a user-friendly introduction to Mastodon

rowan lupton
4 min readJan 8, 2018

The situation: you’ve seen people talking about Mastodon. Maybe you’re intrigued, maybe you’re not. Either way, when they’ve tried to explain it to you, you’ve been confused, turned off, or maybe even a little angry that they won’t shut up about it.

I’m going to try and undo some of that damage. This post is intended to start out with a non-technical general explanation and go from there to explain Mastodon in more and more detail. Don’t feel obligated to read farther than you’re interested to learn.
That being said, I’ve tried to keep from getting too far into the technical side (that’ll come in a different post), so I think that it should be readable to anybody who’s interested.

basics of Mastodon

Mastodon is a microblogging service, similar in some ways to Twitter, but with some key differences:

  1. it has a 500-character limit
  2. it’s not controlled by a for-profit company
  3. anybody can run their own version of it, and still talk to everyone else

Point 3 gets at the bit that people tend to find confusing. Some simple comparisons that we can draw are email and telephones: your email might be from Apple, your employer, Protonmail or somebody else, and your telephone might be managed by O2, T-Mobile, or somebody else.
Behind the scenes, those services all federate with¹ each other. Email does by looking up the email domain² and then having that email service route³ from there to the addressee⁴. I don’t know how telephones do it.

Mastodon also federates. Imagine if I could run a Twitter account on my own domain⁵, example.com — I would then be known as @rowan@example.com, and you could follow me from your account on twitter.com.

So now, we’re starting to envision a democratic system. Everybody has a choice about where to put their social presence, and can still follow their friends no matter where they are — same as you can visit any website from any internet service provider, web browser, location.⁶

Mastodon takes this utopian internet vision and puts it into practice. From my account on toot.cafe I can follow my friend @ebeth on witches.town, or @shel on cybre.space, or anybody else using Mastodon.


This leads into the next thing that makes Mastodon special: because anybody can create an instance⁷, and any user on that instance can follow anyone using Mastodon, you can have interest-specific Mastodon websites. To give a taste:

Details of communities on Mastodon — and what they mean to me — are outside the scope of this post. If you’re interested in learning about instances, why they build communities, and the ones that I’m on, check out my blog post why I join Mastodon.

step back: it’s the fediverse

Except, wait! Mastodon doesn’t only talk to Mastodon. The federated social web⁸ has existed for years, with geeky things like diaspora* and identi.ca — not standard household names, by any means.
Mastodon is special in that it helped bring the fediverse⁹ out of the shadows, and fostered a community that is excited about openness¹⁰ and sharing the fediverse with everyone, not just an artificially elevated “tech elite”.

Since Mastodon started, there has been an explosion of excitement about the fediverse. @puckipedia is writing Kroeg, a group of people headed by @BanjoFox are working on Aardwolf (modeled off of a federated facebook), and even I am working on pylodon and its companion smilodon, and there are many more federated projects.
Each of these will be able to federate with each other, contributing to a vision of a future where you can not only follow somebody on (heavy implicit metaphors ahead) Twitter from Twitter, but also from Facebook.

The fediverse imagines a future where there are no walls between social networks, blogs, and whatever springs up — you choose the one(s) that work(s) best for you, and just follow your friends. No thought required.

  1. talk to
  2. e.g. protonmail.com, the bit after the @ symbol
  3. send to the right place
  4. the bit before the @ symbol
  5. internet address, or url
  6. unless your government blocks them
  7. a website that is Mastodon
  8. Mastodon is a part of this federation, as is any social website that federates with other social websites
  9. federated social web
  10. see recent hashtag #GetOnMyLawn



rowan lupton

she/her • trans, web developer, occasional writer, and so much more. i talk about tech more than i intend to.