Lots of people are looking for a Twitter alternative after Elon Musk bought the social media site last month, changed the site’s rules on impersonation, fired half of the site’s staff, and announced plans to sell “blue check” verification badges for $8 per month.
One of the fastest growing alternatives is Mastodon, which looks and feels a lot like Twitter.
But Mastodon isn’t a Twitter clone. It’s a free open-source platform, originally launched in 2016 by developer Eugen Rochko, and it’s made up of many different instances, or servers, instead of being managed by one company on one domain name.
This makes signing up and finding your friends a little bit harder.
There are also strange little quirks as well. Tweets are called “toots.” Retweets are called “boosts.” Because it’s an open-source project, it doesn’t have the same level of polish as social media sites like Twitter that are owned and operated by professionals.
Emails and loading can be slow. It’s a little bit like using Linux versus Windows or MacOS.
Mastodon has been growing fast. In the 12 days after Musk bought Twitter, Mastodon app downloads on Apple App Store and Google Play for Android surged more than 100 times previous rates to 322,000 installs during the period, according to analysis by Sensor Tower, an app analytics firm.
On Nov. 7, Mastodon founder Rochko tooted that there were over 1 million monthly active users of the service. That’s still a lot lower than the over 245 million daily active users of Twitter that CEO Elon Musk tweeted about this week.
Here’s what you need to know about Mastodon:
First, you need to pick a server, or instance
Because anyone can set up their own Mastodon server, there’s no central place to sign up like twitter.com. You have to find a server to sign up for. They’re known as “instances,” and you can think of them like e-mail providers.
A user on one instance can interact with users on other instances, including following, replying, and boosting. All instances taken together are called “the fediverse.” (The term comes from “federated,” which refers to the loosely connected way the servers work together — again, similar to email.)
Each instance has its own URL, which comes after your username, sort of like an email domain. There are over 5,000 instances, according to a site tracking Mastodon use, and they often follow a particular theme, such as geographical region or topic. Some require you to fill out a short application form with information like your interests or why you want to join that instance. Some servers are small and only for a small handful of friends.
There’s even a quiz that you can take to find which instance might be right for you.
The most popular instance is mastodon.online, which is also administered by the service’s founder. Bigger instances mean many of the best or shortest usernames on the server have already been taken. There’s also a list of instances you can join on Mastodon’s website.
Unlike Twitter, many of the instances that Mastodon runs on are not-for-profit, and some raise money for server costs and other expenses on sites like Patreon. It’s possible that some instances could stop operating because their administrators lose interest.
All instances have a feed just for people on that server that shows all toots posted in that instance in chronological order. But you can also just look at your personalized feed, which shows only toots from the people you follow — that’s the experience that’s most like Twitter.
Your username includes your server’s name
Following isn’t as simple as it is on Twitter. If you want to follow someone on the same instance as you, press the plus button next to their username.
But if they’re on a different instance than you, it’s best to copy and paste their entire username into Mastodon’s search box— including the part after the second “@” symbol that denotes which server they are on.
For example: @Gargron@mastodon.social is how to follow the CEO of Mastodon. Users who are not on Mastodon.Social need to copy and paste that entire string into their search box.
You can follow me at the address @email@example.com.
There’s no verification on Mastodon, and DMs are viewable by the instance administrator. Content moderation is also up to the instance administrator — Mastodon.Social, for example, bans Nazi imagery. Other servers may have looser rules.
How to find friends
Mastodon can be a bit of a ghost town when you first log on, but there are a few ways to find your old favorite tweeters on the platform. Whether they post a lot is a different question.
One of the easiest ways to find people to follow is to search “Mastodon” on Twitter, where people who have created new accounts often post their new handles. Copy and paste it into the Mastodon search box to follow them.
You can also copy and paste your Mastodon handle — with the @ symbol and domain — into your Twitter account to get your existing followers to try to join you.
There are several directories that list interesting people to follow on Mastodon.
If you’d like to try to follow the same people on Mastodon as you did on Twitter, there are several third-party apps that will try to import your follow list, although they require access to your Twitter account — be aware that you’re giving that information away to a third party.
It’s time to get tooting. A first post that describes your interests or topics can help people find you.
Mastodon, like Twitter in its early days, gives users the choice to use different apps and interfaces to interact with toots and boosts.
Twitter migrants who miss TweetDeck, which displays several timelines on a desktop computer, should enable the Advanced Web Interface option in the settings to bring up a denser interface with multiple columns.
Make sure to look through the settings for features that aren’t available on Twitter — like automatic post deletions and powerful block and muting features. A sensitive content feature can hide rants or NSFW posts behind a button. The latest version of Mastodon, 4.0, includes new abilities to follow hashtags, translate or edit posts, and additional content filters.
If you don’t like the instance you started on, it’s possible to export your account to another server.
Mastodon isn’t as easy to use as Twitter, nor does it have as many users generating content that will bring you back day after day. But its free, open-source approach with thousands of different servers guarantees that the platform can’t be bought for $44 billion.