Mastodon Explainer - The Somewhat Overcomplicated Version

A woolly mammoth stealthily sneaks up on an unsuspecting tourist.

I always have a hard time explaining things. I don't tune the explanation correctly for the audience. I go into too much detail about stuff that doesn't matter. So I'm going to try and practice a better approach, and to do that, I'm going to try and explain Mastodon.

Explanation 1: The Good Parts

If you want a chronological timeline that is free from ads, doesn't use algorithms to hide your friends' posts from you, and isn't beholden to the whims of the billionaire techbro class, you want Mastodon.

Hmm, no, I can do better. That's a bit too wordy.

Explanation 2: Sales Pitch

Mastodon: Follow your friends. Fight the algorithms. Fuck the billionaires.

Erm, maybe that's too edgy and uninformative. Let me try again.

Explanation 3: The Dirty Truth

Mastodon is a Twitter clone. You create an account, you post shit, people see it, people interact with it, you follow the ones that seem interesting. They'll follow you if you seem interesting. Just like how Twitter used to be - before they ruined it.

Normally I'd throw in a pithy "It's just that simple!" right about now. But it's true that there are some complicated bits. Folks like me love to dwell on the complicated bits, explaining them in too much detail.

Folks like me also love to delve into metaphors and similes to try and create natural comparisons that are easy to understand. We try very hard - too hard - to try and convey the mental image we have in our head. But that's not actually important, that can come later. That's not the message that matters to a new user.

It's a web, it's a hub, it's a witch, it's a lover ... wait, no, I've gone off the rails.

Explanation 4: Choices

Mastodon gives you more choices than other apps.

When you sign up for most social networks, you're not given the choice of which organization provides that service. The company and the service are the same, and none of the services talk to each other. If you're on Twitter, you can't message someone on Threads. If you're on Instagram, you can't message someone on Flickr. That's because your choice has been made for you: join our service, it's the only service. Our rival company's services are the competition. Maybe even the enemy.

Mastodon is better than that.

Mastodon lets you choose who is providing the service.

You can join a Solarpunk Mastodon community. Your profile will live on that community's server. If you donate to the costs of running that server, perhaps you'll have a say in how things operate. Maybe you can volunteer to help with running it.

After you create your account, you can talk to a Honeybee Mastodon community member. Your profile will be on the Solarpunk community server, but you'll be chatting away with people whose profiles are on the Honeybee community server.

In the old world of startups, that wouldn't be possible. You would only be able to talk to the other Solarpunks, because the Honeybee users would belong to a different company.

Explanation 5: Safety

Now let's say someone from the Jerkwad community joins the conversation. Whoa! They're terrible! How are they even allowed on the Internet?! This new person is all up in the replies, being their terrible self. What can you do?

On other services, those ones that don't talk to each other, the responses can vary.

Sometimes you'll get a shrug and a poop emoji if you report the user, because the billionaire tech bro who bought the service thinks that stupid babies need the most attention.

Other times, the service will respond rapidly and with great prejudice - banning the jerkwad.

In a few rare cases, sometimes the jerkwad will manage to flip the whole thing the other way and the service will be tricked into banning the perfectly fine user that the jerkwad was harassing.

Mastodon gives you an additional tool for fighting back:

If that jerkwad isn't swiftly dealt with by their own community, it's a sign that their community is perfectly fine with jerkwads running the show.

So the Solarpunk and Honeybee communities can look at that server and go, you know what? Forget all y'all. We're disconnecting from you; none of your jerkwad users are allowed to talk to our users. G'bye!

And I think that's beautiful.

Getting Started

The hardest and most complicated thing about Mastodon is getting started.

And that's weird. And new. Because we've been so mollycoddled by billion-dollar companies that know how to hack hypergrowth and make things feel as smooth as possible.

Creating a blank account and landing on a timeline with zero activity is an uncomfortable experience.

Pretty much any social network with a marketing and growth team will want to avoid that feeling; that's why Twitter and other services recommend a bunch of celebrities and influencers to new folks who sign up. It allows the timeline to fill in like a warm hug (oops! a simile - sorry!). They make it as easy as possible to get people up and running, because for them, every set of eyes is literally money in the bank.

Mastodon will get similar functionality at some point. Maybe community hosts will be able to provide a starter kit of folks to follow. But hypergrowth isn't the goal. It's not the focus. And as a result, the uncomfortable onboarding experience doesn't get as much attention lavished on it as it does at companies with billions of dollars in funding and dozens of investors to satiate.

So where does that leave you, the new user with a blank timeline? How do you build a timeline?

Building a Timeline

Mastodon's biggest problem right now, even bigger than the onboarding experience, is Search. I know I said that getting started was the hardest and most complicated; Search isn't hard or complicated. No, its problem is that it is dumb.

You've got a blank timeline, you think, "you know what, I want to find some people who talk about knitting", so you go to the search page and type in "knitting" and get a grand total of... zero results.

