Let’s face it: Twitter was hell long before the Elon Musk takeover . The platform has tremendous power to uplift diverse voices, but it also leverages some of our worst social habits. Although the reasons could be debated at length, I believe that the cause is to be found in the choices at the design level. Twitter, like most social media , is built to get as much engagement as possible .

But what if Twitter was optimized differently? What would it look like?

 

That’s what makes Mastodon , and the ActivityPub protocol that powers the platform, so liberating. It is not about yet another startup or a company, but about a community. There is no advertising, tracking or monetization. It is a place shaped – culturally, in design and in code – by members of marginalized communities who wanted to escape the angry onslaught of trolls and doomscrolling that characterize social media. A place that is based on relationships and conversations instead of engagement.

I don’t blame you if this all sounds like fluff. Right now, in fact, there is a lot of crap with similar premises circulating (cryptocurrencies, for example). As a reflection, we all think that behind every online service there is an attempt to get – and monetize – our attention, because this is the world we have adapted to. But the network built around ActivityPub, known by its longtime users as Fediverse , is different .

I asked the Mastodon community to give me tips on how to take my first steps on the social network . Hundreds of people offered me their advice, one user rickrolled me and yet another made me a fantastic Beatles-Pokémon mashup . They are typical answers: the Mastodon community is made up of witty users who, in principle, seek conversations with single people. They can also prove very useful if you demonstrate that you are willing to learn about and experience the culture of Mastodon. In this guide I have tried to collect the tips and context information that they have shared with me. I hope I did a good job. Let’s begin.

What is the Fedeverse?

It’s easy to be tempted to compare Mastodon to Twitter , and from a certain point of view it even makes sense. In both cases we are talking about microblogging platforms where people can follow other users’ posts; both have a “like” button and allow you to share content. The parallel, however, is not perfectly fitting.

First, as I said, Mastodon is not a company, but an open source software that has built a community around it . This software, in turn, is based on ActivityPub, a protocol with which other applications can also interface.

 

Even if it all seems very boring – I admit it – it is not at all. All major social media sites today are basically a place to share screenshots taken from other services. Twitter is full of images taken from Reddit, while screenshots from Twitter are widespread on Instagram . It is an objectively stupid situation, but it occurs because it is currently not possible to share posts from one platform to another.

This is where the Fediverse comes into play. Imagine that Instagram, YouTube , Twitter and Facebook are part of a larger network and you can follow an Instagram account on Twitter or reply to a YouTube comment on Facebook. The Fedeverse works exactly like this .

There are all sorts of applications that rely on the ActivityPub protocol . There ‘s Pixelfed , a photo-sharing site similar to Instagram (before the latter tried to become TikTok). There ‘s PeerTube , a video sharing site, and OwnCast , a streaming service. There are also services born before Mastodon, such as Friendica and Gnu Social . I could go on and on, but the bottom line is that Mastodon users can follow users of any of these apps , and people who use them can follow Mastodon users in turn. The whole network is connected .

If even the main social networks worked this way, perhaps we would all take fewer screenshots, since posts from other apps could be shared directly on each service. If all of this confuses you, don’t worry. All you need to know is that from Mastodon you can also connect to other platforms . 

Let’s see how to start using the site.

Find a server 

One thing that confuses fleeing Twitter users coming to Mastodon is the need to choose a server . There are those who argue that this requirement should be dropped and I agree: in fact, it complicates things. However, it must be kept in mind that this is not a bug, but the idea at the heart of the platform.

Anyone who wants can configure Mastodon to work as they see fit. There has been some confusion around the word ” server” due to Discord , where specific groups are called servers even though they are all hosted by the company that controls the social network. On Mastodon this is not the case. When I talk about a Mastodon server – which is also referred to as an “ instance ” – I am referring to an independently managed entity , where someone has taken Mastodon’s software and installed it on a server they control. That person, or that group of people, can modify the software to make it work differently,make decisions about moderation and even close accounts. They can also read your direct messages , just like Twitter employees on the now Musk-controlled platform (if secure communications are what you’re after, you should check out Signal ).

In practice, joining a server means giving a lot of trust to those who manage it. The best case scenario is that you find a server managed by someone you already know . Alternatively, there are lists of public servers that you can join (hopefully, you can always migrate to a smaller server later). There is an official list of open servers , which is a great place to start – it’s compiled to only include places that are friendly to newcomers and have specific moderation standards. If instead you are looking for something more niche, herefind a wizard that you can use to find a specific server that matches your interests. In any case, check out the communities that you think might be right for you and scroll through the posts before joining them (you can usually do this by clicking on the “See what’s happening” link under the signup form).

