An Informal Guide to Mastodon

Mintsadon. Heh.

Let’s see if we can do this without my trade-mark rambling, hmm?? (we won’t)

Welcome! To the informal guide to Mastodon. Informal how? Well for one, it’s not going to be too technical. A lot of it will be assorted tips and tricks that you might pick up after some time on Mastodon — things that are considered norms, things that should have been explained when you signed on, etc. You’ll get it when you start reading. Oh God, oh no, I’m so bad at intros. 

Why should I read YOUR Mastodon Guide? 

Well I’ve been on Mastodon for a few months now. I am not the Old Guard by any means. But! I make up for that with heaps of enthusiasm. In the short time I’ve been on Mastodon, I’ve had a big attitude shift, turned into a mint, and made some good friends. I’ve a vested interest in the network, so…hopefully that counts! 

Also unlike literally every other Masto guide, I didn’t write this on Medium. Fuck Medium.

What the heck is a Mastodon anyways?

Oh good, the guide’s starting! In the simplest terms possible, Mastodon is what you’d consider a Twitter alternative. It’s a micro-blogging site that exists on a timeline, where everyone tweets — or in this case, toots…yes, I know, and I’m sorry — to whoever is following them. You can reply to each other’s @s, post vids and gifs, and so on. There are some differences from Twitter which you’ll soon see.

Why should I join?

I mean, other than the fact that yours truly made their online home there? You really need more? Oh hecc, fine.

I personally think you should join Mastodon because it’s Federated. What this means is that Mastodon exists as a series of servers. Each server is its own “Instance.” All of these servers than interact with each other. The nice thing about this is that you can choose where you want to hang out. For instance (HAH), I’m on elekk.xyz, whereas I may have a mutual follower on Mastodon.art.
This is understandably confusing, so I’ll have you look at it another way. Think of Mastodon Instances as a bunch of guilds, and the Federation as the MMO you’re hanging out on. Elekk is my guild, and is generally videogame oriented. Mastodon.Art is another guild, that is all about posting art. That said, even if we’re in separate guilds, users from both can still follow each other, or “play together,” if you want to stretch this already strained metaphor any further. Users can also block instances, which is another Mastodon benefit: you aren’t forced to hang out around nazis like you would on Twitter. 

Mastodon is also ad-less. Instances are run by different Admins, who pay to keep the servers running, and may solicit help via donations to keep the server running. 

Why else? Well, unlike Twitter, you won’t see likes and whatnot on your timeline. There aren’t any algorithms trying to drive your engagement to brands that Mastodon thinks you’ll like. It’s just you and the posts. 
I’d also consider the Local Timeline one of the best reasons to join Mastodon, but we’ll get to that!

How do I join?

Well ya gotta pick an instance! You can find a list of some (not all) instances on https://joinmastodon.org/. The nice thing is that if you don’t like whatever server you start on, you can always pack up and move to a new one, keeping all of the people you’re following — though this does not include people following you, or the posts you’ve already made, so it’s best to move early, lest you get attached to your account. Or don’t! Move around whenever or however you want. What the fuck do I know? I’m not your mom.

I’m on. Now what? 

This is a close approximation of what you’ll see when you first join Mastodon:

It can be a lot, especially if you’re not used to multi-column views. Have no fear! I too was thrown off at first, but it’s not as scary as it looks. There are four columns here:

  1. The Compose Column. This is where you make posts.
  2. The Home Column. This is where the posts of people you are following will show up.
  3. Notifications. Self-explanatory.
  4. Local Timeline. Ooh, something new! The Local Timeline is where the posts of everyone on your instance shows up. Think of it as the tavern that your guild hangs out on. 
  5. Federated Timeline. Another new thing! The Federated Timeline is where every post from every person on every Instance that your Instance has federated with shows up. It is fast. It is scary. I don’t go in here often. 

Let’s look at each column one at a time. 

Doot the Toot

The first column is where the magic happens. You type, you toot. It’s simple on the surface, but what’s cool about Mastodon is that you can do a whole bunch of fancy things with a post! See those three buttons on the bottom? The first is for pics, vids, and gifs. The second, however, is your privacy options. 

When you make a post on Mastodon, you can choose how far it reaches out into the Fediverse! 

