Mastodon 101: What you need to know about the Twitter alternative

Social media users searching for a Twitter alternative in the wake of billionaire Elon Musk’s Oct. 27 takeover of the platform have been flocking to startup Mastodon for the past two weeks with mixed results.

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Mastodon is a decentralized, microblogging platform founded six years ago by German software engineer Eugen Rochko. While it mirrors the Twitterverse in terminology and select functions, onboarding glitches and missing features have left some new users frustrated.

Meanwhile, growing pains appear to be expected after Rochko confirmed Monday that Mastodon’s active users have doubled to more than 1 million, a figure dwarfed by Twitter’s reported 450 million daily active users, according to The Guardian.

If you’re considering a switch, or are simply curious about platform options, here’s what you need to know:

Is Mastodon just a Twitter clone?

The platform may, at first glance, appear like a small-scale Twitter knockoff, but Mastodon is decentralized, meaning it cannot be controlled by a single corporation or individual, and describes itself as a “federated network which operates in a similar way to email.”

As per technology news site TechCrunch: “Posts can be set to be public to be visible by all; unlisted to make them public but opted out of discovery features; only visible to your followers; or only visible to those users you’ve mentioned.”

How is Mastodon different?

Mastodon is a nonprofit, meaning public benefit – rather than shareholder returns – is the ideal goal, TechCrunch reported.

Rochko wrote in a 2021 blog post that after operating as a sole proprietor for five years, he restructured his role as a Mastodon employee “with a fixed wage” in order to invest more in the platform, stating, “My personal income will thus be lower, but I was willing to go this route because I want Mastodon to have more resources for things like hiring extra developers, UX(user interface) designers, developing official apps and so on, and I want there to be a clear boundary between fundraising for that cause and my personal income.”

According to business magazine Fast Company, “Mastodon hews close to Twitter’s overall style, with ‘toots’ instead of tweets and ‘boosts’ instead of retweets, along with mentions, hashtags, and a chronological feed. The key difference is that Mastodon has no ads, no creepy data mining, and no centralized ownership.”

How does Mastodon work?

According to TechCrunch, new Mastodon users choose a server – much like opening an email account through any number of providers – that generates their profiles’ addresses.

“So, for example, if you sign up for Mastodon via the climate justice server, then your address will be @[your username] But no matter which server you sign up with, you will be able to communicate with users from any other server, just like how Gmail users email Hotmail users and vice versa,” the technology news outlet reported.

And remember, you can always switch to a different server once you find your groove, so don’t panic about choosing the perfect fit right out of the gate.

Fast Company offers a step-by-step tutorial on how to create an account and navigate the platform.


According to The Guardian, Mastodon’s network of thousands of servers are “federated,” meaning they run independently but can communicate with each other without running through a central system. You may hear users refer to the servers as “instances,” and instances reside in the “fediverse,” or “the Fedi.”

Because instances are run by individuals, groups or organizations that each establish their own sign-up rules and moderation policies, participation hinges on understanding the individual server parameters, which can be exhausting. The purpose, however, is to route users to the appropriate communities within the set parameters.

As per TechCrunch: “Some servers let anyone join, while others are invite-only or require approval by an admin. For example, a server for professional scientists asks applicants to include a link to their research to demonstrate that they are, indeed, professionals.”

Learn more about Mastodon lingo here.

Can you talk to people on other Mastodon servers?

Yes, you can follow people outside of your local server and reply to their posts, but there is an extra step involved. You have to “find” them by entering their username in the search box on your server and then following them. Unlike Twitter, Mastodon does not provide a way to follow other users simply by visiting their profiles.

Why are there 3 different timelines?

According to TechCrunch, your “Home” timeline is similar to Twitter and shows you posts from other people you follow; the “Local” timeline shows you posts from all users in your server; and the “Federated” timeline displays all public posts from users that people on your server follow.

Bonus TechCrunch tip: You can turn on “Slow Mode” in Preferences –> Appearance to hide timeline updates behind a click if things are coming at you too fast.

What’s the catch?

Mastodon is not without its pitfalls.

Because it’s young, Mastodon was not initially designed to serve a user base as large as Twitter’s, and that can make it less user-friendly. The newcomer also has fewer resources, which means users are more likely to encounter sluggish response times and intermittent freezes while the platform struggles to welcome the influx of new accounts.

Can I still share photos and videos on Mastodon?

You can add up to four images to a post, up to eight megabytes in size. Video and audio can be any length, but with a file size limit of 40 megabytes, TechCrunch reported.

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