A complete Sloth’s Guide to Mastodon, Part I: get your feet wet

In which, I describe this new social networking tool and how you can get started

This is Mastodon as seen in Mastodon Cloud

I started using Mastodon yesterday, a new social networking “system” (actually there’s more to it than that) and I mighty like it. You will find me here:

arinbasu@mastodon.cloud, and

here is my profile page:

Mastodon is referred to as an alternative to twitter. This is partly true; actually, as a tool, it is incredibly powerful and its potentialities are endless; we are just seeing the emergence of a completely game changing social networking tool, so the best comparison is perhaps Twitter; as you play with it, you will see that it can be more powerful than any of the existing closed source social network applications (I am looking at you, Facebook and Twitter and Google Plus) we have at the moment in terms of security, ease of use, information consumption, finding people to follow, and customisation. It may look like Twitter and feel like a microblogging tool, but if you dig a little deeper, you will see the possibilities are endless.

This is going to be BIG.

Mastodon is a free open source social networking tool; that means, you can download the source code and host it to suit yourself. The entire tool is very well documented; this is a brief rapid introduction to what you can do with it to get started. The definitive guide is here:

The above shot is when you, as a non-user with no account, first access “any mastodon instance”. Then after you create an account and log in again, you get to see something like as follows:

Figure 1. When you log on to your Mastodon instance

This looks like Tweetdeck but it is actually not tweetdeck. This is the interface of a Mastodon instance on the web (there are mobile versions). From left to right, you get to see:

  1. A posting panel
  2. The posting panel also has a search box (kind of an omnibus search box where you can type hashtags, topics, and names of people to search)
  3. A Home panel where you can see a timeline of posts
  4. A Notifications panel where you can see who has followed you, and who has responded or interacted with you
  5. A Fourth Panel where you can do some more things.

When expanded, the panels looks like this:

Figure 2. A More Expanded view

This leads to a few more options. You can control the contents of the fourth window from the left with clicks on the top horizontal bar on the first column. This bar contains the following five icons, and see how they change.

The top two rows in the first panel and the information shown in the last panel

Here are six things you can do on the first panel:

  1. if you click on the “star” like icon, it will open up Figure 1 (or a similar figure) for you. For some reason, they call it “Getting Started”
  2. Click on the icon that looks like people, you will open up a “local timeline” (more on it later in the article)
  3. Click on the icon that looks like a “globe”, and you will open up a “Federated Timeline” (a killer feature you have not seen anything like it in Twitter or Facebook, :-) )
  4. The Fourth icon, the cogwheel is exactly as it says, you can tweak your settings in Mastodon
  5. The fifth icon is the exit button, so you can log out of this instance.
  6. Then there is an omnibus search window where you can type people’s names, topics, hashtags (if you think of some, say something like #howto as a hashtag I came up with), and Mastodon will show it up on the right hand panel

How do I start using it?

Step I: Find a Mastodon instance and sign up (signing up and using is free). You can find a large list of Mastodon instances here; rank order the list on the order of how many active users are there and how many status updates are posted. At the time of writing this, mastodon.cloud is the largest of them (mastodon.social is not accepting new members), and there are others, so pick anyone. You can pick any Mastodon instance that will let you create an account, and it does not matter which instance you are on, that is the beauty of “federated” nature of this network. Mindblowing, really.

Step II: Log in, fill in your profile, and start posting, following, sharing, and exploring.

Can’t get easier than this: but this is just the beginning!

How to post in Mastodon and some terminology

We get 500 characters to post. The posting window is plain white, plain text, it does not allow any character formatting but if you type a full address of a webpage, it will create a hyperlink. You cannot embed youtube videos or music file links but you can insert hyperlinks and images. You can add images to your text and as you type you can see how many characters remain. But there are some interesting bits going on here:

The posting window
  1. You “Toot”, that is when you “post” your message they call it “Toot”.
  2. You can use a range of emoticons and emojis when you write your posts. Just click on the emoticon looking thing on the top right hand corner of the posting window and it will bring up a drop down panel of a list of emoticons. Pick the ones that matches the mood of what you are writing.
  3. The camera icon is of course for posting images.
  4. Then there is the “cw” thing. This means “Content Warning”. You can flag that your content is not safe for work (NSFW); I have seen most people use this to write something like “More” to flag that it is a long post (to be kind to people with lots of friends and long flowing timeline)
  5. The “globe” icon is quite interesting. Here, you have four options that are quite fine grained:
  • If you set the posts as public, everyone will be able to view them
  • If you set the post as unlisted, you will get a URL but no one will be able to view them on their timelines
  • If you have followers and you want to send posts to them only, use “Private”, and
  • If you directly want to message someone, write a post and set it to “Direct”

That’s about posting. You can post anything I suppose as long as they comply with your “Instance’s” policy. This is a grey area I do not know much about what will happen if you violate the recommendations about being civil and not post unsafe posts, etc.

