Mastodon: the next big thing in social media? Here, I attempt to answer some frequently asked questions for new Mastodon users or the Mastodon-curious.
Are you on Mastodon? What does the word “toot” mean to you? Is Mastodon worth your time?
Mastodon is rapidly growing right now, with an influx of users from Twitter and other social media (including the wonderful Stephen Fry, who also deleted his Twitter account this past week). But Mastodon is not a direct replacement for Twitter. It is very much its own beast. This means that there are suddenly a lot of new and potential Mastodon users with a lot of questions about how it all works.
I am not new to Mastodon. But I have done most of my learning about how it works in the past week or so.
I was surprised to learn that this week saw my third #Mastodonaversary (to coin a hashtaggable phrase). I first joined Mastodon on 8 November 2019. You can follow me at @MJCarty@mastodon.social.
First impressions of Mastodon
My first impressions (from three years ago this week)? I was immediately impressed with the platform itself, by how nicely it was designed and thought through.
But something was amiss. For any form of social media to grab the imagination and take hold, two things are needed:
- The social media platform itself. Check.
- People with whom to interact. Umm… not so check?
Back in November 2019, there seemed to be very few folk to be found on Mastodon, at least as far as I could tell. I tweeted my first impressions of Mastodon to my friend @dds180:
“From my researches so far, these are the fruits ~
Mastodon seems not unlike Twitter, but tweets are called toots.
There’s something to do with servers, that I don’t comprehend.
And thus far there don’t seem to be many folks on there, whom one might befriend.”
Back in November 2019, my Mastodon account quickly fell dormant due to lack of people.
Cut to November 2022, and the people part of the Mastodon equation is no longer lacking. As a direct consequence of a certain tech billionaire buying Twitter, there are now lots more folk to be found on Mastodon.*
In a way, Mastodon has had a second chance to make a first impression.** And so far, all the vital signs are looking good.
The rapid growth in users means that we are now able to watch a social media network grow and flower in real time.
Mastodon is now abundant with people. And those people seem rather lovely. My friend Karen Teago – who joined Mastodon just this past week – told me her first impressions are that it is “kinder and gentler. Reminds me a bit of the other place back in around 2012-15.”
My friend Kate Griffiths-Lambeth perfectly expressed (in a tweet) how Mastodon and Twitter compare:
“It is very different from Twitter (or rather, is similar to Twitter in the early days).”
The friendliness of it all – and the willingness to engage in conversation and knowledge sharing for its own sake – reminds me of what I loved most about my earliest days on Twitter.
I have been on quite a learning curve as regards Mastodon these past few days. I want to use this post to share what I have learnt so far, in the hope that it might be useful to others.
Here is my initial attempt at a Mastodon FAQ. This first iteration is necessarily basic and quite rough-and-ready. It is also written from a quite Twitter-centric perspective (as it is by one of and intended in the main for those who have arrived at Mastodon from Twitter). I intend to expand both questions and answers as my time on Mastodon goes on. If you would like to suggest a question to include here – or improvements to any of the answers – please post a comment below, or drop me a toot or a tweet (depending on your preferred medium).
What is Mastodon, anyway?
Like Twitter, Mastodon is a “microblogging” site (remember that word from early Twitter?) for sharing written and visual information with others. But wiser souls than I would be quick to point out that Mastodon’s key point of difference from Twitter is that it is decentralised. I would be out of my depth in trying to explain what this means. So I quote the following words on Mastodon as a decentralised network from Clive Thompson’s excellent article Come Join Me On Mastodon, Folks:
“Twitter has only one big server, which everyone logs into. Mastodon doesn’t work that way. The way it works is you join a Mastodon server, and get an address at that server. Then you can follow people at nearly any other Mastodon instance. You and your followers don’t need to be on the same place!”
Why is it called Mastodon?
I have long been a fan of the band Mastodon, so I was surprised to learn only this week that the band inspired the name of the social networking tool! How did I not know that before? GitHub says:
“Mastodon is Twitter-style social networking combined with email-style instanced servers. It’s named after the metal band, but themed after the extinct megafauna.”
Is it worth me signing up to Mastodon?
Yes. The process of setting up a new account should take you mere moments. The only element of complexity is choosing which of its many servers (also known as “Instances”) to join. The instances.social site offers simple guidance to help you choose a server. Or feel free to do what I did, and opt for one of the biggest servers: @mastodon.social. However, be prepared for Mastodon to take a little getting used to once you have signed up.
Is Mastodon a like-for-like replacement for Twitter?
No. Mastodon may resemble Twitter in a number of ways, but it is also very much its own beast. And just as the Twitter I joined in 2009 is very different from 2022 Twitter, so Mastodon will likely evolve into something we cannot predict. This evolution would seem to be accelerating as more people join. As with any social medium, Mastodon is only as good as the people that choose to use it and what they choose to say on there. In all likelihood, Mastodon won’t be a like-for-like replacement for anything that has gone before. It will be its own thing. You have the chance to help Mastodon evolve to be the social media network that you want it to be.
What is a toot on Mastodon?
A toot is in some ways the equivalent of a tweet on Twitter. But with some crucial differences. Mastodon gifts you 500 characters per toot – almost double the 280 in a tweet. It also makes it easy to add content warnings (or “content wrappers”, as they appear to be known on Mastodon) to toots, by clicking the “CW” button.
