I’ve seen a lot (-ish) of talk about Mastodon on the Internet lately, thanks to the latest dipshittery perpetrated by the Musky One.
A few years ago, some now-forgotten controversy spurred me to look into alternatives to Twitter. I think. It’s also possible I was just curious.
Either way, somehow I found Mastodon, and I used it casually for some time, though admittedly never dived deep into it. Back in April, however, Elon Musk got bored and decided to spend $44 billion on a second-tier social media company that even its own users regarded as a cesspool. At the time, he claimed that he wanted to “promote free speech.” I strongly suspect that he mainly made the offer because he is a “shithead,” but as far as I’m aware, no reliable source has confirmed this as his primary motivation. He subsequently tried to back out of the deal, citing the fact that he was rich and can do what he wants.
Twitter responded to this by pointing out that, yes, billionaires can get away with anything, but they’re still going to get their humiliating text messages shown to the world if they start shit in court, so maybe a certain giant man-baby should think real hard about whether he actually wants to get away with it, or if he’d rather just sit down and settle his debts before the whole world realizes that he’s less “Tony Stark” and more “Michael Scott.”
I’ll confess that I had mixed feelings throughout the whole affair, since I really didn’t want Musk to own Twitter (what with him being an impulsive, unscruplous moron), but at the same time, I also didn’t want to see a self-indulgent billionaire proven right that the rules don’t apply to him.
But Musk finally came to terms with the fact that, yes, contracts do mean things, so I:
- have almost exclusively been using Mastodon for my social media “needs,” and
- figured I might as well finally finish off writing up the thoughts I’ve been tossing around since April.
So, without further ado…
What is Mastodon?
Not as much as you’d think. Mastodon isn’t a corporation, a protocol, or even a social network, exactly. Mastodon is really just a piece of server-side software. The actual network that you connect to is called the Fediverse, and Mastodon is more of a window into it. I don’t mean to be pedantic here.
That is…I don’t mean to just be pedantic here. Because the Fediverse is something bigger and more interesting than you’d expect.
The Structure of the Fediverse
The backbone of the Fediverse is a protocol called ActivityPub, which has several key characteristics, the most important of which being that I’m done talking about it and promise not to bring it up again.
But it’ll help to at least understand a little about how federation works, so let’s start with an example.
Let’s say this weekend you decide you want to blow a whole Saturday, so you set up a server in your living room running a Mastodon instance…let’s say hartzellbaird.club, a community dedicated to discussion of…oh, I don’t know…whoever your favorite author happens to be.
So you’re on your server, socializing, doing literary analysis, and shitposting away. Eventually it occurs to you: it sure would be nice to talk to other people, too. So you invite a few friends, but of course they don’t show up, because let’s be serious…who has friends anymore?
Every day you log in, only to see three sad, pathetic, empty timelines: home, local timeline, and federated timeline.
But eventually an enemy arrives. Your home timeline is still empty, but on your local timeline, you can see your nemesis there, posting shitty fan theories that don’t align with your shitty fan theories, but you can’t bring yourself to block them or kick them out, since…you know…only other user.
But eventually the two of you overcome your differences, and you follow them. Now @Enemy420 shows up in your home timeline, too.
And then one day something strange happens. You happen to click on your federated timeline–which has hitherto been identical to your local timeline–but now you see a stranger from another instance.
A mysterious, handsome devil you’ve never seen before…but how did this
@WillDHB@mastodon.social end up in your timeline?
After some investigation, it turns out that @Enemy420 followed him–and as soon as she did, hartzellbaird.club federated with mastodon.social, and @WillDHB@mastodon.social’s shitposts started showing up in your federated timeline.
Fortunately, a helpful…uh…Mastodonian?..made this diagram a while back:
That’s right - the people you follow don’t have to be from your Mastodon instance. So the fact that someone else has chosen a different instance doesn’t mean that you’re isolated from them.
That’s cool for reasons I’ll get to later, but it’s not nearly as cool as this:
They don’t have to be from a Mastodon instance at all.
That’s right–it’s finally time to explain why I wasn’t just being pedantic.
The Fediverse is more than just Mastodon. It’s a variety of different types
of services that implement
ActivityPub that protocol I promised not to talk
about anymore, and they can replace a number of more mainstream services.
Here are some of the ones I’m aware of:
…and if I’m on Mastodon because I’m into microblogging, but you’re on Pixelfed because you’re into art stuff, I can still follow you and boost your posts as if you were on Mastodon, too. Your account’s posts will look just like normal Mastodon posts to me.
