updated July 2, 2023

Screen shot of GBH News Mastodon account

I established the GBH News presence on Mastodon in October of 2022. It is currently our fastest-growing and most-engaged social account; it is likely that in the near future we will have more followers on Mastodon than we do on Instagram. Due to wide interest and plenty of questions from reporters in our newsroom, I put together a brief session, “Mastodon 101 for Journalists.” Slides available here.

Much of what I put there, and in this tipsheet, came from people already on Mastodon. I asked them what they wanted journalists to know about them and about the platform, and their responses were insightful and sometimes incisive.

What is Mastodon?

Mastodon is a decentralized, federated social network.

Anyone can set up and run a Mastodon server (sometimes called an “instance”). The software is free and open source. In this way, you can think of it like Wordpress: Wordpress lets you set up your own website to host a blog (or many other uses at this point). Mastodon lets you set up your own node of a social network. This means the network is not owned by a single company, the way Twitter and Facebook are.

The ‘federated’ part is important.

Mastodon instances are “federated,” meaning that they can communicate with each other. One of the most common questions I get is “what server should I join?” Because Mastodon servers are federated, being on one server does not prevent you from communicating with someone else whose account is on a different server (usually, but we’ll get to that). While not a perfect analogy, you might think of it like email. Your email account might be myname@myworkplace.com, but that doesn’t prevent you from communicating with theirname@theirworkplace.com.

We’ll get back to the ‘how to choose a server’ thing in a minute.

How many people are on Mastodon?

As of today, November 29, 2022, stats from the Fediverse Observer put Mastodon at just under 7 million users. That’s tiny compared to Twitter (237 million), Youtube (2.6 billion) or Facebook (2.9 billion). It’s grown rapidly and mentioned a lot lately because the agita surrounding Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and his behavior thereafter has prompted a lot of Twitter users to seek out a new platform (and be vocal about that search).

You can find current stats on Fediverse users here: Fediverse Observer: Stats. It’s likely that by the time you read this there will be more users, as the trend of people joining the service to flee Twitter is moving sharply upward.

If it’s so tiny, why be on it?

I’m actually not here to convince anyone to get on Mastodon, or any other social media platform, for that matter. I set up an account on Mastodon for a few reasons:

  1. As someone running the social media accounts for a large newsroom, to say that I have been frustrated and disappointed by how companies running centralized social media have operated is an understatement.
  2. The prospect of a federated social network where we could set up our own server, and have more control over how it is run, is pretty attractive. Personally, I think it’s time for news organizations, and public media more broadly, to own a piece of the pie.
  3. Every new platform gives us a new opportunity to be in community in a new way. I deliberately chose to manage and run our Mastodon account very differently than I run our Twitter account. I’ve enjoyed the experience so far and I think we can build a relationship that is valuable to our newsroom and to the people who care about the community we share.

What is the fediverse?

The fediverse is more than just Mastodon. Mastodon is just one type of software; but there are many others including PeerTube (think federated YouTube) or Pixelfed (think federated Flickr or Instagram).
Regardless of the purpose of an individual server in the Fediverse or the software that they run, the thing that makes them part of the Fediverse is that they are interoperable: they can share information with each other. They can do this because they use the same communication protocols. The most widely used communication protocol is called ActivityPub.

Recently Tumblr announced that it would be supporting ActivityPub, though what this will mean in terms of interoperability with the rest of the Fediverse is yet to be seen.

What should I know about setting up an account?

How should I choose a server?

You can find a searchable list of instances here.

A few tips:

  1. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Because Mastodon servers can talk to each other, being on a big server isn’t necessarily better than being on a small server. Consider, too, that one of the resources that does not scale is moderation. A smaller instance may have the opportunity for better community management than one with tens or hundreds of thousands of users.
  2. Read your instance’s about page and consider what you read there. Here is the About page for Mastodon.art, an instance focused on artists and their work. An about page should tell you what kind of community you will find there, what the code of conduct is, and more. Note that this page lists the moderation team for that server. An about page will also often show which servers the managers of that server have chosen to “defederate” from. If a server’s about page doesn’t have much on it, that’s not a good look.
  3. Explore. Look at the “Explore Tab” on a server you’re considering joining. What do you see being posted there? Are they talking about topics that interest you? What’s the vibe?
  4. Don’t sweat it too much. If you want to move servers, you can, and you can take your follwers and follows with you.
  5. There are a few journalist-specific instances, but I don’t currently recommend those to journalists in my newsroom, because moderation/management at these instances makes me wary that they would not be stable hosts for your account.