About reading posts and interacting with others

Mastodon is also great for reading posts, sharing others’ posts and interacting with other users. The most remarkable thing about Mastodon is lack of spammers and trolls. Part of this can be explained by the policies each individual instances but overall, it is really a great social networking system with extreme levels of tweaking to your liking and you can decide what you read, who can see your posts and what you want to do with the system. Let’s dive into some of them:

Reading and responding to messages and status updates

As you can see, most of the symbols are intuitive. They have different names unique to Mastodon network. For instance, you can respond to an individual by using an @ symbol. This is where local versus federated nature of this network becomes such a powerful and useful thing. You can mute a person, you can block a person, you can even report a person on the basis of one post. So, you can see the security and privacy and your control of the system is quite fine grained.

Boost. — When you “retoot”, you call it “boost”. So, you click on the cycle icon to send the “toot” to your followers. You cannot add any message while you boost, it just gets circulated widely. In this sense, it is like Medium’s heart symbol.

Star for Favourite. — You can click on the star to make a post favourite. The “favourited” post will be stored on your account and you can view them in a chronological order.

Clicking on the Status brings up the entire thread. — In Mastodon, you can build a threaded discussion. Anytime you want to see the entire thread all you have to do is to click on the body of the text of any of the posts, either related post or the main post and Mastodon will open the entire thread for you. Or you can click on the ellipsis (`…`) on any status and it will bring up the entire thread.

How do you find friends here?

For many of us, social media use is often a chicken and egg problem because we’d be engaged only if our friends are there too. Once you have dipped into Mastodon, you will find plenty of topics and friends to follow.

  1. Start typing some search terms in the search box on the top of your home page where you have the status box. You will see the panels populate with statues in your instance populate with those hashtags. But there is more to it. Those status posts flow into your inbox not just from people whom you have followed, but also from people who are followed by people in your instance. This is interesting because Mastodon is so widely distributed that anyone can start his or her own instance and invite friends. Once that instance is publicised, anyone can join that instance and can start posting there. The network then grows very fast.
  2. There is “follow” and then there is “Remote Follow”. — In my next part, I will dive a little deeper into this, but here, but it is a good place to just about talk about local and federated feeds. 
    So, let’s say you just got hang of it and found a Mastodon instance. Let’s say you created an account in mastodon.cloud site. Your account in Mastodon.cloud site will be referred to as a local account and you will continue to receive all statuses posted by all members at that local site (in this case Mastodon.cloud). Now, let’s say, a user John Doe shares a post by Leo, and you want to follow Leo. John Doe is in your local network, so when you want to follow John Doe on Mastodon.cloud instance, you will need to type @johndoe

and this will be fine. But Leo is in a different network, say Leo’s instance is mastodon.foo. When you click Leo’s name to follow him, you will see that in order to follow Leo Laporte, you will need to click “Remote Follow”. Say in this case, Leo’s “address” is

@leo@mastodon.foo

This difference is important. Your friend, John Doe, on your instance has the address

@johndoe@mastodon.cloud
but you refer to him as 
@johndoe

This is why you can find anyone in any network spread all over the world and as long as you can specify the network name and the user name, you can get connected. This has some downsides as well, for instance, you cannot “reserve” your name because your name can be taken up by another person in another network and that is allowed here. This is the basis of the “federated” server. Mastodon is a federation, where every local instance can coexist with every other local instances, and together make up a giant network of instances. You, the user, will have access to all of them as long as they are compatible with each other. That way, you get to read posts from your local instance, but also from all other instances from people whom you follow in those other instances. It is a bit like email or IRC where it does not matter who is in what network, you can easily “talk” to them. I find this feature extremely powerful. For more, read the introduction to Mastodon by Eugen Rochko, the creator of Mastodon:

He writes,

One of Mastodon’s fundamental differences to Twitter is federation. To bring that word into context, the United States of America are a federation. In a more technical context: E-mail is federation. It means that users are spread throughout different, independent communities, yet remain unified in their ability to interact with each other. You can send an e-mail from GMail to Outlook, from Outlook to someone’s private e-mail inbox. Mastodon’s federation is similiar: users from different sites (let’s call them “instances”) establish connections between these sites by following each other and sending each other messages like on any other social network.

Bring in your Twitter friends and follow them. — Click on the link below to find your friends in Twitter network who are also using Mastodon and then follow them:

Next Steps …

I hope this gets you up and running with this amazing social networking app that is growing rapidly. Once you sign up, post a few toots, and find a few friends or better yet, got some friends over, it will be fun to be on this network. There are already several news and social media commentators in Mastodon network and several of them keep posting excellent materials. In my next post in the series, I intend to dive a little deeper so that you will know how to create your own instances and how to connect Twitter to Mastodon.