How to use Mastodon, alternative to Twitter

Many people are looking for a Chirping alternative after Elon Musk bought the social media site last month, changed the site’s rules on impersonation, fired half of the site’s staff, and announced plans to sell “blue check” verification badges for $8 per month.

One of the fastest growing alternatives is Mastodon, which looks a lot like Twitter.

But Mastodon is not a Twitter clone. It’s a free, open-source platform that was originally launched in 2016 by developer Eugen Rochko, and is made up of many different instances or servers, rather than being run by one company on one domain name.

This makes it a little more difficult to sign up and find your friends.

There are also weird little quirks. The tweets are called “toots”. Retweets are called “boosts”. Since this is an open-source project, it doesn’t have the same level of sophistication as social media sites like Twitter that are professionally owned and operated.

Emails and uploading can be slow. It’s a bit like using Linux against Windows or MacOS.

Mastodon grew rapidly. In the 12 days following Musk’s purchase of Twitter, downloads of the Mastodon app on the Apple App Store and Google Play for Android increased more than 100 times previous rates to 322,000 installations during the period, according to the analysis by Sensor Tower, an app analytics company.

On Nov. 7, Mastodon founder Rochko said there were over 1 million monthly active users of the service. That’s still far short of Twitter’s more than 245 million daily active users that CEO Elon Musk tweeted about this week.

Here’s what you need to know about Mastodon:

First, you need to choose a server or instance

Mastodon’s home page is displayed on the screen of a hand-held mobile phone. More than 200,000 new users have been reported to have flocked to the social media app following Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.

David Bonaldo | Light Rocket | Getty Images

Since anyone can set up their own Mastodon server, there is no central place to register like twitter.com. You need to find a server to subscribe to. They are known as “instances” and you can think of them as email providers.

A user on one instance can interact with users on other instances, including following, replying, and boosting. All instances taken together are called “the fediverse”. (The term comes from “federated,” which refers to the loosely connected way servers work together, again, similar to email.)

Each instance has its own URL, which comes after your username, a kind of email domain. There are over 5,000 cases, according to a site that tracks the use of Mastodonand they often follow a particular theme, such as a geographic region or topic. Some require you to fill out a short application form with information such as your interests or why you want to join that instance. Some servers are small and only for a small handful of friends.

There’s also a quiz you can take to find out which instance might be right for you.

The most popular instance is mastodon.online, which is also administered by the founder of the service. Larger instances mean that many of the best or shortest usernames on the server have already been taken. There is also a list of instances you can join on the Mastodon website.

Unlike Twitter, many of the instances Mastodon runs on are non-profit, and some raise money for server costs and other expenses on sites like Patreon. It is possible that some instances stop working because their administrators lose interest.

All instances have a feed just for people on that server that shows all toots posted to that instance in chronological order. But you can also just look at your personalized feed, which only shows toots from people you follow—this is the most Twitter-like experience.

Your username includes the name of your server

Following is not as simple as it is on Twitter. If you want to follow someone on the same instance as you, hit the plus button next to their username.

But if they’re on a different instance than yours, it’s best to copy and paste their entire username into Mastodon’s search box, including the part after the second “@” symbol that indicates which server they’re on.

For example: @Gargron@mastodon.social is like following the CEO of Mastodon. Users who are not on Mastodon.Social should copy and paste the entire string into their search box.

You can follow me at @kif@cybervillians.com.

There is no verification on Mastodon and DMs are viewable by the instance administrator. Content moderation is also up to the administrator of the instance: Mastodon.Social, for example, prohibits Nazi images. Other servers may have more flexible rules.

How to find friends

Mastodon can be a bit of a ghost town when you first log in, but there are a few ways to find your old favorite tweeters on the platform. Whether they post a lot is a different question.

One of the easiest ways to find people to follow is to search for “Mastodon” on Twitter, where people who have created new accounts often post their new handles. Copy and paste it into the Mastodon search box to follow them.

Musk’s takeover of Twitter sent thousands to Mastodon. Here’s what I discovered using the app

You can also copy and paste your Mastodon handle — with the @ symbol and domain — into your Twitter account to get your existing followers to try joining you.

There are several directories listing interesting people to follow on Mastodon.

If you’d like to try following the same people on Mastodon that you’ve been following on Twitter, there are several third-party apps that will attempt to import your follow list, although they require you to log into your Twitter account – note that you are giving this information to third parties.

get tootin’

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