So you want to join Mastodon…

I joined the social media site Mastodon three years ago this month, having heard about it as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter, which I’d been growing leery of by that point.

You can just look here for a breakdown of what Mastodon is, but in brief:

  • It’s a decentralized social media where you join on an “instance”, which is their term for a server that someone has set up. There’s no one person or company running Mastodon, but rather myriad instances running it that are inter-connected (see below)
  • Anyone with the interest and know-how can set up their own instance. Each one that’s open to others joining it will have its own set of rules and regulations for what is and isn’t acceptable to write or post (but they’re generally along the lines of Play Well With Others)
  • Instances can be public or private, and they may offer a particular twist or flavour that you’d like to be associated with, like various ones for writers, artists, regions, kinks, pass-times, general interests… the list goes on. But — and this is key — all instances that wish to be, are connected to every other instance that wishes to be. Meaning, whatever public instance you join on, you’ll be able to see posts from people on every other public instance (and can follow them if you want to). The union of all these instances is what makes Mastodon a “federated”, individual but united, i.e. de-centralized, social media
  • Instances are magnitudes smaller than all users being on one single service, which also makes it far easier for people running them to deal with complaints about problems users are having, either technical or with other users being abusive, etc.
  • There’s zero advertising. This is integral and is one of the primary aspects that sets Mastodon apart from commercial social media: Anyone running an instance does so at their own expense (although some do have Patreon donation pages set up in case users would like to toss them any money to help keep the lights on). So unlike Facebook and Twitter and basically every popular social media thus far, there’s no algorithm tracking what you see when and what you react to and therefore what other content you should see more of in order to give you more of what you react to. There’s no multi-billion dollar payday to tempt anyone anywhere to sell your granular use data to advertisers. All you see on Mastodon is an untainted chronological timeline of posts from people you follow (typically on your Home timeline), people on your instance (Local timeline), or everyone on the planet who’s posting (Federated timeline).

A couple of years back I took a hiatus from all social media, which was something of an eye-opener in a few ways I write about in that blog post.

It all boiled down to my being totally done with commercial social media. Places designed to determine what you were seeing when in order to keep you (more negatively than positively) engaged, in order to collect more data on you, in order to sell that data to prospective ad sales companies wanting to get the best targeted ads for their buck. Places that led to unannounced social engineering whose effective outcome was arguably nudging a U.S. election in a way that will be felt for decades.

I quit all things Facebook and Twitter and finally started digging deeper into Mastodon, in order to scratch the itch to still engage with people online. (It occurs to me now that this may in part be due to my coming of age in the era of the BBS, in the early days of connecting online to communicate with people from anywhere else in the world.)

Mastodon proved to be a bit daunting at first. It’s kind of like Twitter and kind of like Facebook but it was a different thing. There were no big names to find and follow — Wil Wheaton had been there prior to my showing up in earnest, but had been chased away over accusations of his being anti-gay and his maintaining such wasn’t the case but leaving regardless. (I wasn’t privy to how all that happened or what prompted it, though I can say with certainty that I haven’t heard such claims about him prior to that happening on Mastodon or since) — so without knowing anyone there to connect with or even just follow, I was kind of adrift at first.

Then something interesting started to happen.

I was just looking around and seeing what people were posting on my local feed, i.e. people who were on my instance, and started to see a couple of posts that caught my interest. They were funny, or had an interesting take on something in a way I hadn’t thought of. So I followed those people.

Then I found they sometimes re-posted (“boosted”) something that other people had written (posts on Mastodon are amusingly called “toots” instead of Twitter’s “tweets”), and sometimes those would catch my interest. So then I’d click on the original person who posted/tooted it, and checked out their timeline to see what else they’d posted that I liked. If they had posted a few funny/interesting/engaging things and it seemed like something I’d like to see more of, I’d follow them.

And so my Home timeline of everyone I was following (from, again, instances all over the world but connected to each other) started to slowly but surely grow. That can become something of an exponential effect if you keep up with it: I follow one person who also boosts posts from another person who proves interesting, so I follow that second person. Both are posting interesting stuff and also boosting posts of yet other people, who may also be interesting enough to follow, etc. And of course I, in turn, boost amusing or interesting things that I like, which may be seen by others who are following me.

A quick aside: Speaking of things I like, another interesting thing that Mastodon does to set itself apart from other social media is it doesn’t show you how many Likes a person’s post has received. Click Like if you want to or don’t if you don’t, but the thinking seems to be that seeing more Likes on something may incline you to click Like as well, whereas Mastodon wants to try to remain impartial and not influence how its users behave. Crazy, right?

So back to my growing list of people I follow: Unlike Twitter, where so much is about big celebrity names pulling in tens of millions of followers, and unlike Facebook, where you’re generally only connected to family and friends and groups of interest, Mastodon seems to be a place where who you follow happens much more organically, from people you already know or find interesting or funny or you’ve just made a connection with and started talking to.

In these very unsettled days where more people seem to be waking up to how bad Facebook is for your mental well-being, and with Elon Musk purchasing Twitter and changing his mind daily on how he can possibly make money from it — fun fact: Twitter has only ever lost money and is used by so many in part because it’s free to do so, so in trying to recomp the $44 billion he paid for it, I bid him an amused Bon chance — there seems to be an unprecedented influx of people who are giving Mastodon a chance.

Even some known names are making the trek: In the last couple of days I’ve discovered that Chuck Wendig (author and poster of amusing/insightful things) is now getting more active there, and that Neil Gaiman (my favourite writer — sorry, Chuck) has just joined. Perhaps this growing anti-commercial media sentiment by big draws with established fan bases is a tipping point of sorts.

This has all caused some behind-the-curtain issues trying to keep up with newfound demand on service. Such are technological growing pains (as those of us who remember the blue whale of technical glitches on Twitter can testify). But at Mastodon there isn’t a department to fall back on to help out with the work. Again, people running instances are solo and are doing this out of love and get paid relatively little (for some, likely nothing) for their sometimes demanding work keeping the instance going.

Hopefully more people who join will do as I am and throw their instance operator even a bit of money every month through Patreon to help make it all worth their time.

To any and all who are even considering Mastodon, I encourage you to check it out.

It’s what social media can and should be like.

I’m at and I’d love to see you there.