Why is it important to write an introduction post?

An introduction post is one way for people to find and decide whether or not to follow your account. Write a little about you, your work, your interests, and use hashtags. Geographical hashtags like #Boston or #Massachusetts are good. Topical hashtags are great. Also use the hashtag #introduction…and take a look at that hashtag yourself to see if there are people you want to follow. Make sure you use the #introduction hashtag.

Here’s an example of an introduction post.

How do I verify my account?

The good news: you don’t have to pay anybody $8. Basically, you add a special link to a page on your own website, and then link back to that page from your Mastodon profile. You can find a tutorial here.

What should I know about using Mastodon?

  1. You get 500 characters! On some servers, it’s even more.
  2. You can edit posts.
  3. There’s no full-text search, by design (for now).
  4. There’s no algorithm, by design (for now). People see what you post in reverse chronological order. That’s it.
  5. Use image descriptions. No, seriously, use image descriptions. I’ve never seen a platform where people were more vocal about accessibility than Mastodon. It’s great!
  6. Use hashtags (wisely). There is no full-text search, but there IS hashtag search. If your hashtag has two words, like #BostonPolitics, capitalize the first letter of each word (this is also for accessibility reasons: that makes it easier for people using screen readers to understand what the hashtag is saying).
  7. You have a number of post privacy options…but nothing is truly private, so post accordingly. A post can be public, unlisted (so public but not searchable), for your followers only, for mentioned people only, or DMs.

Following and followers

Because of the intentional limits on search and the lack of an algorithm, the most effective way to build up your following/follower base is to follow people. Take a look at people you find interesting. Who are they following? You might want to follow them too. Search hashtags that interest you, to see if people are talking about those topics you might want to follow.

Where can I find journalists on Mastodon?

Here is one of several lists online.

What is defederation?

People running a server can choose to “defederate” from any other server. This means that you will not see messages from people posting on that server in your Federated feed.

What do I see when I log in? What are feeds?

When you log in you will see three feeds. Your Home feed shows you post from people you follow. Your Local feed shows you posts from people on your server. Your Federated feed shows you posts from people across the servers that your server is in contact with.

Can I migrate my Twitter follows/followers?

You may want to try tools like Debirdify or Fedifinder to see if people who follow you, or you follow, are also on Mastodon. Some of these may no longer be operational due to API limits at Twitter.

Mastodon culture(s)

Because different servers have different customs and practices, you don’t have one Mastodon culture; you have cultures, plural. But these are a few observations from where I have been hanging out:

A few things to remember:

  1. Accessibility is important to a lot of Mastodon users. When you upload a photo, add alt text describing the photo for users who are blind or visually impaired.
  2. Use of Content Warnings (CW). When you post, you can choose to hide your post behind a content warning. There is no broad agreement about when to use these, but I think it’s funny that I often see people hiding news about Twitter behind a CW, presumably so that it doesn’t clutter up people’s feed.
  3. Consent. A number of people have shared with me that they want to bring LiveJournal like practices to Mastodon, where not everyone sees everything and there is a widespread agreement that you don’t share things publicly that weren’t initially made public.
  4. It’s not Twitter, and we like it like that: A lot of people on Mastodon are there because they did not like what was happening on Twitter. They react negatively to people using Mastodon like Twitter (blasting out nothing but self-promotional links; combative behavior).
  5. Mastodon slang Twitter is often referred to as “the birdsite.” Elon Musk is rarely referred to by name and is often called “Space Karen.”

I am continuing to invite input on this via our Mastodon account, so if you have something to say, please feel free to say hi.