Perhaps it’s the advertising. Perhaps it’s the politics. Perhaps it’s the brutal harassment and paper-thin protections for users. Perhaps it’s the Nazis. Whatever your personal reason, you’ve come to the conclusion that it’s finally time to quit Twitter.
Great. Welcome to Mastodon.
The Story So Far
I take no pleasure in how my relationship with Twitter has soured. When I first joined Twitter in 2008, it was held together with chewing gum and scotch tape, but dynamic and growing with the help of dedicated fans and third-party clients. I made new friends there, and stayed in touch with old ones. I discovered such luminaries as Dril.
But by 2014, it had already started to feel like an ad-saturated chore. And then mass harassment campaigns like Gamergate were suddenly common, bots rampant, and the platform’s role in election interference made it even more unseemly. Twitter not only ceased to be fun, but it is sometimes a dangerous and unpredictable place.
Around the same time Twitter was reaching its nadir, a new open-source social network called Mastodon emerged. Anti-advertising alternatives to social networks were not new—Diaspora and Ello had already come and (mostly) gone when Mastodon debuted. But Mastodon fills an urgent need at a time of real crisis. It offers an ad-free, community-supported Twitter-like microblogging experience, and it has baked anti-harassment tools right in from the start.
Mastodon didn’t click with me right away. It took a few false starts and some help from friends a little braver and more savvy than myself. But now I love it like I did Twitter a decade ago.
Step 1: Delete or Lock Down Your Twitter Account
Time to close that portal to hell! You have a few options on how to do this: either deactivate your account, or lock it so that posts are no longer public. We have an exhaustive look at how to not only delete your Twitter account, but also delete all your Tweets. I’ll summarize below.
You’ll start by logging into Twitter and clicking your avatar in the upper right. In the menu that appears, select Settings and Privacy. You should arrive in the Account section. To deactivate your account, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the Account section, and click the link that reads Deactivate Your Account. The next page is a warning, but also a way out: you can opt to have a 30-day or 12-month reactivation grace period.
Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to delete a social media account that was once in active use. There’s no guarantee that simply hitting the delete button will remove your data from the company’s servers, so retaining the account at least gives you a modicum of control. Plus, if someone were to impersonate you on that service, having access to your old account would be critical in containing the damage. Also, there are tools to help you find your old Twitter friends on other services that require your Twitter account to still exist.
If you’re dead-set on deactivating your account, you may want to pull out a copy of your archive first. This is a full copy of your Tweets, including your retweets, in a static HTML file and associated folders. There are also services that will let you remove all your Tweets, leaving your account active but empty.
Instead of deactivating your account, you can also make it effectively invisible. In the Privacy and Safety area of your Twitter settings, click the check box that says Protect your Tweets.
This locks your account. All new posts will be hidden from view, but Twitter warns that old ones may still be visible. While you’re here, you may as well prevent other people from finding your Twitter account by email or phone number, and prevent people from tagging you in photos. You may also want to prevent future messages or notifications from Twitter, which you can manage from the Notifications and Email Notifications areas in your Twitter settings.
Because you may not be using Twitter for a while, be sure you have two-factor authentication turned on for your account. An unattended account is more likely to be hijacked than one you use every day.
If you decide to retain your Twitter account, it’s a good idea to leave a forwarding address. Drop a Tweet pointing people towards your new home on Mastodon, and pin it to your account.
Step 2: Delete the Twitter App From Your Phones and Tablets
This might be scary, but it’s going to feel so good. If you’re on Android, tap and drag the Twitter app to the top of the screen and release over the Uninstall icon that appears on the top right of the screen. If you’re on iOS, tap and hold the app until it jiggles, then tap the X on the icon’s top left corner.
Some people use the Twitter direct message (DM) feature to communicate with friends and family. Thankfully, we’re living in a golden age of group texting options. You can use your default messaging client, or opt for an over-the-top option that uses your data plan.
Facebook Messenger is a popular option for group messaging, but if you’re looking to escape the tyranny of social media giants it’s not the best choice. Note that you can opt to create encrypted messages with Facebook Messenger, but it’s a bit tricky. WhatsApp is also a popular choice and also owned by Facebook, and it now offers encrypted messaging by default. My personal favorite is Signal, which puts a major emphasis on privacy and security. In fact, its underlying technology is already being used to secure WhatsApp conversations and private Facebook Messenger chats. Security is critical in a messaging app.
Now that you’ve packed your digital bags, it’s time to move on.
Step 3: Create Your First Mastodon Account
Getting started with Mastodon is the hardest part, because it’s not always clear where to start. That’s because Mastodon isn’t monolithic, like Facebook or Twitter. Instead, it’s a federated service more akin to email. Just as you can create an email account on any service you like—protonmail, gmail, hotmail, and so on—and still send email to users on different providers, Mastodon lets you sign up one of many sites that run Mastodon software, called instances. Any user and can communicate with Mastodon users on different instances.
