Logo of open-source social media software Mastodon on screen in front of website.
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What Is Mastodon, the Red-Hot Open Source Twitter Rival

9 minute read
Michelle Hawley avatar
What is Mastodon and why should you care? Learn what Mastodon is, if it's safe, how to join, pick a server, find friends and more.

If you’ve kept up with technology news and social media current events, you’ve likely seen that as of Oct. 27, Elon Musk officially owns Twitter — a $44 billion purchase.

Musk has been a loud critic of Twitter rules aimed at suppressing hate speech, harassment and misinformation, citing that they hinder free speech. People concerned about potential changes under Musk’s leadership have begun jumping ship to alternative social media platforms, namely Mastodon.

Since Oct. 27, Mastodon has gained nearly 500,000 new users, doubling its user base. What is Mastodon and how do you use it?

What Is Mastodon?

Mastodon is a decentralized, open-source social media platform founded by German software developer Eugen Rochko in 2016. Mastodon is free to use, has no ads and presents posts in chronological order rather than using an algorithm to predict best-matched content. The site describes itself as a federated network.

Related Article: Deciding on the Best Social Media Platforms for Customer Connection

What Does It Mean That Mastodon Is Open-Source?

Mastodon is an open-source social work, meaning anyone can download Mastodon software, modify it and install it on their own server for free. The developer of the platform does not own the copyright.

However, open source does not mean that someone can create a platform with Mastodon’s source code and pass it off as their own.

In 2021, former president Donald Trump attempted to do just this with his social media platform Truth Social. The fledgling social media platform claimed the site as proprietary property, with all source code and software owned by licensed to them.

Mastodon sent a formal letter to Truth Social’s chief legal officer requesting that the source could be made publicly available and released a public statement about the incident.

Mastodon's public statement about Trump's Truth Social

How Does Mastodon Differ From Twitter?

Mastodon visually resembles Twitter. You sign up, create posts (called “toots”) and browse friends’ content. However, there are some significant differences. The biggest difference is that Twitter is a single social platform. People sign up and only share content on Twitter.

Mastodon is a federated platform — a collection of social networks or servers linked together but owned by different people, groups or organizations. Because Mastodon is part of the fediverse, a Mastodon account will grant you access to other decentralized social networks.

When Mastodon users sign up, they must pick a server to join, referred to as an instance. These Mastodon instances are individual communities, each with its own culture and rules.

Mastodon can’t make users or server creators do anything. They can’t moderate content or create rules for what posts stay up or get taken down. Instead, server creators dictate how users interact with one another.

Other key differences between Mastodon and Twitter include:

  • Mastodon has no ad 
  • Mastodon has fewer active users (1.03 million as of Nov. 7 for Mastodon vs. 238 million as of Q2, 2022 for Twitter)
  • Mastodon has no universal verification system
  • Mastodon users get 500 characters per post instead of 280
  • Mastodon can be sluggish due to the influx of new users
  • Mastodon presents posts in chronological order rather than based on an algorithm
  • Mastodon and its two owned servers are largely crowdfunded
  • Mastodon does not support direct messages, only public posts that include @username

Related Article: Will the Musk Takeover Rescue or Wreck Twitter Marketing?

Is Mastodon Safe to Use?

User safety on Mastodon depends entirely on the instance you decide to join and their rules for content and harassment. The social media site does allow users to add content warnings to posts. These warnings can alert others to nudity, depictions of violence, spoilers and comments about sensitive topics, such as politics or religion. What each instance considers a sensitive topic will vary.

Generally, Mastodon is no less safe than any other website, and users should always exercise caution when it comes to sharing personal information. 

How Do You Join Mastodon?

To join Mastodon, navigate to the Mastodon website at https://joinmastodon.org/. Then, click the button that says “create account.” 

Mastodon homepage where users can sign up for an account

Those who prefer a mobile experience can download the Mastodon app from the Apple App Store or Google Play and follow the same process.

Next, you’ll be directed to a page listing Mastodon servers — or instances — from which to choose. Some instances will allow you to create an account immediately while others will require you to apply or get invited.

The Mastodon instance list, which currently sits at 4,000 servers, includes communities for:

  • Ravers
  • Animators
  • Technologists
  • Math lovers
  • Music enthusiasts
  • New Zealanders
  • Activists and campaigners
  • And much more

You can filter this instance list by region, topic, legal structure (private individual vs. public organization), sign-up speed and language. Don’t worry if you don’t know which server to join — you can always interact with people who use other Mastodon servers or switch to a new one.

