How Mastodon is different
Many tiny galaxies

Over the last week, at least 3 people have asked me: “What the hell is Mastodon? Why is it so hard to use? What’s the point?” Or similar, related questions.

I don’t have all the answers, and I won’t bother explaining why it’s all happening. But I’ve come up with a visual explainer that might help make sense of Mastodon, especially the ways that it’s different from Twitter.

I tried making this into a little video, but the results weren’t quite good enough. So here’s a words-and-pictures version:


You know how Twitter works.


You know that on Twitter, you connect to other people. There’s only one Twitter. It’s a single, centralised virtual space. The people in charge are the people in charge, and they get to decide how the whole thing works. Fine.


Mastodon is made of lots of virtual spaces, known as instances or servers. Each one is run and managed independently. Each has its own rules and customs. Lots are run by small teams of volunteers.


Instances can connect to one another; this is what people mean when they talk about “being federated”.


So that means you can make connections with individual people on the instances you’re federated with. It works much like Twitter does, but there are sometimes more hoops to jump through.


When you’re using Mastodon, you’ll see different timelines. The “local” timeline is everything posted by people on your instance; the stuff from your nearest neighbours, if you like.


But there’s also a “federated” timeline, that shows you things from people on the instances you’re federated with. This can get pretty busy.


This is the biggest difference: not all instances are federated with all other instances.

This is why, unlike Twitter, you don’t see everything posted by everyone on every instance. You only see stuff from the instances you’re federated with.

It’s easy for instance owners or moderators to block other instances whose rules and customs they disagree with.


It’s also easy for individuals to move from one instance to another. All your existing connections will stay the same. But all your old posts will stay on the old instance, they don’t move with you.


Because many instances are volunteer efforts, it’s good to help out if you can. Either with donations, or with offers of practical help.


This is Mastodon; a universe of tiny galaxies.

It’s part of a much wider distributed network known as the “Fediverse”. Right now, given how Twitter’s new owner is behaving, it feels like the right place to be.

Filed under: notes
(6 November 2022)