That’s great in theory, but it can be overwhelming in practice. I recommend going straight to Mastodon.social/about. This is the flagship instance for the service, runs the latest version of Mastodon, and has the most users. It’s a great way to get a feel for how the service works. If you feel confident, head over to JoinMastodon.org and look over a list of most available instances.
Signup is simple—just a username, email address, and password. Mastodon is an open-source community project, so gathering information about you isn’t their business model. There is, in fact, no business model. The goal is to create a usable and sustainable community experience.
The first time you log in, you’ll be greeted by a friendly tutorial. I highly recommend you read it, if only to see some cute cartoon mastodons. One important thing to note is your full username, which is formatted thus:
See? Like an email address. Most of the time, it’s truncated to just @[username], but the full name is your specific account on a specific Mastodon instance.
The default look for Mastodon is called Tootsuite, and it draws heavily from the multiple feed look of Tweetdeck. There are other ways to view your Mastodon timeline that are more Twitter-like but the vanilla Mastodon.social experience is a great way to start. You’re leaving Twitter, after all, so why not leave behind its interface, too?
Once your account is created, you can make changes by clicking the gear icon on the right side of the left-most column.
The first Settings screen you’ll see is Preferences. This changes default behaviors and can filter out posts in languages you don’t understand. Some useful privacy options are check boxes to opt-out of search engine indexing and hide your network.
Click Edit Profile to do that thing. Most of the options will be familiar to anyone who has used social media in the last decade, but a few options stand out. The Lock Account option lets you approve requests from people who want to follow you. The Profile Metadata section lets you add links or personal stats to your bio page. If you want to display a preferred pronoun, a link to a personal website, or batting average, this is the place to do it.
The Verification section was added as of Mastodon 2.6, and works differently than verified accounts on Twitter or Facebook. On those platforms, the company verifies you if they deem you worthy. On Mastodon, adding a link to your personal homepage verifies your identity. The goal isn’t to get a fancy check-mark, it’s to provide a little more confidence that you are who you say you are. It’s also completely optional.
As you’re exploring the Settings page, be sure to stop in at the section labeled “Two-Factor Auth.” Two-factor authentication makes it harder for an attacker to take control of your account. It makes logging in a bit longer, since you have to type in a special code, but it’s well worth the peace of mind.
Step 4: Find Your Friends From Twitter
The problem with Twitter isn’t all the people, it’s the cutthroat pursuit of monetization schemes and capitulation to (and coddling of) polo-shirted fascists. So finding your friends from Twitter on Mastodon is important.
You can start by asking around, but a useful way to find and be found on Mastodon is the Mastodon Bridge.
This simple tool works like any other Twitter app, and helps friends find each other across social networks. Just click the Twitter button on the left, and login to your Twitter account. Then click the Mastodon button on the right and login to Mastodon. After that, you just follow the instructions!
The Bridge app has limited access to your accounts, and acts like a beacon for other people who use the Bridge tool. When they fire it up, they’ll get alerts that you have also made the jump to Mastodon, and will have the option to follow you.
Step 5: Send Your First Toot
The far left column is your starting point. In the middle, a text box invites you to write what’s on your mind. You have 500 characters to play with, or more depending on the instance you join, so write as much or as little as you want. When you’re ready to send, just click the Toot button. That’s it! On Mastodon, posts are called Toots instead of Tweets.
You can add an image by clicking the camera icon, pasting an image from your clipboard, or click and dragging a photo over the page. When an image is added, you can add a description for the visually impaired. If your image is NSFW, has some content that people might not want to see, or is better revealed as part of a gag, click the eyeball icon. This will hide the image in people’s feeds; they simply have to click to reveal it.
Similarly, the CW icon lets you create a Content Warning. This opens a new text field above the main field, where you can write a warning about what you’re going to share. Being able to opt-in to viewing content is a benefit of using Mastodon, so it’s a good idea to use CWs frequently. For example, when discussing sensitive topics like mental health or politics, I always use a CW so people can choose whether or not read it. I sometimes use a CW when I’m talking about movies or TV shows I love. Not because it’s dangerous content, but because some people just might not care to read my ramblings about Star Trek. A Toot with a CW will only show what’s in the CW field in people’s feeds. They have to click to read the full Toot.
Finally, the globe icon lets you choose how visible your Toot is. The default options is Public, meaning it will appear in all timelines. (You can change the default visibility in Settings.) Unlisted means your Toot will only appear in the timelines of other users, not in public feeds like the one on the Mastodon.social/about page. Followers-only hides your Toot from anyone other than your followers. The last option, Direct, is similar to a DM on Twitter. The Toot will only be seen by the people you mention by their usernames in the post.
A good first Toot would probably be an introduction! Say who you are and use the hashtags #intro, #introduction, or #introductions. List your interests as hashtags, so your Toot will appear in searches and timelines. My intro mentioned #journalism and #infosec.
