I set out to write a letter to non-technical friends explaining Mastodon. Then I thought: What if others want to use it? What if I encouraged that? What if anyone could copy, remix, adapt, etc?
This document is a starting point for your Dear Friend letter.
I’ve dedicated the post below to the public domain and shared it as a Google Doc. Feel free to duplicate it, edit it, share it, etc. If you have ideas, corrections, etc. feel free to add them as comments to the doc.
No attribution is necessary, but if you’d like, my name is Lee LeFever and my Mastodon account is here: sanjuans.life/@lee
You’ve heard me talk about Mastodon recently. I probably said things like “People who are done with Twitter are using Mastodon” and “It’s like Twitter, but different”. If you are skeptical, I understand. At first blush, it sounds like another social media start-up trying to make a billion dollars by selling advertising and personal data.
I can assure you, dear friend, that Mastodon is different and this letter is my attempt to explain why and how. The big idea is that tech companies, advertisers, or billionaires are not required for us to use social media. In fact, once you understand Mastodon, you’ll see that they get in the way.
Today a growing number of journalists, leaders, celebrities, and millions of others are choosing to use Mastodon because it functions like Twitter, but without the baggage. This is a choice you may be considering, too. Do want to use social media that’s owned and managed by a company, or by communities of people like you?
What is Mastodon again?
For now, let’s just say that it’s like Twitter. You create a free account, follow people, and read their posts in chronological order. They follow you and see your posts, etc. It’s a useful way to connect with others and learn what’s happening in the world.
How is Mastodon different from Twitter?
Think about it like this: Twitter is singular: one company, one community, one owner, one set of rules, one bottom line. Mastodon is plural: Multiple communities, each with its own members, moderators, and rules.
I’m confused about that. Multiple communities?
It can be confusing at first. I was confused, too. The key thing to understand is that all the Mastodon communities are independent and self-supporting, but work together because they use the same software. The plumbing of Mastodon makes it possible for all those communities to operate together. After you get going, it starts to feel like one big community.
But I like Twitter. Why move?
Twitter has been fun and useful to many. If you’re happy there, that’s great. Many people are finding that Twitter has changed recently. It’s now a private company owned by a billionaire who is making changes a lot of people do not like. Mastodon has become a viable alternative because it creates the same kinds of connections without a business model or bottom line.
I’m suspicious. How does Mastodon make money to support itself?
It’s not a company like Twitter or Facebook. Mastodon is software anyone can use to create and manage their own online community. The Mastodon software is open source and maintained by a non-profit and volunteers around the world. Most Mastodon communities are self-supporting.
So, how do I use Mastodon?
It’s like Twitter. Once you have an account, you can log into Mastodon on the web and via apps. You’ll use a website or app to post updates and connect with others.
Where do I sign up for an account?
What we call “Mastodon” is really a collection of thousands of communities using the same software. As such, there is no single place to sign up. You’ll need to pick a community (or “server”) that is your home community. See Mastodon’s list of servers to get started.
Wait. I need to find a home community before I can participate?
Yes. Remember: Mastodon doesn’t have a single owner or sign-up page. When you join, you’ll have things like a username, password, profile pic, etc. That information needs to be stored and managed somewhere. Your home community provides the place and ensures you can connect with other people on Mastodon.
How do I choose my home community?
There are communities of all shapes and sizes. Each one has its own name, members, rules, and culture. You’ll need to pick a community, but there is no lock-in. You can migrate your account to a new community at any time.
Two things to consider:
- The name of your home community is visible to others. This means your Mastodon username can be an expression of your identity, values, or preferences. You can ask: what community reflects me? If you’re into free speech or classical music, there is a community for you. If you care about mountain biking or gardening, those communities are available. If you don’t care, there are a lot of large, general-purpose communities.
- Communities on Mastodon are managed independently and you may find a variety of rules and policies across communities. Before joining, look at the community rules and how the community is moderated. If you want a free-for-all with no rules, for example, you can find it.
