If you’ve heard the word “juggernaut” 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, once little-known social network that has exploded in popularity because many Twitter users try it as an alternative to connect with others online.
Mastodon allows users to join a multitude of different servers run by various groups and individuals, rather than a central platform controlled by a single company like Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Although all of these social networks are free, Mastodon is also free of ads. It is developed by a non-profit organization led by Eugen Rochko, which created Mastodon in 2016, and is supported by crowdfunding, as well as individuals and groups that operate servers.
Users have been fleeing Twitter for this for the past few days or so looking for a second place to post their thoughts online as the much better-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 article on Sunday evening, Rochko said the social network had gained 489,000 users in less than two weeks and now has more than one million active monthly users. (For perspective, Twitter reported in July that it had nearly 238 million daily active monetizable users.)
“It’s pretty cool,” Rochko said of the milestone.
I’m one of those newcomers to Mastodon, trying it out of curiosity and because Twitter has felt more and more toxic over time. In my little corner of the decentralized social network, there’s been a frenetic, almost celebratory vibe for days as more people arrive and longtime users offer advice and answer questions. It’s fun and energizing, and frankly, it feels a lot like the early days of Twitter.
But while researching a new social network can be exciting, it can also be tricky. Mastodon and Twitter have some similarities, but they are quite different, both in how they work and how they work. Whether you want to quit Twitter or just discover something new, read on to learn how to sign up and thrive with Mastodon.
Many of Mastodon’s features and layouts (especially in its iOS and Android apps) will sound familiar to current Twitter users, but with slightly different verbiage. You can follow others, create short posts (there’s a 500 character limit and you can upload images and videos), bookmark or repost other users’ posts, and more.
Mastodon is quite different though, and the signup process in particular can trip up new users. Indeed, it’s not as simple as opening an app or web page and setting up a username and password – you also need to choose a server where your Mastodon account will live.
First of all, don’t panic: no technical knowledge is required to register, but you will need to follow a few steps to create your account, and you may need to be patient, as the influx of new users has updated strain of many servers.
Go to this web page and if you want to get started quickly, click on the little drop-down menu that says “sign up speed” and set it to “instant” to see which servers you can sign up with right away.
Next, choose a server. There are general purpose servers like mastodon.world; regional servers like sfba.social, which caters to people in the San Francisco Bay Area; and those that target various interests (many servers review new registrations before approving them, such as asking potential users why they want to join, so you may have to wait if you want to join a particular one).
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 plenty of other free and paid apps that will do the trick. On the web, I can access Mastodon through the server I am registered on.
For me, one of the trickiest parts of joining Mastodon was finding people I knew and discovering people I wanted to follow. In part, that’s because there are no algorithm-generated suggestions of who to follow, no swiping of your contacts for people you know, and you may not know which people to follow. you follow on other social networks are already using Mastodon (or how they handle ‘reuse if they’re already there).
Similar to Twitter, you can use hashtags on Mastodon to search for topics and people (“#TwitterMigration” is currently popular with newcomers). There are also tools you can use to find Twitter friends on Mastodon, such as Twitodon. I mostly took the more manual route by searching Twitter for the word “Mastodon” to find people I follow who have added Mastodon usernames to their Twitter profile names.
As my real and virtual friends appear on Mastodon, I’ve been tempted to see who or who they follow, but it can be tricky. You can follow any other Mastodon user regardless of what server they signed up on, but in general you can only easily see the people your friends follow or are being followed if those people are using the same server than you. (If you follow someone whose account is hosted on your server, you’ll also be able to see a full list of people they follow and are being followed.) Rochko told me he’s been 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 other people’s posts and posting yourself. You’ll quickly notice many subtle differences from Twitter. For example, user updates are sorted chronologically, rather than by algorithm, as is the case on Twitter and many other social networks.
There’s also no Mastodon equivalent to Twitter’s quote-tweeting feature, where you can repost another user’s post and add your own thoughts to it. The closest you can get is to copy and paste a link to a user’s post into a new post and add your own comments – although anyone seeing your post will have to click that link if they want to understand any what are you talking about.
These differences aren’t bad, and some of them can actually be good; this can make posting to Mastodon a little less responsive than Twitter, which is great for anyone who tends to get turned on by other people’s posts on social media. And many people who try Mastodon seem ready for a change.
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