Welcome to the Fediverse: an introduction to Mastodon

It’s been a rough time in (Social-) Media-land recently, more specifically on Twitter, which caused a #TwitterMigration exodus of people looking for an alternative to the increasingly toxic nature of the big tech players.
Most of them, me including, have landed on Mastodon. And Mastodon again is based of the ActivityPub protocol that can host a plethora of other types of social media, like Peertube (Youtube alternative) and PixelFed (Instagram alternative. The main thing they have in common thanks to the open source ActivityPub, is that it is a decentralised system: nobody owns it. So how does it work? Let’s talk Fediverse… 😊

The Fediverse: how it works

A lot has been said about Mastodon that it is complicated, because you have to choose a so-called ‘instance’. Well my friends, there’s nothing complicated about that. An instance is nothing other than the server you choose to park your data on. Look at it as being able to choose your own datacentre location for your Facebook profile data, for comparison sake. After you chose one (which one to choose I’ll get to in a minute), you proceed to Create an account on that server. They all look the same since they’re all running Mastodon, so the procedure is the same everywhere. You’ll end up with an account that has a handle consisting of both your @username and the @instance where you are to be found. This would look like: @moaske@vivaldi.net (as you can see in this example: the instance name doesn’t need to have Mastodon in its name).

These servers aren’t owned by big corporations as I said before (although they CAN be), but are usually run by small communities or individuals and heck; you can even setup an instance yourself if you have a server lying around 😉. And you could then use that instance solely for your own profile. The ActivityPub federation protocol makes sure that all instances talk to each other like a big web of communities all interlinked to each other. BUT it is in the hands of each admin of each instance which ones might be blocked (because of toxic communities for instance). These admins will also allow sign-ups to be closed or open depending on the capacity they have available.

As a user of Mastodon the only difference you’ll see (compared to Twitter) is the @instance addition to the handle, and you’ll of course be able to find other people on other instances and have their updates in your timeline (unless their instance is blocked)

And here comes the kicker: you can even move instances! Mastodon offers an export function and import function which let’s you take all your follows and followers with you to a new profile on another instance, and have it even redirect to your old instance for your older content (because the content is what you cannot take with you; your posting starts a new). There’s many how-to’s available when you ever need to go that way.

So, what server or instance to choose?

Well, I for one, reasoned like this: “I wouldn’t like to have an instance too small, which makes it more prone to downtime or disappearing at some point altogether… So maybe I’ll look at some smaller company. And since I’m from the Netherlands I’d like to have my data in the EU or at least somewhere where they’d have to comply with EU GDPR rules.”

So that’s how I landed on Vivaldi Social, which is the instance of the alternative browser boys from Iceland. For my dutch readers this would be an excellent option, but there is also an obviously very dutch instance to be found at Mastodon.nl who seem to have sign-ups still open as of writing of this blog. If you want pick a server yourself, start your search at: Servers – Mastodon (joinmastodon.org).
Each instance may or may not have a strong focus toward a certain specific subject, so you might also base your choice on that 😊.

Why the Fediverse?

Let’s start with explaining the term Fediverse: well, that’s what they call these social networks of interconnected and decentralised servers. It’s a federation of networks so to say, so accordion to its defenition: “form or be formed into a single centralized unit, within which each state or organization keeps some internal autonomy”. So Mastodon is one; like the US of A is, but consists of decentral instances (like the US states) that can enforce their own rules. The federation that these servers form is run and connected by the ActivtyPub protocol.

Because is it a protocol rather than a canned product by some big corp, it cannot be owned by some red-pilled billionaire with a midlife crisis 😉 who can suddenly decide to change the rules of the game, or in other words: ruin your community.
The Mastodon software is open source and free so there’s also no monetisation, which means: no algorithm and no adds! So your timeline will always be reverse chronological (newest on top) and only filled with things posted (or boosted) by people you actually follow. You’ll also find that on Mastodon you can’t “quote-tweet”: this is by design because that feature has proven to work out quit toxic on Twitter. So Mastodon doesn’t have these typical engagement amplifiers that most commercial social platforms have. In my opinion this is what the internet used to be like and should be like 😉.

