By: Michael Ham @Leisureguy
Most recent update to this post: 8 February 2023 — Added a couple of lessons learned when I moved from one instance (mstdn.party) to another (mstdn.ca). It was easy, but I learned two things that will be helpful if/when you join Mastodon and decide to move to a new instance.
I just now learned about Mastodon (and the Fediverse), and I find it fascinating. First, watch this brief video:
“What Everyone Seems To Get Wrong About Mastodon (or What Mastodon’t)” is another overall introduction, this one in text.
And Danielle Navarro’s excellent “Everything I Know about Mastodon” is a good summary of much knowledge.
This introductory guide, “Mastodon Help,” offers another overview for those who are more text-oriented. Also, Wired has an article on getting started on Mastodon. The Wired article includes some good links:
• Fedi.tips is a great resource for anyone starting out.
• RunYourOwn.social is a great summary if you want to set up your own server.
• Mastodon’s official documentation is also an informative read.
• This post on wordsmith.social.
• Finally, this post on GitHub answers many basic questions about Mastodon (scroll down at the link to get to the document).
Mastodon’s official documentation in that list is very thorough, but it’s probably better to go to that after you have some experience in using the platform.
The Wired article focused to some degree on leaving Twitter for Mastodon. This good video discusses the same idea and lists some tradeoffs (that is, areas in which Mastodon is not so strong).
And Mike Masnick has an excellent article, “Some Tricks To Making Mastodon Way More Useful.”
Centralization initially seems more efficient than decentralization, but in the long run, it seems to me that decentralization offers more. Decentralized organizations are more resilient (taking out one node leaves other nodes generally unaffected, thus the design of the internet), are more open to (and even encourage) innovation, automatically allow for individual differences, and can easily explore many alternatives in parallel.
Centralization especially offers focus, but a downside possibility then is failure to see the full picture. With decentralization comes many views on the subject at hand, so that things are less likely to be overlooked (the strength of diversity).
Centralized structures in general lack flexibility, and the bigger they are, the less flexible they become — and as a result, large centralized organizations often actively stifle innovation, sometimes without meaning to or even being conscious of it.
At any rate, I’m interested in finding a congenial instance. Take a look at JoinMastodon.org for a list of possibilities.
If you have some experience with Mastodon and the Fediverse, I — and doubtless others — will be interested in any comment you might care to offer. Marcus Hutchins describes in this post how greatly his actual experience using Mastodon differed from what he had expected based on his abstract reasoning about it.
(Experience repeatedly demonstrates that conclusions we reach through logic turn out to be wrong in practice, and thus we have (for example) the scientific method: testing logical conclusions against the reality of experience. Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr. famously observed “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience,” and the observation applies beyond law to many other fields. The great weakness of Liberternarianism is a total reliance on logic as a guide.)
Choosing an instance
I’ll note that even though I am registered at one instance, I easily follow a variety of people registered at other instances, and some of them are following me. So your choice of instance/server is not all that limiting, plus one can easily move from one instance to another. (The steps to do that are listed later in this post.)
One useful tool for finding an instance is the instance search page. Or take a look at the official Mastodon server list at joinmastodon.org. (Neither of those two lists shows all servers. Those in the second list have committed to the Mastodon Server Covenant.) See also this post on the importance of choosing a good Mastodon instance/server.
TheTitanBorn offers this thought on choosing an instance:
You don’t have to choose a big server. Bigger server doesn’t mean better experience.
On big servers, the moderators have to spend more time dealing with reports and can’t work with too many queries from users.
Admins and moderators on small servers usually have more time for their members, so the community is closer and friendlier.
On November 9, 2022, I jumped in. I was first @Leisureguy@mstdn.party, but I changed instances, and I’m now @Leisureguy@mstdn.ca. mstdn.ca is an instance physically located in Edmonton, Alberta. Four days after I first, joined (on November 13, 2022), I am loving it and definitely starting to be comfortable with understanding how it works — still much to learn, but now I can get around easily.
