Ever since Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter, the world’s most popular place for microblogging and breaking news, became a reality back in November, the decentralized alternative Mastodon has seen an immense influx of new users. The rampage Musk unleashed after taking over the wheel at Twitter has prompted a significant amount of passionate Tweeters to turn their backs on the company – be it in the more radical form of deleting their accounts or a milder version by not posting there anymore (as much as before). The latest of Musk’s escapades happened very recently and involved the banning of a whole range of acclaimed journalists who were in some way connected to an account that dared to share flight data of Musk’s private jet. Mind you, Musk is the person who has been waving the „Free speech“ flag with a big mouth and who re-instated former US president Donald Trump on Twitter after his account had been suspended for inciting violence during the riots at the US Capitol on January 6th 2021. I don’t want to go into details here but suffice it to say, I’m more than worried by how things have developed at Twitter HQ. Twitter has become a worse place. While my account there is still active, I’m seriously considering leaving the platform for good if there is no change in leadership. I’ve created a Mastodon account some weeks ago and it has become my main online communication platform very quickly. While it is in some ways different from Twitter, it’s on a basic level quite similar and, unlike some are claiming, not that complicated either.

So what’s important to know about Mastodon?

Let’s start with probably the single most important thing: Mastodon’s structure is, very much unlike Twitter’s, decentralized. While all of Twitter’s servers (a server is the hardware where all the data is stored on) are controlled by Twitter (and as of now, Twitter is controlled by a single person), basically anyone with the proper hardware, software and knowledge can run a Mastodon server – you, me, everybody! There isn’t a single, almighty authority, but many smaller ones. You can imagine a Mastodon server as one of many villages in a bigger world. And imagine the users of a Mastodon server as inhabitants of such a village. The cool thing is, no matter which village you call your home, you can still follow and communicate with people from other villages since all villages are interconnected by ways of the Mastodon software (which is open source btw), or to continue my analogy, by the same infrastructure of roads or telephone lines. The biggest „village“ at the moment is called „mastodon.social“, this is the original server set up by Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko in 2016. It currently has a „population“ of around 1 million users. But there are thousands of other Mastodon servers/villages out there. Personally, I chose to settle down at „mastodon.art“ which has around 30k users at the moment. Some servers are more generic (like mastodon.social or mastodon.online), others reflect a region or city (mastodon.scot or berlin.social), or a certain theme or profession (mastodon.art or newsie.social). In Mastodon jargon, servers are also called „instances“ so don’t be confused, that’s the same thing.

Is it important which Mastodon server you choose?

List of biggest servers/instances at the moment. Mastodon.social has almost 1 million registered users.

Not that much, just a little maybe. On a very trivial level, the server you choose will be part of your unique Mastodon user name / handle, it’s „@username@servername“. So since I chose the mastodon.art server and „smartfilming“ as a username, my Mastodon handle is @smartfilming@mastodon.art. You can search for me on Mastodon by typing this into the search box. If you want to link to your profile via a URL, the concept is „servername/@username“, so in my case it’s https://mastodon.art/@smartfilming.
On a more technical level, sometimes certain servers struggle to handle the mass of new users or heavy data traffic will slow them down. Because of this, server admins at times choose to temporarily halt new registrations. This can however happen to both bigger servers (because more people know about them and flock towards them) and smaller servers (because their hardware capacity isn’t as big in the first place). Every server has admins/moderators and its own set of rules. You should read them before signing up. If you have a problem with one of the server rules, maybe choose another server. Some servers allow you to instantly sign up without manual approval by an admin, others choose to hand-pick new users and you might have to wait a few hours or days, depending on their workload at the time. You can find a small list of servers/instances at joinmastodon.org or a more complex one here at instances.social.

