Mastodon: what it is and how to join it

Mastodon may be confusing to those familiar with more mainstream social networking platforms like X (formerly Twitter) or Facebook, but this is mainly due to its use and references to servers and decentralization . While it does have a slightly higher learning curve, the overall user experience is not that different from other sites.

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

With hashtags and the ability to follow and interact with other users, it functions similarly to how X works. However, its decentralized nature means that no central agency or company controls the platform. Instead, regulatory authority is devolved to smaller institutions, which makes room for a greater degree of freedom within the network.

Mastodon is built on a syndicated network , which means it is not a single website. Instead, it consists of a set of servers/providers that are connected together and can exchange information with each other. Each server is independently owned and operated, and you choose which one to join.

This structure allows Mastodon to provide you with more privacy and control because you are not bound by a single company's policies and algorithms. You can create your own communities, each with its own rules and governance policies. You can then connect with other users and share text-based posts (currently called "toots") as well as other media (such as images and videos). Mastodon also supports content warnings, custom emojis, avatars, and more.

Given its nature, setting up your own Mastodon server is neither easy nor free (the software is free, but the domain name and hosting are not). However, joining the server is simple and works much like other social media sites. Once logged into the server, you can post public, private, and private posts, and follow other users to see their updates in your timeline.

In a word: decentralization. This is what makes Mastodon so different from Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and X. These sites are designed to enforce the same rules for everyone on the platform, no matter how large the user base is. Mastodon also has rules, but since the network is divided into smaller communities, each community can decide its own rules, and each user can decide which community to join.

There are probably a dozen very similar servers, but each has different rules to cater to a different crowd. If you don't like the rules of a certain server, you can move to another community or even create your own server and manage it with your own unique rules.

Another key difference between Mastodon and other social media platforms is that it is 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 suit their specific needs. This level of transparency and community engagement is not found on other platforms.

Finally, Mastodon says it " will never serve ads or push profiles for you to view. This means your data and time are yours and yours alone ." So not only are you protected from being tracked around the web ads, and the service doesn't use algorithms to get you hooked on content.

Joining Mastodon means joining a specific community within the network. This allows you to do things like post to the server and follow and contact other users. Just choose a server and sign up just like you would create an account on any website.

You can do this via the website or mobile app, but you must first select a server.

There are thousands of servers running on the web, and there are many ways to filter them. Mastodon's main website has a list of recommended servers (pictured below) that you can filter by region, theme, language, and registration speed. There are also Mastodon instances that provide other filtering options.

We'll use TechHub and Mastodon Party as examples, but note that while some instances can be joined immediately, for others you'll need to request an invitation.

Open the server in a browser and continue with the following steps:

  1. Select Create Account to get started.

  2. Read the server's rules carefully and select Accept at the bottom of the page.

  3. Complete the text box and select "Sign up" to create your account.

    If you'd like to use a new email account with Mastodon, check out our lists of the best free email accounts and the best secure email services.

  4. Select the verification email address in the confirmation email sent to you.

  5. You are now registered with the Mastodon server and can start posting and following other users.

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

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

  1. Enter the server address in the box, or browse the app for a community if you haven't decided yet, and click Next .

  2. Read the community rules and click I agree .

  3. Read the privacy policy and click I agree .

  4. Fill in the text boxes with your display name, username, email address, and password and press Next .

    You will need these details when you want to log in to this community again in the future or on a different device.

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

  6. You are now registered on the server, so you can fill out your profile, follow other users, post content, etc.

When you sign up for Mastodon, you don't immediately join the entire site. Instead, because it works through individual communities, when you create an account on a server of interest, that account (and its associated credentials: email, password, and username) is tied only to that server.

So when you join different communities you will get a unique username. If the server is named server.example , your username will be something like @username@server.example , or (for accounts created in the community).

Dealing with your username can feel like a roadblock, preventing you from using Mastodon to its full potential. But if you think of them in the context of email services, they're easy to grasp.

A Gmail user's email might be , while a Yahoo email might be . Just as you can email people who are not part of your email service (such as between Gmail and Yahoo), you can contact people outside of the Mastodon server by adding the server part ( @username@domain ) to make it clear Network of their locations.

However, to send DMs to other users in the same server, you can simply address them by their username.

  • Compared to X and Facebook, Mastodon doesn't even count rounding errors. However, this can be a very, very good thing. As of January 2023, Mastodon has approximately 1.8 million active users. As with any social network, this number increases and decreases as people join and abandon the network.

  • Yes, you can. However, you need to manually export the people you follow (if you still want to follow the same people). Your posts on the old server will remain there and cannot be imported to the new server.