And this works both ways…kind of. My understanding is that, by default, Pixelfed will only show posts that have images attached, so if I want my stuff to show up for Pixelfed users, I should probably include a picture.
If you noticed the hedging there, I’ll confess that, while the idea here is fascinating, I can’t say I’ve really had the time to try them all out, because social media is a time suck, whether it’s decentralized or not.
Now that we’ve established that the Fediverse is so much more than just Mastodon, let’s forget all that crap and just talk about Mastodon.
If you’ve made it this far, I should probably disclose that there’s also a nifty propaganda video you can watch to explain a lot of what I just said. And it’s got…like…elephants riding Roombas or something, so that’s nice:
So what makes for an exciting blog post?
*Flashes bedroom eyes* A vocabulary lesson…
Mastodon is, at its core, a microblogging platform akin to Twitter. It mostly does the same stuff, but with different names, because fuck you, doing new stuff was meant to be painful.
For example, what Twitter would call a “tweet,” Mastodon would call a “toot.”
No, seriously, that’s…that’s what it’s called. Look, it’s not my fault.
While writing this post, I learned that evidently this technically changed recently:
However, I have never seen anyone call them anything other than toots, and I see no sign in the community that it’s going to change any time soon.
In fact, I’ve recently seen more than one person calling shitposts “pooptoots,” and I’ve got to say…I’m all in. That’s…that’s wonderful.
Fortunately, the Mastodon equivalent of a “retweet” is not called a “retoot,” but rather a “boost.”
Also, a “like” is called a “favourite,” which, notably, is spelled with a u because Mastodon is fancy. Note that favourites, unlike likes, do not impact the spread of a toot at all. They’re just a way of saying, “Hey…nicely done, there.”
There are also bookmarks, which don’t really correspond to anything Twitter-side that I’m aware of, and they just make it easy to secretly save stuff for later without the shame of having to admit you liked a thing.
If you do decide to hop onto Mastodon, because you’re *checks notes* not a loser, there are a few technical differences that will leap out at you.
First: Mastodon proudly uses chronological timelines rather than any sort of Algorithm. Like…way proudly. You know that friend who’s super into CrossFit? It’s like that, so don’t casually say anything about wishing Mastodon had an algorithm. They won’t be mean to you or anything, since Mastodon is basically the Internet equivalent of Canada, but they will tell you about how great it is to not have an algorithm, and you might not survive, because the duration of this discussion will last until the end of your natural life.
I mean, they’re not wrong or anything, it just comes up a lot.
Second: there is no such thing as a quote boost. The rationale here is that the format is conducive to mocking the original post, and mockery isn’t really encouraged.
Third: the search is terrible. This is intentional. You can search for hashtags all you want–which means you should heavily include them in any toot you want to be seen–but, on instances that support full-text search, it only “allows logged in users to find results from their own toots, their favourites, and their mentions. It deliberately does not allow searching for arbitrary strings in the entire database.” Why not? To avoid harassment.
Noticing a pattern? Enough to suggest that perhaps Mastodon has been shaped by people who have…seen some shit?
Oh, hey, that’s a good way to transition to…
Moderation has been a hot button topic lately as the various social media platforms struggle to find the right balance on the continuum ranging from letting the Nazis run wild versus silencing all speech entirely and basically turning all the sites to read-only. Obviously, the former would further encourage the pernicious fascism spreading throughout society like a cancer, whereas the latter would be a pretty good idea.
So…if you happen to fall into the camp that believes that modern tech companies have abdicated their roles as moderators of the communities that they profit off of, is Mastodon…an improvement?
Well. It’s complicated. Mastodon instances have moderators, and the policies are ultimately decided by whoever runs the instance…and without regard to commercial pressure, since there are no advertisers to offend, and users are only an expense, rather than a potential revenue source. In other words…they’ll do what they think is right. Weirdos.
And, in contrast to Big Tech’s track record, it would appear that stuff does actually happen:
Many moderators do want to do the right thing, and since the instances that they’re in charge of are much smaller, the scale is seemingly approachable.
…the obvious problem being that even many Nazis think they’re the Good Guys, and so you can wind up with an instance dedicated to forming a community of like-minded white nationalists. Because no, we can’t have nice things.