If I join a home community that’s focused on Pink Floyd, does that mean I’ll only interact with Pink Floyd fans?
No, not exclusively. Your home community is one part of a much bigger picture. Once you have a home community username, you’ll have an all-access pass to follow anyone on Mastodon, across 1000s of communities.
Will I be locked into my home community? What if I don’t like the moderators or rules?
No. You can always move your account to another community. This is a big reason Mastodon is different from Twitter. If you leave or get kicked out of Twitter, you lose access to the one big community. With Mastodon, you have a choice of communities and can find what works best for you.
What if I get kicked out of my Mastodon community?
First, you should probably do some self-reflection. Then, you can find a community that accepts your form of participation. You’ll still be able to use Mastodon and follow people, but your experience may be different because disruptive communities and individuals can be blocked by other communities. Your version of Mastodon, in this case, may be of the free-for-all variety.
OK, so I have my home community and then the people I choose to follow. How does that work?
Twitter provides a single feed of posts. Mastodon provides at least two feeds:
- Everyone you choose to follow across Mastodon communities (Home Feed)
- Everyone who joined your home community (Local Feed)
Why would I want a local feed from my home community?
Let’s imagine that your home community is @flyfishing.wow, which promotes itself as a hub for fishers. Your local, (built-in) feed of posts is likely to focus on fly fishing because that’s who joined the community. This operates separately from the feed of people you choose to follow across Mastodon.
What if my home community goes away?
This is a risk in using Mastodon. Not all communities will be successful or supported over the long term. Thankfully, Mastodon provides a tool for downloading/exporting your data. This makes your account portable to a new community.
Can I choose my own username?
Yes. Your username will reflect your home community and be visible to others. For example, if you join flyfishing.wow, your username will be:
The home page of your account would be:
Do I have to use my real name or photo?
No. All you need to join is an email address and that can be an alias if you wish. Mastodon does not require identity verification.
Can I use multiple communities as my home community?
No. An account can only belong to one home community at a time. However, like Twitter, you can have multiple accounts. If you’d like, you can migrate your account to another community.
What happens when I follow people?
Their posts arrive in your Mastodon account (and app) in the “Home” feed. The posts are chronological and you can like, comment, and boost (retweet). Unlike Twitter, you can follow hashtags and see the posts with that tag.
How do I find people to follow?
I would consider making your Mastodon experience a fresh start and an opportunity to make new connections in addition to people you like on Twitter. Follow promiscuously for a while. Find and follow hashtags that interest you.
How will people find me?
The old-fashioned way: by posting regularly and being an authentic and interesting person. Follow a lot of people, leave comments, and boost posts. Talk about your Mastodon account on Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere else you connect with others.
What can I do to feel safe on Mastodon?
Like other social media, Mastodon is what you make it. If you see a community rule being broken, you can report the account to the admins of your home community or contact them directly. You can also mute or block any user. Feditips has a useful post on this subject.
Should I use the website or an app?
Mastodon works well in a web browser. However, many people use apps on mobile devices. Mastodon has an official free app. I like the free Metatext app. See Mastodon’s list of apps.
Running a Mastodon Community
Most Mastodon users will NOT play a role in managing a community. However, understanding the process can help the rest of Mastodon make more sense.
I get that there are 1000s of communities. Who creates them? How?
Anyone who wants to start a Mastodon community can access the open-source software and host it on a web server, much like a website. This type of hosting is likely to require knowledge of installation, updates, back-ups, etc. There are instructions online.
There are also managed hosting options. In this case, you’ll pay a fee to have someone else manage the server hosting, updates, back-ups, etc. You’ll use Mastodon’s admin tools via a website.
Once it’s hosted, a sign-up page will appear that people can use to join your community.
Let’s say I create a community. How will people find it?
You’ll need to register a domain name that serves as your community’s name. You can pick any domain you want, just like any other website. A lot of Mastodon communities use lesser-known domains that end in .social, .life, .world, etc. You’ll use the domain name to talk about your community and encourage people to join at that domain.
