Focusing on things that come up frequently and I don’t see explained that often.
(beta/draft, about halfway through, comments welcome @email@example.com .)
(current version: 2021-04-21 11:50 CEST)
Ok what is a masto?
Like Twitter, but in the 🌌✨fediverse✨🌌.
(>.>) and what’s the fediverse, silly
Do you know how, if you have an email at gmail, and your friend has an email at yahoo, you can still email one another? But if you have an account at Twitter and your friend has an account at Instagram, you can’t message, comment, follow, like, or share their sweet insta outfits from within twitter. You have to create an account at instagram.
The fedi is like email, but for everything.
- Imagine if your student dorm could run your own copy of twitter, with your own users and rules and so on. And your girlfriend’s commune could run their own smol twitter themselves. And your twitter sites can communicate and interact.
- And in addition to that, everybody can run their own instagrams, their own youtubes, and they communicate between themselves and one another. So you can subscribe to your girlfriend's commune's video streaming site from your student dorm's microblogging site.
All of that already exist. Mastodon is a social network like twitter, but federated. Pleroma is also a social network like twitter, but federated. So people using Mastodon can read, like, follow etc. people in Pleroma. Then there’s Pixelfed, a network for photos like Instagram. But federated. So you can follow your friend’s Pixelfed account from your Mastodon account and see their cat photos on your twitter-like homepage, you don’t have to create a Pixelfed account. And Peertube is a service like Youtube, but federated, so you can follow, etc. etc.
ok Mommy make me want it~ why should I care?
No capitalist control: There’s no one big company making the rules.
No ads, no tracking: None.
Open source software: Everybody who can read code can see what it’s doing. So you know there’s no tracking or sketchy stuff going on.
No evil design: It’s not made to be addictive. No algorithms maximizing Engagement. Timelines are ordered by time, not by clickbait. Nothing is ‘promoted’. There’s no quote-retweets. Retweeting is called ‘boosting’; this makes it obvious to everybody why you shouldn’t retweet toxic stuff to criticise or mock it. (In twitter most of my feed was people dissing things I hate, thereby exposing me to them; in masto most of my feed is people giving one another emotional support.)
Small, intimate, tightly-bound communities tailored to you: This is what I’m writing this FAQ to talk about, really. Everybody’s view of the network is different. Posts do not reach the whole of Mastodon. Hashtagged posts are not visible to everybody in the world who searches for the hashtag. This isn’t immediately obvious, and I’d call it Mastodon’s number 1 underrated feature: As time goes by, it naturally builds up a graph of connections that works for you.
In my experience, I not only never see nazis and terfs, I also almost never have techbro replyguys pop up – not even because of blocking, but just because of the way connectivity and discovery work. The resulting difference in mood from twitter or reddit is like night and day.
These good-vibes hipster networks are all deserts. There’s no escape our capitalist overlords. Are there even people in there?
Your mileage may vary, but it’s better than you think. I’ve had friends try it out and never find people to interact with, but when you get the hang of how it all works, dang does it work. Open source tech, leftist activism, LGBTQ+, neurodiversity/plurality/mental health, furry/kin/kink, witchery, and speaking Japanese (it’s popular in Japan for privacy reasons) are some things I often see people bonding over. (In my corner of the graph, that is. The part of the graph I see reflects my interests. See what I mean?)
For me this is frankly the best social network I’ve ever tried. I’ve been Very Online for 21 years and I’ve never made as many friends as often and as deeply as I have in the fedi. Almost everybody who comes visit me IRL in my own house these days is from masto.
ok so what’s the address, I wanna see what it looks like
Think of the fedi as more like a language than a place.
Twitter has only one domain,
twitter.com. This domain is owned by a company, and this company has absolute rule within it.
Federated services can have as many domains as people wanting to set them up. Again it’s like email; you can always create a new email domain, and existing domains will happily talk with the newcomers.
In fedi jargon the domains are called instances . Some masto instances include
mastodon.social (the ‘default one’),
queer.party (gays), or
mstdn.jp (big in Japan). When instances talk to one another, we say they federate.
…and who owns all this? What are they trying to sell?
Each instance is owned by the people running the server. If you can run a server, you can create your own instance. I run an instance at home from my smol Raspberry Pi computer in the living room.
