Mastodon 101

WHAT is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a decentralized, federated community of communities built on open source software. Instead of having a single corporation own/run the thing, the platform lives on thousands of individual servers all over the world that are paid for, supported, and otherwise maintained by volunteers. Here’s what that looks like:

You’ll notice that the grey servers are not connected to the rest. That’s because Mastodon is open source software. Anyone can download it and run it on any server. They don’t actually have to connect with the others.

But many servers have decided to ‘connect’ with one another through a federation-style relationship in which each server has it’s own community (sometimes around a specific theme like writing, tech, etc.) but the people on that server can hop around and meet people from other servers at will. This is called The Fediverse.

If a server is filled with nazis or other criminal types, the rest of the servers can eject them from The Fediverse and that’s the end of that. Also any one server can block any other single server if, say, there’s a culture mismatch between the two.

The way this plays out for users is you have three timelines you can view in on your profile:

The LOCAL timeline is just the people on your server.

The HOME timeline is people you specifically follow (and any posts they re-share from their own timeline)

The FEDERATED timeline is pretty much everyone on earth on every Mastodon server who is currently posting.

WHY choose Mastodon?

I could (and should) write an entire book about how social media platforms have been built to prioritize advertising over human engagement. But this is not the time for that. Suffice it to say that if you’ve known me for any length of time you know that my *mission* (I do not use that word lightly) is to help people humanize one another online. This is what will unlock the true potential of digital media and the global connection it offers.

Mastodon does not:

  • Have paid advertising
  • Use any algorithms to prioritize some content over others. You are in control of what you get to see.
  • Allow for a single person or topic to take over the entire Fediverse and ‘trend’ – a very handy Twitter feature for marketers, propagandists and orange presidents alike that Mastodon was designed to avoid.

Furthermore, there are cultural norms established across The Fediverse that allow people to engage authentically and with vulnerability.

People are the priority, and your server community is your ‘home base’. You always have the ability to post *only* to that group without people all over the Fediverse chiming in.

Culture, Protocols, and Etiquette

Mastodon was built as an alternative to Twitter in 2016 just as that platform was being turned into a tool for distraction and destruction by the Tr**p Administration (with American media covering every single Tweet) . The people who left Twitter at that time were largely marginalized folks who were looking to build a sane, respectful space that had the good things they liked about Twitter, but without the awful stuff that allows for harassment, hate speech, hyperbole and the manipulation of media and public opinion.

There are three important things to know before you decide to jump in:

Content Warnings and alt-text

Mastodon was built and populated by marginalized groups who were harassed/bullied off of other platforms. The purpose of content warnings or CW’s is not diminish anyone’s voice, but to show respect for other people’s mental health.

This allows people to view emotionally difficult or stressful content when and if they are the frame of mind to do so. The rule of thumb is: if you’re feeling intense when you’re posting, put a CW on it. Again, you’re engaging with humans, not algorithms. Be gentle. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t discuss difficult things. The CW exist so that you can discuss difficult things in a way that respects consent.

Additionally, when uploading images, be sure to add alt-text to them before posting so that they can be appreciated by people viewing them with screen readers.

Another important tip – use ‘Camel Caps” in your hashtags – that is, capitalize the first word of a multi-word hashtag so that screen readers can make sense of them. Examples: #StarWarsIsCool #StarTrekIsCooler

Do these things take a little time and forethought? Absolutely. That’s what makes a community. And once you get used to it, you’ll do it without even thinking about it.

Your Profile

The first thing you should do when you start your account is immediately set up your profile. Get to know your settings and make your account your own. Add a photo and fill out the bio. Add hashtags to your bio so people searching the Fediverse for others with the same interests can find you. Again, this is about people – so put some personality into your profile. You’ll get way more people connecting with you this way.


Since there’s no algorithm, if you want to find people or discuss certain topics, you must use hashtags. Put them in your profile. Use them liberally in your posts. Conversely, if there are topics you absolutely *do not* want to discuss or see discussed, those hashtags can be blocked from your profile settings.

Ahhhhh! Feels so good to be in control!

I recommend giving yourself at least a week of daily use to really get in the groove. In the beginning it will seem slow, but that’s because your timeline is not built yet. Find 100 people to follow, and before you know it, you’ll be having more fun than you thought possible on a website that uses the word ‘toot’.

Got questions? Hit me!

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