Elon Musk’s first few days as CEO of Twitter have been great news for one social media network. No, not Twitter. The unexpected breakout star of social media in 2022 is instead a free, decentralized, loosely organized group of servers that collectively make up the Fediverse, short for federated universe. And on the Fediverse, nothing is hotter right now than the open-source Mastodon software that powers the Twitter-like service that runs on that collection of servers.
It’s difficult for most consumers to wrap their minds around the concept of the Fediverse, which has a lot of technical jargon and wonkiness associated with it. Arguably, though, it’s not that different from the way modern email services work. Each server runs the same core software, and all the servers know how to talk to each other. Crucially, each user has an identity on a single server. If that identity is an email address at Gmail.com, you can exchange email messages with folks on other servers that support the same protocols.
Mastodon works like that, with one crucial difference. You can’t go to a massive, centralized server run by a megacorporation to sign up. Instead, you have to find a server on your own, set up an account, and hope that the server you choose can handle the pressure as all these newbies sign up. For a hint of just how fast the Mastodon community has grown, look at the above chart assembled by Esteban Moro (@[email protected]), an MIT researcher and associate professor at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.
Mastodon servers have been straining under the stress, with users reporting long wait times before an email confirmation arrives and similarly long delays in getting those accounts properly set up.
But if you can clear that hurdle, you end up at a place that looks an awful lot like Twitter. And it’s growing at an eye-popping pace. In the course of a week, according to Mastodon CEO Eugen Rochko, roughly half a million new users signed up, and the number of monthly active users across all Mastodon servers crossed the 1 million mark for the first time.
As you can see from that post, Mastodon looks a lot like Twitter, but it’s not Twitter.
Obvious similarities include the scrolling timeline that shows activities from the people you follow. Tweets are called posts (they used to be called toots, but thankfully that cringeworthy name is on the way out). If you share someone else’s post, you’ve reblogged or boosted it. There are hashtags and lists as well.
Your Mastodon handle includes your full identity, complete with the server name. At Twitter, I am @edbott, but in the Fediverse I am @[email protected] If you want a checkmark alongside your name to prove that you are who you say you are, you don’t have to pay anyone; instead, you add a link to a website that’s under your control, and that serves as verification.
The biggest benefit of this decentralized setup is that every server gets to set its own moderation policy and decide which servers it will federate with. People who like NSFW content and hate speech can set up their own server and spout off all they want, with the rest of the Fediverse ignoring them.
If all this sounds interesting, you can establish your own identity and check things out for yourself. I recommend doing this setup on a desktop PC or Mac. You can set up a mobile app later, but getting started is much easier if you use a plain ol’ browser window, where all the necessary controls are available.
How to get started on Mastodon
Step 1: Choose a server and create an account
The first step is quite literally the hardest. You need to find the address of a server running the Mastodon software (called an instance) and accepting new sign-ups.
As with most things in life, the best way to find a reliable instance is to ask a friend for a recommendation and, if necessary, an invitation. If that option isn’t available, find a public instance. (Not sure who you know is on Mastodon? Skip ahead to Step 5, where you can use the Debirdify app to look through the list of Twitter accounts you follow to produce an easy-to-read list.)
Although you can go to the official site, https://joinmastodon.org, and look up a server there, that’s a recipe for frustration. That list is short and currently shows only a handful of servers that are open. Instead, I recommend going to https://instances.social and using either their wizard or their more advanced search tool. As an alternative, try going to the Mastodon activity page and look at the list under the Instances heading. The entries at the top of the list are the most popular.
Go to the instance you chose and, assuming they’re accepting membership, fill in the form. You probably want to reuse your Twitter ID, but you’re free to join with any ID you choose. Here’s the sign-up screen for the instance at c.im.
(Don’t worry, it’s easy enough to move your account to a different server later, although you probably should make that move before you build up much of a posting history.)
Click Sign Up and wait for the confirmation email. That could take minutes or hours. With the current surge in sign-ups, some people are reporting they never receive the email to activate their account.
Step 2: Make it easy for people to find you
Once you’ve confirmed your account, use the Edit Profile button to add some details about who you are. Fill in your bio (copy and paste your Twitter bio, if you want) and add a picture, so that people will know it’s you. Hint: In Mastodon, your profile picture is called an avatar.
This is also a good time to turn on 2-factor authentication for your account.
Add your Mastodon handle to your Twitter bio. That will make it easier for people who know you from Twitter to find you in the new place.
Step 3: Follow some folks
You are now ready to follow some folks. If you’ve got Mastodon IDs for people you know are active here, type that name in the search box to find their account and follow them. (Remember that you might need the full ID with username and server, like @[email protected])
Step 4: Introduce yourself
One thing I’ve seen a lot of people do is write a post giving some background about who they are and what they’re interested in, then pin the post to the top of their profile. That’s a nice thing to do to help people who find you online figure out if you’re an appropriate follow for them.
Step 5: Find your favorites from Twitter
An astonishing number of the accounts I follow on Twitter have set up accounts on Mastodon, and quite a few of them are putting more effort into Mastodon than Twitter. Part of that is just the newness of the Fediverse, perhaps, but it also means you’re likely to find some familiar faces in the new place.
You can find lots of lists of people who’ve made the #TwitterMigration, which is also a hashtag worth searching for. Chances are someone you follow has put together a list like that. When I typed lists in the search box, I got a few interesting results; your mileage may vary.
To supercharge the process, though, use the Debirdify app, which uses the Twitter API to search the accounts you follow for signs of a Mastodon ID. (This is why you should update your Twitter bio to include your address in the Fediverse.) You can go through the results manually, but it’s much more productive to export the Debirdify list in CSV (comma-separated values) format and then import it from the Settings page in your Mastodon instance.
Step 6: Have fun
You can now poke around in the Fediverse to your heart’s content.
Here are a few getting-started notes:
Don’t try to do everything you did in Twitter. The means of interacting are noticeably different. There’s no equivalent to quote-tweeting, for example, and there’s no algorithm deciding what you see. There’s also, for now at least, a lot of help for new arrivals and a lot of introductions from people just setting up their accounts.
Turn on 2FA. Please. I said this earlier but it bears repeating. Turn on 2-factor authentication to secure your account. It only takes a few seconds. (And don’t forget to print out your backup codes just in case.)
Be extra careful with direct messages in Mastodon. They’re not encrypted, and server admins can see them, so best not to use them for any important or sensitive business. It’s also very easy to accidentally make a private message public or bring in a third-party by mentioning them. That can be awkward if the mention is unflattering.
And this really just scratches the surface. I’ll have a lot more to say about Mastodon in the coming days and weeks.
A note from the author: After nearly 17 years at ZDNET, I’ll be leaving at the end of 2022. You can stay in touch by signing up for my newsletter, Ed Bott’s READ.ME. It’s free (for now) and I’ll be doing a lot of the same things I’ve done here at ZDNET and in my books. To sign up, go to https://edbott.substack.com/.