So, how is it/does it work?

Well, it looks a lot like Twitter depending on the client you are using, because there’s a plethora of different web interfaces (PWA’s) to be found and the mobile apps stores are also filling up with more and more Mastodon apps (on Android: check Tooot!). You’ll have 500 characters per post (so it’s short, again like Twitter) and the message body can have links and hashtags. By the way: the only viable search option on Mastodon is via hashtags (aside from usernames) which is a bit of drawback.
Each post (called a ‘Toot’ on Mastodon) can have up to 4 images uploaded and it supports movie files as well. The images have to be uploaded with the attachment button (1) , after which you can edit each images’ ALT text (which is good practice!) and its visibilty (mark it as sensitive, so the viewer has to click it first to unblur it).
You can add a poll (2) if you like and with the globe (3) you can set the reach of your post: Public, Unlisted (won’t appear in discovery features), Followers only and Mentioned people only (which is effectively the DM feature). The content warning (4) formats your post into a collapsed one with a visible caption and ‘read more’ button. And (5) lets you set the language of your post.

And one more thing….: YOU CAN EDIT YOUR POSTS after they’re published! 😮🤪

On a PC you’ll have the webinterface in a browser which looks a lot like Twitter, but in the setting you can activate the so-called advanced web interface which gives you a Tweetdeck like experience with columns you can configure, like a column with a hastag you follow (which is a very cool feature of Mastodon: following hastags) and your notifications:

Where my people?

This is an important part: you’ll need to build your own timeline (remember; there’s no algorithm) so you’ll need to find people to follow (and follow you back), preferably people you already knew on other platforms. And searching for users is a bit hard on Mastodon, unless they’re on the same instance or you know their handle. But there’s also ways to explore Mastodon yourself to find interesting new people, because besides your own timeline you can also look on a Local timeline (all public posts on your instance) or the Federated timeline (all public posts from all instances in the world yours ‘talks’ to). And as mentioned before: searching hashtags and following these is also a very good way to meet likeminded people.

But there’s also tools to find people that -like you- have fled the same path: from Twitter to Mastodon. A very good one is Movetodon: Find your Twitter Friends on Mastodon. It asks you to login to Twitter and next into your Mastodon account, and it will try to find anyone you followed on Twitter who has some mention to their Mastodon handle on their profile. The results are presented in a list with a Follow button with each entry: BANG! 😁

Lastly there is this site bird.makeup – Home Page where you can create a bot for any Twitter account you want, which is useful for following accounts of general interest like your municipality so you won’t miss any relevant Tweets of them. You can’t really interact with these of course, unless you follow it back to Twitter. But you CAN boost (=retweet) such a post.

An important note on Direct Messages

These ARE NOT encrypted, so DO NOT use Direct Messages on Mastodon for anything sensitive like personal data. A Direct Message is in fact nothing more than a post with visibility set to yourself and the one(s) your mention. This all works a bit sketchy, hence the warning. Also be aware that any public post you make really means public; people won’t need a Mastodon account to see it: they can simply follow your public posts through RSS by simply putting .rss after your Mastodon webadres.

Good to go

Anyway, this must be enough to get you started if you want to enter the Fediverse. I can tell you: it is almost a liberating experience to be freed of adds, algorithms and toxic behaviour amplified by the platform itself. In a follow-up post I will get into that other nice ActivityPub driven platform: Pixelfed. I’ll also get into some more advanced settings in your profile and some more tips and tricks to the Fediverse.
See you on Mastodon? Marco Maas 🥷 (@Moaske@vivaldi.net) – Vivaldi Social

Oh, and here’s the link to my preferred Android app to consume Mastodon:

tooot - fediverse and Mastodon
tooot - fediverse and Mastodon
Developer: xmflsct
Price: Free