A brief introduction to Mastodon

Adam Fields
8 min readNov 21, 2022


This is adapted from a presentation I gave to a few people, and my main takeaway from that is that there are some confusing differences between how Twitter works and how Mastodon works. This is my attempt to dispel some of that confusion.

Mastodon is similar to Twitter in a lot of ways, but with some critical differences. I assume that you already know how Twitter works — this is an intro to how to think about some of the things that are different, and some things you might want to do right away to make your life easier.

None of this is meant to be definitive, but enjoy the helpful suggestions.

Mastodon is a distributed, “federated” social network system. There is open source software that runs the network — anyone can run their own server and make customizations. The protocol it runs on is called ActivityPub.

tl;dr: if you don’t follow a bunch of people, at least 100–200, pretty quickly, you’re likely to have a bad experience. Use your local and federated timelines, and hashtags for topics you’re interested in, to find people to follow.

When you create an account, you do so on a specific server

  • Without an account, you can see the public timeline for any server.
  • You need an account to post.
  • With an account, you can also follow users on your own server (local) or any other remote server (federated).
  • You can reply to people who are on other servers.
  • You can favorite and boost (repost) posts on other servers.
  • You can create as many accounts as you want on different servers
  • Some servers are invitation only or signup-restricted

Let’s talk about feed curation!

As with other social networks, you can primarily interact with posts by liking them (favoriting), reposting them (boosting), replying, and following the person who wrote them.

Unlike with other social networks, these interactions have outsize effects on the visibility of posts in your timeline and the timelines of others. Most other social networks have some sort of algorithmic feed that will push content to you. Most of the time, this is based on either what’s “trending” or what they think you might be interested in (profiling). Mastodon has none of that, so you only get what you follow, and what the people you follow think is important.

Favoriting a post is nominally only visible to the person who wrote the post. Do this liberally to be nice and give that person some feedback that you liked what they wrote.

Boosting a post makes it visible to your followers and other people on your instance. Do this liberally to extend the reach of other posts and give people a chance to see what you value.

Replying to a post is normally visible to anyone who can see your posts (unless you change the visibility). This can be useful to show people who follow you that there’s an interesting conversation going on.

Following people and hashtags are how you get more posts into your feed. My advice here is to start by following everyone who interacts with you if they seem remotely interesting. You can always unfollow later if it was a mistake. Some people worry about not being able to keep up with everything. Personally, I let that go a long time ago — just dip into the river and see what’s new. If there are specific people that you want to see everything from, you can turn on notifications for their posts. In my experience, I usually don’t want to do this for most people, but you can always try it out and turn it off if it’s too much.

Curating your feed is your responsibility, but it is also empowering to see more of the posts you want to see in your main timeline (more on that in a bit).

There is a popular hashtag about forest molds called #lichensubscribe. Find your people.

Great! How do I choose a server?

The choice of server isn’t critical from the perspective of participating in the network — you can still follow and interact with anyone else on other servers as long as your server doesn’t block their server (or vice-versa).

Factors that are important to choosing a server include:

  • What posts you see in the local timeline
  • Moderation policies / rules of the individual server
  • Which other servers they block
  • Whether you think the server is reliable or not. This can be hard to judge, but it’s also a fact that if your server just vanishes one day, all of your posts and any data you haven’t backed up is just gone.
  • A good starting point is to run the debirdify app and it will give you a good breakdown of where people you follow are clustered at.

Can I switch servers?

Sort of. You can migrate your account and it will move over your followers and issue a redirect to your new profile, but as of now, posts will not be migrated. So the cost of moving servers increases as you participate in the network more.

There are three main kinds of timelines

  • Home (posts from people you follow, regardless of whether they’re on your server or not)
  • Local (posts from people on your server, regardless of whether you follow them or not)
  • Federated (posts from everyone that anyone on your server follows, regardless of whether they’re on your server or not, plus some other ways posts can get into your federated timeline)

Most of the time, you’ll probably want to stick to your Home and Local timelines. All timelines are chronological, there is (currently, and I have no indication that this is likely to change, but it could) no algorithmic feed.

In addition to the timelines, you can also now follow hashtags for topics of interest.

By default, your public posts are visible to everyone

  • They will show up in the home timelines of the people who follow you, your server’s local timeline, and any federated timelines of the servers you have followers on.
  • Posts can have visibility options and be hidden with content warnings:
  • A boost looks like it was an original post from the person who boosted it
  • Favorites are semi-public (you can see them from an individual post, but they are not used to show content to your followers the way Twitter does)
  • I found this clear diagram (which I was later informed came from Per Axbom’s Mastodon Tips article):

A weird gotcha with federation

Because posts are federated, you’ll only see them if your instance knows about them, and it may be that case that smaller instances don’t see the entire picture. I’m not 100% sure how this works yet, but it seems to be the case that when you view a post on your instance, you’ll only see replies that your instance already knows about, which may be a small fraction of replies to that post that have been sent from other servers. On a larger instance, this may not be an issue for you because someone on your instance is likely following most of the people participating in the thread. You can always go view the post on the instance it originated from to see all of the replies, but you have to know to do that, and it’s a bit of a hassle. It’s unclear if this is widely believed to be a problem or not, but it’s definitely a difference from how centralized social networks operate.

The basic home view:

This should be familiar if you use Twitter, but some people find it a bit confusing because the default display is only your home feed, and it can be very slow if you don’t follow a lot of people.

The advanced web view

You can enable a multi-pane view which shows customizable columns, and you can pin selected ones so they’re always visible.

Some preferences you probably want to check out right away

  • Import/export (import the people you follow on Twitter)
  • Set up TOTP 2FA (Account > Two-factor Auth)
  • Turn on Advanced Web View (Preferences > Enable advanced web interface)
  • Content moderation options(Appearance > Sensitive Content)

There are many iOS clients

The official Mastodon client isn’t great, I’m told it’s mostly there because people were looking for it and confused when they didn’t find an official one. Metatext was the leader for a while but it is no longer being maintained and lacks support for Mastodon 4.0 features.

Toot! is not free but is nice. Ivory, from the makers of Tweetbot is currently in a closed beta but invitations are periodically available by following them at @ivory@tapbots.social. I’ve been testing it for a few days and it’s not surprisingly very good even in early development.

There are a lot of newer ones in development, watch this space.

Migrating Twitter follows

Mastodon is a LOT nicer when you already have a bunch of people to follow. You can import your Twitter follows and help other people find you on Mastodon with these tools:

These only work if people explicitly put their Mastodon handles in their Twitter profiles, but a lot of people seem to be doing that. I’ve only used debirdify, but it lets you download a CSV file to import your follows directly into your Mastodon server.

Finding other accounts

Here are a few directory services I know of to help you find other people to follow.

Special mention: https://followgraph.vercel.app/ will let you analyze the people the people you follow are following in common.

I hope this was helpful!

You can find me (for now) at @fields@hachyderm.io. Feel free to ask questions!