Your Guide to Mastodon: What Is It, and How Is It Different to Twitter?

Twitter has been pretty chaotic since Elon Musk took over as CEO — pretty much half of the staff was laid off at the end of October, and new features such as gray ticks for trusted sources were only released to be later pulled from the site the same day. Musk has too saved with founder Jack Dorsey and threatened companies to pull ads from Twitter with a “thermonuclear name and shame.”

Since Musk’s official purchase of Twitter closing on October 28 for $44 billion, many users decided to leave the site. Bot Sentinel, an organization that tracks Twitter account behavior, estimates that nearly 900,000 Twitter accounts were deactivated between October 27 and November 1, according to the MIT Technology Review.

Some of those leaving Twitter are switching to Mastodon, a decentralized social network built on open source software. Mastodon’s “federated network” has seen a remarkable increase — on Nov. 6, Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s creator, said the service had gained 489,003 new users since Oct. 27 and now has more than a million active users. However, this is still only a small fraction of Twitter’s 238 million.

Read on to see how Mastodon works, how to sign up, and how it compares to Twitter. For more, see how to delete your twitter accountand get the latest Twitter’s verification badge plans.

What is Mastodon and how is it different from Twitter?

Mastodon is a free social media service that functions much like Twitter. You can post “toots” (instead of tweets), follow other people and organizations, and favorite (like) and boost (retweet) other people’s posts.

Mastodon was created and originally released in October 2016 by Eugen Rochko, the CEO and sole employee of the non-profit organization Mastodon gGmbH. In May, Rochko explained the service’s oddly named replacement for “tweet.” He says the original button was called “publish,” but a dedicated backer promised lifetime support of the Mastodon Patreon account if he would change it to “to.” (On the iOS and Android apps it says “publish”).

In an interview with Time Magazine, Rochko said he started developing Mastodon when he realized that “being able to express myself online to my friends through short messages was actually very important to me, also important to the world, and that maybe it shouldn’t be. in the hands of a single corporation that can do whatever it wants with it.”

Read more: Mastodon is no Twitter replacement

Instead of one town square for everyone, however, Mastodon is composed of thousands of social networks, all running on different servers, or “instances,” that can communicate with each other through a system called the Fediverse. The Fediverse also includes other social networks such as PeerTube for videos, Funkwhale for music, PixelFed for photos and NextCloud for files.

Mastodon servers do not need to be connected to the Fediverse, in fact the most famous Mastodon instance is Truth Socialthe social network of former US President Donald Trump.

How do I join Mastodon?

The hardest part of Mastodon is getting started. Since there isn’t one general Mastodon area for everyone – like with Twitter – you’ll need to register on a specific Mastodon server.

Servers can be based on a geographic location, subject interest, professional background, or literally anything an administrator can think of. For example, the people at dolphin.town are only allowed to post the letter “E” while the literary buffs are at oulipo.social forbidden of ever using the letter “E” (in honor of OuLiPo writer Georges Perec’s lipogram “La Disparition”).

Two of the largest Mastodon servers, or instances, are mastodon.social – the official server of the Mastodon project – and mstdn.social, although both have temporarily suspended registrations. Another great general server I recently joined is mas.to. Other popular Mastodon cases include masthead.social for journalists and fosstodon.org for open source software.

Don’t worry too much about which server you choose – you can join as many as you like and leave or change servers at any time. And you can follow people across servers, so choosing one doesn’t prevent you from interacting with those in other cases.

One good place to find a server to join is the official Mastodon website at joinmastodon.org. The site currently lists 106 servers that have committed to the Mastodon Server Covenant, an agreement to enforce moderation, back up the site and give at least three months’ notice before ever shutting down an instance.

Each server’s “about” page will tell a little about the Mastodon instance and list the server’s rules. If you don’t find a server you like on joinmastodon.org, you can try other Mastodon directories, such as instances.social, which offers a server selection wizard as well as a sortable list of 3,910 instances .

A screenshot of the Mastodon signup form

Joining a Mastodon server requires only a few personal details.