And the mood of the place is so positive! A recent post from someone: “Until I moved from the dead bird site to Mastodon I never realized that I had so much pent-up civility.”
Mstdn.ca is a general-interest instance; there are many instances that focus on a special interest or group of special interests, but my interests are more general. I do follow quite a few people who are registered to other instances, however — that is the power of Mastodon.
If you want to see Mastodon at its best, strongly recommend these options:
- Android – Use apps Tusky or Fedilab
- iPhone/iPad – Use apps Metatext or Toot!
- Computers – Log in using your browser at your server’s website
Mastodon was designed for websites and third party apps. These are *still* the best ways to use Mastodon!
(Official app exists because new people were only looking for an official app in app stores, and giving up when they didn’t find one. You don’t need to use it!)
Some additional helpful articles and advice
Here’s a detailed introduction specifically oriented to using a smartphone. (I use my laptop and browser, but phone use is popular.)
A recent post has some excellent general advice that I found useful.
And here is my own compilation, based on reading + newbie experience.
The starting point
Fill out your profile to start with. It’s the first thing people will check to see whether they want to respond or to continue a conversation with you. It’s customary to include your pronoun preference — for me: ‘Pronouns: he/him’ — because then it is nothing exceptional and everyone does it, rather than some isolated person doing it.
When you click on a person’s name, you see their profile, and that might give you some ideas for what you might want to include in yours. There will be a blue sign on the right. If you are not following the person, it will say “Follow.” Click it (to follow them), and it changes to “Unfollow.” I follow people fairly easily, and then if it turns out to be a bad match, I unfollow them — no harm done.
On the upper left, you’ll see a light grey box that says “Follows you” if they follow you. If they do not, there is not box because the app doesn’t want to rub your nose in it. In this case, absence of evidence (of following you) is evidence of absence (not following).
Just below their name and Mastodon address, you’ll see:
Click to add a note
That is to allow you to enter your own note about the person (such as, “Loves cats, hates rap”) to help you remember them. And — important — this note is visible only to you. The other person will not see it. The note is, in effect, written in the margin of your own notes. I can be helpful, especially since at first you will be meeting many people in rapid succession.
Next, write a post that begins with #introduction and then continues with things you would say when you are introducing yourself to a new group: pertinent facts, special interests, etc. Publish/toot that post, then pin it to the top of your feed. That way, as you interact with people, they can easily see your profile and introduction.
Also, when you include an image in a post, at the upper right of the image will appear “Edit.” Click that and fill in the text description of the image. This description is the “alt-text” for the image, though some software refers to it as “image description.”
Those who are visually impaired can then listen to the atl-text (the image description) via their screenreader and know what it portrays. If you don’t enter the alt-text, those readers can’t understand your post. Note this guide to writing Alt-Texts. And another brief guide to writing Alt-Text, emphasizing narrative.
When a screen reader encounters an image with NO alt attribute, I believe it just reads out the file name, which is probably whatever ID your camera generated when you took the photo.
So without alt text, a screen reader would read your post something like:
“Here’s some bread I made this afternoon. Image: d s c one three seven seven two eight zero dot jay peg”
Here’s an interesting article on how Alt-Text was used for images from the James Webb Space Telescope.
NOTE: Some Mastodon smartphone apps (for iPhone and Android) lack the functionality to enter Alt-Text (as well as lacking other functionality.) I initially was not aware of that, since I interact with Mastodon in the browser on my laptop. However, I’ve been told that Tusky and some other smartphone apps do indeed allow Alt-Text [Pro tip: Vivaldi is by far the best and most capable browser I’ve found. And it’s free. ]
If you forget and post an image without Alt-Text and notice that after you’ve published the post, you can fix it. Edit the post and delete the image, then add it back, this time adding the Alt-Text when you add the image. Then published the corrected post.
The problem is the UX design makes not adding Alt-Text the default option; adding it requires that the user remember and take an action (clicking “edit’). It should be the other way around: adding Alt-Text should be the default (so that when you add an image the app opens the edit panel with the cursor already in the Alt-Text entry box), and you have to consciously choose not to add Alt-Text. That is, Alt-Text should be opt-out, not opt-in.
