A Guide to Mastodon for Non-Programmers

What is Mastodon?

In the simplest terms, Mastodon is a Twitter alternative. There’s a lot of other stuff about it, that I’ll do my best to explain later, but if you want to try and use Mastodon, all you need to do is sign up for an account on mastodon.social. You can use Mastodon just like twitter, but there are a few differences worth noting:

  • Public Timeline: One of the neat features of Mastodon is that it uses a public timeline, which can show you all the posts that are being published on Mastodon as well as GNU Social, a service that it’s compatible with (more on this later). A lot has been done to make the public timeline visible, but that still doesn’t change that it’s a feature not available on twitter and can be disconcerting when someone you’ve never met (usually me) responds to your first post. You can access the public timeline from the leftmost column (the “toot menu”) and from the furthest right column by clicking “public timeline”. This is the most important part of using Mastodon right now, because it lets you immediately engage with the whole community (and that lets you avoid the “but no one’s here!” feeling of other social networks)

  • Private Toots: (Yeah, we say toot instead of tweet. It’s amazing.) You know how on twitter, you’ve got your public account and your private account and they’re basically the same account except one is really just for your mutuals? We have that in one account! If you check the “mark as private” box in the toot menu, your toot cannot be boosted, cannot be seen by anyone who doesn’t follow you, and can’t be seen by anyone not logged into Mastodon. You also have the option to just not display things in the public timeline. Additionally, Mastodon allows for fully private accounts, which add follow requests in the same fashion as Twitter, and all toots become limited to just who’s following you. However, you’re able to make toots from your private account still visable to the public if you like.

  • Per-Image NSFW Filter: You’re able to mark NSFW content per image, with an option that comes up on the toot menu when you add it.

What is Mastodon? (Slightly more technical edition)

The biggest question I often get in regards to Mastodon is why it’s worth using over Twitter. The unfortunate part about this is that a lot of it involves slightly technical explanations, and I can feel my friends nodding off in our IM chats when I try to explain it to them. I’m going to do my best here, but you can always reach out to me on Mastodon if you want to talk about it more. This is also a super high level overview and might not always be technically correct. Read the docs folks, this is just a blog post.

TL;DR Mastodon restores ownership of content and site management to the people

Okay, bear with me here. You’re familiar with email? That part after the ‘@’ sign is the server your email is located on. So if your email is me@gmail.com the gmail.com portion is the server. Mastodon works the same way, and we call this federation. Why is that good? Because if you decide you don’t like something on Mastodon.social, you can go and make your own Mastodon, and you don’t have to lose anyone you talk to on Mastodon because of it. In fact, there are already several different Mastodon instances live, with more planned in the future. You can use any of these and still follow people on different servers.

Mastodon is also largely compatible with GNU Social. GNU Social was an open source Twitter replacement, that’s existed since before Mastodon. If you want to follow someone on GNU social, or interact with them, you can! The only trick is that instead of just saying @denjin, you may have to type something like @denjin@mastodon.social to find the user on their particular server.

In addition to the above, Mastodon is open source, which means that the code is available to everyone to contribute to and read. That means you’ll always know (or be able to learn) exactly what’s being done with your data.

How do I use Mastodon?

Right now, the best way to interact with Mastodon on both browser and mobile is through the website. Currently, a number of iOS and Android apps are in production. However, if you want a link to the app on the home screen of your mobile device, you can follow the instructions here.

Why do I see all this jumbled text?

A trend among the Mastodon community is to self-censor certain things that people might find sensitive to read using ROT13. Paste these toots into ROT13.com to decrypt them, but beware the content warnings because a lot of times the topics are NSFW or can harm people with mental health issues pertaining to them.

One thing to note about the public timeline:

Right now the public timeline shows all instances that Mastodon.social is connected to, which means that sometimes you will see gross content. Sometimes trolls will hop on to Mastodon and try to be dicks. They are usually removed from the public timeline quickly, but if you’re seeing content you don’t want to, the block button is your friend.

What do I do on Mastodon?

Mastodon is still a fledgling community, so it’s very easy to join, miss the public timeline, glance around a bit, then say “no one’s here” and leave forever. So that’s my first recommendation Check out the public timeline! Once you’ve done that, you’ll probably want to dive into the community. Here are some personal recommendations for things to check out:

Hashtags

  • #Mastodev - For programmers
  • #Mastoart - For artists
  • #Introductions - This one is for new users on Mastodon to talk about themselves a little bit!
  • #Mastoaudio - For music

Users to follow

Written on December 29, 2016