Probably you’re hearing about a less toxic social media environment you’d like to or are being encouraged by friends to try, but the idea of restarting in a whole new thing exhausts you. Don’t worry. You can save your spoons and take this in very, very small steps.
The first step is to know that it is your choice and you can do it if and when you want.
If someone you follow is moving to Mastodon, ask them for the URL to see their toots (the mascots are elephants not birds, so toots not tweets). It’ll look something like this: https://mastodon.social/@metagrrrl
Knowing that you won’t lose touch with friends who switch to Mastodon can really help a lot with taking this at the pace which is most comfortable for you.
Another step you can take is to watch this couple minute overview, so you’ll know what they’re talking about:
Mastodon runs on many independent servers, called ‘instances’. I find it helpful whenever they say “an instance”, to hear “a community”.
Because each community (instance) sets its own rules, it is possible to find one which matches your values and, most importantly, values you as a member.
Everyone should base their Mastodon account in a community (instance) which will protect its users in the ways which matter most to them.
Finding the right community (instance) seems like a huge task, but it’s not that bad. It’s kind of like choosing your email host; yeah, it’s bit of a pain in the butt to change later, but it’s not the end of the world if you decide to do so. [And as of the latest version coming out in late September 2019, you can bring your followers list with you when you migrate from one community to another, so this has gotten a lot easier.]
A great way to start thinking about where you might want to have a Mastodon account is to look at the rules for the communities (instances) where your friends have theirs.
Remember: just like email hosts, you and your friend don’t have to be with the same one to communicate with each other.
Finding the rules for a Mastodon community (instance) is easy because they have a common URL style: just add /about/more to the end of the base URL.
You can see some other communities’ rules at
Some place more restrictions on acceptable behavior, some fewer.
Next you might want to explore why this effort could have a payoff for you. Along with the opportunity to be in a less toxic community than Twitter, as far as the rules are concerned, there are some differences in the way things work which help to reduce or eliminate harassment and other negative experiences.
Perhaps the most subtle and important difference is between Twitter’s retweets and Mastodon’s boosts. Boosts don’t include text from the person doing the boosting. There’s no ‘boost with comment’, thus no performative aspect, avoiding “Heed, my followers, how I dunk on this fool!”
That doesn’t prevent someone sharing screenshots or linking, but because Mastodon’s reply functionality only broadcasts to people who happen to follow you both, one person’s massive follower count won’t unbalance the conversation.
I described this difference as subtle and important because when the design doesn’t enable and encourage pile-ons, people behave differently. Some of what makes Twitter so often unpleasant seems to be the default behavior of the tool, not necessarily that of the user.
That’s the subtle stuff, though, and there are big, obvious differences which are under your control in Mastodon, and which allow you to change your experience for the better.
You can adjust how public any individual message is.
A toot can be
• Fully public, appearing to your followers, the public timelines, anyone looking at your profile;
• Unlisted, appearing to your followers and on your profile, but not in the public timelines;
• Private, appearing only to your followers and people mentioned in it;
• direct, appearing only to people mentioned in it.
Also you can “lock” your account overall, requiring your approval for a new follower to be added.
Beyond that, on Mastodon you have much more ability (though less need) to hide things. Since it’s not commercial, you won’t see ads in your timeline. And your timeline is just messages as they come out from the people you follow and only that — no algorithm messing with what you see.
On Mastodon, if strangers are bothering you, you can block notifications from people you don’t follow. You can also block or mute individuals. You can even hide everything from a specific community (instance), so you don’t see them and any of your followers from there are removed.
Text filters are coming, but are perhaps less necessary than on Twitter because most Mastodon communities have a culture of using Content Warnings. And the content warnings actually mean something here, because of the way they are built into how messages are written and read on Mastodon.
As you write a toot, you just click the ‘CW’ at the bottom (next to where you’d add an image or set how public the toot is) and a separate field appears for you to write your warning. When the toot appears in anyone’s timeline, only your warning appears with a “SHOW MORE”/”SHOW LESS” toggle to reveal the rest of your toot.
What is purely delightful is that another part of Mastodon culture is the use of CW for all sorts of things, including jokes with the punchline hidden. :)
That’s not even all the hiding controls. You can learn more on this incredibly helpful page: https://blog.joinmastodon.org/2018/07/cage-the-mastodon/
You can try Mastodon without making any commitment to switching over to it. In fact, that’s what I recommend. Find a community with a set of rules that feel good enough for you to hang out at their gathering for a while. Go to the about page of their community (like https://mastodon.social/about or https://mastodon.cloud/about) & look for a signup form & its big blue button. Create your account and personalize your profile just a little, probably making it match your Twitter account so it’s easy for friends to recognize you.
