The Basics of Mastodon
What it is, how it differs from Twitter and what to know before getting started
A lot of folks looking for an alternative to Twitter have gone to Mastodon. Mastodon appears similar to Twitter in being a place to post and follow short messages from people and companies. But organizationally, Mastodon is more like Linux than Twitter. It's not a single company operating a proprietary platform. But it's also not a standard like email or the web.
Mastodon is an open source project under the AGPLv3 license built on the W3C ActivityPub standard. It was developed by Eugen Rochko starting in March 2016 and released code in 2017. The open source code is free and the license does not allow anyone to reverse that. It is administered by a German nonprofit called Mastodon which own the trademark and runs two servers, mastodon.social and mastodon.online.
There is no one "official" Mastodon site. People can run Mastodon servers that are federated with other Mastodon servers. So you can join a server but also follow and see posts from other servers in the federation. This is called the "fediverse." One advantage of doing things this way is that individual servers can set their own policies on what's acceptable behavior.
So for example a Mastodon server can see all the posts in the fediverse, but a particular server may choose to ban a list of swear words. If you sign up on that server you might not see posts from outside the server (or inside for that matter) that have swearing. Swearing doesn't have to be banned everywhere, you can choose to be a member of a server with that policy or not. A side benefit is that you individually can decide to block all posts from a particular server.
You can also move servers and not lose your relationships. The protocol makes it possible to take your follower lists along with you. You just have to abide by whatever rules exist on that new server.
Servers are often run on donations, however with the large increase in users coming to Mastodon lately, you may see servers having to get more creative. Mastodon servers generally are proud of how they don't take ads.
There are a lot of guides out there on how to get started on Mastodon. They usually include some good tips on how to pick a server since the number of them can be overwhelming. If you’re looking at all those servers and deciding not to sign up because you can’t choose one, my advice is just pick one that’s popular. I think folks tend to overthink picking the right server. The fact is I kind of don’t notice which server I’m on unless I’m looking for lists of people, since searching tends to be server-specific. And the fact that you can move servers and keep your follower lists means once you’ve jumped in and learned how mastodon works, you can make a more informed decisions and switch servers.
The other thing I would tell people is be ready to work a little harder to find followers. I look at who’s following me and follow a couple of accounts that do a lot of boosting (retweeting) of posts so I can see who else is out there. This has the advantage of keeping you from falling into an algorithmic echo chamber but does mean you have to put in a little more effort.
In the end is it worth it? Only you can decide if Mastdon is right for you. if you’re part of a community that is moving to Mastodon then go for it. Join the server your community is starting, or is on. If you just want to try it and see what it’s like, but keep your Twitter account, welcome. That’s what I’m doing. I actually have several Mastdoon accounts. The two I’m actively posting on are @acedtect.mstdn.social and @firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you’re still unsure if you want to bother with it. Don’t. It’s not right for every single person. But now at least you have a little more info to help you make that decision.
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