What is boosting on Mastodon?
Boosting is the equivalent of the basic retweet button on Twitter. It works in a slightly different way to a Twitter RT. Boosting a toot will mean others can see it in your timeline, and thereby increase its visibility. Mastodon does not have any equivalent to Twitter’s quote tweet button (but that may well no bad thing, of course).
How does liking work on Mastodon?
You can ‘like’ a post on Mastodon by hitting the star button. But unlike Twitter’s heart button, ‘liking’ does not contribute to the post’s visibility. The benefits of liking a toot are confined to you (as it is added to your little library of liked toots) and to its author (as they can see that you have liked it).
How do Mastodon hashtags work?
As with Twitter (and so many other websites), you can create a hashtag in Mastodon by adding a # symbol with no space. This makes the hashtagged word instantly clickable, enabling you to see other messages with the same hashtag. So far, so Twitter-like. But hashtags on Mastodon do a lot more heavy lifting than those on Twitter. To the best of my awareness, hashtags are the only part of toot content that you can search on. Update (Saturday 31 January 2022): I am indebted to Mastodon user jkoenin for the following additional insight on Mastodon hashtags, and for their kind permission for me to include their words here:
“In the section on hash tags, searching is limited to hash tags by default, but a server admin can optionally install Elastic Search for full text search. Full-text search only covers local and federated posts on that specific server, not posts across the entire #mastodon fediverse. Full-text search – Mastodon documentation.”
Can I search for other users on Mastodon?
You can, and the search seems to have improved a wee bit over the past few days. The easiest way of searching to guarantee success is to search on their complete Mastodon user name, including server. But it does seem that you can now also search on the person’s name, too. (My thanks to Ruth Wilkinson for submitting this question via Twitter.)
Can I send direct messages on Mastodon?
Yes you can. But do not expect them to provide the same level of privacy as DMs on Twitter and other platforms. When you click the Direct message button on Mastodon, you will see the following message: “Posts on Mastodon are not end-to-end encrypted. Do not share any sensitive information over Mastodon.” So proceed with caution. It would seem that a good rule of thumb is not to share any info via Mastodon that you would not be content with the entirety of the Fediverse (or, indeed, the world at large) to see.
Can I share images via Mastodon?
Yes. Not only that, but Mastodon has a feature that I particularly love, when it comes to the sharing of images. When you add an image to your toot (or “post”, as Mastodon would now seem to prefer to call them), it prompts you to add descriptive text (aka “Alt text”) to the image, for the benefit of users who are accessing Mastodon with a screen reader device (which might, for example, include users with visual impairments). I think that this is an impressive accessibility feature on its own. But Mastodon goes one step further and provides you with a lovely 1,500 characters (ie three times the maximum number permitted in a toot) for this descriptive text. Top marks for this feature, Mastodon!
Why not introduce yourself?
If you’re new to Mastodon, be sure to post a toot with a few words about yourself, and include the hashtag #Introduction to ensure that others will see it. You will more than likely receive friendly toots of welcome from the good folk of Mastodon.
Does the rise of Mastodon mean Twitter is finished?
In all likelihood, no. Twitter is a huge social media network with a dedicated core of users – even if a number of those users are either thinking about leaving due to the change of ownership, or have already left. It would seem destined to survive in one form or another, at least for now.
But all things, ultimately, must pass. As David Allen Green (who has quickly emerged as a particularly notable voice on Mastodon) notes in his blog post From Twitter to Mastodon, the world of social media is one of constant change and – occasionally – rapid extinction. Green says:
“Social media cannot be un-invented.
“As long as a person has access to the internet and another person is willing to provide a platform for communication, there will be social media.
“The particular platforms, however, will come and go.”
Reading Green’s words brought to mind Shelley’s Ozymandias*** (which I first came across via the Alan Moore and David Gibbons graphic novel masterpiece Watchmen).
For myself, I will continue to tweet. But Twitter is not the same place that it was when I first joined.
Mastodon – at least at the moment – gives me strong reminders of the positivity and generous, open connection that first made me fall in love with Twitter. Just as Twitter did, Mastodon will evolve. Let us hope that this spirit of positivity and generosity only increases further as Mastodon evolves.
Wherever you choose to express yourself and to converse with others, I wish you nothing but the best.
May you be nothing but kind today, to others and to yourself.
May today be nothing but kind to you and yours.
* “Mastodon, a decentralized microblogging site named after a type of mammoth, recorded 120,000 new users in the four days following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter,” according to a BBC report.
** It seems I may not be alone in having joined Mastodon a while ago, but only got the bug these past few days. For example, Jessica Courtney sent me this great toot. about the seven stages of her Mastodon journey:
“Joined April ‘22. Working through the seven stages:
*** I have added the link to Shelley’s poem Ozymandias following a kind suggestion from David Allen Green via Mastodon. As I think there is a chance it is out of copyright, here is the full text of this wonderful poem:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
- Winsor McCay 1922-03-19 Oblivion’s Cave via Wikimedia Commons.
- Tassili – elephant (or Mastodon – notice the hunters around him) via Wikimedia Commons.
- Gertie the dinosaur standing on a cliff edge looking at Jumbo via Wikimedia Commons.
- Final pages of Watchmen issue 11, as photographed by MJCarty on Saturday 12 November 2022.
Can you decode the icons on mastodon? How to reply? How to repost? How to DM?