Mathew's web site

This is the personal web0 site of mathew (aka meta), <meta@pobox.com>. I live in Austin TX USA.

The canonical URL of this page is http://www.pobox.com/~meta/ and has been for many years.

I update the site when I feel like it, there's no set schedule. The most recent article is below, or head to posts to browse by date. If you use a feed reader, you can subscribe to a web feed.

—mathew

Mastodon revisited

A quick start guide

Thinking of trying Mastodon and the Fediverse again in the light of recent events? Here’s a quick guide.

What is it?

The Fediverse is a big network of social media sites that all talk to each other. There are over 1.5 million active users on the Fediverse. This article is my guide to how to join them.

Mastodon is a piece of software that people run on web servers. Each Mastodon server provides a social network web site people can use to post on the Fediverse.

No one person or corporation controls the Fediverse. It’s like email. If you don’t like one service, you can switch to a different one, and still keep all your followers and messages.

There’s no algorithm controlling what you see on the Fediverse. It’s up to you. No ads or other unwanted content will get shoved in your face.

All the different Fediverse servers interconnect, just like all the different email systems handle the same Internet email. However, the different server software options can look quite different to users – some servers look like Twitter, some look like Instagram, some look like Facebook.

I’m going to assume you want something that looks like Twitter. I’m picking Mastodon. There are other options, but Mastodon is the most popular.

OK, where do I join?

The first step is to pick a Mastodon server. This is like deciding which email provider you want to use. Different providers may have different policies, different features, different service levels, just like Gmail is different from Yahoo Mail which is different from iCloud.

So how do you know which one to pick? Fortunately there are web sites which compare them.

Why areas of interest? Because one of the options in Mastodon is to look at a feed of everything posted by people on the same server. If you choose a server focused on a particular interest, that feature makes it easy to find more people to follow who have the same interest.

But remember, you aren’t limited to talking to people on the same server, you can follow any topic from anywhere, and you can always move to a different server later and keep your followers and messages. So no need to agonize over the decision.

Once you think you’ve found a server you like, don’t forget to check its policies to make sure you agree with them. Then, sign up and sign in!

Help, this is complicated!

When you sign in to Mastodon, you may be greeted by a screen with four columns that looks like it belongs in NASA mission control. If so, don’t panic, we’ll get rid of it. Here’s what it looks like:

Mastodon advanced interface

To get rid of it, click the gear icon at the top of the left column to get to the preferences. (Or, find a link labeled Preferences in the right column and click that.) Once you’re in the preferences, look under Appearance, and uncheck the box labeled Enable advanced web interface.

Advanced!

Click the Save changes button at top right, then Back to Mastodon at top left, and you’ll find you now have something that looks more like Twitter:

Mastodon regular interface

Let me tell my friends!

Before you go rushing off to tell everyone about your account, there’s one very important detail you need to be aware of.

You know how your email has two pieces, like username@example.com? The second part tells people which service you’re using. Mastodon is like that too. Your friends need to know your full address, including the server name.

To find your Mastodon address, first find your username, displayed at top left next to your user icon. Click on your name, and you’ll see your profile page. The profile page lists your full Mastodon address, which will look like an email address with @ in front of it:

A Mastodon profile

Something like @yourname@mastodon.somewhere. Send it to your friends.

How do I connect to my friends?

Got the address of a friend? Enter it in the search box at top left. When you see them listed in the search results in the main column, click the button across to the right from their name to follow them:

A list of people

You can also enter a regular name in the search box, assuming your friend has put their actual name in their profile.

When you’re done searching and following people, click the button in the search box to clear the search, so you can use the main column to view posts again.

If you have a bunch of Twitter friends, Debirdify will help you find their Fediverse accounts and follow them.

How do I post?

To post, enter your post in the box at top left and hit the Publish! button. There are a bunch of icons under the post box:

Post options

  • The paperclip icon lets you upload an image into your post.
  • The icon of three rectangles arranged vertically lets you post an opinion poll.
  • The globe icon lets you choose whether the post is visible to the whole world, or a more limited set of people. (Click it to look at the options.)
  • The CW icon lets you set a Content Warning. Use it if you’re posting nude photos, movie spoilers, or other sensitive content that you think people might not want to see without clicking through a warning first.
  • The next icon probably says EN. It lets you set what language you’re posting in. (You can set the default for this in the preferences.)

Like with Twitter, there’s a limit on how many characters you can post, displayed under your text as you type.

Any posting tips I should know about?