 

The good news is that if you want to switch servers later, you can take your followers and the accounts you follow with you. The easiest thing is to start with one of the bigger servers , get a feel for how things work, and migrate later.

One more thing: Right now most of Mastodon’s servers are a bit overloaded and many are asking new users to join a waitlist . The volunteers who manage the servers are trying to eliminate bots and bad guys. If you leave a message, you should usually gain access within a day or so.

Set profile

Screenshot of someone's profile on Mastodon website.
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One of the first things to do is set up your profile using the options found in the settings. In general, historical users avoided using their real name , while in most cases the recent wave of users arriving from Twitter choose to use their first and last names (as a journalist, for now I prefer to do it too).

Tell a little about who you are and be careful not to talk only about work or, better still, not talk about it at all. You are people, and on Mastodon you are about to connect with others. You should also upload a profile photo – so other users can recognize you quickly – and a banner at the top of your profile if you have something fun to put up.

Screenshot of someone's profile on Mastodon website.
MASTODON VIA JUSTIN POT

It is worth noting that account verification on Mastodon works completely differently than on other social networks. The procedure is not immediate, but if you are interested here you will find a detailed explanation.

Explore Mastodon

At first glance Mastodon looks a lot like Twitter. The first thing to understand is that there is no algorithm : what you see on the site are the posts and boosts – the equivalent of retweets on the platform – of the people you follow, sorted from most to least recent. You can use the Explore tab to search for popular posts, but they don’t make it to your timeline.

Speaking of the timeline: here you find all the posts (also called toots ) written by the people you follow. You can reply or boost any post, and there are also likes and bookmarks . Since there’s no algorithm, the “like” button doesn’t help promote a post by getting more people to see it: the feature only serves to notify the user that you liked what they posted.

However, the number of “likes” and boosts of a specific post does not appear on the timeline , which become visible only by clicking on the content. This is a deliberate choice, allowing users to judge a post based on what it says, not its popularity. You will also notice that there is no equivalent to Twitter’s comment retweet feature. This too is an intentional choice, designed to avoid dynamics such as that of dunking – broadly speaking what in Italian internet jargon is called “blasting” – and the “character of the day” which instead characterizes many interactions on Twitter.

 

Finally, there isn’t even a text search function – only hashtags can be searched. This is also wanted. Trolls use search on sites like Twitter to find and insert themselves into conversations, something the marginalized people who started Fediverse were trying to escape. Hashtags, on the other hand, allow users to get their posts found. It is, in essence, a matter of consent . Every once in a while someone tries to build a search tool, but usually the services in question end up being blocked.

If you want to take a ride outside your timeline, there are a few places you can do that. The Explore section displays the most popular posts of the moment and allows you to browse the most popular hashtags and news articles (but many servers do not have this tab). The Local section displays all posts from the server you are currently using, which is particularly useful if you are on a smaller server. Finally, the Federation tab shows every single post published in the entire Fediverse.

Be sure to follow people who seem interesting to you. There is no algorithm that recommends content to you, so you have to start following people before you can see their posts. If it helps, I’ve written a guide on how to find your Twitter contacts on Mastodon ; however, also look for new people to follow and to talk to : Mastodon is an opportunity to try something new.

Publish posts

Screenshot of someone making a post on Mastodon website.
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The functioning of the posts is quite similar to that of other social networks. You can write whatever you want, attach images and videos and even add a poll . That said, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, hashtags are much more used than other social networks. This is due to the absence of a text search function: users can only search for hashtags, so you should use them if you want people who don’t follow you to find your post (or, if you prefer that your post can’t be found by strangers, do not use them: as with many other functions, consent is the principle behind the design).

The big difference, however, is the sensitive content reporting system . This is a nuance, but one that is of great importance on the platform. The culture that initially permeated the Fediverse and Mastodon was shaped by marginalized communities, particularly LGBTQ+ people . It was they who developed the content reporting system, which as far as I know is unique among social networks. Basically, if you share content that might make other users uncomfortable, you can hide the post behind a custom warning.