Once you’ve chosen a server, you’ll need to create a username and password and supply your email address. You may also have to agree to terms and conditions specific to your chosen server.

The home.social instance, for example, requires users to agree to terms such as no hate speech and no sharing of intentionally false or misleading information.

Your chosen server will be home to your account, profile and feeds. Your profile’s address will be @[your username]@[your server name]

After signing up, you’ll receive an email with a link to activate your account. If you do not see the email in your inbox after 1–2 minutes, check your spam folder. To activate your account, click the “verify email address” button in the email.

An email from Mastodon requesting email address verification

Once you verify your email, you can sign into your Mastodon account and begin using it.

How to Choose a Mastodon Server

Mastodon has thousands of servers to choose from, and new users may struggle to decide which is best for them. Keep in mind: You are not locked into the first server you choose. You can always switch at a later date.

The Mastodon website has some helpful resources for finding a Mastodon instance or specific Mastodon server that aligns with your interests. Ask friends who use Mastodon which servers they recommend. You can also try a random one and see if it meets your wants and expectations.

Learning Opportunities

One thing new users should know is that some servers may block other servers — for example, if they don’t agree with their political ideals. In this case, you cannot communicate with anyone from the blocked server.

Related Article: Web3 Crypto: A Decentralized Utopia or Dystopia?

How to Use Mastodon 

Once you sign up for the Mastodon social network and verify your email, you can post “toots,” the site's version of tweets. Though this terminology is beginning to fall out in favor of the more generic “post.”

Mastodon emulates a number of Twitter conventions like replies, favorites, bookmarks and hashtags. Users can also boost toots (similar to a retweet), though quote toots are not an option — an intentional decision by the founder to discourage harassment.

Mastodon home feed where you can see posts

Mastodon supports a variety of content types, including images, video, audio and polls. Unlike Twitter, Mastodon does not support GIFs or location and status tags.

Toot creators can limit who can see their content on Mastodon. The site offers the ability to make posts public (visible to all), unlisted (opted out of discovery features), only visible to followers or only visible to users mentioned.

You can follow people both on and off your local server and reply to their posts. To find a user on a different server, however, you will need to know their username and search for them using the search box.

Can You Get Verified on Mastodon?

Mastodon does not offer user verification like Twitter. Some Mastodon instances allow you to add a checkmark emoji next to your display name, but it has no meaning.

You can add this checkmark to your own profile by clicking the “edit profile” text and copying and pasting the emoji next to your name.

How to Find Friends on Mastodon

Unlike Twitter, Mastodon does not offer algorithmic-based suggestions on who to follow, and it does not access your phone or computer contacts to find people you may know.

You can use hashtags (like on Twitter) to seek out topics and people of interest to you. When you find a person or group with relevant content, you can follow them.

To find friends on Mastodon, you will need to know their usernames. Then, you can type the username into the search box, locate their account and follow them.

If you want to find Twitter users that jumped ship to Mastodon, you can use a tool like Twitodon. This tool will scan your Twitter following list and see if any of those Twitter users also use the Mastodon social network.

Twitodon homepage, which lets you find Twitter users on Mastodon

Other similar tools you can use include Fedifinder and Debirdify.

You can also go the manual route for finding friends, which requires searching the word “Mastodon” on Twitter and looking for people you follow who’ve included Mastodon usernames on their Twitter profiles.

How to Create Your Own Mastodon Server

It is unnecessary to create a server if you simply want to join and use Mastodon.

However, you can create your own server if you want to develop and control a completely customizable community. Your server is your property, and you create your own rules. You can limit sign-ups, create an invite-only social network or have a one-person server that acts as a personal blog.

If you want to set up your own Mastodon social server, you will need to host it yourself, which requires:

  • A domain name: This is how you and other users will access the server and be identified on the network.
  • A virtual computer system: This virtual computer system connected to the internet will run the Mastodon code.
  • An email provider: For Mastodon to send confirmation links and notifications.

You can also choose from a number of providers dedicated to hosting and running Mastodon servers. These providers cover all or most of the above requirements. Some known dedicated providers include Masto.host, Spacebear and Ossrox.

Mastodon also has documentation for those looking to download Mastodon's code and set up the server on their own. 

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