We don’t need to tell you that it’s been a wild few days in the Twitterverse. But at Mastodon, things have been quiet. That is, of course, as long as you don’t have a hard time understanding how to use a social network you may not have even heard of a month ago.
We understand. Over the past week, we’ve been among those new Mastodon users trying to understand what a federated timeline is and which server to log into. And after seven days of pouring every fleeting thought into the platform, we’ve learned a number of things that can help you decide if the decentralized network is a good place to set up shop, no matter what happens with Twitter.
The steep learning curve is real
Twitter is (was?) popular, among other things, because it’s easy to use. You connect, you post, you reply, you like, you retweet, you repeat. Everyone can see your public tweets, and direct messages are private. Simple.
But as you may have read elsewhere, this platform doesn’t exactly work like that, and you can never really be sure who has seen your posts. Mastodon is a decentralized social network, which means that there are many different spaces (called servers or instances) that work independently but are slightly connected at the same time. Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko likens the system to email: You can have a Gmail account, his friend can have a Yahoo Mail account, and you can still send messages to each other even though the two platforms are different. That means that even if you and your friend have accounts in different instances (like mastodon.social and universodon.com), you can still follow and message each other.
[Related: Former Twitter employees warn of platform’s imminent collapse]
That explains it a bit, but not quite. He’ll see, there’s no way his posts will get to all Mastodon servers unless someone on each one follows him or republishes his post. This platform is designed as a group of like-minded communities, as opposed to the big public square of Twitter, where everyone is trying to be heard by everyone. Because of that design, it will be difficult for you to reach each and every Mastodon user, and you may not want to since not everyone will be interested in the same things as you. What helped us understand this better was a helpful graphic and the guides we read on how to use the site.
The annoying conclusion is that yes, Mastodon is more intricate than Twitter, so it will need to be adjusted. You will get there, but you will definitely have to push yourself a bit. If you’re not willing to do that, maybe you better stay away.
Mastodon’s features are similar to Twitter’s but not exactly the same.
Mastodon looks a lot like the Bird app, which might make you think that once you understand the whole multi-server thing, the rest will be basically the same. Yes, not quite.
The biggest similarity is Home Timeline full of posts from people you follow, but there are two other timelines as well: Local Y federated. The first is a stream of posts from people within your instance, so if you signed up for Mastodon.social (the largest and most diverse), that’s where you’ll see posts from everyone else in the community. Federated, on the other hand, is a feed that features posts from people outside of your server, but not everyone on Mastodon. In order for posts to get there, someone in your instance needs to follow that user or repost their content. The federated timeline is a good place to get a sense of what’s going on beyond your interests and find new people to follow, so it’s a great starting point if you want to grow your following.
On Twitter, you get 280 characters to express yourself, while Mastodon gives you 500. And you can still post polls, photos, GIFs, and videos, but the platform doesn’t support the wide variety of files that Twitter supports. Things like the number and weight of documents you can upload are also more limited. You’ll notice that you can easily reply to and repost (reboost) content from accounts you follow or that appear on your federated timeline, but you can’t quote them in a new post. Rochko deliberately designed it that way, to avoid further toxicity. The idea is that you interact directly with the author of the post, not tell your audience about someone else.
Finally, direct messaging is not as private as it seems on Twitter. There, you always have the option to message someone privately, in a place that appears to be separate from your main timeline. But on Mastodon, you get to choose who sees each of your posts, and DMs are just posts with a highly restricted audience visible only to the people mentioned in them. These posts are not end-to-end encrypted, something Mastodon reminds you every time you click on the earth icon in the compose window and set up your audience to Mentioned people only. Just a reminder: Twitter DMs are also not end-to-end encrypted, so even though they live as private messages, people on Twitter or with access to Twitter’s servers may very well be able to see their content. That’s why some people talked about removing DMs when Elon Musk took the reins.
Yes, everyone is much nicer, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Mastodon’s friendly nature has been a huge selling point for people who are tired of the fast-paced and often toxic nature of Twitter. And it’s true: Mastodon is, in fact, a happier and kinder place where people aren’t waiting for someone to post something they think is stupid just to point it out to their followers. There seems to be more of a supportive and collaborative environment on Mastodon, which is especially nice when you’re a new user still struggling to figure things out. Ask a question and no one will call you a jerk for not answering right away – people will actually help you and redirect you to helpful resources to make your life easier. Shocking.
The problem is that some users (as Vice’s Sarah Jeoung first pointed out in 2017) like some of the toxicity associated with Twitter. No, they are not masochists, it is because witnessing even the most absurd takes within any debate is interesting and can provide new points of view that I had not even considered.
Coming from a brash and direct background like Twitter, you might be surprised that people on your server seem to dislike political jokes. On mastodon.social, for example, users will politely thank you when you post political content behind a warning. That may change with the influx of Twitter users and the eventual creation of specialized servers where this kind of contentious discussion could take place. But as of this writing, mastodon.social and most other servers on the platform are still very apolitical places, and it looks like they will stay that way.
Surprise—Mastodon has no content algorithm. This means that no matter how many posts about your favorite bands you like or how many movie-focused accounts you follow, your timeline won’t show you more of the same. It will just be a sequence of posts in chronological order and nothing more.
Not having the platform constantly suggest the same type of accounts and content means you’re no longer isolated in a smaller bubble of like-minded people. You’ll already be in a semi-independent community of users with similar interests, so why compartmentalize even more? But the lack of an algorithm also makes it difficult to know who to follow and grow your following if you want to reach a larger audience.
This is where hashtags come in. They are the main way you have on Mastodon to categorize your posts and make it easier for other people to find them. In fact, the search engine within the platform only works with hashtags and will not search within the rest of the words or content of the posts as Twitter does. This is also apparently by design and prevents users from easily finding people they can harass.
Finding people is terribly counter-intuitive
Another byproduct of no algorithm is that it’s a bit tricky to find other users with similar interests. A quick search of your friends will show you that knowing another user’s username is not enough; you will need to know what server they are on. Again, this works just like email, and if you don’t know if your friend has an @yahoo or @gmail account, then you won’t be able to find them or send them a message. So unless you know your friend’s full address, you may have a hard time locating them.
Even following people from other instances whose content is in front of you can be difficult. By clicking or touching the follow icon Next to your name (a person with a plus sign at the top), you’ll see a pop-up alert with two options. You can log into that person’s instance so you can follow them there (Mastodon lets you join as many servers as you want), or you can copy the person’s full Mastodon address so you can manually paste it into their profile search bar. , find them and follow them from there.
[Related: 3 Twitter alternatives, in case you’re looking]
Yes, it’s not a lot of work, but it’s definitely tedious and will be even more annoying for new users who will have to go through that process over and over again as they build their timelines. If you find yourself following a lot of people from a particular instance that isn’t yours, you can transfer your profile to that instance. It’s an easy process but, like many things on Mastodon, you have to know how to do it.
Start by creating a profile on the server you want to move to. Please note that some servers have special requirements or do not allow new members. Once you have set up your new account, open Mastodon in a web browser, go to preferences, Bill, and scroll down to Move from a different account. there click Create an account alias and follow the steps. From your old server, go to Billscroll down to Move to a different account, and click configure it here. Follow the directions and you will be golden.
More Twitter alternatives may appear in the coming months. Whether Mastodon will become the world’s new water cooler remains to be seen, but if he needs a place to pour his thoughts out, this might be as good as any, at least for now.