Each instance’s admins will have their own criteria to who can get in, their own rules of conduct, their own posting limits etc. Mine, for example, are much stricter than mastodon.social’s.
No central authority? I’m not an anarchist and I think that sounds really easy to abuse. How do I stop the trolls and nazis?
Same way we do in email: block. As a user, you can mute or block individual accounts or whole instances. In practice most instances don’t tolerate bad behaviour – stricter rules than Twitter are the norm – and so it’s usually easy to spot the nazi instances and block them wholesale when new ones pop up. I’m a heavy mastodon user and I’ve only ever had grief once, and then again when I raised the alarm, everybody around me instantly spread the word and cut off all connections to the kiwifarms/fash instances doing the bad things, it was beautiful to watch it in action.
(Notice what I mean by ‘everybody around me’: all the people I federate with, all the people who are seeing my content, which again is not the whole of the fedi.)
Instance admins can block domains for their whole instance. This is called defederating. For example, if you know that one instance happily hosts terfs, you can refuse to talk with their whole instance, and now no users of your instance will ever be seen or touched by their toxicity.
Many small authorities? I’m an anarchist, and that sounds like it puts a lot of power in the hands of instance admins.
Yup. Choose instances whose values you align with (or run your own).
In particular, notice that Mastodon has no end-to-end encryption. That means the server admins can read your DMs. This is also the case for Twitter etc., of course, but just because masto is somewhat more private doesn’t mean it’s fully private; do not discuss sensitive stuff on it, use Matrix or the like.
Another issue with admin power is that if your admins defederate an instance that has a friend you follow (or follows you), your friends will silently disappear from your feeds. I consider this a bug – there should be an alert or something – but for now I recommend having a backup list of people you talk to, just in case. There’s an export function.
So blocking is common and socially acceptable? I’m a believer of Free Speech, and I think that sounds dystopic.
There are many Free Speech instances which, as a matter of policy, don’t defederate even with nazis. Go make an account there. N.B. I won’t federate with you and we won’t ever see one another, which is the best for both of us really.
Instances are like your flat; being let into somebody’s instance is a privilege, not a right.
What if my instance admins turn out to be fuckboys?
There’s a migrate function. It’s a bit annoying because everybody will have to get used to the new handle, and some of your configs etc. are not currently migrated, but it will redirect people to your new account.
Please bear with me on this, ok? It will take some time to explain, but when you get it, it’s fascinating. I’m not even sure it was designed like this on purpose, but it works so well.
The reason mastodon is good emerges from two details whose consequences are easy to underestimate:
- You don’t interact with other instances’ content directly: you interact with your instance’s local copy of them.
- Here in your instance’s view, you only ever see what your instance knows about.
Let’s make a little story. Suppose
@firstname.lastname@example.org follows her girlfriend on
@email@example.com. Bun opens
https://bunnies.club in her web browser, and posts a toot (like a tweet, but in masto). She says: “I love dandelions.” She wants everybody to know about this important fact, so she sets her post as public.
Since it’s an open post, all other users in
bunnies.club can see this in the local timeline. This timeline is like twitter, people in a single domain socialising.
Meanwhile Kat opens her browser and logs into
https://catgirl.social. Remembers, this is a different server, a different computer altogether.
Because Kat is following Bun, and only because of that, the computer running
catgirl.social is listening to
bunnies.club. They’re federating. So, in the background, the little demons inside the computers had already forwarded a copy of Bun’s post to
catgirl.social, and this copy shows on Kat’s home timeline (of all girls she follow).
Kat opens her browser and sees a toot by
@firstname.lastname@example.org saying “I love dandelions”. She obviously clicks “like”. The
catgirl.social demons forward this “like” to
bunnies.club, and Bun gets a notification that she’s liked.
Meanwhile another catgirl, Mewie, logs into
catgirl.social. She wants to discover new people to follow, so she clicks the federated timeline button. Since
catgirl.social is federating with
bunnies.club, all →public←
bunny.club posts will show up here, and Mewie learns that Bun likes dandelions. She clicks ‘follow’.
Meanwhile a doggirl, Dee, logs into
dogfolk.online. As it happens, no one in dogfolk is following anybody in
bunnies.club. So even if Dee clicks the federated timeline, Bun’s toot won’t show up. The instance doesn’t know about it.
