A beginner’s guide to Mastodon, the Twitter alternative that’s growing in popularity
If you’ve heard the word “mastodon” a lot since Elon Musk took over Twitter in late October, here’s why: The extinct mammal is also the name of a relatively small, formerly little-known social network that has skyrocketed in popularity, as many Twitter users try it out as an alternative for connecting with others online.
Mastodon lets users join a slew of different servers run by various groups and individuals, rather than one central platform controlled by a single company like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. While all of these social networks are free to use, Mastodon is also free of ads. It’s developed by a nonprofit run by Eugen Rochko, who created Mastodon in 2016, and is supported via crowdfunding, as well as by individuals and groups who operate servers.
Users have been fleeing Twitter for it in recent days or at least seeking out a second place to post their thoughts online as the much more well-known social network faces layoffs, controversial product changes, an expected shift in its approach to content moderation and a jump in hateful rhetoric.
In a Mastodon post late Sunday, Rochko said the social network gained 489,000 users in the less than two weeks, and now boasts over one million active monthly users. (For perspective, Twitter reported in July that it had nearly 238 million daily active monetizable users.)
“That’s pretty cool,” Rochko said of the milestone.
I am one of these Mastodon newcomers, trying it out of curiosity and because Twitter has felt increasingly toxic over time. In my little corner of the decentralized social network there’s been a frenetic, almost party-like vibe for days as more people arrive and longtime users offer tips and answer questions. It’s fun and energizing, and, frankly, feels a lot like the early days of Twitter.
But while it can be exciting to seek out a new social network, it can be tricky, too. Mastodon and Twitter have some similarities, yet they’re quite different — both in how they work and how they’re operated. Whether you’re interested in leaving Twitter or just want to check out something new, read on to find out how to sign up and thrive with Mastodon.
Things are the same, but also very different
A lot of Mastodon’s features and layout (particularly in its iOS and Android apps) will look familiar to current Twitter users, though with some slightly different verbiage. You can follow others, create short posts (there’s a 500 character limit, and you can upload images and videos), favorite or repost other users’ posts, and so on.
Mastodon is quite different though, and the sign-up process in particular can trip up new users. That’s because it’s not as simple as opening an app or webpage and setting up a username and password — you also need to choose a server where your Mastodon account will live.
First, don’t panic: There is no technical knowledge required to sign up, but you will have to follow a few steps to create your account, and you may have to be patient, as the influx of new users has put a strain on many servers.
Go to this webpage, and, if you want to get started quickly, click the little drop-down menu that says “sign-up speed” and set it to “instant” to see servers you can sign up with right away.
Then, pick a server. There are general-interest servers such as mastodon.world; regional servers like sfba.social, which is aimed at people in the San Francisco Bay Area; and ones aimed at various interests, too (many servers review new sign-ups before approving them — such as by asking potential users why they want to join — so you may need to wait if you want to join one in particular).
You’ll also need to decide how you want to access Mastodon — on a smartphone, I suggest trying the iOS or Android app, but there are also many other free and paid apps that will do the trick. On the web, I can access Mastodon via the server I’m signed up with.
For me, one of the trickiest aspects of joining Mastodon was finding people I know and discovering people I wanted to follow. In part, that’s because there are no algorithmically generated suggestions of who to follow, no scanning your contacts for people you know, and you may not know which people you follow on other social-media networks are already using Mastodon (or what handle they’re using if they’re already there).
Similar to Twitter, you can use hashtags on Mastodon to seek out topics and people (“#TwitterMigration” is currently popular for newcomers). There are also some tools you can use to find Twitter friends on Mastodon, such as Twitodon. I have mostly taken the more manual route by searching on Twitter for the word “Mastodon” to pull up people I follow who have added Mastodon usernames to their Twitter profile names.
As my real-life and virtual friends pop up on Mastodon, I’ve been tempted see who they’re following, or who follows them, but this can be complicated. You can follow any other Mastodon user, no matter which server they’ve signed up with, but in general, you can only easily see people your friends follow or are followed by if those people happen to use the same server as you. (If you follow someone whose account is hosted on your server, you’ll also be able to see a complete list of the people they follow and are followed by.) Rochko told me he’s thinking about how to improve this experience.
Once you’ve settled in with a server and a handful of people to follow, you’ll want to start reading others’ posts and posting yourself. You’ll quickly notice many subtle differences from Twitter. For instance, users’ updates are sorted chronologically, rather than algorithmically as they are on Twitter and many other social networks.
There also isn’t a Mastodon equivalent to Twitter’s quote-tweet feature, where you can repost another user’s post and append your own thoughts to it. The closest you can get is copying and pasting a link to a user’s post into a new post, and adding your own comments — though anyone seeing your post will have to click that link if they want to understand what you’re talking about.
These differences aren’t bad, and some of them may actually be good; it can make posting on Mastodon feel a little less reactive than Twitter, which is great for anyone prone to getting fired up by other people’s social media posts. And many of the people trying out Mastodon seem ready for a change.