Mastodon is not a church, but I’m going to explain Mastodon and the Fediverse with a church analogy. I think this analogy should work, especially for my people in Suffolk, Virginia, a lot of whom are more familiar with their church than social media. So here goes.
Imagine Facebook is a megachurch. Image the same about Twitter and other social media giants.
Now imagine a smaller church. Maybe it’s a church with no more than a dozen members. Except here’s the thing: They have a networking system which connects them to other churches. So with this technology, they can join millions of other members in different churches all over the world, almost as if they’re part of a big megachurch
There is no authority dictating membership in the network. Any organization that installs the necessary equipment can join. Since any organization can join, they’re not all the same religion. They’re not even all churches. Some organizations are small and some are big.
For the most part, this variety is good, but it means that some of the organizations have beliefs or practices that others find offensive. There’s an answer for that. Your church can choose which other organizations it wants to hear from. So if there’s some racist church or club out there on the network and your church doesn’t want to hear from them, they don’t have to.
Wrapping up this analogy: The Fediverse is the network that connects all of the organizations. Mastodon is one type of ‘equipment’ that your church can install to be part of the Fediverse. Mastodon is not really equipment, it’s software. When one person or organization uses Mastodon to connect their users to the Fediverse, that installation is called a Mastodon server or Mastodon instance.
Mastodon is free to download and if I wanted to, I could set up my own Mastodon server. There are plenty of guides out there, including this one. But for now, I’m a member of someone else’s server, as most people on the Fediverse are. I’m a member of a Mastodon server called assortedflotsam.com.
Who runs assortedflotsam.com? A regular guy as far as I can tell. He calls himself “Smeg” on line but I don’t know his name. He lives in the United States, has a job that he sometimes complains about, and he mentions his son on occasion. Other than that, I don’t know much about him. I know he runs a Mastodon server with about 40 users and doesn’t ask for anything in return. And I’m grateful for that. I once asked if he needed help with the server costs but he said he didn’t. Still, I’m pretty sure he’s not wealthy or he wouldn’t have that job he complains about.
Other servers are run by organizations or groups of volunteers and some have hundreds of users. Some are easy to join, others are closed, and others are by invitation or have wait lists.
When you sign on to a Mastodon server, you’ll see a column of toots, which are analogous to Twitter’s tweets, from everyone you follow. This is your Home screen. Honestly, I don’t remember what happens when you first sign up and aren’t following anyone yet. I think there’s ‘getting started’ screen to help you.
On the right side, you can see a few menu items including Local and Federated. If you click Local, you’ll see toots from other people on your server. If you click Federated, you’ll see toots from everyone on your server plus toots from everyone that people on your server follow. The federated timeline is a good way to connect to others around the world.
There’s also a multi-column option that you can get to in settings, which allows you to see all of those columns at once.
Assortedflotsam.com is just one of thousands of Mastodon servers, and since it’s very small and run by just one person, it’s not taking on new members except by invitation. You can find a list of others at https://joinmastodon.org/servers, https://instances.social/list, and https://fediverse.party/en/portal/servers. That last one doesn’t just list Mastodon because Mastodon is just one way to connect to the Fediverse. From whatever server you join, you can find and follow me, firstname.lastname@example.org. And if later you decide that you don’t like the server you’re on, you can join a different one.
Mastodon is more chaotic than big, commercial, social media because there is no algorithm designed to serve you more of what you’re addicted to. I found it harder to find conversations about what I’m interested in and it took a while to connect with users that I enjoy interacting with. But that slowness is worth it to me, because I know I’m not being force-fed content.
We’ve seen the damage that big social media can do. If you want to connect to people in a non-commercial environment run by volunteers, with no technology feeding you what they want you to see, then give one of those many Mastodon servers a try.
- 2022 10/30: At first I only described the multi-column layout because I didn’t realize Mastodon changed it’s default format for new users to the single column layout. Thanks to https://mstdn.social/@feditips for letting me know about the change.
- 2022 10/30: I added the note about the mastodon set up guides and made some other small changes throughout the post