Should you join Mastodon?

I joined Mastodon as a writer looking to hang out with other writers and to have somewhere to share my blog posts. This was my experience.

The Grief of Elephants

Before you take any advice I have to give, you should know two things.

First, this is not advice.

Second, I’m very non-technical and don’t know anything.

Third, this is all just based on my experience.

Fourth, I can’t count.

A disclaimer

I’m scared, so I’m going to start with a disclaimer. (Another disclaimer, if you thought my “two things” were a first disclaimer.)

Why do I think I need a disclaimer? Because recently the whole world has been very twitchy about their personal choice of social media platform.

People who stay on Twitter are filling the pockets of evil alt-right kitten-stranglers.

Those who go to Threads are Zucker-lovers who are asking to be outed as adult entertainment workers to their uncles by a mega-corporation that collects all the information there is to know about them, including their underwear size and their favourite flavour of ice cream.

Those who hang out on Mastodon areā€¦ I’m not sure how to finish that sentence. Usually it goes more like, “What’s Mastodon?”

I could get exiled from Mastodon just for admitting to also being on Twitter.*

* It’s probably not that bad. I did admit to being on Twitter on Mastodon, and so far no one has come pounding on my door, but I still jump every time I hear a car.

So, the disclaimer?

Um… “I’m nice. Please don’t be mad.”

What is Mastodon?*

* Not the technical explanation.

More shades of grey. A Mastodon's butt.

It’s a social media platform. Except it’s not one platform, it’s lots of platforms, or “instances”, or “servers”. You can talk to people on the other instances (most of the time), but you’re more likely to stumble across posts (or “toots”, which as far as I’m concerned are the same as tweets) by people on your instance than by people elsewhere.

Once you have your own profile on an instance, you post clever remarks about your work in progress or your lunch, or pictures of your cat, and people respond.

You make “aw” noises over other people’s pictures of their cats, and cheer on their writing efforts.

The feed looks a lot like Twitter, at least to me.

Why I joined Mastodon

I’d been away from social media for some time, and was trying to decide how to use social media to get support from a writing community and have someone to share my blog posts with.

Before I plunged back into the addictive chaos that was Twitter, my previous social media home, I read some blogs by writers and came across a piece by Chuck Wendig, informatively titled “The Bird Site is F****d“.

To anyone who’s been online in the past year or so, he’s probably not saying anything you don’t already know, but it was a new perspective for me.

Chuck Wendig knows a lot of stuff, or talks as if he does, so I felt inclined to semi-listen.

If I didn’t want to support Twitter, I needed somewhere else to hang out with writer friends and chat. I wanted it to be text-based, and needed it to be available for desktop.

I read around a bit and settled on Mastodon.*

* Note this was before Threads was released, but it’s not available for desktop, so I couldn’t use it anyway.

Why do other people join Mastodon?

Here are some reasons I’ve heard.

Because it’s not owned by a billionaire and can’t be bought. No advertising.

Better moderation and better ways of moderating makes it a safe space for people who tend to be targeted by trolls on other sites.

Different instances have different rules, and no matter what you’re looking for you can probably find a group of people who want the same–whether that’s a whole instance just for dirty jokes or smut, or a clean place for children’s authors to discuss their writing in the staff room at lunchtime.

model

On Mastodon, I’ve met the highest concentration of trans people and furries that I’ve encountered in my life. The moderation could well be why.

Better privacy. Mastodon doesn’t collect random information about you and use it to serve you ads. In contrast, Threads seems to collect all kinds of unrelated and potentially sensitive information, like health and fitness information, financial information, and location and browsing history just because they can. (You also can’t delete your Threads account without deleting your Instagram account.)

Inclusiveness. I’ll come back to this, but Mastodon’s culture does differ from Twitter’s in ways that make a big difference for some people.

“It’s the web like it used to be.” No, I don’t know what that means, sorry.

“Because people here are so nice.” In my experience, most writers are nice in most of the places I meet them, but okay.

“Better engagement– it’s more about connections, not just a competition about who can get the most likes or follows.” I won’t argue with other people’s experiences.

Control over your feed–you see toots by the people and hashtags you follow. There are no algorithms.

There are more reasons, but I’m sure you get the flavour.

My experience of Mastodon instances

My first instance

When you join Mastodon, you have to join a particular instance. I went with mastodon.social initially because it was the original Mastodon instance and I had no idea what I was looking for.

I followed a few writers and a few hashtags. (Yes, you can follow hashtags. It’s cool.)

Then, in search of more people who were talking about interesting stuff, I ventured onto my local timeline. This is all the toots coming from people on your instance–in my case, mastodon.social.

And came straight across some very explicit, very pornographic images.

I’m a grown-up (in years, at least), and I wasn’t exactly scarred by the experience, but that’s not what I want to be surprised by as I scroll my feed.

I shrugged it off and looked at some more cat pictures.

A cute cat sitting on a wooden chair, dangling its paws and poking its nose through the slats on the back of the chair. Just like one might see on Mastodon.

Then it happened again.

Changing instances

At this point I tooted my intention to shift to a different server that wasn’t quite so intent on surprising me with porn.

A writing friend whom I’d known on Twitter and reconnected with on Mastodon asked me if I’d like to join their instance, writing.exchange. I took a look at the writing.exchange feed and was all in. No porn at all, and a bunch of nice writerly folk sharing pictures of their pets.

Writing.exchange was invite-only at that point (though I understand this hasn’t always been the case). My friend sent me an invite link, and I went through the steps to change instances.

No, it’s not hard, but there’s one important piece of information the instructions usually leave out.

Yes, you take your followers with you.

But no, the people and hashtags you follow are not automatically transferred. You can download a list of the people you followed on your old instance, but you can’t automatically refollow them all.