It sounds like I’ll have to spend money to do this.
There are costs in running a Mastodon community. You’ll pay for registering a domain and for using a web server. The server costs may start small (~$10/month) and rise as more people use the community. You’ll also be using your time for supporting users, moderating content, sending updates about the system, and other community management tasks.
If my community has thousands of users, will I be on the hook for that cost?
Yes. This is what makes Mastodon special. Each community supports itself. Large communities use crowdfunding and donations to cover the server and admin costs. In some cases, organizations support the community. Running a smaller community means a couple of people can volunteer. Larger communities might need on-call server admins and a staff of moderators for around-the-clock coverage.
Let’s suppose my community grows quickly. What will I need to do on a daily basis?
It’s up to you (and other volunteers) to moderate the discussions and manage the community. This can be more difficult and time-consuming than it sounds. As the community leader, you can set the tone and enforce rules that you feel are important. If a person is disruptive, for example, you can use built-in tools to prevent their participation. Further, you can make your community private, request an application, or open it to the public.
What if Mastodon is bought by a billionaire or sold to another company?
That’s not possible. There is no company to sell. Even if a specific Mastodon community becomes controlled by a billionaire or company, it is only one part of a huge network of independent communities. People can just move to a new community if it goes sideways.
This sounds pretty great. Does it actually work?
Yes, it does. However, it’s important to note that Mastodon is not Twitter or Facebook. It’s a different platform with different features and values. The user experience isn’t as smooth as other platforms and it may take some getting used to. Once you get settled, using it becomes second nature. Mastodon and apps for using it are always being improved.
I like my Twitter friends and want to follow the same people on Mastodon. Is that possible?
What can I do to make Mastodon work for me?
- Identify a community that will serve as your home on Mastodon and join it. Once you have a username, can follow anyone you want. There is no lock-in. You can migrate your account to another community at any time.
- Add your Mastodon username to your Twitter profile and post tweets about the account. Add username links to your blog, newsletter, or any other way you connect with others online.
- Follow a lot of people and hashtags. Think of Mastodon as a fresh start. Follow and unfollow liberally. Leave comments, like, and boost the posts you like.
What’s it like to use Mastodon?
A lot of Mastodon’s recent growth is from people leaving Twitter and looking for a safer, friendlier, more helpful place to connect. You may find that people are nicer than you expect.
- There are no ads. Mastodon communities are usually member-supported and don’t need ads, algorithms, suggested accounts, etc. The experience feels cleaner in that way.
- In general, Mastodon communities do not tolerate harassment, bigotry, etc. The Mastodon Server Covenant is a guideline for community owners and includes this language for what they want to promote:
Active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. Users must have the confidence that they are joining a safe space, free from white supremacy, antisemitism, and transphobia of other platforms.
It’s important to note that Mastodon is not a safe haven. Disruptive people and communities exist on Mastodon. However, Mastodon provides tools for muting and blocking individuals and entire communities.
I’ve seen Mastodon terms that I don’t understand. Can you help?
Yes. Let’s start by translating from Twitter:
- Twitter = Bird Site
- Tweet = Toot
- Retweet = Boost or Reblog
Now let’s translate Mastodon features:
- Community Software = Server or Instance
- All Communities that Work with Mastodon = Fediverse
- Independent Communities = Decentralized
- Software Connection Between Mastodon other Communities: ActivityPub
This is helpful! Can I use it for my friends?
Yes! I want you to use it. Share it as-is, or copy it and edit, improve, remix, and share.
I’ve dedicated the post above to the public domain and shared it as a Google Doc. Feel free to duplicate it, edit it, share it, etc. If you have ideas, corrections, etc. feel free to add them as comments in the doc.
No attribution is necessary, but if you’d like, my name is Lee LeFever and my Mastodon account is here: sanjuans.life/@lee
Thanks to Boris Mann, my friends on Mastodon, Feditips, and all the people working to make Mastodon the best it can be. Created by Lee LeFever. Learn more about Lee at LeeLeFever.com and CommonCraft.com.