Step 6: Get to Know Your New Home
A search bar above the Toot text field is both more and less powerful than you’d expect. Mastodon, by design, cannot be searched for arbitrary names or words as Twitter can, in an effort to prevent harassment. #hashtags and usernames can be searched, as well as the specific URL of a Toot or a user’s page. You should use #hashtags on posts you want to be seen by other users. Search results appear as their own column. You can save the search as a semipermanent column by clicking the options button in the right-hand corner of the column and clicking Pin.
Above the search bar are five shortcuts. The three-bars button returns you to the main Toot drafting page. The icon that shows three people is the Local Timeline. This shows you all the public posts on your instance. The globe icon pulls up the Federated Timeline, which shows all the public posts in all the Mastodon instances that connect with yours. In the case of Mastodon.social, this is more or less all the Mastodon posts on Earth. The gear icon opens the preferences pane, and the far-right icon logs you out.
Each Toot has four icons that will probably be familiar to anyone who’s used Twitter. The arrow icon lets you reply to the Toot in a thread. The arrows in a rectangular circuit icon lets you boost a Toot, which is the same as retweeting or reblogging. Note that you can only boost a Toot, you can’t boost with a comment attached. This is by design. The star icon lets you mark a Toot as a favorite, and the neighboring three-dots button shows advanced actions you can take. Two of note: Delete and Redraft deletes your Toot and places a copy of the deleted Toot’s text in new Toot field for editing, and Mute conversation turns off notifications for a particular Toot. That’s handy if people decide to have a conversation in the responses to one of your Toots.
The far right column has many of the same controls as the far left, and the others are self-explanatory. The Home column shows posts from people you follow. Click the settings icon and you can hide boosts and replies, if you so wish. As in Twitter, Mastadon’s Notifications column shows interactions with your Toots. By default, it’s divided into All and Mentions, the latter of which only shows responses to your Toots. You can have a more granular breakdown of interactions, too. Click the settings icon to change what alerts you receive and how you receive them.
Step 7: Edit Your Experience
Each instance, Mastodon.social included, has different standards for allowable content. Some instances allow everything, others have volunteer administrators and codes of conduct. The broad and powerful administrator tools are one of the draws of Mastodon. Admins can, for example, block entire instances from connecting with theirs, if a particular instance becomes a known problem.
Each user also has the ability to mute, report, or block users. If a particular instance is bothering you, just click on any user from that instance, and click the three-button menu on their bio page, and then click “Hide everything from [domain].” Also, the Filters section of the Settings menu lets you filter out words or phrases.
Step 8: Starting a New Life on Mastodon
Once you’re comfortable on Mastodon.social, take a look at the large community of Mastodon users. Mastodon.social is a general-purpose instance, but other instances might be designed to cater to specific locations, interests, groups, or anything else! Some instances are intentionally small, to create a community feel, others are no-holds barred.
Each Mastodon instance has its own URL, so you can be logged into as many as you want simultaneously. I recently moved from mastodon.social to infosec.exchange, which is more focused on security issues. I also have an account at tenforward.social, to talk about Star Trek.
When looking for a new instance to join, your first stop should be JoinMastodon.org. Here, you can read about how Mastodon works and why it’s great, and you can browse a list of Mastodon instances to join. Scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page and you’ll see a section called Sign Up. Here you’ll see a list of many, but not all, of the Mastodon instances you can make your digital home. Mastodon admins take full advantage of available top-level domains to name their instances, so get ready for some exciting names.
If you want to move on from an instance, you have the option to shutter it and leave a forwarding address. Go to Settings, Edit Profile, and scroll down to the bottom. You can delete your account, or redirect others to your new Mastodon home on a different instance. The Import and Data Export pages let you bring your followers list, as well as your blocks and mutes, to your new home.
If you’re not a fan of the default Tootsuite interface, there are other web apps options to explore. Pinafore is one example, but there are others. Just login with your Mastodon account, and you’re good to go. Some web apps even let you toggle between multiple accounts on different instances with ease.
There’s also a healthy number of mobile Mastodon clients. Of the ones I’ve used, Amaroq is an excellent iOS option and Fedilab excels on Android. Fedilab is notable, as its expanded to support other federated social networks, not just Mastadon.
Step 9: Explore the Fediverse
Mastodon is just one of a growing community of community sites and services built on the ActivityPub protocol. Other open-source social protocols can also communicate with ActivityPub projects. Taken together, they’re called the Fediverse (that is, a universe of federated applications).
If you’re enjoying Mastodon, or are at least curious about what a totally differnet model for the social internet looks like, then plunge headlong into the Fediverse. The site Switching.social maintains a handy list of alternative services, and whether or not those services federate—that is, communicate—with other sites.
Pixelfed, for example, is an ActivityPub powered Instagram replacement, while Plume takes on Medium for blogging on ActivityPub. Pleroma is a more Twitter-like microblogging service. All of these services, and others, can communicte with each other despite filling radically different niches.
It’s a brave new world out here in the Fediverse, have a good time exploring it. If you have any additional tips or tricks for getting started on Mastodon, be sure to let other readers know about them in the comments.