The Basics of Mastodon for a Newcomer

So, you may have heard of people going to Mastodon and you’re a bit confused about what this is all about. Especially since most of the people excited about Mastodon are tech people and start throwing words around like “decentralized” and “Fediverse” and you are already completely lost. I aim to keep it as basic as possible so that you can follow along. With that said, let’s get started!

So, you go to Mastodon’s website and see this gigantic “Social networking that’s not for sale”. What do they mean by that? Well, unlike Twitter, Facebook/Meta, and a lot of other places, Mastodon does not rely on ads for revenue, in fact, there are no ads on Mastodon unless you willfully follow a company or person that does advertisements. Good to know you won’t need an adblocker for this. After this realization, you see 2 buttons: Get the app and create account. You click on create account and you don’t see the traditional email and password to sign up for an account. You are frustrated. Why can’t it be just a 1 click button to sign up?

Now this is one of the very few times I am going to have to talk just a little bit about the tech and how Mastodon is set up. Unlike many of the apps you are used to, Mastodon is not just one big place, but a series of little places called servers that are connected in various ways. This means that where you join is actually important, especially if you are Black or marginalized. Given that you’re frustrated from earlier, you don’t really want to take the time to wade through the listed options. You choose mastodon world and go from there.

You scroll through the 16 rules and see that shitposting is banned. That’s a little frustrating since you are a frequent shitposter, but you make an account nonetheless. The place you joined has over 100,000 individuals. However, you see no one in your home account. That makes you very frustrated. You joined to see people post! Why is it empty?

This is one major way Mastodon is different than almost any other social media you have used before. Your home consists strictly of people that you follow. Since you just made your account, you are following no one. How do you find people to follow?

There are 6 ways to do so. First, is by connecting with those from previous social medias to your new Mastodon account. Make sure you ask for both the name and server so that you can add them. It’ll look something like @Name@Server.Name. You enter this in the search information and then you click on the Plus button with a person on to the right hand side of the screen. The second way is by going to your local timelime. Now what is the local timeline? It’s basically where all the posts with the visibility of public (show it everywhere) from your server are. Since Mastodon World is pretty big, there are several posts a minute here and it makes it difficult to assess who would be someone you are interested in. You can find your local timeline by clicking right below Explore. Below that, you see Federated timeline and this is the 3rd way of finding new people. Not only does this timeline include all of the public posts from your server, but all of the public places from all the servers mastodon world is connected to.

Since Mastodon World is connected to a lot of places, navigating this timeline is nothing short of a nightmare. Additionally, you start seeing some posts that make you question if this was the right place to join. This is one major reason why it matters where you join. At the time of this writing, it took under 30 seconds of scrolling on the Federated timeline for Mastodon World to find people discussing accelerationism, feet pics, and a bunch of other random stuff. Remember that not only can you see their public posts, they can see your public posts in their federated timeline too! Some of these people you definitely do not want to interact with. Moving on, there are 3 other ways to find people. The fourth is by searching a hashtag.

This is yet again another point in which I will briefly talk about the tech of Mastodon. Mastodon does not have full text search on purpose, meaning that if you look up sports, you won’t get posts about sports. It will either be a result of nothing or hashtag about specifically sports. Also, due to how Mastodon is set up, it will not show things related to sports when you search sports. That is because Mastodon will only look for the word in the hashtag and nothing else. So, you have to look up #Sports to find who tagged their post like that. You’re a huge Baseball fan, so you look up #Baseball along with some of your favorite teams and find people to follow.

But what if you want Baseball people to be able to find you easily? Well, you can make a #introduction, introducing yourself with a public post and describing some of your interests, thus making it easier for people to find you. This is the 5th way and not only makes it easier for you to find people, it makes it easier for people to find you. The last way is by using the #Explore above the Local timeline, but I would not recommend using this as many servers have this disabled.