PascalCase and camelCase
Also to assist screenreaders, when writing hashtags that contain more than one word, use Pascal case (each word in string capitalized) or camel case (second and following words in string capitalized) —
A string that is completely lowercase stymies a screenreader so that it blurts out nonsense, but with the capital letter starting each word in the hashtag, screenreaders can pronounce it properly.
If you have emojis in your screen name, a screenreader must recite all those before getting to the actual post. Example by Dan York (read aloud for full effect):
dan york satellite graphic satellite studio mic graphic studio mic curling stone graphic curling stone
OTOH, emojis are much better than emoticons (composed of punctuation marks), since for those the screen reader recites each punctuation mark.
Although some advise isolating hashtags to a single block at the bottom of the post, those who use screenreaders say that an occasional hashtag in the body of the post is not in fact a problem. It’s important to use hashtags because they are what Mastodon searches, and so a hashtag is the only way your post will turn up in a search.
After being on Mastodon for two weeks, I begin to understand the importance of hashtags. The flow of new posts through my Home feed is so great that I must miss reading most. (Posts directed to me will appear also in the Notifications feed, so those I will not miss.) Hashtags are how I can see what is most of interest to me: clicking a hashtag presents the feed using that hashtag. (Twitter users know all about this, but I was not a Twitter user.)
That means I must master using hashtags in my own posts, otherwise they become submerged in the flood of new posts. As I enter a hashtag, a small panel shows how often that hashtag has been used (and thus how likely it will be used in a search). Hashtagging is just a skill I must require, and like all skills, it is acquired through practice.
It’s easy to filter someone’s Mastodon timeline by tag: <profile URL>/tagged/<tag>. That’s from Fedi.tips (also linked above). See also this 3-minute video:
When you write a post on Mastodon, you will see an earth globe icon beneath the text-entry box. Click that and you can select the level of privacy, including a level where the only persons to see the post are you and the person(s) named in the post — thus this is the equivalent of a direct message.
CW appears in that same line of icons. If you click that, you can write a brief description of the content, which is then hidden until the reader clicks the description. The description might be things like “NSFW photo” or “Violent riot video” or “Political rant written in anger,” but it might also be simply a headline to summarize a lengthy detailed post. One person noted:
CW is great for a lot of topics, not just NSFW or violence. Think of it like a “headline” or “subject line” for your post and folks can choose to look at it or not. Use them often.
And another note:
Don’t think of them as “content warnings” for NSFW; think of them as Content Wrappers. Using them makes it easy scrolling through the feed, you can unwrap and see the things you’re ready or want to see, and skip things you don’t care about.
They’re also used to cover spoilers for TV and movie discussions, and to cover the punchline of jokes.
It helps to write a post and click the icons to see what they do. You don’t then have to actually publish the post that you wrote.
You can edit a post after it’s already been published (new with the upgrade just installed) — a godsend to me, who too often see typos only after pressing “Publish!” (or “Toot!”, depending on your instance). — Update: “Toot” is now obsolete. — To edit a post, click the 3 dots at the end of the row of icons beneath the post as it appears in the feed.
Boost and Favorite
Under a post that you are reading, the first icon is the “reply” icon. The next two are “boost” (two areas forming a rectangle) and “favorite” (a star). If you find the post interesting, you can use one (but better not to use both) of these:
Boost — A boost will put the post as the newest item in your feed, so that those who follow you will see it. That increases post exposure, so use boost when you want others to see the post. “Boost” is “Hey! Look at this!”
Favorite — Marking a post as “favorite” will send the author of the post a notification that you liked it. It does not increase visibility, but it probably makes the author feel good (based on personal experience). “Favorite” is saying privately to the writer “I liked that. Thanks for posting it.”
This 3-minute video is a very helpful explainer:
I have learned to use bookmarks (the ribbon/bookmark icon that follows the “favorite” star) liberally. If I find a post interesting at all, I bookmark it because if I later want to find it again, searching the feed is burdensome.