  1. Public: This post will show up on the the Home Timeline, the Local Timeline, and the Federated Timeline. Shout your love for Initial-D into the world.
  2. Unlisted: This shows up on the Home Timeline, but not the Local Timeline or Federated Timeline. It’s like a soft shout. I use this a lot for threaded posts. The first one is public, with everything after being Unlisted, which helps keep the Local Timeline clean.
  3. Followers Only: My favorite. These posts only show up on the Home Timeline of people that follow you. This also means that if someone looks at your profile without a Mastodon account, they won’t be able to see these posts either. It’s very useful.
  4. Direct: Mastodon’s DM feature. Anyone you @ in this post will be part of a private message. Yes, everyone you @. Even the person you wanted to talk shit about in said DM. Be…be careful in that regard.

Content Warnings

The CW is another cool Mastodon feature! When you click it, you’re able to type in a warning for your post. The final product will look like this:

When you click the “Show More” button, your post will appear below it. Any image you attached to a CW post will be marked sensitive. This means that a user will have to click the image to reveal it.

So what are CWs good for? Here’s a list of things that are commonly thrown under a CW:

  • Politics 
  • Food
  • NSFW posts
  • Spoilers for Media
  • Extra Long posts
  • Religion
  • Personal Posts

There is no hard and fast rule to CWs, but the above are generally accepted as things that should be CWed for one reason or another. There may be posts that are required to be CWed on your Instance too — check with your admins or your instance’s code of conduct to be sure. In general though, it’s better to be safe than sorry. If you’re not sure, just CW it! (A little secret: people are going to click it anyways. Don’t tell anybody.)

Visual Descriptors

Another cool feature when it comes to Mastodon is the ability to add visual descriptors to images, but it can be easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. When you upload an image or video to Mastodon, hover over it and you’ll see this:

Click the text that says “describe for the visually impaired,” and you’ll be able to add a descriptor to the image that screen-readers are able to read! It doesn’t have to be too detailed or anything, but try and add enough that someone would be able to get a good idea of what the image is without looking at it. For instance (HAH AGAIN) with the image above, I’d probably write something like “a girl with long green hair in a light-green armored outfit from monster hunter looks at the camera with a serious expression.”

Please alt-text your posts! It’s extremely useful for people who are visually impaired, and is just a good practice to follow. I highly highly highly recommend it!

Hashtags

I don’t know where else to put this, so I’m putting it here. Hashtags work like they do on Twitter, but they’re a bit easier to check out, so they’re worth using! Any unlisted or follower-only toots with hashtags won’t show up in the index list, though. 

Custom Emoji

Click the Smiley Face and you’ll find custom Emojis! These are added by your instance admins. If you ask nicely, they might even add ones for you (but like don’t be a pest about it lol). 

You can also quick select emojis on posts by typing them in between colons. Like this: :akkoshrug:

It’ll auto-complete for you! Cool beans! Alright we have well and truly spent enough time here, so on to the next column!

Home is where the Toot is

The Home timeline is pretty easy to follow, so I won’t delve into it for too long. I will say that if you click the top-right options thing-y, you can see that you can hide boosts (retweets if you Twitter) and replies. Uh, other than that…

Oh! This is as good a time to mention pinning and unpinning columns. See that little “unpin” button? If you click it, you can remove the Home column, or any other columns you might not need (like, say, the Federated Timeline).  You can bring them back by clicking the appropriate button above the search-bar here:

And then repinning it in the same place you can unpin it. You can also move columns around by clicking the left and right arrows. Cool. Moving on. 

“What’s the news, cronchy? I haven’t left my house in 3 days.” Or in other words: Notifications

Notifications might be pretty simple, but their customization options are extensive as hecco. You can choose to get desktop and sound notifications for new followers, likes, mentions, and boosts. You can even choose to not have them show up in the column at all! As you can see above, I choose to have desktop notifications for mentions, and hide pretty much everything else. You can have it set up however you like! Pick whatever makes you feel most comfortable.

The Local Timeline!! I don’t have a funny header name.

The Local timeline is legit. It is my favorite part of Mastodon. As I mentioned before, it’s where all the posts from people on your instance show up. Why do I love the Local timeline so much? 
Because it’s the most social part of this social network. On Twitter, when you’re new, it can feel like screaming into a void. There’s no sense of community until you carve it out brick by brick, and even then, your posts can be lost in a stream of hot takes and nice art. But with a local timeline, your rapport is built in. You are among people who have at least one thing in common with you, which is joining the same instance you did. Someone will see you when you make your first post on Mastodon, and I think that’s great! Most of the friends I’ve made on the Fediverse were through the Local Timeline. Don’t neglect it!

