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How does Mastodon work?

How does Mastodon work
Mastodon looks like Twitter but certainly doesn't work like Twitter

With Mr Musk doing his best to make Twitter as toxic and confusing as possible, one alternative has become very popular: Mastodon. In short, Mastodon is an open-source alternative to Twitter, so no single person will ever own it. But it comes with a frequently asked question: how does Mastodon work?

There’s no doubt that Mastodon can be confusing to the newcomer, due to the way it’s set up. In this article, we’ll dig into the technicalities and try and explain what it all means.

First of all, let’s explain some of technical terms that can put people off.

Mastodon is open source

Open source means that the code that runs Mastodon is publicly available. Anybody can inspect the code, suggest changes and even make those changes themselves.

A licence will then dictate what people can do with that code. Mastodon has a AGPLv3 licence, which means you can copy it and even re-sell it.

Other open-source platforms include WordPress and Tumblr.

Mastodon is part of a fediverse

The fediverse (federate universe) is a set of protocols that allows a number of different pieces of software to communicate with each other. For example, if you run a WordPress website, you can install a plugin that will add the appropriate protocols to your site, allowing two-way communication between it and Mastodon, as well as anything else that’s part of the fediverse.

Mastodon is decentralised

This means that Mastodon is not owned by a central organisation. Unlike Twitter. Instead, it’s spread across a number of organisations and disparate servers (we’ll get into more detail on this shortly).

To truly get to grips with Mastodon, though, you need to understand what an “instance” is.

What is a Mastodon instance?

Also just referred to as “servers” or “nodes”, an instance is an independent setup of Mastodon which you can join.

So, let’s break this down.

A Mastodon user name is like an email address. Mine is dartiss@mastodon.social. The first part – dartiss – is my user name and the latter – mastodon.social – is the instance.

In this case someone has set up a server, which they’ve named mastodon.social, and I’ve created an account on that.

The advantage of this is that each instance is run separately, with its own code of conduct, terms of service, privacy options, and moderation policies. You can view the available instances and join the one that best matches your requirements. Some are even themed, so you may want to join one which is filled with like-minded people who like similar things to yourself. Think of it as a community.

One final note: there’s nothing to stop you from joining different instances.

Can I follow people outside of my Mastodon instance?

Mastodon lets you view conversations from all instances (what Mastodon calls “federated”), but you can also just view those on your instance (“Local”), hence why you may like the idea of something more specific to your tastes.

And, if you make the wrong choice about your instance, you can transfer your account from one to another.

Being on a specific instance doesn’t mean you’re limited to just viewing and following people there. You can search for people on any instance and follow them, as well as see feeds from across Mastodon.

There are some quirks, though, due to all of the above – for example, followers. If you look at the account for someone who is not hosted on your instance, and view their followers, it will only show those that are on your own instance. To view all of their follows, no matter where they’re hosted, you’ll find a link that allows you to view their profile over on their own server.

How do I find the right Mastodon instance for me?

The website instances.social will find possible instances for you, based on asking you a few questions about your needs.

Screenshot from instances.social
Instances.social will provide a shortlist of instances based on your preferences

There is also a search feature at mastodon.help, which lets you search based on various criteria of your choosing.

Alternatively, there’s a big, long list on the main Mastodon site.

Is there a way to find my Twitter friends on Mastodon?

Mastodon doesn’t have a built-in method for connecting to Twitter and matching users, but there are a few third-party solutions. My favourite is Fedifinder, but it also lists links to others that may help you.

About the author

David Artiss

Currently working for a technology company based in San Francisco, David has worked in IT for nearly 30 years. He is a keen gamer and happily admits to being a gadget nerd too.

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