Also, if a post asks a question to which I also would like to know the answer, I bookmark it so that I can later return to see the answers.
Sometimes you will want to write a sequence of consecutive posts — a thread. Start the first post with “1/” to identify it as the first post in a thread, and make that post public. Then the second post should be entered as a reply to the first post as it appears in your Home feed.
(If you are using Slow Mode (recommended above), then you will have to refresh your Home feed to see the post you just published — as soon as you publish it, it will be at the top of the queue of posts awaiting refresh.)
Begin the reply to your first post with”2/” and make the privacy setting “unlisted” (an option when you click the globe beneath the text-entry box). It’s easy to do and ensures that future readers can start from the beginning, rather than having to scroll back and forth to find the first bit. Then a third post in the thread is a reply to the second post and begins with “3/” and so on. Each reply inherits the privacy setting of the post to which it is a reply, so you don’t have to choose the privacy setting after the second post.
End the final post in the thread with something to indicate that the thread ends. I use “-30-” (the traditional “end” signoff) to mark the end of the thread unambiguously.
Odin Halvorson has a really excellent article on how to do Mastodon threads and how they are structured in Medium. I highly recommend reading that.
Clive Thompson has an excellent explanation of how Mastodon was designed to be anti-viral.
See also Mastodon FAQ: Toot sweet? for answers to some common questions.
Advanced Web Interface
If you’re using a browser, look in Settings > Preference > Appearance, and select “Advanced Web Interface.” The description:
If you want to make use of your entire screen width, the advanced web interface allows you to configure many different columns to see as much information at the same time as you want: Home, notifications, federated timeline, any number of lists and hashtags.
I now use the Advanced Web Interface exclusively. It took me a couple of days to get used to it and how it works, but now I like it a lot and am comfortable with it. Play around with it to see what all it does.
In Settings > Preferences > Appearance, you can select Slow Mode under “Animations and Accessibility.” (The default is that it is unselected.) Selecting it means “Hide timeline updates behind a click instead of automatically scrolling the feed.” That is, new items are not automatically placed into your feed. Instead, you scroll to the top of the feed and you can see how many new items are queued up. If you click that, they then appear in your feed.
One important aspect of Slow Mode: normally, when put publish a post, it appears immediately at the top of your Home feed. If you are using Slow Mode, it will still be at the top of your home feed but queued, so that it does not appear until you refresh the feed. This is important because when you are creating a thread (see below), you reply in turn to each post in your thread. That requires you to see the post in your Home feed, so in Slow Mode that requires you to refresh the queue.
I like using Slow Mode because it gives me control of the feed. It also improves the performance of the server, so it’s also good for the instance: win-win. Give it a try.
Moving to a new instance (i.e. a new server)
You may want to move from your original instance to a new instance. That turns out to be easy: create your new account (you’ll need to fill out a Google form for the new instance), then on the old account go to account settings, scroll down, and click on “Move to a different account”, follow the instructions and everything should transfer, even your followers. However, your toots/posts are not transferred.
I just moved from one instance to another. Here are my lessons learned:
- Download the archive from the old instance — but that’s not all. Also download the .CSV files, each of which is a separate download: Follows, Lists, You Block, You Mute, Domain Blocks, and Bookmarks. You can then upload those to your account in the new instance — and merge the upload to preserve anything already in the new account. The important ones for me were Follows (the accounts I follow) and Bookmarks. I didn’t have any blocks to speak of, nor any Lists.
- Pick the right interface. The new instance offered an interface called Glitch Edition. I tried that and I did not like it, so switched to Vanilla Mastodon, which is comfortable for me. And I switched the screen to have a light background instead of a dark background. In my new instance, these were on the preference page designated as “Flavours.”
- I stuck with Advanced Web Interface and also with Slow Mode, since those work well for me.
I floundered around for about two days after making the switch before everything was fixed and totally comfortable. The first two items listed above are what required the two days, but I figured those out fairly easily just through the normal process of trying things.
