Mastodon: What It Is and How to Join It

Sorta, kinda like Twitter, but rather than controlled by one company, it's controlled by a series of independent yet interconnected groups

Mastodon may seem confusing to those who are familiar with more mainstream social networking platforms like Twitter or Facebook, but this is primarily due to its use and mention of servers and decentralization. While it does have a slightly higher learning curve, its general user experience isn't much different from these other websites.

What Is Mastodon?

Created in 2016 and maintained by a German non-profit, Mastodon is a free, open-source social media service that lets users interact with each other and share content. It's designed to be a decentralized alternative to Twitter and other popular social media platforms controlled by a single company.

With hashtags and the ability to follow and interact with other users, its features are similar to how Twitter operates. Its decentralized nature, however, means there's no central authority or company controlling the platform. Instead, moderating is handed down to smaller authorities, which makes room for a greater degree of freedom within the network.

mastodon mobile app

Battenhall / Unsplash

How Does Mastodon Work?

Mastodon is built on a federated network, which means it's not a single website. It's instead made up of a group of servers/providers that are connected together and can exchange information with each other. Each server is independently owned and operated, and you can choose which server to join.

This structure allows Mastodon to offer you more privacy and control because you aren't subject to the policies and algorithms of a single company. You can create your own communities, each with its own rules and moderation policies. You can then connect with other users and share text-based posts, currently called 'toots,' and other media such as images and videos. Mastodon also supports content warnings, custom emojis, avatars, and more.

Given its nature, it's neither simple nor free to set up your own Mastodon server (the software is free, but domain names and hosting aren't). However, joining a server is simple and works a lot like other social media sites. Once you're logged in to a server, you can make public, unlisted, and private posts, and follow other users to see their updates in your timeline.

What Makes Mastodon Different?

In one word: decentralization. This is why Mastodon is vastly different from Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter. Those websites are designed to enforce the same rules for everyone on the platform, no matter how large the user base is. Mastodon has rules, too, but since the network is broken up into smaller communities, each one gets to decide its own rules, and every user gets to decide which community to join.

There could be a dozen servers that are really similar, but each with different rules to cater to different groups of people. If you don't like one server's rules, you can go to a different community or even make your own server that you moderate with your unique rules.

Another key difference between Mastodon and other social media platforms is that it's open source, so anyone is free to view and modify the code that powers it. This means anyone can set up their own server and customize it to meet their specific needs. This level of transparency and community involvement isn't present on other platforms.

Finally, Mastodon says it will "never serve ads or push profiles for you to see. That means your data and your time are yours and yours alone." So not only are you free from ads that follow you around the web, the service doesn't use algorithms to get you hooked on certain content.

How Do I Join Mastodon?

To join Mastodon means to join a specific community within the network. This lets you do things like post in a server and follow and contact other users. Just choose a server and then sign up, much like you would when making an account on any website.

You can do this through either the website or the mobile app, but you have to choose a server first.

Choose a Server

There are thousands of servers running on the network, and a number of ways to sift through them. Mastodon's main website has a list of recommended servers (pictured below) that you can filter by region, topic, language, and signup speed. There's also Mastodon Instances that provides other filtering options.

We'll use TechHub and Mastodon Party for our examples, but know that while some instances can be joined instantly, with others, you need to request an invitation.

mastodon North America instant signup server list

Sign Up From a Computer

Open the server in your browser, and then continue with these steps:

  1. Select Create account to get started.

    A Mastadon sign-in screen with the Create account button highlighted.
  2. Read through the rules for this server, and then select ACCEPT at the bottom of the page.

  3. Create your account by filling in the text boxes and selecting SIGN UP.

    Mastodon TechHub server signup form

    Check out our Best Free Email Accounts and Best Secure Email Services lists if you want a new email account to use with Mastodon.

  4. Select Verify email address in the confirmation email you were sent.

    verify email address link in Mastodon email
  5. You're now signed up with this Mastodon server, and you can start posting and following other users.

    Mastodon TechHub server

    You should receive another email welcoming you to the server. This will include your full handle, such as @username@server.social, which you can share with others so they can message you or follow you from another server.

Sign Up With the App

To join a server from the Mastodon app, have the server URL handy, and then follow these steps:

  1. Type the server address into the box, or browse the app for a community if you haven't already decided on one, and then tap Next.

  2. Read the community's rules and then tap I Agree.

  3. Read the privacy policies and then tap I Agree.

    The Next and Agree buttons of a Mastadon server highlighted as running on Android.
  4. Fill out the text boxes with a display name, username, email address, and password, and then press Next.

    These are the details you'll need whenever you want to log in to this community again in the future or on another device.

  5. Open the email you were just sent from the server, and tap the Confirm button to verify your email address.

  6. You're now signed up with that server, so you can fill out your profile, follow other users, publish content, etc.

    Highlighted steps when signing up for the Mastodon mstdn party server on Android.

How Do Mastodon Usernames Work?

When you sign up with Mastodon, you aren't joining the whole website at once. Instead, since it works through individual communities, when you make an account on the server you're interested in, that account (and its associated credentials: email, password, and username) is relevant only to that server.

Therefore, when you join a different community, you'll get a unique username. If the server is called server.example, your username is something like @username@server.example, or @username@example.zone for an account created in the example.zone community.

Dealing with usernames might feel like a barrier that's stopping you from using Mastodon to its fullest potential. But they're easy to grasp if you think about them in the context of an email service.

A Gmail user's email might be username@gmail.com, whereas a Yahoo email might be username@yahoo.com. Just as you can send emails to someone that isn't part of your email service (like between Gmail and Yahoo), you can contact someone outside your Mastodon server by adding the server portion (@username@domain) to clarify where they are on the network.

To DM another user in your same server, however, you can just address them by their username only.

FAQ
  • How big is Mastodon?

    Compared to Twitter and Facebook, Mastodon doesn’t even count as a rounding error. That could be a very, very good thing, however. As of January 2023, Mastodon had about 1.8 million active users. Like any social network, that number will grow and shrink as folks join and abandon the network.

  • Can I switch servers in Mastodon?

    Yes, you can. You will need to manually export the people you follow (if you want to still follow the same people), however. Your posts on the old server will remain there, they can’t be imported to the new server.

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