After all that hard work of finding baseball people that make shitposts, you finally have your home populated with voices you mostly want to see. Now, you want to start making posts. How do you do that? Go to the left hand side of your screen below search and you will see a box. Under that box, you’ll see some additional buttons. The first button lets you add a video, audio file, or a picture. The seconds lets you add a poll. The 3rd button is one of the most important. This lets you specify how far you want your post to reach. There are 4 levels. The first is Public- as far as possible also known as maximum visibility. The 2nd is unlisted- taking that down a notch. Using unlisted means that your post will not show in the local or federated timeline, but anyone who clicks on your profile or finds it another way can see it. The 3rd is followers only- This only shows it to your followers. The last is mentioned users only and it will only show it to mentioned users. Technically, your server owner also has access to this, but 99.9% of server owners just completely ignore this.

You decide to make a post saying “Just joined! #Mastodon” with public visibility. Now what next? If you look just below the search bar, you can click on your profile and then in the middle top of the screen, you can hit Edit profile. Use this to customize your profile and make it known what you are about. In this case, you put that you’re a fan of Baseball, have a master’s in History, and that you love shitposts. You see to the left of you some other settings. You save your profile, then click on appearance. You look through those settings and decide to not mess with those. After all, you eventually want to go to a place that allows for shitposting.

You look further down on the left hand side. You see the filters. Now what are these? Filters are a way to filter posts containing a certain word. You decide to click on the upper right hand button to make a filter. You look through the settings and it seems mostly self-explanatory. You add a filter for accelerationism because you do not want to see that. You look further down and can see automated post deletion along with account settings. Down below is where you get really confused- import and export of what?

Turns out Mastodon allows for you to import information from another account and export account information if you so desire. Will be handy later as you are not going to stay here! You click on Back home at the upper left hand corner.

During that time, you got a few people to reply. Most of them are kind, but you had a really rude person show up. How do you block them? You hit the … in their reply and then scroll down until you see block. Now when you block someone, you can also report them. Report them if they are breaking your server’s rules. After that, you see one really insightful reply. How do you show this person gratitude? Well, besides hitting the reply button and replying, you can also hit the star button to favorite the post. If you want to save that post for later, you can also hit the bookmark button right next to the triple dots. This person’s reply is really cool, so you decide to hit the 2 arrow button. That is called a boost and makes their post appear on your timeline so that others who follow you can see it. Anytime you see something cool, give it a boost!

Well, after now learning the basics, you post an image of a baseball bat. Someone asks you to add alt text. You are confused. The person asks you to describe the image you just posted so that Blind people can know what it’s about. To do this, you are going to have to hit the delete+redraft button for your post and then click on the picture. Then describe the picture and send it again. They thanked you for adding alt text and requested to follow you. You look over your follower requests at the right hand side and accept. Shortly after that, someone makes a comment about your history degree and baseballs and recommends that you check out some history based servers. You look at the server and they allow for shitposts and there’s some baseball fans. You’re sold. You go through the process of making another account, you check the place out and it looks like a place you’ll stay at for longer. However, you don’t want to lose the followers you just made. How do you avoid this?

You remember the settings. You go back to Account. You see that there is a way to connect and you go ahead and link your old account with your new account under “Moving from a different account” and then export your old account data to your new account by exporting your old account and importing this to your new account. Lastly, you redirect your old account to point to your new one so that people don’t accidentally go looking for you in the wrong place under Move to a different account.

Now knowing feeling pretty comfortable with this server, you notice that the local and federated timeline are slower. The local makes sense as there’s less than 2,000 people here compared to over 100,000, but why is the federated timeline smaller too? Well, servers can choose who they associate with and who not to associate with. Most of the time, smaller servers are pickier about that to avoid being overwhelmed and for a sense of coziness. With that, you do your introduction post and stay at the new place.

Welcome to Mastodon! I hope this guide/sample story gave some insight as to the basics of Mastodon as well as some of the frustrating aspects newcomers will face.

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