WHAT? In a population of several million people, across several thousand communities, not one person is talking about KNITTING?

Well, that's confusing. So you try other keywords: purling, crochet, sewing, cross-stitch. Nada.

It makes no sense!

Search with Hashtags

And then someone suggests "use a hashtag". So you try "#knitting". Dozens of results! Hundreds! Now you're getting somewhere!

You can browse through the results and find people to follow. You follow a bunch of them. That's a good start!

Follow Hashtags

When you started the search, you might not have noticed the little "person with a plus" icon. It's not really clear what it means, but it's actually very powerful: it lets you follow the hashtag itself.

Instead of having to periodically go to the search page and search for "#knitting", you can follow it. And then, as if by magic, all of the knitting-related posts that your Mastodon community server can see will show up right on your timeline - as if you were following every knitting enthusiast in the known universe.

Introduce Yourself

So you've followed a bunch of people and hashtags - but over the next few days, none of them follow you back. Was it something you did?

Well, no. It's something that Mastodon failed to help you do.

In order to encourage people to follow you back, you have to let them know who you are and what you're about.

This usually involves writing a little bio about yourself, and then making an intro post to tell people about yourself and your interests. Make sure to include the "#introduction" hashtag - a lot of folks follow that hashtag and are happy to follow people.

The Local and Federated Timelines

This part of Mastodon is a bit hard to understand, and that word "Federated" is the main area where folks like me start to use all kinds of metaphors to make it "easier to understand".

Here's the gist about timelines:

  • Home Timeline: This is your timeline. It shows posts from all the people and hashtags you follow.
  • Local Timeline: This is your community's timeline. For the Solarpunks community, it shows posts from fellow Solarpunks.
  • Federated Timeline: This is a firehose of all the messages that your community server is seeing from all the other servers it connects to.

Each of these timelines can be used to find more people to follow, until your Home timeline is full of all the goodness you want to see.


Now you've settled in, you've built a timeline, and you've noticed something. Your local community isn't actually where you want to be. You thought you'd fit as a Solarpunk, but now you want to be part of a MenWhoKnit community.

In the old corporate-dominated world, this wouldn't be a thing. Your Solarpunk account would always be a Solarpunk account. If you wanted to join MenWhoKnit, you'd have to open an account with a different company and build a new timeline from scratch. And maybe the userbase of the MenWhoKnit company would be vanishingly small compared to the Solarpunk company. And maybe their social network software would not be as good as what the Solarpunk company had built.

Mastodon is better than that.

Instead of having to rebuild from scratch, you can transfer your account between Mastodon communities. Your old posts don't move over (at least not yet), but the important part - your carefully-crafted timeline - does move over. You don't have to spend any time rebuilding it from scratch. All of your follows/followers, even the Solarpunks, will automatically re-follow you at your new community.

You can still talk with all the people from before. They can still see your updates. And now you have a new address that is more befitting of your interests.

ActivityPub and the Fediverse

Mostly, ActivityPub and Fediverse don't matter to new users. I won't go into a ton of detail.

They allow Mastodon communities to talk with other Mastodon communities. They also allow it to talk with other kinds of communities.

Mastodon is a Twitter clone, but it can talk to Pixelfed, which is a photo sharing service similar to Instagram. There are all kinds of Pixelfed communities springing up, with the same cross-communication ability as Mastodon communities.

Both of them can talk to Kbin and Lemmy, which are new link-sharing services similar to Reddit.

And there are dozens of other projects that can talk to all of those services. Too many to list, really.

So your Mastodon timeline can contain not only other Mastodon users in other communities, but it can also contain Pixelfed photographers on Pixelfed communities.

The options are endless.

And as for those companies that are motivated to consider other social network companies the "enemy"? Well, there's not really anything stopping them from joining up with ActivityPub and the Fediverse. They have options, too.

I'm sure there are a lot of questions and budgeting/planning allocations that would need to be resolved, as with any business operation, but some of them are already considering it. Tumblr, WordPress, and Flickr are a few that have come up in that conversation.

Is Mastodon Perfect?

HAHAH. NO. The technology has limitations (see: onboarding, search). But more than that, there is the coalition of community servers that all talk to each other. Those are run by humans. And humans can be fighty over the most arbitrary things. Even, sometimes, the most serious things.

There will be growing pains. Communities will most likely get into disagreements that grow into rather large and dramatic fights. All of this has happened before, in IRC, and on Usenet, and inside web forums, and pretty much any place that humans use to talk to each other.

And that's okay.

That's how we learn to set healthy boundaries and learn to coexist.

That's how we grow.

That's how we all become better.

Author's note: I went into too much detail again, didn't I?

Editor's Note: You don't say.

Published: August 30, 2023

Categories: opinion

Tags: opinion, mastodon, Facebook, twitter, socialmedia, fediverse, activitypub