Screenshot by Peter Butler/CNET

Most open registration Mastodon servers will only ask for your email address and a password to get started. Once you respond to a verification email, you’re ready to start using Mastodon. Other, more private Mastodon servers may ask you to make a request to join and then wait for an invitation.

How do I use Mastodon?

Like Twitter, Mastodon lets you post short messages to the world or to select people, but instead of tweets, Mastodon posts are called toots. And many of Mastodon’s other features are also very similar to Twitter’s, with minor differences. Each post is limited to 500 characters (instead of 280), and you can include links, images (JPG, GIF or PNG, up to 8MB), audio files (MP3, OGG, WAV, FLAC, OPUS, AAC, M4A and 3GP) up to 40MB) and videos (MP4, M4V, MOV, WebM up to 40MB).

A screenshot of the Mastodon posting interface with options for visibility displayed

Mastodon offers four levels of visibility for all your teeth.

Screenshot by Peter Butler/CNET

Your posts on Mastodon can be set to be public, just for your followers or completely unlisted from all timelines. You can create polls for your followers and use all your favorite regular emojis, plus custom emojis created for specific servers.

Any post can be marked with an explanatory “content warning” that requires a click before viewing, and Mastodon users make frequent use of the feature.

You can even edit posts on Mastodon. Each version of your toot remains available for review, and people who reblog your post are notified after it’s edited.

Just like Twitter, Mastodon uses hashtags starting with the “#” symbol, such as #Gaming, #Anthropology or #Veganism. Since there is no algorithm to suggest your posts to non-followers, using hashtags to categorize your posts for people who might be interested is even more important than on Twitter.

You can follow any account on Mastodon, whether on your own server instance or not, and the account’s posts will be added to your Home Stream in chronological order. Know that for some accounts you need to request permission to follow them.

Free web apps like Debirdify, Fedifinder, and Twitodon can help you find accounts you followed on Twitter that have migrated to Mastodon.

If you don’t want a particular account to follow you, you can block it just like you do on Twitter, or you can choose to block an entire server.

Mastodon allows you to “favorite” posts, but the favorite count doesn’t appear on timelines — if you want to promote someone else’s posts, you’ll need to “boost” or reblog them. Unlike Twitter, there are no “quote tots” on Mastodon, a deliberate choice to discourage “dunking” on other people’s posts. A separate “bookmark” feature lets you save sweets on Mastodon without notifying the account that posted them.

Mastodon does have a feature called Direct Messages, but the name is a bit misleading. Rather than providing person-to-person messaging, Mastodon’s feature sets a post’s visibility to only the people named in it. In other words, these are tots that only certain people can see, rather than actual direct messages.

How do the Mastodon timelines work?

While Twitter has only one timeline (sorted chronologically or by “top stories”), Mastodon has three: your Home timeline shows all the posts and reblogs of everyone you follow, your Local timeline shows everything from your own server instance, and your Federated- timeline shows all posts from all Mastodon servers you follow someone on.

Using a web browser, you can configure Mastodon to look like Twitter, showing one stream at a time, or you can view multiple streams and notifications at once (like many Tweetdeck) by selecting “Advanced View” from your Preferences.

A screenshot of Mastodon's advanced view interface

Mastodon’s advanced view lets you see notifications and multiple timelines at once.

Screenshot by Peter Butler/CNET

Are there any mobile apps for Mastodon?

You bet. Due to the open source nature of Mastodon, you have many choices for apps on both iPhone and Android.

Your first and easiest option is the official app from Mastodon gGmbH (for iOS or Android), but there are other solid third-party apps. The two most popular alternative Mastodon apps right now are Metatext for iPhone and Tusky for Android.

Mastodon Apps for iPhone:

Mastodon Apps for Android:

If you do get started with Mastodon, be sure to follow me @[email protected] (And say hello!)

For more information on social media and Twitter, follow a timeline of the Elon Musk purchase and read about the big changes that could await for Twitter.

Correction, Nov. 7: An earlier version of this story misstated Mastodon’s features. Mastodon added the ability to edit posts in March 2022.



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