However, even though the Fediverse is composed of interconnected instances, not all instances are connected to each other. Instance admins can “defederate” from another instance, which essentially means loudly declaring THIS INSTANCE IS DEAD TO ME and blocking the entire instance. And if the defederated instance is vile enough, then any bystander instance that doesn’t also turn their back on them may get defederated, as well…
The upshot being that, yes, you can create an Alt-Right (read as “neo-nazi”) instance, and if you do, you’ll probably wind up isolated from the rest of the Fediverse and languish in obscurity with your horrible, horrible kin.
Users also have choice at the individual level. First, they choose which instance they go on initially. If, afterward, you find you don’t like the moderation policies of your current instance, you can move over to a different one. If mastodon.social is too restrictive for you, you can leave and find a different instance that’s okay with your stupid, offensive beliefs. Conversely, if you’re sick of seeing people’s stupid, offensive beliefs, you can go to an instance where the admin has their shit together, and not only kicks out all the Nazis, but also blocks any instance that allows Nazis on their platform, too.
Even beyond that, you can stay on your instance, and you can just block an entire instance so that you, personally, never see it:
Notably, though, whether Mastodon’s are ultimately too lax or too aggressive, the community lacks two important things:
- a company profiting off of the controversies it creates, like an arms dealer peddling to both sides of a conflict, and
- an algorithm that amplifies outrage by promoting posts that drive engagement without regard to the ultimate effect on the end user, when–oh, shit, they got me…I’m becoming one of them…get me out of this damn section!
The culture on Mastodon…or, at least, that corner of Mastodon that my instance federates with…has a very different culture from Twitter. At least…modern Twitter. Several people have told me that it’s a lot like what Twitter used to be, back in the days that I…don’t personally remember. I was there, I just really don’t remember.
Perhaps I should say former modern Twitter, which, since Musk’s takeover, has supposedly been overrun with racists and Elon Musk parody accounts.
Hey, remember how people with disabilities exist? Because Mastodon does. If you post pictures on Mastodon, you’re generally expected to include alt text, as well. You can even follow a bot account that will nag you if you forget:
Also, if you use a hash tag, you should use #camelCase, because screenreaders can understand them better. I don’t know of a bot for that, though.
Coming from another platform, these may seem a little off-putting. If you’re going to discuss certain topics, you’re expected to put it behind “content warning” (CW), which is somewhat similar to “Spoiler Alert” warnings you may have seen on other platforms–you can hide the body of your…sigh…toot… and it will only be shown if someone clicks on it after reading the “warning” that describes what you’ve posted.
Why am I bothering to mention such a benign feature?
That comes down the topics that the community regards as warranting a CW. We’ll start with the obvious–nudity, gore, and spoilers. Next, any context you’ve heard associated with the term “trigger warning” is on the list (violence, sexual assault, racism, etc.). Then there’s the shit that people are sick of hearing about–Covid, politics, and Twitter.
Yeah, really Twitter. Although they’ll probably call it “birdsite,” or occasionally “hellsite.”
Next comes…AI art, food, and pictures with eye contact.
To some, this seems rather whiny. And I know this seems whiny to some because this “some” has wasted no time in whining about it.
Don’t get me wrong, most members of the twitterMigration have taken well to the platform–pretty much every newcomer’s first toot is some variation of either “Everyone is so nice here!” or “I’m not sure I’m using this right, but…”
But instead of focusing on the soul-crushing burden of pushing an extra button before posting your dumb thoughts to the Internet, let’s take a moment to think about the person on the other side of that toot.
They may be struggling with depression, anxiety or PTSD, often from coping with eating disorders, trauma, or coping with the harsh realities of a world that is not always as kind as it should be to people who are trans/disabled/ace. I don’t know whether the historical accounts I’ve seen that Mastodon’s culture is the result of marginalized groups fleeing persecution on other platforms are accurate, but from my anecdotal experience, there seem to be a lot more people from these groups than I’ve seen elsewhere on the Internet.
Beyond that, supporters of this aspect of Mastodon’s culture point out that applying a CW to your post doesn’t mean it won’t be seen, or that it will be seen less:
Content Warnings can also be viewed as a method of obtaining the audience’s consent about how they’ll engage with your content:
It also gives other users the opportunity–if needed–to prepare themselves emotionally before viewing content that may be difficult for them.
Further, if you want your content to be seen more, then complying with the existing norms may be needed, or else other users might refuse to boost or follow you:
But wait…is there a side to the “boo for Content Warnings” side that warrants more than condescending dismissal? I mean, is there ever anything that warrants more than a condescending dismissal?
…okay…maybe one thing.
