I am writing this in November 2022, during the great Flight From the Birdsite; I haven’t fled (yet) but decided it was wise to claim my own handle somewhere on Mastodon, one of the proposed alternatives (find me at @email@example.com). My nature as a scholar led me to collect and organize a lot of links I found this month concerning my potential new social media home.
One of the first thing to understand about Mastodon before you even begin to start trying to use it is that it is “federated,” meaning there are a lot of different ‘instances’ (that is, what most people call ‘servers’) instead of one massive central one. This has a lot of implications for your experience. Content moderation practice, and kicking out problematic users, is entirely up to the local system administrators and their content moderation team (if they have one). So when someone talks about their experiences with the service, bear in mind that your mileage may vary depending on the instance you chose. For example:
- You can follow people on other instances, but your choice does matter because of the Local timeline, which is just the people on your own instance. Some smaller instances cater to particular communities, so Local might be worth following in its entirety. For example, wandering.shop aims at the speculative fiction community (and hosts several writers I follow); universeodon.com wants to attract people ‘who view the universe through wonder.’
- Your choice of instance needn’t be permanent; you can migrate. There are a lot of small instances in the fediverse.
- Many instances purge media attachments after some time, which could be as short as a week. So don’t look at Mastodon as an archive. Archive.Org may be trying to set up something for this purpose, but that isn’t clear as of this writing. Your local instance may preserve local media longer than it preserves that from other instances.
- Your instance could choose to block everything from some other instance it considers problematic – such as being a source of too many abusive posts. Or vice versa. This means you could lose access to people you’ve been following, through no fault of either of you (other than a forced “guilt by association” ruling for picking your particular instance).
Before you start, you should consider what Twitter user @rahaeli, one of the founding members of the LiveJournal Trust and Safety team (who knows more about the Internet than all but a small fraction of us) considers a bare minimum for signing up for a new service. She doesn’t currently think Mastodon meets these minimum standards, though that could depend on the instance you’re considering.
The first things to look at are a FAQ and five guides on joining and using Mastodon. There are also several things I discovered by reading other posts, which might be worth pointing out even if you’ve read the guides:
- Mastodon is designed to resist posts going viral.
- You can use debirdify to transport your follow and block lists from the birdsite via a CSV file.
- Since you’re not flooded with ads, you can afford to follow more people and more hashtags than on some other social networks.
- There are several mechanisms for dealing with unwanted content. Some things work differently from what you might be used to. For example, you can mute someone for minutes, hours, or days, instead of permanently (at least, from the web browser interface).
- For accessibility reasons, to be kind to people who use screenreaders:
- Put hashtags at the ends of posts instead of in the middle, so the reader doesn’t pronounce “hashtag” every time. I violated this rule on my introductory post, because I wanted to fit a lot into the 500 character limit, but I am trying to do better now.
- Use ALT text for all your images. There is a bot that will remind you if you follow it: @PleaseCaption@botsin.space.
- Use CamelCase for hashtags (that is, capitalize each word in a multi-word tag).
- Sometimes people use the Content Warning (CW) mechanism as a Content Wrapper, to hide looong posts or those the writer expects have a limited audience.
- Direct Messages on Mastodon aren’t private, and mentioning someone adds them to the conversation.
There is controversy about Content Warnings, in that some people from marginalized communities want to be able to express their experiences without having to hide them behind a CW, and others from the same communities want people to use CWs so they can choose when to deal with what is a constant issue in their lives. I have no insight into how to resolve this. Complicating this issue is that some un-marginalized people police CWs to protect their own fragility, which seems to me constitutes harassment. If somebody posts to a hashtag you follow with content you don’t like, you can mute or block them.
Running Your Own Instance
If you’re a techie, it might appear to be relatively easy to set up and run an instance. It may or may not be easy to set up (my tech skills have declined over the years, so it’s harder for me to judge), but it’s not easy to run, for socio-legal reasons rather than technical ones.
Most of the issues boil down to one thing: Content moderation, which is a lot more fraught than Some People think. You absolutely need to read Twitter user @rahaeli’s journal entry about legal liability for social media sites. A Mastodon mod with 5 years’ experience posted a guide to running a Mastodon instance that talks about some of the same issues. It’s not at all clear what fraction of instance admins are aware of all of this, but for several years Mastodon has had proposed workflow for DMCA takedowns, which is only one of many issues you need to be aware of.
So far I’m happy with Mastodon. The total lack of ‘promoted tweets’ and ads is refreshing, and the lack of Quote Tweet means I see a lot less expression of outrage over stuff I’d rather not see. Like most Twitter migrants, my collection of followers has collapsed, but I have plenty of friends to follow; my tolerance for volume is relatively low because I really, really want to read (or at least skim) every post. For example, I am currently following #WritingCommununity, which I couldn’t cope with on Twitter.