The Federated Timeline

What the hell are you doing here? Oh. Do I still have to explain it? Alright, fine, fine.
The federated timeline is the Mastodon badlands. Uh. That’s it, really. Look I can’t say much about this thing because I’m never here. If you like 300 posts a second then dive in I suppose. The only people I judge are SoKai shippers. 

Lists

Legend has it there’s a secret fifth column on Mastodon. It’s called “The List,” and today I reveal its secrets unto you. Lists are essentially private columns that let you see toots of specific people you follow. I don’t use the feature often, but it’s probably useful if you follow lots and lots of accounts.
To make a list, open the hamburger menu on the top left of the page and click lists. From there, enter the new title of your list, and add people to it. Done!

Profile Settings and Preferences

There’s a lot of fun stuff you can tweak in your profile. Click the three dots next to your account to access them.

Profile 

Here’s where you get to make yourself cute. It’s all pretty self-explanatory, but there’s one section that might be confusing, and that’s profile meta-data. 

Profile Meta-Data lets you make a table like the above that shows up on your Profile. Here’s what the above looks like on my own!

You can put anything you want in the tables. People commonly put in their preferred pronouns, other places they can be reached, location, and their own websites. In regards to that last point, make sure to put the full address when you’re putting a website in — if you don’t include it, it won’t be clickable!

Pinned Toots

You can pin toots to the top of your account! Click the 3 dots of any of your toots and click pin to profile to do so.

The final result will look like this! 

Pinned toots are good for intros that might be longer than your bio, links to your creative endeavors, or anything else that remains constantly pertinent to you! 

Moving Instances

If you’re moving instances, scroll all the way down and click “Move to a different account.” You can put in the account you’ve moved to! 

Once you do that and click save, your old account will look like this:

Holy shit a ghost

Everything Else

…Look. There’s a lot you can do in settings besides edit your profile, and I’ve decided they’re beyond the scope of this guide. This is because I’m tired, and most of it is pretty easy to follow anyways. Just click around! Clicking around never hurt anyone. 

Oh Wait

One thing I will point out out is Import and Data Export, though. Data Export lets you import your follow list, as well as accounts you’ve muted and blocked, so you can take them with you if you ever decide to switch instances. Import is where you plug in the lists you exported. 

Apps

Who uses their computer to do things? Not me! I wrote all 2356 words of this guide (so far) on my phone. And that’s probably where you’re gonna spend a lot of time on Mastodon. You can run Mastodon on any phone browser, but it’s pretty finicky…so  let’s find some apps, like god intended!

Apple

I do not have a Steve Machine so this section is gonna be a little sparse, sorry! The iPhone apps l’ve found all look pretty cute and good, though. I’m pretty jealous (as you’ll see in the following section…)

Android

Here’s my domain! I’ve tried every Mastodon App under the sun. Most of them aren’t great, sorry. A lot of them are missing key features, like adding text descriptors to images, and others either have notifications that don’t work very well or at all, or end up being not very pretty. Nonetheless, I’ve compiled the list of the stuff that’ll do you right the most. 

Fedilab

It’s not exactly easy on the eyes, but Fedilab makes up for that with an extensive feature list and super fast updates. Seriously I don’t know if the dev gets any sleep. Fedilab is always being worked on, and I could see it being the premier Android Mastodon app — ah, if it gets a redesign, that is.
Find it here.

Tusky

Tusky is the best looking Mastodon app on Android, I’d say. I’d recommend it 100% for those looking for a very smooth experience. That said, I’ve had issues getting notifications to work on it, so your mileage may vary. Doesn’t update as often as Fedilab, but there’s a nightly version you can check out if you’re adventurous. 
Find it here.

Pinafore

Would you believe me if I told you that the best Android mobile app is a web-wrapper for Mastodon? It’s true!!! Pinafore is my preferred app of choice. To get it to work as an Android app, add it to your home screen from the web browser on your phone. Don’t forget to enable notifications! It’s a bit more of a hassle to get set-up, but Pinafore works perfectly for me. If you don’t want to wrestle with it though, the two choices above should be fine.
http://pinafore.social/

Conclusion

I think…are we done? Holy shit I think we’re done! Thank you for reading this informal guide to Mastodon. I hope it was help. Please tell me if it was helpful, this was a lot of work, lmao. If you have any suggestions or additions you’d like to be added to this guide, or just to say hi because you think I’m cute or something I dunno, hit me up @eightbitsamurai

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