It’s racism. I’d include the toot here, but as it turns out, I’m a disorganized dipshit and I lost it. But recently I saw a thread making the point that, to a person of color, being told that if you’re going to communicate about your personal experiences with racism you need to put it behind a CW lest it trigger a bunch of liberals is white fragility at its finest, and that ignoring politics is a toxic behavior of the privileged, and Content Warnings will only serve as a way of silencing people of color who need their issues to be brought into the public discourse.
But what, you ask, is the right answer, then? To which I reply: HA! You thought I’d have answers for you! This section isn’t about answers, it’s about making you feel bad about yourself. Now go think about how no matter which side you land on, you’re making life worse for someone. You monster.
A last note about culture. You may have noticed that Mastodon has a very pronounced culture…but what happens, exactly, when a small social network gets a relatively large influx of outsiders?
Apparently something that feels like a “home invasion.” At the time of this writing, Mastodon has over a million users. With the old guard finding themselves surrounded by crass troglodytes treating Mastodon just like Twitter–a platform that even heavy Twitter users regard as a hellhole–will Mastodon be able to hold onto the thing that kept it so…civil?
Maybe. Maybe not. It’s still got the whole “No Algorithm” thing going for it, and the underlying design tends to support certain ideals. But there’s no telling whether the new crowd will assimilate, dominate, or simply get bored and wander away.
A Final Note About Culture
Every Saturday is
It’s not cat memes. That’s trying too hard. Mastodon is sweatpants social media. People just post pictures of their cats doing cat stuff. Maybe other people’s cats, too. They don’t always explain. Sure, sometimes there’s something especially interesting about the cats–like, falling off a shelf or something–but they’re not viral photos.
It’s just furballs being furballs.
Migration for Dummies (You)
So, you’re ready to give it a test drive, right? This is like a twenty minute blog, and you’ve made it nearly to the bottom, so I’m assuming you are. Allow me to help you.
The first step is to go to this ironically titled page, “Getting started with Mastodon is easy” and pick out a server. You can choose your instance (server) based on your location and interests, and for the most part, you don’t need to worry that much about it. You can still (probably) follow whoever you want, thanks to the whole Fediverse thing I mentioned earlier, and if you change your mind later, you can migrate your account. From what I’ve read, though, the most important criteria for choosing your instance is making sure it’s not mastodon.social, because damn all these new users have bogged the server down.
Next, you’ll want to fill out your profile, including a picture of someone or something, and a few hashtags about your interests. This seems like a logical point to mention Mastodon’s verification mechanism.
While you may be more familiar with Twitter’s centralized verification method
of “sending Elon Musk $8,” Mastodon takes a different approach. Essentially,
you can include a link to your website in your profile, and if that URL
includes a link back to your profile with a
rel="me" somewhere on it, the
website will have a green notation to indicate you’re verified. If you don’t
follow what I’ve just said, you just need to ask your eight-year-old nephew for
help, and after a quick three hours of trying to explain it to you, they’ll do
it for you.
Note: You may see some users with blue checkmarks next to their names. That’s because they have blue check mark emojis in their names.
Now, if you’re migrating from Twitter, you may want to check to see if there are any familiar faces around you can interact with. Several tools exist to help you search for your Twitter folks without having to (shudder) talk to them. They work by searching your account for fellow Twit-heads that have listed their Mastodon accounts on their Twitter profiles:
But don’t stop at recreating your old, terrible social media life! Some awesome directories exist for discovering like-minded Mastodonians.
And, finally, you can help people find you. Once you’ve filled out your
profile, you can also post an introduction with the
#introductions hashtags, plus some hashtags for your interests.
Oh, wait, I almost forgot the most important step:
Follow @WillDHB@mastodon.social and send me a message. We’ll talk about cat pictures, or what a goober Elon Musk is. It’ll be fun.
The Learning Curve
There are (many) resources to help you get started.
For everyone, I’d recommend the excellent @email@example.com account, who regularly posts great advice, such as:
…and also hosts a website with FAQ: https://fedi.tips/
Also, here are a few guides:
- An Increasingly Less-Brief Guide to Mastodon
- A futuristic Mastodon introduction for 2021
- An Incomplete Guide to Getting Started on Mastodon
- Mastodon and the Fediverse
So go forth, my children…out into the Fediverse, where you will be free…to post cat pictures.
It’s not really just Saturdays. There are always cats.
Okay, their first toot that isn’t “Hello, world,” because Mastodon attacts nerds. ↩︎