But Dee is following Kat, and Kat has decided to boost Bun’s toot. So we go
@email@example.com →post to followers→ @firstname.lastname@example.org →boost to followers→ @email@example.com
Dee will then see Bun’s toot via Kit’s boost, and from that point on,
dogfolk.online knows about
bunnies.club. From that point on, and only from that point on, all public posts on
bunnies.club will show up on
dogfolk.online too (in the federated timeline). They’re now federating.
Is this confusing? I hope I could make it understandable, because think of the consequences IRL:
- If you join a themed instance, like, say,
kolektiva.social for leftists, your toots will show up (via ‘local timeline’) to a community of like-minded folk.
- And they won’t show up to anybody that
kolektiva admins are defederating (known nazi instances etc.).
- But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Your toots will also not show up on any instance that just doesn’t know about kolektiva.
- So if some tech Free Speech instance has no users following kolektiva users, they don’t see even your public toots, even if they’re not (yet) blocked.
- But your toot can reach other instances via boosts.
- Even if your toot is public, only people who see it can boost it. These are people from your instance, or from instances federating directly with it. So for kolektiva, they’re likely to have leftist values.
- And these people may spread your public toots to people that follow them, and so forth. If you share kolektiva’s values, then people who follow people who follow people in kollektiva are more likely to be people you want to talk to.
- Suppose leftist people are often into mate tea for some unknowable reason. You idly post a mate tea recipe in
kolektiva. The toot gets boosted and reboosted among the extended graph of instances who know about kolektiva, instances who know about those etc.
- So your toot ends up reaching people more likely to be interested in mate tea, and not reaching people who are either unlikely to be interested (e.g. non-English-speaking Japanese users), or hostile to you (e.g. Trumpian instances).
Note how this is all emergent behaviour. It’s not based on blocks, though blocks are important to weed off bad parts of the subgraph. But independently from that, each instance’s view of the fediverse is unique, and without you doing anything, naturally converges towards a community that makes sense to the instance’s members.
In practice this results in a feeling of social cohesion and intimacy that I haven’t felt online since early Livejournal days.
Isn’t that a bubble? How do you avoid an echo chamber?
You can follow people with contrasting values if you want, nothing’s stopping you and you don’t need admin permission to do that. But why would you want to write to people who don’t want to read what you write? It’s no more a bubble than your circle of friends.
I get a lot more interaction from a lot more of a diverse crowd here than I did on twitter, because a single shared space like twitter ends up creating a superstar vs. mere mortals dichotomy, and as a mere mortal not posting clickbait, I never had anybody read my stuff in the first place. Here there’s a small group of people who always interact with my stuff, and I know everybody by name, and I love them all.
How do I make everything easily discoverable by a large audience?
Using mastodon in practice
What should I look for in an instance to join?
There’s always a few instance search websites around; currently we have instances.social and fediverse.party. Try clicking an instance’s ‘about’ page to see its rules, and also the admin and ‘profile directory’ links on it to get a feel for the general mood.
Instances also diverge on rules regarding number of characters per toot, length of profile description etc. Instances running the glitch-soc fork of mastodon have more features, but may be less stable.
Remember what we’ve seen about how federation naturally curates one’s audience and content. This implies that:
- It’s generally more interesting to join topic-based instances like Kolektiva than big generic ones like
- But if the instance is too small, its federation graph may feel a bit lonely. The ideal instance for your first alt is largeish, but still with a feeling that it’s a community you might want to be part of.
- Multiple alts will give you multiple points of view into the federation; that’s a widespread practice and a good idea if you have diverging interests. Firefox can easily handle multiple alts in multiple tabs, and Tusky (the android app) makes it easy to switch accounts.
- Very small instances run the risk of disappearing overnight. You can migrate your account easily, but not if there’s no advance warning. To play it safe, look for instances which have been around for a while.
Don’t forget also to check the instance’s custom emoji set in https://emojos.in, since non-admin users can’t add emoji. Very important point.
How do I find people to follow?
Why is it asking me to put my login again and again?
What’s up with the CW field?
the post has a content warning but I have no idea what it is cos it’s some weird abbreviation
Why are people complaining to me about image descriptions??
Why am I not seeing all replies to somebody’s thread?
Wait—I don’t see all likes to other people’s posts?
Tell me about these custom emoji
How do I use other people’s emojis?
What’s up with all the blob emoji?
This interface is clunky, how can I become a power user?