How to get started on Mastodon

Written by @larsfosdal@mastodon.social

Mastodon felt empty when I first signed up in 2018, so I didn’t really believe it would be my new home. It turns out that this is the nature of the platform, so don’t worry too much about that empty feed. You are fully in charge of what you want to see! With the current influx of birdsite users that are not happy with the new ownership, now is as good a time as any to give Mastodon a try.

Discovery is very different from Twitter, where you get spoon-fed the most “popular” accounts – even more so now with the new “buy yourself verification” scheme. With Mastodon, you need to put it a bit of work in to build a feed that matches your interests. More about that further down below.

So – to help you get going, here are some tips on how to get started on Mastodon.

Finding your Mastodon instance

https://joinmastodon.org/ – This site helps you find a Mastodon instance to sign up with.

Before you sign up, you may also want to read https://themarkup.org/the-breakdown/2022/11/21/we-joined-mastodon-heres-what-we-learned-about-privacy-and-security to understand how the Fediverse works and how privacy works. Also read the Privacy and content control section of this post.

I would recommend to chose a server with a large community that appears to be well run, but if you want to – you can even run your own instance and be in 100% control.

Technically, it doesn’t matter what server you chose, as federation will bring posts from users or topics you want to the server you chose.  Still, signing up with a server that contains many of the users you want to follow and/or topics you are interested in, can be useful.

If you prefer to post in your native tongue, you may perhaps want to chose a server that is hosted in your country. 

If you find out that the instance you selected was not the perfect choice – no worries – your account can be migrated later.

Getting started with Mastodon

I would recommend getting started through a desktop browser to begin with, and then we can move on to mobile devices once you are established. Once you are logged in on the desktop, personally I would recommend enabling the advanced UI, but that is a matter of Preferences (if you pardon the pun). It is not a perfect UI, and sometimes it gets stuck – but usually you can resolve that with reloading the site, or simply close and reopen the site.

MUST: Enable two-factor authentication!

Do it now, before your account is hi-jacked. Yes. It is that important.

Mastodon concepts

Explore the preferences to chose your UI color theme and numerous other settings.

A quick summary of the most used functions in Mastodon.

Home – your default feed which contains the people and searches you follow.

Notifications – will depend on your preferences.

  • Someone followed you
  • Someone requested to follow you
  • Someone boosted your post
  • Someone favourited your post
  • Someone mentioned you
  • Block notifications from non-followers
  • Block notifications from people you don’t follow
  • Block direct messages from people you don’t follow

Explore is a discovery box. It will highlight currently popular posts, currently popular hashtags, currently popular news stories (external links), and currently popular accounts.

You have a separate Search box where you can search for handles of other users to find them using @username@instance – or just a name. You can also search for #hashtags or simply by a keyword. You can then choose to follow a user or a hashtag.

Local is an active stream of all posts from users on your instance. It is nice for discovering other local inhabitants.

Federated is a full firehose stream of all the users that have been imported to the current instance by the local users.

For both Local and Federated, the stream can be very active – but just scroll a little to stop it from racing past you.

@ Direct messages are just that. Your stream of DMs with other users. Note that there is no end to end encryption, so if you need absolute security – do not rely on the DMs for that. This is no different from security on Twitter – since whoever has admin access to the servers, can read DMs. You just need to trust they don’t – and – most likely they wont. If you can’t trust them, you basically can’t trust the internet, and definitively you should not be using social media at all.

Favorites are likes. That star is just like the heart on Twitter, except you need to visit a post to see how many “likes” there are on that post. Likes are a nice way of saying thanks for an interesting / fun / educational / notable post. You should click that Favorite star on stuff that you enjoy reading. There are no algorithms that suddenly will fill your feed with more posts based on your favorites. Other people can see that you Favorited a post.

Bookmarks are very handy for being able to build a stream of content that you want to return to. They are private to you, and other people can’t see that you have bookmarked a post.

Boost is basically the same as a Twitter retweet. You use it to boost a post you think other people should know about. There is nothing like Quote tweet – so if you want to add a comment instead of just boosting, you either make a comment directly on the post and boost the post – or you write a post and include a reference to the original post. Commenting on the original and boosting it is probably the better option.

Lists are a way to organize your streams. If you follow users that mostly write about a specific interest, you can create a list with those users, and you can have different lists for a different interests which allows you to focus your reading.

Find old aquaintances 

You can check out tools like https://www.movetodon.org/ that can – if you allow it – scan your Twitter connections and find those that have their Mastodon identity in their Twitter profile, and with your permission, add them to those you are following on Mastodon. I have used this with a decent outcome, and I re-run it periodically.  There are several of these tools out there. This one is widely used and appears to be trust-worthy.

After having run this tool, any Twitter user that you followed and that had a Mastodon handle in their Twitter profile, can be followed by your Mastodon account. You can chose to follow all, or make a pick of each account individually.

Write an introduction post

To make you discoverable based on your interests, write an introduction post – and don’t be shy about using #hashtags in that post. The #hashtags should be relevant to your interests – be it work or hobby related. Take a look at what other people have written to get some ideas.

Pin your introductory post so that it is the first that people see when they look at your profile.

Oh, and if you are moving away from Twitter – add your Mastodon handle to your Twitter profile – if it allows you. It can be a bit challenging these days. You can obfuscate it as “at yourname at instance dot name” – although I am not sure that tools like MoveToDon will be able to deal with that obfuscation. At least it is human-readable.

Find your interests and follow them

Use Search and # Explore to find content or people and follow. It is better to follow too many things and prune later, than to sit on the fence and follow nothing.

Privacy and content control

At times, there will be content you don’t want to see – particularly on the Federeated timeline. Explicit images, political extremes, or other content you have zero interest in. There are different rules for content on the different instances, so there is no “one rule to rule them all” with regards to f.x. explicit images. You can create multiple filters that picks up on hashtags or keywords of content that you find offensive or uninteresting. If that doesn’t work – You can block the user and you can block the instance the user came from – f.x. if the site allows or focus on explicit images.

More reading on privacy: https://themarkup.org/the-breakdown/2022/11/21/we-joined-mastodon-heres-what-we-learned-about-privacy-and-security

Mobile applications

I don’t have an iPhone, so I can’t vouch for the quality of the iOS app. The Android app is ok, but seems to lag a little behind new features in the web version? Personally, I prefer to open the basic web UI in a browser on my Android device.

Join up, follow up, post up, or should I say toot up?

You’ll find me as @larsfosdal@mastodon.social – just search and follow to connect – or don’t.

I mean, it is YOUR feed 🙂

Part two added

3 thoughts on “How to get started on Mastodon

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