A deep dive into Mastodon

Elephant in the Room

Article from Issue 269/2023

Get started with free microblogging, interact with others who share you interests, and even help expand the Fediverse with your own Mastodon instance.

Recent affairs at Twitter have led to resounding and sudden success for the free, open, and federated Mastodon [1] social media platform. But despite the apparent benefit of Twitter's mismanagement, Mastodon's success was bound to happen sometime. As Cory Doctorow explains in one of his many eye-opening essays [2], proprietary, centralized, and for-profit social media platforms always kill themselves. Mastodon and other open platforms will fill in the vacuum they leave in their wake.

Mastodon Is Not Twitter

Thinking of Mastodon as a stand-in for Twitter will leave newcomers confused. Sure, on the surface, Mastodon is a microblogging social media platform, and you could use it a such. But, as Max Leibman points out, assuming that Mastodon is just like Twitter is the first of the two fundamental errors people make.

Mastodon taps into and inherits all the advantages of the Fediverse. It is not only distributed, but massively distributed. This means no controlling entity can mess with your content or push sponsored posts onto your feed. Although a company can buy up individual servers, it will be hard for Mastodon, as an ever-expanding network of interconnected, but independent instances, to be bought out.

Mastodon is also a door into the Fediverse. Built on ActivityPub [3], a W3C recommended standard for social media platforms, it interconnects with other Fediverse services in ways that are both surprising and surprisingly useful.

How to Mastodon

You can experience Mastodon without even signing up. Visit, for example, Linux Magazine's feed [4] and you can scroll through the news we publish there without interference – and without the annoying pop-ups from other platforms that order you to register to continue browsing.

Click on Local on the right (see Figure 1) and you will see the posts of all the accounts hosted on that particular "instance," in this case, fosstodon.org (more on instances in a minute). Click on Federated and you will see all the messages being posted to all the instances that have federated with fosstodon.org.

Figure 1: Linux Magazine's Mastodon account and feed.

Ready to take the dive? To sign up, your first step is to choose an instance. Each instance is a Mastodon server that is part of the network of Mastodon servers. Each instance is owned by a different entity, which could be a person, a group of friends, a community, or an organization. The owner decides if the instance will be based around a topic, what the rules will be, and what the registration steps will be. Not all instances have open registration. Some do, but for some you need an invitation. Still other Mastodon instances are completely closed to new users.

You might think it is best to go with an instance that has lots of users, because it is less likely to disappear (yes, instances can and do disappear from time to time – the same as with any Internet service), but that is not always the best choice. Bigger instances have more traffic and are often slower. They are also more difficult to police, and, hence, more likely to have spammers posting bad things. A mid-sized instance with, say, 1,000 users or fewer, is often a better bet.

Choose an instance that has rules that sit well with you regarding content, harassment, veracity, and hate speech. Just in case, before signing up with an instance, browse the content posted by other users – as with everything, there are disreputable tooters (Mastadon posters).

If you have a specialized job or hobby, you might want to check if there is an instance specializing in your interests. You will also find instances tied to specific languages and locations. Table 1 shows some suggestions. Check the Mastodon website for a more complete list [5].

Table 1

Specialized Instances










Game development


Free/Open Source Software




Free/Open Source Software










Metal music

Remember, all instances can talk with each other (except those that are blocked) and you can follow and interact with accounts that are on other instances.

Once you have registered and logged in, setting up the basics of your account is pretty straightforward: Click on Preferences (bottom option in the right-hand column), and under Profile | Appearance, you can set up your display name, load an avatar, configure a header image, enter a bio, and set the visibility of your account.

I also like to go into Preferences | Appearance and tick the Enable advanced web interface checkbox, then click the SAVE CHANGES button at the top of the page. That gives you a multi-column view (Figure 2), as opposed to the default single column.

Figure 2: The Advanced web interface gives you a multi-column view.

It Follows

The whole point of all this is to be able to follow, be followed, and to read and share messages, or toots, as they are known in Mastodon parlance. But the first thing you will to want to do is decide what you want to see.

Notice the last column on the right of your multi-column view. That is the Getting Started column. Click on #Explore and it will open a new column that gives you a list of toots from all over the Fediverse that are getting a lot of boosts (shares) at that moment in time, the most used hashtags, news, or a list of accounts you might be interested in. The algorithm that selects the suggested accounts is intentionally unsophisticated. It recommends mainly "friends of friends," that is, people that your followers and people you follow follow.

There is no data analysis in Mastodon and no profiling. The rules for recommendations are extremely basic. There is a good reason for this: The creators of Mastodon want to encourage human-to-human interaction, as opposed to human-to-algorithm. Too often, in less scrupulous social media platforms, users ended up writing posts to gain the favor of the machine. Also, as Mr. Musk, in a moment of rare candor, points out in Figure 3, there are other drawbacks to behavior-based recommendations.

Figure 3: A moment of clarity from Mr. Musk.

When it comes to building relationships, the onus is on you, but Mastodon's "recommendation" system is a good place to start for setting up your network of contacts.

Maybe more interesting are the local and federated timelines. Click on the Getting started hamburger menu (on the left, just above your profile picture) to bring back the original column on the right, and click Local Timeline. This option will display a column with all toots sent from accounts on your instance. If you are on a busy server, there will be a lot going on. If you are not, well, there won't.

In the Local Timeline column, on the left, you will notice a small Settings button. Click it and then click +Pin to attach it to your columns. Once it is pinned, a new Getting started column appears. You can do the same with the Federated timeline option and pin that to your interface too. That column will show all toots being sent to all instances in the Fediverse that your instance can see, so the Federated timeline is much busier than the Local timeline.

To follow someone, click on their username at the top of a post, and their feed will open in the column on the right. Browse their feed to be sure you are really interested in reading what they have to say. When you are sure, click the Follow button shown in their profile.

There is one account you will want to follow from the beginning: Copy @FediFollows@social.growyourown.services into Mastodon's search box and click on the Follow icon. This account posts regular updates with curated lists of interesting people.

In these days of growth for Mastodon, with lots of new users landing on the platform, following someone is a good way of gaining a follower: There is an informal agreement among new users that if someone follows you, it is polite to follow back.

Of course, you are more likely to be followed if you have something to show in your timeline. Which brings us to …

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