Mastodon Is Not Twitter

November 7, 2022

Hey Internet.

I know, I know, Jon's writing another blog post about the Fediverse. Well, it's my blog. I can write what I want. I've been noticing a lot of misconceptions about the Fediverse, and specifically Mastodon lately, and I wanted to see what I could do about clearing some of that up.

As most of us know, Elon's been doing Mastodon a great service by driving users there en masse. While Mastodon isn't the whole Fediverse, it does make up a large part of it, and given that its interface mimics Twitter's so closely (on the surface anyways) it's understandable that this is where people are going to flock. Superficial similarities aside, Mastodon is different from Twitter in a number of important ways.

The most notable difference, as I mentioned in a previous post, is that Mastodon is federated. This is the first thing that typically trips people up. I was no exception. While it can be irritating, this is one of the important things that makes the Fediverse the awesome place that it is. Twitter has taught us that when something has a central point of control, there's not really anything that stops some crazy billionaire from just buying it and driving it into the ground.

Does it really matter which instance you choose to join? Yes and no. Each instance is typically run by volunteers, and will have its own rules about what is and isn't acceptable (and often a theme). It's a good idea to do a little research on your instance's code of conduct before joining. This will help you to know if it's a good fit for you or not. Don't worry though, if you change your mind, you can always move to another instance later, and even keep your contacts. You can find a list of instances (servers) here.

The next thing that confuses people is that after they've joined, they sign in to a mostly—or even entirely—empty feed. This is another thing that takes getting used to. Mainstream social media has gotten us used to having content spoon-fed to us by an algorithm. This algorithm is not your friend; it's designed to keep you engaged so that it can wring as much money out of you as possible by feeding you a steady diet of ads.

On Mastodon, the only things that show up in your feed are the things you've specifically subscribed to, though some instances may auto-subscribe you to a few accounts just to get you started. Don't worry, you can unsubscribe if you want. It's up to you to decide what you want your feed to look like, and that will be determined by your choice of instance and the accounts you follow (more on this later).

The next big difference is that on Mastodon, you have more than one feed. First you have your "Home" feed. This is the default feed you will see when you log in. It contains the posts (commonly called "toots") from the accounts you've personally subscribed to, as well as any of the content that they "boost" (the same thing as retweeting).

There is also the "Local" feed. This feed contains everything that has been publicly posted by anyone on your instance. If you're on a larger server, this feed can get a little unwieldy, but if you've chosen your instance wisely, they'll mostly be people who have something in common with you.

If that's not enough chaos for you, there's also the "Federated" feed. This will contain everything that's been publicly posted from anywhere on the Fediverse that your instance is aware of. Because of the Fediverse's decentralized nature, not every instance is going to see every post. Determining what posts federate to where is outside the scope of this post, but when you subscribe to someone, you should be able to see all their posts from that point forward. At any rate, the Federated feed tends to be something of a fire hose, but you can sometimes find interesting stuff there.

Okay, so now that we have a basic grasp of how a federated network works, we have to deal with the problem of controlling spam. If there's no central control, how can you possibly keep spam in check? Well, it's more challenging, but Mastodon has some pretty powerful tools to do just this. The bulk of this job will typically fall to your instance admins. They have the power to block any user anywhere on the Fediverse from interacting with anyone on their instance. They can even block entire other instances (known as defederation) if necessary. It doesn't keep them off the Fediverse at large, but it does keep them off that instance. If the problem user is actually on their instance, they have the power to ban them outright—though they can still sign up with another instance. Also, as you would expect, you have the ability to block people from interacting with you.

With all that out of the way, I want to touch on how to interact with people on Mastodon. That too is a little different. The Fediverse has its own etiquette, and it's helpful to learn a little about it before diving in.

Since not everyone is necessarily going to want to hear everything you have to say, Mastodon gives you a very powerful feature called the "content warning" (sometimes called "CW" for short). When you post something that you figure some people might not want to see (politics, religion, etc.), you can add a content warning with a brief description of why it's been labeled as such. When you do this, instead of seeing your post, your followers will see the content warning that you've added, and will be presented with a button that they can click to actually read the post if they want. Learning when and how to use this feature is one of the most important things you can do to improve the experience for everyone involved. A good rule of thumb is: if in doubt, put a CW on it.

Everything else from here forward should be concepts that are somewhat familiar, but perhaps implemented in a different way, namely likes, follows, boosts, and hashtags.

When I was actively using Mastodon (I'm on Friendica these days, but it talks to Mastodon just fine) I used the "favourite" button like a bookmark. You can get a list of all the posts you've favourited, making it easier to find them again later. Again, since there's no algorithm running the show, they don't really do much else than that.

Subscribing to an account makes sure that everything posted by that account from that point forward shows up in your home timeline. Everything will show up. All posts are treated equally, and no one can do anything to promote their content above anyone else's. You get what you've asked for, no more, no less.

The thing that's the most like its Twitter counterpart is boosting. This works basically the same way as retweeting. It takes the post you've boosted and puts it in the feeds of everyone who's following you. If I'm not mistaken, this is the only way something you haven't directly subscribed to will show up in your home feed. You'll also know who boosted it, so if someone starts boosting a bunch of irrelevant nonsense, you can simply unfollow them.

Lastly, there are hashtags. On Twitter, these are often vapid and pointless, but they actually serve a very important purpose on Mastodon. They're basically an invitation for others to engage with your post. If, for instance, you're posting about gardening, you can use the #gardening hashtag to make that post searchable by other Mastodon users. Mastodon will only let you search posts by either a hashtag or a user handle. This helps you to control how discoverable (or not) your posts are. It is considered a good practice when you sign up to make a post with the #introduction hashtag so that people can find you, and determine whether or not they want to follow you. Also, since there are a lot of visually impaired people on Mastodon, it's a good idea to use CamelCase in your hashtags (capitalizing the first letter of every word), because that makes it easier for screen readers to interpret. #MyHashtag is considered better than #myhashtag.

Well, I think that about covers it. Don't worry if you're overwhelmed at first. I was too. If you think back to it, you were probably a little overwhelmed when you joined Twitter as well (assuming you're familiar with Twitter). It takes a little time to get your bearings, but I really believe it's worth putting in the effort. The Fediverse is a pretty awesome place, and Mastodon is just the tip of the iceberg. If you want more information, there's also a handy guide at

Have a good one.