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A guide to getting started with Twitter alternative Mastodon

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/17/2022 Heather Kelly
Mastodon has emerged as a top destination for users fleeing Twitter. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg News) © Gabby Jones/Bloomberg Mastodon has emerged as a top destination for users fleeing Twitter. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg News)

Twitter under Elon Musk is still up and running despite massive layoffs and a series of erratic management decisions.

Many long time users, however, worry the end is near or that platform is no longer a safe or welcoming place for them, and they’re looking for a new home online. That search had new urgency after Twitter banned several reporters on Thursday night, causing both U.S. and international officials to condemn the decision.

While a number of new and existing companies are jostling to become the next Twitter, open-source option Mastodon has seen a large influx of people. The site can be tricky for new people to understand, and might not be what fills the Twitter void in the long run. But at least for now, it has many of the same posters and experts sharing their toots (we’ll get to that).

If you’re interested in trying Mastodon out, here is a simplified guide to getting started quickly.

What is Mastodon?

Mastodon is a 6-year-old social media network that can be accessed on the web or though its mobile app on iOS and Android. It’s decentralized, meaning instead of just one site there are thousands of individual communities it calls servers.

How do you choose which server to join?

Download the app or go to joinmastodon.org to get started (there are third party apps you can try as well). The first step of setting up a Mastodon account is actually one of the most confusing: You need to choose your server, which is also just a website. It’s not always a quick decision but you cannot proceed without doing it. Choosing a server is like picking out an email address — you can still communicate with and see posts from people in other communities.

If you have time, you can use Mastodon’s built in search tools to browse available servers. Select a region or a topic to narrow them down. Some servers require applying and waiting, others are closed to new users entirely, but many can be joined instantly. To learn more about a server, look at who is hosting it and read any rules or philosophies in its description to see if it’s a match.

If that all sounds like entirely too much work, you can try just joining a popular general interest server. The largest, Mastodon.social, is not currently admitting new people but some other general spots like Mastodon.world are.

Another trick is to copy your friends. Use the Fedifinder tool to see which servers are used most by your Twitter contacts, including which are taking new registrations or are closed.

How do you start using Mastodon

The hard part is over. Once you pick a server, you’ll get to choose a user name and type in your email address for a confirmation email. The app version looks similar to Twitter, with a line of icons along the bottom of the screen for seeing your feed, searching, posting and viewing your profile. You can add a profile photo and change your display name anytime.

To make sure people from Twitter can find you in your new home, tweet and pin your new Mastodon profile. (Twitter has been flagging Mastodon links as “potentially harmful” so you may not be able to include a live link.)

How do you find friends?

If you’re into starting fresh, you can start do a manual search for people you follow to build up your network from scratch. You can also import a list of your Twitter followers, but it’s not done directly. First, select the option to export your followers as a CSV file on the Fedifinder site. Next, log into your account on a web browser and select Preferences → Import and Export → Import, and select that file. It will take a bit of time for your account to update, but then you should see a feed of people you followed on Twitter who moved to Mastodon. You’ll see a feed of posts from people you follow, just like on Twitter.

Is that it?

There’s a bit more to Mastodon, a mix of fun and technical.

For example, want to follow topics instead of people? It can be hard starting out on a new site to build up a feed of interesting posts. One way Mastodon differs from Twitter is that it lets you follow a hashtag. For instance, if you like birds, you can search for the #birds hashtag and click the follow button to fill your feed with often shockingly pretty pictures of wild birds.

There are more settings and options available through the web version, and if you’re advanced you can dig into hosting your own server. But if you’re only interested in making sure you don’t miss updates from people leaving Twitter, this should be enough to get you started.

Jeremy B. Merrill contributed to this report.

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