In step form, from a Mastodon post:
How to migrate from one Mastodon server to another without losing followers:
1. Sign up on new server
2. On NEW server: Go to Account -> Moving FROM another account
3. Enter old account’s handle
4. On OLD server: Go to Account -> Moving TO another account
5. Enter new account’s handle and submit
And note you can in a sense also save some posts:
Migrating servers doesn’t *have* to mean losing ALL your history it’s not complex.
– Set up a new account on your new server
– Follow your old account from your new server
– BOOKMARK your best old account posts (say 20-30)
– Perform the standard migration process, which links old and new accounts
– BOOST your OWN old bookmarked posts from old-to-new, giving you a starting timeline, then your #Introduction
There’s also a 4-minute video on how to move to another server.
And see also this section from an excellent post: “How do I move my account to a new server?“
That link was provided in a post by Ganga, which also includes:
A couple of words of advice:
* do your homework. Create temp accounts on servers of interest and have a look around. Some of the differences between instances are surprising. Make sure you find one that looks and feels comfortable for you.
* download copies of everything in your current account – see your preferences. Take screen shots of your settings. Copy the text from your bio and introduction posts and save them. You will need all of this.
* You will have to recreate any lists manually in your new account
* Filters do not automatically move with you – you will have to recreate them (hence the screenshot is handy)
* Lists of Blocked and Muted people can be downloaded in your current account and uploaded to your new account, but I found it was patchy and needed to block some again
Once you are in your new account and have it all set up:
* Check out all the settings – yes, all – understand what they do, and set appropriately
* Also find out how to set bookmarks and create lists. These are in the Getting Started menu on the web interface – not sure where they are in your apps.
* If you are using an app, did you know that you can follow hashtags? You may need to go to the web interface to follow your chosen ones, but then those posts will appear in your app.
* If you are using the advanced interface on the web, you can add columns by pinning lists and pinning hashtags
Each column has its own settings (see the menu at the top of each column). Check them out and set them as suits you.
Six days after starting
My experience in using Mastodon (which, again, I use via my browser on my laptop computer) has changed considerably. The reason in part is that I am increasingly familiar with how it works and how to do things, so I don’t have to work things out consciously/laboriously. But more important is the change in the nature of my feeds. From one of the documents linked above:
- Home: as on Twitter, it shows all the posts of all the people you follow on all Instances;
- Local: it shows all the posts of the members of your Instance;
- Federated: it shows all the posts of the members of your Instance and also the posts of people on other Instances that are followed by people of your Instance.
And I would add:
- Notifications: it notifies you of things for which you have requested notification and also of other activity
At first, I read posts in the Local and Federated feeds quite a bit. Local tended to have rather too many posts about professional sports (of zero interest to me) or were in Malay (because the user did not set the default language to their own language AND forgot to click the correct language beneath the text box — left it as EN (English) instead of selecting the language actually used). Still, an occasional post would be of interest, though I generally had better luck in the Federated feed. I would reply to some posts, occasionally write a post of my own, and — most important — follow anyone who posted something interesting to me.
As a result, the posts that started appearing in the Home feed, from people I was following, were generally interesting. As I read them, I would from time to time unfollow someone — if, for example, it turned out that their posts were generally not of interest to me. And, of course, sometimes I will notice an interesting post by someone new and follow them to see how that works out.
Pete Prdiehl offers an excellent 4-point posting strategy that is worth the click. One thing I would add: when you post, include at the end some relevant hashtags. Mastodon runs on hashtags since it searches on hashtags, not text.
Finding folks to follow
I gradually developed a process to find someone to follow — and following is always provisional: if it doesn’t pan out, it’s easy to unfollow. Here’s the process I use:
- Read a post and think, “That’s pretty cool/funny/interesting.”
- Click the name of the person who wrote the post and read their profile. If that’s good, proceed.
- Read the #introduction post and scroll down to see (a) some posts they wrote and (b) some posts they boosted.