Screenshot of blurred content on Mastodon website.
MASTODON VIA JUSTIN POT

If I shared a nude photo of myself, for example, I could add a notice that reads “naked pale white man”: anyone who wants to, for some strange reason, still view the photo can click, while everyone else would be spared. It’s certainly a useful feature in the case of nudity, but it’s also used on Mastodon for any content that could potentially elicit a strong reaction , such as those related to mental health issues or family trauma.

Since the beginning, the system has evolved , and today it has become a way to publish posts that talk about things that most people don’t care to read, without submitting them to all of their followers. This way, if a person who doesn’t usually write about politics decides one day to do so, she could insert a notice that anticipates the nature of the post to users. It will then be up to the people who come across it to decide whether to read it or not.

For many people, Mastodon became a hospitable place in the late 1910s, which was particularly difficult for many marginalized communities. The purpose of the platform is precisely to be a place where one can feel at ease , and not the polemical hell that other social media have turned into. The content reporting tool helps ensure that it stays that way, so please try to abide by it . See how people use it and try to do the same.

 

One more thing: if you upload images , be sure to add description . This will help blind people get an idea of ​​the content, and is generally considered good practice.

Handling trolls

While the Fediverse isn’t free from harassment, there are tools to combat it as well . The first thing to know is that there are entire servers dedicated specifically to trolling and harassing people on other servers. Most of these are blocked by the more popular instances, so if you use one of these servers there is no risk of running into them. However, if this happens to you, you can block and report the user in question to the moderators of your server, who usually respond quickly. Keep in mind that a single user can also block entire servers .

Move away from the dictatorship of engagement

The Internet shouldn’t have become what it is now, which is a service we use to access a handful of social networks. The web was once a relatively decentralized place , where people with different interests congregated on different sites. I’m not saying it was better – we know what a mess the old internet was – but at least it was authentic .

This was before ” optimization for engagement ” became common practice, when people built blogs and sites from scratch for the fun of it and carefully curated their RSS readership. That spirit was lost when we diverted our online time away from small independent communities built around shared interests to dopamine-enhanced apps that make most of us depressed, anxious, and angry, while some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs become ever more richer.

The Fediverse manages to combine what was beautiful about the first version of the internet – small independent communities – with the fun aspects of the internet in the age of social media: the ability to connect and keep up to date with people who come from different. I’ve had more genuine conversations in two weeks about Mastodon than in the last year on Twitter or Facebook, and from what I understand that’s just how the service works. Mastodon is built for one-on-one conversations .

That said, getting started isn’t easy, especially now that many servers are flooded with new users. Even if this were not the case, then, Mastodon is a software with a somewhat long learning curve. Social media sites were built with billions of dollars from investors; the Fediverse, on the other hand, is managed and moderated entirely by volunteers . It’s normal for it to be a little difficult at first.

Don’t forget that this is not a startup obsessively pursuing growth goals and that you are not a consumer. Mastodon is a community group, and you are someone who is considering joining one. You cannot use the same approach or logic that you do with a commercial enterprise, difficult as that may be to understand in the advanced stage of capitalism in which we find ourselves. Remember this: Community is more fulfilling than commerce . Mastodon and related services are optimized for connection, not engagement. I hope it stays that way, which is why I decided to make such an in-depth guide. I hope I managed to capture its spirit.

Useful resources

I could go on and on, but I think I’ve covered the basics. The main point that I would like to make clear is that Mastodon and the Fediverse are not just a technology: they are a community . The surge in new users will inevitably shape the future of the community, but there’s a reason many people leave sites like Twitter to join the Fediverse: they find a better culture here. Anyone who enters a community has a responsibility to help maintain it .

 

So, with all of that in mind, I’d like to point you to some resources made by people who have thought much more deeply than I have about these issues.

  • Fedi.tips is a very useful tool for beginners;
  • RunYourOwn.social offers a great summary if you want to create your own server;
  • Also in the official documentation of Mastodon you will find interesting ideas ( here is the guide in Italian, while on the home of Mastodon Italia there are many links that will help you get a better idea of ​​the platform);
  • This post on wordsmith.social ;
  • Finally, this GitHub post , which takes up a lot of the things I’ve tried to explain here.

You can read these resources if you want to get the overview, but also feel free to explore . Dive into Mastodon and generally try to have fun and be respectful. The internet is toxic enough, and when we find a place that isn’t terrible we should try to keep it that way. See you in the Fediverse.