Different timelines/feeds on Mastodon

Unlike Twitter, Mastodon has three available timelines: 1) your personal home timeline features all posts from people you follow 2) the local time line features all posts from users on your server, even if you don’t follow them personally 3) the federated timeline has an even wider content range from all over Mastodon (I first thought it has every post across Mastodon but it’s not quite like that). The different timelines are pretty clearly visible in the web interface on the right-hand sidebar (“Home”, “Local”, “Federated”) but the official mobile app for Android/iOS is somewhat confusing in this regard and it’s better to use 3rd party Mastodon clients to switch between timelines on mobile. You can find some suggestions later on.

Some more interesting things about Mastodon: If you at some point decide that you want to move to another server/instance („village“), you can do you so and take all your followers with you! There are no ads and no obscure algorithm that tries to manipulate your timeline by omitting certain posts that it doesn’t consider relevant for you. In your home timeline you get ALL the posts of people you follow in chronological order. The character limit per post is 500 (although some servers might choose to have a higher or lower limit). And hey, you can edit your posts after publishing them!

#Hashtags, #hashtags, #hashtags!

On Twitter, the algorithm also soaked up keywords of Tweets when they weren’t hashtagged. Mastodon doesn’t do that, there’s no almighty algorithm and its search function only targets user accounts and hashtagged keywords. So to become more visible to Mastodon users beyond your own followers, include good hashtags at the end of your post, that’s how people find your posts!

How can I access Mastodon? Are there any good apps?

You can access Mastodon using any web browser and go to your server’s homebase (in my case it’s mastodon.art) or you can use a dedicated app. On mobile, there are official Mastodon apps for Android and iOS/iPadOS. They are visually quite pleasing and slick but are missing some more advanced features that you can find in other 3rd party apps. On Android, good 3rd party apps include the free Tusky and the paid-for Fedilab. On iOS/iPadOS, Metatext is very nice. On desktop I just use the web interface to be honest despite the fact that there are some Mastodon clients for Windows, macOS and Linux.

Can I post photos, videos and audio on Mastodon?

Yes, of course you can. But there are a few things to consider. As for images, the maximum file size is 8MB according to the official documentation: „Images will be downscaled to 1.6 megapixels (enough for a 1280×1280 image). Up to 4 images can be attached. Supported image formats are PNG, JPG, GIF.” Something you should be aware of when posting pictures is that as of now, the aspect ratio/crop seems to depend on what app/interface you are using to browse Mastodon and also on your/your follower’s timeline settings. If you access Mastodon through a web browser, go to “Preferences” on the right hand sidebar and then click on “Appearance”. Scroll down until you find the part where it says “Crop images in non-expanded posts to 16×9”. By default this box is checked so every picture you post is cropped to a 16:9 format for the timeline (you can expand it to full size though if you click on the post/picture). If you uncheck it, images in your own timeline will be shown in original size instead of a 16:9 crop. I was wondering if this also affects the timeline of other people so as to make sure they see the image the way you want it but some tests revealed mixed results so I guess the jury is still out on this, it very much depends on the service via which you are accessing Mastodon. I also hope that Mastodon will get some basic photo editing tools which it currently doesn’t have.

As for videos, many admins and seasoned users recommend to post links to videos hosted somewhere else (YouTube, PeerTube, Vimeo, DailyMotion etc.) if you can. It’s definitely possible to post video natively to Mastodon but videos are data heavy and can make servers slower if lots of video content is uploaded. I’m sure many server admins are already working tirelessly to upgrade their server capacities to accommodate more traffic but right now the huge wave of new sign ups means that lots of native video content might put some servers under stress. Let’s move forward to the specs for posting native video content on Mastodon: According to the official documentation, video files are supported „up to 40MB. Video will be transcoded to H.264 MP4 with a maximum bitrate of 1300 kbps and framerate of 60fps.“ Supported video formats are MP4, M4V, MOV, WebM. Paolo Melchiorre also states in a blog post, that the maximum video resolution is 1920×1200. The vertical resolution might strike many as a bit weird since regular 16:9 FHD is 1920×1080 and not 1920×1200. But you know, we’re living in the age of vertical video so some additional vertical resolution might come in handy. And btw, unlike on Twitter, you can easily download any video from a post without using a 3rd party service.

What about audio? You can attach an audio file up to a size of 40MB. Supported formats are MP3, OGG, WAV, FLAC, OPUS, AAC, M4A, 3GP. According to the official documentation, “Audio will be transcoded to MP3 using V2 VBR (roughly 192kbps).”

Another note: There’s something called „CW“ (content warning) on Mastodon. It can be applied to any post that contains content that might potentially cause pain or discomfort to other users that happen to bump into the post. If you mark your post with a content warning, the text and/or attached content is only displayed upon clicking on the warning. If you have some followers that have arachnophobia, maybe put a CW on your next collage of spider pics.

And while we’re at it, let’s also quickly talk about Alt-Text: It is encouraged on Mastodon to include alt-text when posting images. Adding alternative text that describes what you can see in an image helps visually impaired users to get a better user experience.

If you want to learn more about Mastodon, there are many sites to help you with that. Of course there’s the official site but also something like FediTips, MastodonHelp or this article on TechCrunch.

How to find people on Mastodon

The best way to find people on Mastodon is if you know their exact handle and type it into the search bar. But if you think you can take a shortcut and just browse your friend’s follower list, you will run into some trouble. One of the things that’s still a bit weird/inconvenient on Mastodon is that you can only see other people on someone else’s follower list, if they are part of your own server. So it’s a bit hard to find your friend’s friends. So I tried to create a list of people from the smartphone content creation community that I followed on Twitter and that also have accounts on Mastodon, I will update the list on a regular basis:

Marc Blank-Settle: @Marcsettle@mas.to
Glen Mulcahy: @glenbmulcahy@mastodon.ie
Kai Rüsberg: @Ruhrnalist@mastodon.social
Martin Nutbeem: @MartinNutbeem@mastodon.me.uk
Wytse Vellinga: @WytseVellinga@mastodon.social
Juan Carlos Bagnell: @SomeGadgetGuy@techhub.social
Robb Montgomery: @mojo@newsie.social
Paul Gailey: @paulgailey@mas.to
Bernhard Lill: @dermedientyp@norden.social
Laurent Clause: @laurentclause@mas.to
Richard Taylor: @RichardTaylor@postchat.io
Björn Staschen: @bjoernsta@mastodon.social
Matias Amigo: @matiasamigo@masto.ai
Ilicco: @ilicco@octodon.social
John Inge Johansen: @lonleyrider@newsie.social
Judie Russell: @TheVidacademy@mastodon.ie
Nick Garnett: @Nickgarnett@c.im
Leonor Suarez: @leonorsuarezro@mastodon.world
Eleanor Mannion: @eleanormannion@mastodon.ie
Darko Flajpan: @dflajpan@techhub.social
Matthias Süßen: @msutools@norden.social
Konstantinos Antonopoulos: @konstantinosant@mastodon.social
Matthias Sdun: @sdun@nerdculture.de
Documentally: @Documentally@octodon.social
Marcus Bösch: @m_boesch@mas.to
Pipo Serrano: @piposerrano@techhub.social
Jon Hidden-Coley: @jon_hc@mastodon.social
Umashankar Singh: @umashankarsingh@mastodon.world
Simon Horrocks: @SiHorrocks@mas.to
Sue Newhook: @suenew@indieweb.social
Dougal Shaw: @dougalshawjourno@newsie.social
Christian Müller: @sozialpr@nrw.social
Matthew Feinberg: @maf@mastodon.sdf.org
Mobile Journalism Lebanon: @Daywood@verified.mastodonmedia.xyz
Corinne Podger: @corinnepodger@newsie.social

If you want to be included in this list, contact me on Mastodon! There are also some handy tools that help you find your Twitter friends on Mastodon like Movetodon or Twitodon.

As always, if you have questions or comments, drop them here or hit me up on Mastodon (@smartfilming@mastodon.art). If you like this article, also consider subscribing to my free Telegram channel (t.me/smartfilming) to get notified about new blog posts and receive the monthly Ten Telegram Takeaways newsletter about important things that happened in the world of mobile video.

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