I decided not to bother downloading mine, given I’d only recently joined and wasn’t following that many people. I just followed the people who were following me and looked interesting, and called it a day.

I learned after I got there that writing.exchange is a modest-sized instance, currently with a few over 700 active users, and has a cosy feel to it.

I’ve tried to learn the local culture, and so far haven’t run afoul of the mods. Long may that continue!

Right now I’m visiting Mastodon at least daily (or five times a day), boosting cat pictures, dragon art, pretty photos of birds, and chatting about writing. I’m in a weird time zone, so I tend to be active at the quieter times of day, but I’m having fun.

Maybe you would too.

How is Mastodon like Twitter?

You tweet or toot, and see a list of the toots of other people, though served in strict chronological order.

Toots have a limit to how many words they can contain, but the limit depends on your instance.

Toots can contain images or links. I haven’t seen gifs the way I do on Twitter, so I don’t know if they’re a thing.

You can favourite (i.e. like) other people’s toots, or boost (i.e. retweet) them.

You can pin toots to your profile (up to five, I believe).

You follow people, and if they find you interesting they follow you back.

Once you build yourself a nice little community, you can have fun chatting in real time with a group of people with common interests who are procrastinating from editing their drafts.

Hashtags are big, maybe even bigger than on Twitter–they’re the main way to find content you’re interested in.

Like in TweetDeck, you can make lists of people. I have one for “close friends” to ensure I see what people I know well are saying.

How is Mastodon different to Twitter?

Functionality

There is no algorithm deciding what you’ll find interesting. This means if you don’t follow many people or hashtags your home feed will be quiet.

Follow hashtags. I recommend #cats, #CatsOfMastodon, and #WritingWonders.

You can view three feeds. I’ve heard people say there are four, but I can only find three.

The first is your home feed, which has toots from the people and hashtags you follow.

The second is the local timeline, which has toots from the people on your instance.

The third has, as far as I can tell, essentially all the toots from the entire universe.

Mastodon has a lot fewer active users than Twitter, and I mean orders of magnitude fewer. Some writing hashtags that always have interesting tweets in Twitter are graveyards on Mastodon.

There’s no quote tweet, because apparently people use it to be horrible to each other. This makes me sad, but I get the rationale.

You can mute people temporarily for the length of time you choose (e.g. a week) if you just need a break from them, or of course you can mute or block them permanently.

There are lots of different ways to view Mastodon, and the ones that work for you will depend on whether you’re on a smartphone or desktop. I’ve heard something called Tusky recommended for phones, but do your own research.

As far as I can gather, Mastodon instances are run and moderated by volunteers, and usually funded by donations. If you find yourself a home with an instance, a donation would be very appreciated.

You can edit your toots after you post them! I believe this feature is well-loved.

Culture

Being inclusive is much more important on Mastodon than on Twitter. For instance, a lot of people access Mastodon using screen readers, so it’s appreciated when you make your toots accessible for them.

This means you should always add alt text to images that describes what they show (e.g. a photo of a long-haired, ginger cat lying in on a sunny patch of carpet looking smug).

And when you use hashtags that are multiple words, it’s considered kind to capitalise the first letter of each word to make it easier for the readers to not mangle them.

Content warnings are big, and people tend to err on the side of using them too often rather than too infrequently. These give you space to add a short description of what’s hidden, and hide the rest of the post until the user clicks to expand them.

I’ve seen content warning on pictures of spiders (very much appreciated!), discussions of violence, trauma and similar, depression, politics, food, and pictures involving eye contact. In response to a toot I sent out, other people noted they appreciate content warnings on nudes, snakes, climate change, guns, and general world awfulness.

They’re also sometimes used to hide very long or off-topic toots, maybe because that’s considered polite.

It also seems to be part of Mastodon culture to rant about social media billionaires and privacy violations on other platforms. This may be optional, but perhaps not.

There doesn’t seem to be the same push to gain the most followers or go viral. Unless something changes dramatically, Mastodon is never going to be the place to reach the masses, because a) the masses aren’t there, and b) even if they were there they wouldn’t be there to listen to you.

This could be a good thing.

A few tips for getting started on Mastodon

First, pick an instance. This site might help you, or you can do what I did and start with mastodon.social.

Once you find a likely-looking instance, you can check out what people on it are tooting by going to the name of the instance followed by /public/local, so https://mastodon.social/public/local, for example.

If it looks good, jump in.

Start by having a look at the hashtag #introduction. One of your early toots should be an introduction with lots of hashtags of things you’re interested to chat about. Assuming you want to be found, that is.

I suggest pinning it to your profile.

Then, just appreciate you’re in a new land, and take some time to see how the locals behave. Many old-timers have felt a little invaded recently with the waves of people fleeing Twitter, so be good citizens and show them new immigrants aren’t bad people.

Finally, make friends and have fun.

Have you leaped into the Mastodon herd? How have you found it?

You can find me at (at) AkkalonAS (at) writing.exchange. Tell me your user name and I’ll follow you over there.

Or if you haven’t used Mastodon, do you have a different favourite social media platform where you hang out? What do you like about it?

Get my blog posts in your email box, every post or a monthly summary. Always sweet, salty, or smelling of Mastodon dung.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

2 thoughts on “Should you join Mastodon?”

  1. I so appreciate this very helpful guide! I’ve been considering tiptoeing into Mastodon but have been too intimidated (it happens easily) and also exhausted at the idea of learning another social media platform. I did put the Threads app on my phone, but I’m slightly creeped out by it (because Zuckerberg) and now it seems I can’t get rid of it without also killing off my Instagram account (because, again, Zuckerberg). With your mild encouragement, I may just find the courage to march with the behemoths. After all, I have a third draft to avoid revising.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Promise I don't bite (even if you pull my tail).

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