Elon Musk’s first few days as CEO of Twitter have been great news for one social media network. No, not Twitter. Instead, the unexpected star of social media in 2022 is the free, decentralized, loosely organized group of servers that together form the Fediverse, an acronym for federal universe. And nothing is hotter in the Fediverse right now than the open-source Mastodon software that runs on a Twitter-like service running on that collection of servers.
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Most consumers have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of Fediverse, which involves a lot of technical jargon and confusion. However, it probably doesn’t differ much from how modern email services work. Each server uses the same core software, and all servers know how to talk to each other. The most important thing is that each user has an identity on one server. If this identity is a Gmail.com email address, you can exchange email messages with other servers that support the same protocols.
This is how Mastodon works, with one crucial difference. You cannot register on a large, centralized server run by a mega-corporation. Instead, you have to find a server yourself, create an account, and hope that the server you choose can handle the pressure when all these newbies sign up. For an indication of how quickly the Mastodon community has grown, check out the chart above, compiled by Esteban Moro (@[email protected]), an MIT researcher and assistant professor at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.
Mastodon’s servers have been under stress, with users reporting long wait times for email confirmations to arrive and correspondingly long delays in setting up accounts.
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But if you can remove that barrier, you’ll end up in a place that looks an awful lot like Twitter. And it’s growing at an eye-popping pace. According to Eugen Rochko, CEO of Mastodon, about half a million new users registered during the week, and the number of monthly active users on all Mastodon servers exceeded the million mark for the first time.
As you can see from that post, Mastodon looks a lot like Twitter, but it’s not Twitter.
Obvious similarities include a scrolling timeline that shows the actions of people you follow. Tweets are invited messages (they used to be called Toots, but luckily that awkward name is coming out). If you share someone else’s post, you are reblogged or power it. There are also hashtags and lists.
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The Mastodon handle contains your full identity along with the server name. On Twitter I’m @edbott, but on Fediverse I’m @[email protected]. If you want a checkmark next to your name to prove you are who you say you are, you don’t have to pay anyone. instead, you add a link to a website that you control and that acts as a verification.
The main advantage of this distributed installation is that each server gets to set its own monitoring policy and decide which servers it connects to. People who like NSFW content and hate speech can start their own server and rip off all they want and be ignored by the rest of the Fediverse.
If all of this sounds interesting, you can create your own identity and check things out for yourself. I recommend doing this installation on a desktop or Mac. You can set up the mobile app later, but it’s much easier to get started if you’re using a standard browser window with all the necessary controls available.
How to start Mastodon
The first step is literally the hardest. You need to find the address of the server running the Mastodon software (named an embodiment) and accepting new registrations.
As with most things in life, the best way to find a reliable example is to ask a friend for a recommendation and, if necessary, an invitation. If this option is not available, search for a public instance. (Not sure who you know is on Mastodon? Skip ahead to Step 5, where you can use Debirdify to go through the list of Twitter accounts you follow and create an easy-to-read list.)
Although you can go to the official site https://joinmastodon.org and search for a server there, that’s a recipe for frustration. This list is short and currently only shows a handful of open servers. Instead, I recommend going to https://instances.social and using either the wizard or the more advanced search tool. Alternatively, try going to Mastodon’s activity page and looking at the list under the Instances heading. The entries at the top of the list are the most popular.
Go to the case of your choice and fill out the form, assuming they accept membership. You’ll probably want to use your Twitter account again, but feel free to join with any account you choose. Here is the instance login screen at c.im.
(Don’t worry, moving your account to another server is easy enough later, though you should probably do it before you accumulate a lot of upload history.)
Click Register and wait for the confirmation email. It can take minutes or hours. As signups increase, some people report that they never receive an email to activate their account.
After verifying your account, use the Edit Profile button to add information about who you are. Fill out your bio (if you want to copy and paste your Twitter photo) and add a photo so people know it’s you. Tip: In Mastodon, your profile picture is called an avatar.
This is also a good time to enable 2-step verification for your account.
Add the Mastodon handle to your Twitter bio. This makes it easier for people who know you from Twitter to find you in a new place.
You are now ready to follow some people. If you have Mastodon IDs for people you know are active here, enter their name in the search field to find their account and follow them. (Note that you may need the full ID along with the username and server, such as @[email protected].)
One thing I’ve seen a lot of people do is write a post saying who they are and what they’re interested in, and then stick the post at the top of their profile. This is nice to help people who find you online figure out if you’re a good follower for them.
A surprising number of the accounts I follow on Twitter have created accounts on Mastodon, and many of them put more effort into Mastodon than Twitter. Part of that may just be the newness of Fediverse, but it also means you’re likely to find familiar faces in a new place.
You’ll find plenty of lists of people who have done the #TwitterMigration, which is also a hashtag worth searching. Chances are someone you follow has compiled a list like this. When I wrote lists in the search field I got some interesting results; your mileage may vary.
However, to speed up the process, use the Debirdify app, which uses the Twitter API to scan the accounts you follow for signs of the Mastodon ID. (This is why you should update your Twitter bio to include your address in Fediverse.) You can go through the results manually, but it’s much more productive to export the Debirdify list as comma-separated values (CSV) and then import it. From the Settings page of your Mastodon instance.
You can now browse Fediverse to your heart’s content.
Here are some starting notes:
Don’t try to do everything you did on Twitter. The means of interaction are considerably different. There’s no equivalent to, say, a quote tweet, and there’s no algorithm that decides what you see. There is also, at least for now, a lot of help for newcomers and a lot of introductions from people who are just setting up their accounts.
Enable 2FA. Please. I said this before, but it bears repeating. Protect your account by enabling two-factor authentication. It only takes a few seconds. (And don’t forget to print your backup code just in case.)
Be especially careful with direct messages on Mastodon. They are not encrypted and are visible to server administrators, so it is best not to use them for important or sensitive business purposes. It’s also very easy to accidentally make a private message public or have a third party mention them. It can be tricky if the mention is not flattering.
And this is really just scratching the surface. I’ll have a lot more to say about Mastodon in the coming days and weeks.
Reminder from the author: After almost 17 years at ZDNET, I will be leaving at the end of 2022. You can stay in touch by subscribing to my newsletter, Ed Bott’s READ.ME. It’s free (for now) and I do a lot of the same things I’ve done here at ZDNET and in my books. Register at https://edbott.substack.com/.
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