Sure, here are a few suggestions:

  • Use hashtags. Whereas Twitter lets you search the full text of everything, Mastodon only has text search for hashtags. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the minus side, it means you need to remember to use tags if you want people to find you. On the plus side, it means you need to use tags before people are likely to find you, so you can probably talk about (for example) Elon Musk without a bunch of his weird cultists piling on.

  • Use capital letters in your multi-word hashtags, #LikeThisForExample, instead of making them entirely lower case. This helps screen reader software work out how to pronounce them.

  • Consider posting a first message introducing yourself, and tagging it #introduction.

  • You might be tempted to set something up to take everything you post on Twitter and repost it on Mastodon. I recommend not doing this, it’s considered rude, particularly if you don’t read Mastodon and respond to comments. Of course, if you want to mirror posts the other way, that’s fine…

How do I read threads?

Under each post there’s a reply arrow, with a number next to it. The number is how many replies the post has received.

To read the thread of replies, click on the post. When you’re done reading the thread, click on < Back at the top of the thread.

What about the other buttons under posts?

Buttons when reading posts

From left to right:

  • Click the arrow to reply to a post. You edit the reply in the same box you use to post things, in the left column. The username of the person you’re replying to gets put in the box, leave it there and add your response.

  • The rectangle of two arrows in a loop reposts the post, like retweeting.

  • The star adds the post to your list of favorites. You can view your list of favorites by clicking Favorites in the rightmost column.

  • The bookmark icon adds the post to your bookmarks. Bookmarking is like clicking the favorite button, except the person who wrote the post doesn’t find out you did it, and the bookmarks are stored in a separate Bookmarks section.

  • The share icon lets you share a post via instant message, other social networks, and so on – if your browser supports it.

  • The three dots icon brings up a menu with some other options.

How do I find stuff to read?

Once you’ve followed a few people, you’ll probably encounter other people you want to follow when you see their responses. You can click on their name at the top of their posts to view their profile, then click the Follow button if it still seems like a good idea.

Until then:

  • Look at the trending hashtags at bottom right. Click on one to see what people are posting with that tag.

  • Click on # Explore in the right column. This mode has four options along the top of the main column:

    1. Posts, to see posts currently getting the most engagement.
    2. Hashtags, to see the most popular tags being posted recently.
    3. News, to see news articles people are talking about a lot.
    4. For you, to see suggestions for people you might follow, based on your activity.
  • Click on Local to see the stream of recent posts on your chosen server.

  • Click on Federated to see recent posts from the entire Fediverse.

How do I filter?

There are a bunch of different options for filtering and blocking.

  • You can block users you don’t want to see replies from. Use the three dots icon under their posts to bring up a menu that lets you mute them temporarily, or block them permanently.

  • You can enter hashtags in the preferences, to skip any posts containing those hashtags.

  • To unblock people (or look at all the people you’ve blocked), use the three dots menu button near your profile icon at top left. The menu has options to view blocked and muted users.

There are more options in the preferences:

  • You can choose to show animated GIFs as animating by default, or not.

  • You can have Mastodon automatically open up content warning protected posts for you, if you feel brave.

There. Hopefully that’s everything you need to get started. Enjoy!

But…

This is too hard to use!

It’s pretty much a combination of how Twitter and Email work, and you learned how to use those.

I don’t like the way the user interface…

Look in the preferences. There are a bunch of options to change how various things work.

There are hardly any users.

There are 1.5 million, and more every day. How many people do you need to talk with, really?

But my friends aren’t here.

So invite them. Or make new friends.

My friends won’t leave Twitter.

They don’t have to. You can use both Mastodon and Twitter.

I don’t want to use both.

Well, hard luck. You can’t expect to find everyone on one web site.

This is bullshit, you won’t leave Twitter.

Just watch me. I left Facebook years ago.

Well, famous people aren’t going to use this.

Famous people probably aren’t going to turn up at your party either, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a party.

I’ve heard that servers just disappear

That’s why I suggested that you look for a popular server with good uptime, and check its policies. The server I use has been around since 2017.

I’ve heard there are no moderation policies

You can report posts on Mastodon. The person running the server the abusive user is on can ban them. Just like Twitter.

Yes, but what if the server owner won’t ban them?

You mean like Twitter?

Well, the owner of your server can block content from users on other servers from reaching your server, or even block entire servers. In extreme cases servers that are filled with abusive users have found themselves disconnected from the Fediverse because nobody wants to accept their content.

No, really, this will never replace Twitter.

I don’t care. If you like Twitter, keep using it. I prefer the Fediverse. I found myself using it more than Twitter even before Elon bought Twitter.