Mastodon for Twitter users in 5 minutes*
*7 mins 25 secs
Mastodon isn't an alternative Twitter
The interface looks similar, but the system is very different with different purposes.
Twitter lets you quickly find what everyone everywhere is tweeting—and lets all of them find you. Twitter is like a big town square where everybody gets a megaphone.
In Mastodon you can only see or be seen by your close circles. Mastodon is like a library full of small study rooms. You can raise your voice to reach everyone in your small room, but you cannot talk to the whole library at once. People can only get into your room if the room moderators let them in; if they're not in your room, they'll never find out what you're talking about.
Twitter is good for finding reports from the ground, anywhere in the world, in real-time. Mastodon is terrible at that.
Mastodon is good for building small, intimate, high-trust communities for mutual support and positive, healing interactions. Twitter... isn't.
Twitter is more parasocial and Mastodon is more social.
Mastodon has small reach, on purpose
On Mastodon it's common that your toots get something like two to twenty interactions. Very popular viral posts can reach the three digits. Hundreds of thousands of likes is unthinkable.
It's possible for users to require permission before accepting follows. Most users do. Most users will instantly reject followers with empty profiles, disagreeable profiles, empty or weird toot history, or just randos they don't vibe with. Most users block everyone from
mastodon.social simply because it's full of randos.
The general attitude is that of manageable numbers and quality over quantity.
Mastodon is not searchable, on purpose
It is technically impossible to search among all toots. No one can search everything posted on the whole network. This is in addition to normal privacy settings and blocking.
It's possible for admins to restrict access from search engines, and most admins do.
There is no text search. You can only search hashtags. If you write “terf” or “Elon Musk” in your toot, no troll can search for keywords “terf” or “Elon Musk” to come harass you.
It is common practice to turn on an option that auto-deletes old toots. But even if you don't turn on this option, it's very hard to access old toots, for technical reasons. This is on purpose.
The only reliable way to have access to someone's toots is to be a follower. Since most users curate and control their follow requests, it's hard for bad actors to find them.
Mastodon has no engagement algorithms
Toots are ordered by time, and nothing else. Nothing is ever promoted. “Likes” do not make a toot more likely to be seen. “Likes” don't do anything, except telling the original poster they are liked. Only the original poster knows how many likes they got. Having tons of followers does not do anything. Using trending hashtags does not do anything.
Mastodon users often feel like it's easier to turn it off than commercial platforms.
Mastodon has a culture of positive digital engagement and active consent
People in Mastodon routinely use the “content warning” function not just for trauma triggers or disturbing content, but for anything that may be annoying, distracting, tempting, too long, or not chill. For example, trans people will CW discussion of transphobia or dysphoria. Then other trans people will only see the content if they click the CW; it doesn't spring on them out of the blue in the middle of cat photos. The act of clicking the CW lets you be prepared to engage with it on your terms.
People in Mastodon routinely unfollow, filter, silence or block not just trolls, but their allies and friends too, simply to curate their own timelines. For example, if you're vegan and feel bad about the milk industry, and people keep boosting your friend's cheese jokes, no one would think it's censorship or aggression if you silence your friend's account. Mastodon people have become used to the opposite of doomscrooling.
If you post images without image descriptions for people using screenreaders, if you randomly pop up on strangers' feeds to explain or advise unsolicited, or if you insist on requesting follows without reading their profile first, you'll find yourself isolated pretty quickly.
There is no quote-retweet on Mastodon. This is on purpose. Quote-retweet leads to a performative pattern where you don't reply to the original tweet, but rather enact commentary at it, for your parasocial audience. This leads to propagating harmful content to denounce or snark at it, which does nothing but propagating the harmful content. In Mastodon propagating content isn't called “retoot”, it's called “boost”, to remind you what it does. And if you want to reply to it, you have to write a reply to the original poster, and then boost their post plus your reply to your own audience. This is literally what a retweet consists of, only this system forces you to be aware of the “boosting” part. Morever, no one can subscribe to all replies of a thread; you only ever get to see the replies from people you're following, like any other other toot in your timeline.
New users from Twitter often object that “there are positive uses for QTs too”; but Mastodon users have learned from experience that the format of the tools will eventually shape the discourse.
Mastodon isn't a single website, like Twitter; it's a way of communicating, like email
You know how in email people can have different servers, like Gmail or Yahoo or MSN, and yet all can exchange emails with one another? Mastodon is like that. There's no single website called “Mastodon”, just like there's no single website called “email”.
mastodon.social isn't the home of Mastodon, any more than
email.com is the home of “email”. To use Mastodon you start by picking a Mastodon provider, just like to use email you start by picking an email provider.
Your Mastodon timelines are email inboxes
When a user you follow posts a toot, a copy will be sent to your timeline. This is like getting emails from a mailing list, into your inbox. Like your email inbox, your Mastodon timeline can't show messages from before you subscribed. The search box on Mastodon is like searching your inbox in Gmail; it's not like the universal search box in Twitter. It cannot search toots that were never sent to your server.
Mastodon has collective curation
When you click a hashtag, you don't see all toots ever posted with that hashtag. You can only see:
- Toots from people in your server
- Toots from people that you follow
- Toots from people that your server-mates follow
The result is that the toots you can access reflect the collective interests of people on your server. Moreover, the people you can see—and who can see you—also reflect the collective personality of your server.
It isn't just Mastodon!
Mastodon is an app to communicate with a federation of servers, called the fediverse. Because the Mastodon app is modeled on Twitter, the collapse of Twitter made it the most famous of fediverse apps. But there are many others, like Misskey and Goto.social, and they can communicate with the Mastodon servers, and with one another. And there are also apps with a different interface than microblogging; Pixelfed is photo-based like Instagram, Peertube is video-based like Youtube, Bookwyrm is for book reviews like Goodreads, and so on. All of these apps are federated, which means they don't have owners; they all talk to one another, and anyone can create more servers and join the network, and no one can buy them off.
This writeup is a bit oversimplified, and not always precise. I made it because migrating Twitter users are desperate for a new Twitter, and Mastodon looks like one but it isn't, so I wanted to help dispel the disappointment. Here's a longer and hopefully more fun tutorial that goes beyond comparing it to Twitter: