Mastodon for non-techies

Before I joined, I was sent an article with a simple explanation. Welp. “Simple” is relative. I worked in IT for 15 years and blinked helplessly, re-reading it twice, then giving up. I was so overwhelmed and intimidated that I took another week to try, join Mastodon, and see what happens.

It turned out that it actually is very simple.


Mastodon is not Twitter

That’s the first and most important thing. You are not joining “the new Twitter.” Mastodon is not a social network but a piece of software. A lot of websites you visit, including this one, are running on WordPress, but aren’t “new WordPress.” I downloaded it, put it up on my own server, and did what I wanted with it.

Mastodon is interest-based. I didn’t want to see a good half (90%) of my Twitter feed, especially “promoted” or “trending” crap. Now I don’t. You actually can’t “promote” your toots. (Yes. They’re called toots. Toot toot, mothercluckers!) There are no ads, unless you start posting them for some inexplicable reason and watch your follower count drop.

“Favourite” is not a like, although personally I’ve been using likes this way for a long time. It doesn’t boost anything. It’s just you telling the other person that you liked what they posted. A toot isn’t more valuable or visible because it has 50 favourites than 0. All feeds are chronological.

“Boost” is not a retweet. Your profile is not a trashcan, but something you curate, like a Tumblr blog. People whose bio says “a boost is not an endorsement” are littering their feeds because they’re mentally still on Twitter. A boost from me means that I found something to be interesting enough to share with my followers.

Here’s why Twitter’s “pin for pin” doesn’t work on Mastodon: this is my pinned toot. Toot toot, mothercluckers! Sorry not sorry.

We find new neighbours by clicking those hashtags – interests. I actually want to redo mine, because you can pin multiple toots – one of mine will explain my interests, the second – list my books, with descriptions, in a thread. If I now start randomly boosting crap, I won’t gain more followers, just more mutes. If I start posting crap and tagging it #kimkardashian it will not make me popular.

TL;DR: create a pinned toot with hashtags explaining your interests.

Choosing a server

My Mastodon handle is @[email protected]. That means I am a user called @bjornlarssen on the server which I picked at random because it said it’s a general server hosted in the Netherlands with posts in English. Your choice of server actually makes a difference – if you join a French server devoted to coffee, toots will probably be in French and not talk much about tea. A general server is, well, general.

Each server is a bubble shaped by the owners and moderators with an “about” page you can read before joining. My server’s bubble – curated topics mods allow in – lets in academics, artists, authors, illustrators, nerds, historians, cat pictures, etc. I won’t see celebrities, actors, journalists, nazís, etc. unless I look them up on purpose. This bubble is called “federated timeline.” I can skip that and only look on my server’s members’ posts, “local timeline.” I really like the federated timeline, though, because it actually is relevant to my interests. If I decide there’s a better fit, I can move, exporting all my data, followers, follows, etc. I can also interact with users on all other non-closed servers. (This is where some people get it wrong, tweeting that they’re “not just gay or authors or Latinx” – I met a few #queer #Swiftie #writers from other servers already and we followed each other.)

Some servers, like which I joined, are general, which means there’s no particular niche they serve. Others are specialised, like (for writers) or (mostly geared for SF/fantasy, but open to everyone). Some are invite-only. Some are currently struggling because running a server actually costs money and work, and nobody expected Elon to advertise Mastodon so successfully. Things crash. (It’s all very 90s. I love it to bits.) “Mastodon is down” is not a valid complaint, because there’s no one Mastodon. Each server is like a little standalone Twitter-but-not-quite.

My server’s admins decided to show me, for instance, toots from (mentioned above) and I can decide I really don’t care for romancelandia and block the whole thing, removing it from my federated timeline.

TL;DR: read the About page before joining a server that’s not a good fit for you.


Nazís tho

Someone on Twitter informed me that they will “never promote or endorse Mastodon as long as even one of their servers promotes or endorses nazís!” This person doesn’t understand that there is no such thing as “their servers.” The developers create the Mastodon software. They don’t have control over who installs it, where, and what topics are allowed. The admins of the servers, though, can keep nazís (or writers, if they suddenly decide writing sucks) away from their bubble.

The terms and conditions of “my” server state: “No racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or casteism. No incitement of violence or promotion of violent ideologies. Do not share intentionally false or misleading information.” That works for me. Does that mean nobody there will ever break those rules? Of course not. I’ll report and block them. Nothing stops nazís to start their own server where the rules are “Covid is fake and homosexuality is evil and you must say the N-word in every post.” You deal with this by not joining it. If admins of the server you are currently on suddenly start letting in trash you don’t want to see, you can move to another server, taking your followers/follows with you.

There is no such thing as a safe space online. I once created a Discord server that only had three other people in, and then randomly one of them went feral. Admins/moderators of a Mastodon server don’t have big teams that decide what “freedom of speech” is, then enforce it or not. They are also not telepaths. Thanks to how the bubbles work, Mastodon is as safe as safe can get. If you’re on a server for furries and someone starts shitting on furry community, they’ll be out very fast.

TL;DR: read the Terms and Conditions of your server.

I can’t find anybody!

Similarly as with Twitter, you need to know someone’s handle. Only now the handle consists of two parts: the username and the server name.

Mastodon does not support text search. It’s a safety feature. I can’t find you, which sucks. Trolls and nazís also can’t find you, though. I added my Mastodon handle to my Twitter bio. I never had problems with trolls or threats, so I don’t mind everybody knowing. Some people, however, are escaping Twitter for non-billionaire reasons. In this case you’ll only find them if they want you to, unless you happen to be on the same server and guess from their posts that @Joanna is the same person as

In order to follow someone whose handle you know, you put it in the search field.

The person doesn’t have to be on your server, or even in your bubble, at all. You decide whom you follow. You can also decide who follows you and approve only those you trust, creating a bubble inside a bubble.

TL;DR: this one was short. Just read it.

Impersonators tho

Yup, it’s entirely possible for others to create @bjornlarssen accounts on all sorts of other servers. However, nothing stops this sort of people from opening @bjorn_larssen or @bjornlarssenauthor etc. on Twitter either. Now that blue tick marks will be paid for and not verified, and I have zero interest in helping out a struggling billionaire, such a person will look like the real me and I’ll look like the fake.

Here’s what verified Twitter comedians have been doing for a few days:

More people, like Kathy Griffin, changed their verified profile names to “Elon Musk,” copied the header image and the avatar, and Elon threw a hissy fit and banned them. (You will find Kathy Griffin at @[email protected]. My bubble doesn’t show her to me, so I found her and followed. She’s now in my feed.) Something tells me that he wouldn’t ban someone for impersonating me or you, though. And if you’re using any name different than that in your ID for some reason, you can’t prove you’re the “real” one to Twitter. So, basically, you’re not safe from that on Mastodon and you are also not safe on Twitter.

Speaking of:

Safety and accessibility

Mastodon was created with weirdos and minorities in mind. Transphobes will be kicked out if they try to spew their “views” on a server for queer people. Each server’s owner essentially has their definition of freedom of speech. In other words, you are at mercy of someone you don’t know. Which coincidentally works exactly the same way on Twitter.

The influx of newbies created is a pain in the mass for the moderators. It’s much easier to keep the peace with 400 people than 1400 or 4000, especially if you’re one volunteer who also has a day job. A smaller server will maybe be safer than a huge one.

There are no DMs on Mastodon. I saw tweets declaring the DM system there to be super unsafe. That’s because there isn’t one – you post a thread that only the mentioned person is allowed to view. You can limit the audience, visibility, set the thing to auto-delete your toots after 30 days. But if you want a proper DM system, I recommend Signal.

For obvious (I hope) reasons, admins and moderators can see everything you post. If they have this sort of time and want to lose the entire community’s trust as quickly as certain billionaires. As I said, if you want a proper DM system, use something else, and if you want TOTAL privacy, then, er, also use Signal, I guess?

How do you know whether you can trust the admods? You don’t. Kathy Griffin didn’t know her account would get deleted because Musk’s definition of freedom of speech doesn’t include making fun of his ego. Terms and conditions are arbitrary and enforced by whoever owns that one server. On Twitter, if you are being harassed, you can’t move to some other Twitter. On Mastodon you can. Taking along your followers and follows. That’s what “decentralised” means.

Mastodon uses CWs (content warnings). If you choose to ignore that, you’ll basically look like an ass, lose followers, and not get many boosts or favourites. Of course some people are triggered by the word “the,” but you can probably figure out what deserves a CW based on your server’s T&C.

Media can be set to sensitive. Some do it as a joke with particularly vicious photos of kittens. Some will toot “CW: nudity” and the accompanying image will display as “sensitive.” If you click that and see nudity and you’re totally shocked, I don’t really know what to tell you.

Random example above.

Image descriptions are a big thing on Mastodon. I have never bothered on Twitter because I had 280 characters. Toots can be up to 500 characters and image description, separately, up to 1500. I even followed a bot that reminds me to add descriptions. There are many, many people who will be very grateful for that.

I probably got some stuff wrong

…or didn’t explain it because I forgot or it felt obvious. Feel free to correct me or ask questions. This post will be updated.


Official help page here:

5 thoughts on “Mastodon for non-techies”

  1. Thanks, this was helpful. Gosh, maybe you should consider writing as a full time gig. [now if only I could find that tongue-in-cheek icon]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top