Then ‘toot’ something like, “Hi, it’s me. You may also know me over on the bird site as [your Twitter name].”
On Twitter, you can tweet something like “I’m playing with Mastodon a little. You can find me at [your new Mastodon page]” or DM that to friends. If you’re making a public announcement, you might want to put your Mastodon page in the bottom of your Twitter bio.
It is absolutely fine to just let that ride for a little bit. People join Mastodon all the time and if you don’t have connections over there at first, you will likely find them joining you over time. So that they know you are hoping to meet with them in Mastodon, you may want to toot a little something every now and then.
You’ll automatically be set up to follow the administrators of your community and some of them are quite fun. (Eugen of mastodon.social, for example, is an avid booster of cat pictures. Though my personal account at first was in a different community, I followed Eugen for the cheerful kitties. I have since migrated to mastodon.social since I appreciate the way he manages the place.)
To find others to connect to, try searching for the names or usual usernames of people you know from other social media sites, or for hashtags of things you like. You can even save a hashtag as another timeline column in your view of Mastodon. (I had #mastoart there on my personal account view, for example, so I always had cool art to look at. I’ve since switched to #dnd5e for Dungeons & Dragons messages, #sewing to keep me motivated by seeing what folks are making, and #birbposting for duck butts, videos of pleasant ponds, and other bird related content. And of course I have #discardia pinned as a column I always see.)
There’s a lot more you can explore—and I’ll link to some things below—but the steps I’ve described are plenty to dip your toe in the water and find out what this whole Mastodon thing is about.
Personally, though it took me a little while to find the spoons to get it set up, I find it so much nicer an experience that I have more spoons using it than I do using Twitter.
You can learn a bunch more about Mastodon here: https://joinmastodon.org/
If you have “enable advanced web interface” checked in the Appearance preferences (which was the default view when I wrote this piece originally), the Mastodon interface is laid out in columns, with compose/search on the left and details (selected toot, user profile, search results, etc.) on the right. Between them are other columns with timelines, the leftmost one being the toots of all those you follow. You can add columns for hashtags you’re interested in by searching for that hashtag and then, when it’s the result on the right, using the controls icon (shaped like sound board sliders) to “+ pin” it. You can choose to have the local timeline (everyone from your community’s toots) and/or the federated timeline (local plus everyone they follow from other communities’ toots) visible, but frankly I find them way too busy to look at. If you’ve ever used Tweetdeck, Mastodon is going to feel pretty familiar. (There are other interfaces for Mastodon, but I haven’t explored any yet.)
One important thing to know about your privacy and Mastodon is that everything you post, even direct messages, are theoretically visible to the system administrators of that Mastodon community (instance) and any other community (instance) to which your toots or direct messages travel. This is not very different from email; odds are extremely slim that anyone would ever access it, but it is technically possible. Fortunately, because all the users of Mastodon are spread across many communities and thus for any community the ratio of users to administrators is much smaller, you can get to know your admins instead of them being some faceless employees of a distant, giant corporation.
If you are someone who’s been a victim of harassment, you may want to limit how public your posts are and “lock” your account so that you can be aware of the rules of the communities where your followers are before you approve them, allowing your posts to appear in the federated timeline for their community (which is made up all the toots from those in that community plus the toots from those they follow, thus potentially you).
In general, people use content warnings (CW) in the traditional sense for “US politics”, “violence”, “injury”, “hate speech”, “self-harm” (including suicide because even the word suicide is a drag, so lumping it under “self-harm” is helpful), as well as for “alcohol” and “food”. They also will use the CW feature to be kind to others by hiding very long toots—Mastodon allows messages up to 500 characters—under a short description, and, of course, to hide spoilers relating to shows or sports. (I’ve been especially grateful for that cultural norm as it means I don’t have to wade through pontificating about shows I don’t watch!)
My favorite description of the subtle design decisions on Mastodon is this from https://fosstodon.org/@codesections, “Mastodon makes it as easy as possible to talk *to* other Mastodon users, while making it harder to talk *about* other Mastodon users.”
Oh, and yes, Virginia, there are friendly, funny, and pretty bots still on Mastodon. Not as many as there were on Twitter, but with the recent API changes over there, I expect increasing migration. My favorite, which I heartily encourage you to follow to make your timeline visually nice every day with lovely old illustrations of fruit, is https://botsin.space/@pomological. [Since then I’ve added https://cybre.space/@netkitty, https://mastodon.xyz/@factourism, and https://mastodon.social/@MicroSFF to those I follow. I also recommend https://pdx.social/@kottkefeed to stay in touch with the best-of-the-web content Kottke.org has been putting out for 21 years now.)