodon users refer to it as the “fediverse.”
For the most part, folks in one part of the Mastodon fediverse can see and interact with folks in all other parts of the Mastodon fediverse. But there are some exceptions. A server may block one or multiple other servers from access for various reasons. (For instance, several servers are reportedly blocking the journa.host server.) Users from a blocked server are then unable to see posts from or interact with users on a server that has them blocked.
How to Create a Mastodon Account
To create a Mastodon account, go to joinmastodon.org or download the Mastodon app on your phone from the Apple App Store or the Google Play store. You’ll be asked to pick a server first, and then choose a username and fill out some basic information.
On Mastodon, your username combines a name you pick with the server you’re on (so, for instance, I’m @firstname.lastname@example.org).
Some servers will let you join instantly (and start posting right away), while others servers have administrators review applications before approval.
How to Use Mastodon
Once you have a Mastodon account, you can post and view posts using the Mastodon app on your phone, a desktop app (Whalebird and Hyperspace are two popular ones), or by visiting your server’s URL. Some server URLs have Mastodon in the name (i.e., mastodon.pirateparty.be) while others do not (i.e., indieweb.social).
You can choose various privacy levels for posts, including public, unlisted (similar to public but not appearing in public timelines), only to your followers, or direct (only to people mentioned in the post).
To “tweet” on Mastodon used to be called to “toot,” but Mastodon recently changed this to “publish,” and many people simply refer to things as “posts.”
How Mastodon Is Different
There are no ads; server operations are funded privately or through crowdfunded donations.
Posting large video or image files is discouraged since server space is limited and operated by groups at their own expense or through donations.
There are no algorithms—something Mastodon users often mention as a selling point, though that really depends on your perspective. (I, for one, tend to prefer an algorithmic feed when it’s done right). Instead, you see posts from those you follow in chronological order or, if you toggle to different tabs, a running chronological feed of things posted by everyone on your server or on your server and all servers it knows.
There is no centralized verification process or symbol on Mastodon. But on your profile page, you can prove your own identity by verifying that you’re affiliated with web pages that you link to. By inserting a line of code on those sites (your professional portfolio page, for instance), your mastodon links will show up as verified.
There’s no way to search for posts by keyword, and there are no quote tweets. Again, these are features that Mastodon users tend to tout as benefits (they make it less easy to create some toxic patterns and pile-ons that define Twitter), although their utility depends on your perspective. Things like this can also make Mastodon less compelling and/or less useful, especially if you’re the type to use Twitter to follow news on particular topics, to kill time following strangers’ drama, or to find commentary on a specialized subject.
Hashtags do work, however—and are used more liberally on Mastodon than on current Twitter since it’s the only way to get posts to a wider audience of users following a particular topic.
Mastodon also features some things Twitter users often pine for, like longer character limits (up to 500 characters) and an ability to edit posts after they’re published.
But there is no threading, no in-app article or video views, and no preview of any links shared, all of which make the experience less seamless and possibly less useful from a promotional standpoint.
Mastodon also provides users with the ability to put content warnings on posts so that someone scrolling past will only see the warning at first and have to click through to see the content. This feature has been getting a lot of mockery on Twitter, but it’s also something that many on Mastodon seem to use and appreciate. Whether it’s used frequently or not in your Mastodon circles will largely depend on the norms of your particular server and/or communities.
This brings us to two central points about Mastodon. First, people are still very much figuring out how to use it and what the norms are. Yes, it’s been around for a while, but it attracted relatively niche audiences. The influx of new users in recent weeks is shaking up all sorts of things in the fediverse. Second, Mastodon provides a lot of room for different experiences. As a decentralized platform with greater customization potential, Mastodon users will have a less uniform experience than your average Twitter user.
Notes of Caution
On Mastodon, there’s no separate section for seeing direct messages between users. To directly message someone using the web version of Mastodon, you go to their profile, click the three little dots in the top right corner, and click the option to message them directly. These direct posts are theoretically only for the eyes of you and whoever is mentioned in them, but they technically could be viewed by your server’s administrators. So any particularly sensitive or scandalous information you might want to save for sharing elsewhere. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has more on Mastodon privacy policies and concerns here.
P.S. I asked Mastodon users what newcomers should know. Here are a few responses: