My posts have been popping this week. So many likes and replies—especially the one about dogs vs. cats. (Dogs, duh.) Yet all the while, I kept thinking about the one man who controls my fate on this social network.
Wait, you ask, not Elon Musk?
Nope. Mr. Schilders runs a small network I joined that’s part of Mastodon, a short-messaging platform that’s picked up more than 640,000 users since Mr. Musk took over Twitter last month.
My Mastodon profile and posts? They live on Mr. Schilders’s server, based in a data center in Finland.
It’s the decentralized (aka “federated”) approach to social media. Instead of a tech giant controlling the network—deciding how our data is used and our feeds are displayed—thousands of smaller networks, or “servers,” take on the task of onboarding users, setting the rules and making sure things run properly.
Each server is itself a community, but it’s also part of the larger Mastodon platform, which now has almost 1.2 million active users total, and no ads. Like Twitter, you can see posts from all over, but unlike Twitter, individual servers can keep to themselves—or get blocked by others. And if you don’t like the house rules or technical performance of your server, you can up and leave it for another whenever you want, and still keep your followers.
So, pack the minivan and head to social-media utopia!? Well…maybe if Mastodon weren’t harder to explain than the Targaryen family tree—and the service and app weren’t so rudimentary. But it’s worth understanding how it works, and how these community-based approaches are challenging the social-media status quo.
If you’re willing to give it a try, here’s my best attempt to make you a Mastodon Master.
Step 1: Make an Account
It helps to think of Mastodon’s structure like email.
You select a server, then a username, which together form your address. Mine is @email@example.com. Like email, there are others who have the @mastodon.world suffix, but because there are thousands of different servers, there are thousands of different suffixes. Some popular ones: mastodon.social, mstdn.social, mastodon.online.
You can follow and message anyone, regardless of what address they have. And when you post, anyone across all of the Mastodon servers can see it.
When you go to the server selection page, you’ll see there are ones built around artists, musicians, journalists and more. There are more generalized ones, too, like mine. Each server has a feed of posts from everyone in its community. Each server polices itself, the idea being that local enforcement can be quicker than a centralized governing body patrolling Twitter or other massive platforms.
Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko told me he expects more institutions to create their own servers, including universities, companies, etc. Again, email!
I signed up for mastodon.world because it sounded like “Jurassic World” but with woolly mammoths instead of dinosaurs. But now that I understand more about how the whole system works, I realize server selection comes down to trust.
For instance, if Mr. Schilders decides to shut down mastodon.world tomorrow, I wouldn’t be able to access anything. (He says he won’t.) If his equipment breaks, I could lose access. (He says he has a good provider and a backup system.) All server owners who want to be listed on the main server directory must agree to Mastodon’s covenant, which requires them to warn users if they plan to shut down the server, offer emergency backup and more.
“We’re in a big trust exercise,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University. “Is the server in some rando’s closet maybe better right now than Elon Musk’s Twitter?” Prof. Grygiel suggested looking for different trust signals on Mastodon, including servers with larger populations and those pitching more supportive communities.
Step 2: Follow Others, Post Yourself
Once you get past all that, Mastodon really is a lot like Twitter.
When you follow other users, their posts appear in your Home feed, regardless of their home server. The feed is ordered chronologically. No algorithm guesses what you’ll want to see. Your notifications will show others who have mentioned and followed you. The Explore tab highlights content from across all of Mastodon that’s popular within your server.
Posting is simple. Type some words into the compose box, upload a photo or short video if you’d like, and hit the publish—or “toot”—button. Yes, toot, like what happens when you eat the magical fruit. Mr. Rochko said he’s moved away from using this term going forward.
Your post goes live instantly, but server administrators, generally volunteers, keep an eye on their domains and flag content that may break their content guidelines. You can also report and block users. Before you enter most servers, you have to agree to some ground rules, including no racism, terrorism or other illegal activity.
If you remember one main thing about using Mastodon, let it be this: Don’t use the direct-message feature. The messages aren’t end-to-end encrypted, which means they could be read by anyone who runs (or hacks into) the servers. (Twitter’s DMs aren’t end-to-end encrypted either, though Mr. Musk has said he’s in favor of making them more secure.)
“If I really wanted to, I could read all these gigabytes of data,” Mr. Schilders told me. He assured me he probably wouldn’t do that—although he might if he were investigating complaints about serious harassment.
Step 3: Get a Mobile App
I found signing up for my account via the website easier than the Mastodon app. Mastodon is an open platform, so other developers make compatible apps—some even simpler to use and more feature rich. I liked Metatext for iOS the best. It makes it easier to toggle between your feeds and places direct messages in their own tab.
When a photo doesn’t load or a reaction doesn’t appear, Mastodon users get to play a fun guessing game: slow server or buggy app?
“We were just not ready for the kind of attention that Mastodon is receiving,” said Mr. Rochko, who launched the service in 2016. “Twitter started with a ‘fail whale’ as well.”
This may be what many Twitter users are seeking. No, not a return to bugs and outages, but instead the early-day vibes of social media, when it was fun to discover new people and consult the crowd for information.
This week, I’ve felt less like a user of a mega-mogul’s social-media metropolis, with everybody arguing over blue check marks and the principles of free speech, and more a member of a community. Now, Mastodon just needs to find a way to attract people who don’t want to be system admins.