This is very like being in someone’s home — at a party, say — and looking over the titles of the books in their library or (in an earlier time) the magazines they have or the LPs they’ve collected: you get a sense of their interests and direction and a feeling for their taste.
At that point, I’ll decide to follow or not, and I err in the direction of “Why not?” since unfollowing is easy.
Some that I like to follow:
• @uspolitics – updates on US political news
• @[email protected] – messages from US Senator Elizabeth Warren
• @conradhackett – interesting charts and graphs of social statistics
• @TheConversationUS – expert articles on politics and social science
• @froomkin – informed comment on journalists and journalism
• @clive – comments on and links to technology and science news
• @davetroy – informed comment on political movements and events
• @rbreich – former Secretary of Labor comments on political issues & events
• @juddlegum – insights on politics & corporations from Popular Information
• @[email protected] – news from the BBC
• @infodocket – news for librarians, educators, journalists, and others
• @STAT – reporting from the frontiers of health and medicine
• @ProPublica – investigative journalism with a moral force
• @futurism – new on emergent science, technology, and medicine
• @brea[email protected] – a bot that posts nbcnews.com articles
Put the address in the search block, and the search will return the profile. Click “Follow” and you’ll see their posts in your Home feed.
If you are following someone who generates many posts, you can unfollow them, or instead use “mute” for a specified time. As someone pointed out:
I am using the mute for hours-to-days option more often, especially for those with large followings. I’m noticing that I really DON’T need to hear from them 10 or more times a day (much less 10 times per hour) and can easily take a break from the fast and furious posters, AND I can still follow them at my own pace. I like this.
And if you want to be sure to see posts by someone you’re following, Feditips notes:
When you follow someone on Mastodon, you’ll see their posts appear in your Home timeline.
Optionally, you can also receive a notification every time they post, in order to make sure you don’t miss what they say.
To switch on notification, log in through your server’s website, go to the person’s profile page and click the bell icon. (The official apps don’t show this option yet, but some third party apps do.) [The bell icon’s black outline will turn blue to show that it is on — difficult fora colorblind person to see. (It would be better if, for example, the bell was solid if on, outline if off. – LG]
This only works for profiles you are following.
After 6 days
After I had been on Mastodon for 6 days, my Home feed was almost totally interesting. I had, in effect, tuned the feed so that it “knows” the sort of thing I want to read.
One user collected a few quotes of the Mastodon experience after a month:
Observations after being on #Mastodon for about a month:
– We were made aware of how much the Twitter algorithm emphasized user outrage in order to increase engagement and increase revenue. Our feed is fascinating and helpful here.
– At least so far, there is a culture of friendliness. It’s quite alluring and it should become standard both online and offline.
– In addition to responding to toots, people often submit poetry, songs and thoughtful questions. #Twitter was never so enjoyable.
One problem — and a solution
The one problem I’ve encountered is that I cannot keep up with the home feed. I’m satisfied just browsing through part of it and periodically refreshing the feed, but clearly there are many posts in the feed that I never see — and some accounts are of enough interest that I do not want to miss one of their posts.
Dave Weiner pointed out that you can readily follow a person’s post in through their RSS feed, assuming you have a feed reader. (I use a free one, Inoreader.com.) In your feed reader, say you want to add an RSS feed, and when it asks you for the feed address, enter:
https://<instance name>/@<account name>
For example, I’m @firstname.lastname@example.org, so to follow my feed, in your feed reader you would subscribe to this RSS feed:
Or to follow Robert Reich, from the above list, you would subscribe to this RSS feed:
Then your reader will show you each new post as it goes up. (I started by marking all posts as “read” because I didn’t want to go through the 20 old posts that immediately appeared. Marking them as “read” cleared them, and then I’ll look at new posts as they arrive.)
The diagram below is from a post by Per Axbom, which explains the diagram in detail.
Reposted with permission.
Original Blog Post Can Be Found Here: https://leisureguy.wordpress.com/2022/11/09/mastadon-fediverse/