A guide to Mastodon (for Twitter users)

Last Update: 22/07/2023 (Links cleanup)

General resources

Huh? What is a server? Why should I care?

This is where the first major difference between Mastodon and Twitter becomes clear:

  • Twitter is a centralized service. One company runs, administrates and decides for the network. If you don’t agree with Twitter’s policies or monetization, there’s no other option than begrudgingly putting up with them or deleting your account.
  • Mastodon is a decentralized service. There is no company that runs it. The software to run the network is free and open-source. Anyone can run, edit and adapt it to their needs.
    • All of these servers (also called instances) communicate with one another, according to a certain protocol called ActivityPub.
    • Each of these servers has a different administrator (or a team of them) running it.

Update: Since May 2023, Mastodon uses mastodon.social as the default instance using the sign-up process on mobile. This should make it easier for people to just get started.

Which server should I pick?

It doesn’t really matter *which* server you pick. The default mastodon.social server is fine if you’re starting your journey. You can also pick a server that aligns with your interests or main language, but keep in mind that it will not limit you to follow or interact with people on other servers. Once you follow someone, all that complexity goes out the window.

Think of it as e-mail: lots of people have accounts at different providers (Gmail, your ISP, Yahoo, …) but there’s a set of rules that allows all these addresses to exchange mail without problems.

There is a server list on the Mastodon website, and a curated list at Fedi.garden which groups servers per language/topic. A more advanced (and longer) server list is here. For Belgian Mastodon users, I can recommend mastodon-belgium.be.

Finding people to follow on Mastodon

Since Mastodon is decentralized it might be a bit harder to find the accounts of people you want to follow . You can’t just enter their name in the search field and find them – they will only show up in the results of your server has made contact with them before.

So check your friend’s profile on other social media or website for references. Mastodon accounts have the form of @[email protected], for example @[email protected]. That’s Mastodon’s way of saying that I (@jbaert) have an account at (@) the mastodon.social server.

Once you have someone’s full handle, log in and paste it in the search bar of your Mastodon web client or app. Once the account shows up under the “accounts” tab, open it and follow it. Voila!

Finding people from Twitter

Some tools have also been developed that try to find people on Mastodon based on your Twitter follow list. These tools require you to login with your Twitter account to fetch your info.

Finding and following more interesting people

There is no algorithmic recommendation engine driving Mastodon. It’s up to you to fill your timeline with interesting people. It requires a bit of work, but it’s definitely worth it! These sites are promising projects to boost discovery on Mastodon:

You can also usually browse the directory (account list) of a Mastodon server. For example, for the Mastodon-Belgium server, it’s at https://mastodon-belgium.be/directory.

I can also recommend the FediAct extension, that allows you to easily follow and perform actions when you browse servers that aren’t yours. Another handy tip: You can choose to only follow posts by a user in a certain language! This is handy for big international accounts who alternate between multiple languages.

Fedi.Tips has some good tips on finding friends and getting more followers.

What Mastodon clients should I use?

Unlike Twitter, Mastodon supports and encourages third party clients. The ActivityPub protocol it runs on is documented and open-source. The Mastodon website maintains a list of compatible apps.

The official client is generally considered good (enough), but power users might look for more functionality in other clients. You can use multiple clients, there is no limit! For a more extended list of clients, check here.




Can I search Mastodon for …?

Because of its decentralized nature and because it searching can be used as a tool for harassment (searching for a term and bullying everyone who uses it), there is no default full text search on Mastodon. You can, however, search for users and hashtags.

Some servers might enable full text search by installing an additional component, ElasticSearch. There is also an external project to also search the content of posts: Tootfinder. You can opt-in to offer your content for full-text search.

Changing Mastodon servers

There may be many reasons why you would want to change servers. Maybe you don’t agree with the moderation policy anymore, you think the server is not performing well (although that might very well be temporarily), or you just feel like switching. Mastodon doesn’t hold you or your account hostage! There is a built-in way to move servers.

The correct way to switch is explained by developer Eugen in this post.

  1. Sign up on NEW server
  2. On NEW server: Go to Account -> Moving FROM another account
  3. Enter old account’s handle
  4. On OLD server: Go to Account -> Moving TO another account
  5. Enter new account’s handle and submit

The following guides also explain it thoroughly: This guide from Patricia Aas, this guide from fedi.tips, guide from DjNavarro

Your followers should automatically transfer as well, though this can take a while. A lot of these guides recommend manually exporting them on your old instance and importing them on the new one to speed up the process. Your posts will remain on the old server, where your account will become a referrer to your new spot!

I forgot my password, and Mastodon doesn’t recognize my username … huh?

This is a common pitfall: only the server you registered the account at can help you with this problem. There is no single knows-it-all Mastodon server. It’s a decentralized system, remember?

A lot of people get confused because at first glance, for example mastodon.social and mastodon.lol look very similar visually (of course, they are both running Mastodon with the default UI!). They might have the same look, but these are separate servers, and making an account on one of them doesn’t automatically give you an account on the other one. So make sure you check the URL before trying to log in! It’s easy to get confused!

Why do I have multiple timelines?

Mastodon offers you three timelines by default:

  • Home: Posts from people you follow, and the things they boost (=retweet)
  • Local: Posts from everyone on the same server as you
  • Federated: Posts from the whole Mastodon universe that your server just picked up

There is no algorithmic recommendation engine. An external attempt can be found at FediFeed.

Does Mastodon have lists?

Yes, Mastodon has lists to collect people you follow, but they are private-only at the moment. You cannot share them. You can find them in the right sidebar of the Mastodon web client, and in your Mastodon client. Like Mike Masnick explains in this excellent article, Mastodon List Manager is a great external tool to manage your lists. I use it often!

Enabling the Mastodon advanced web interface makes it look more like Tweetdeck, allowing you to have multiple columns of lists side by side. Also see Mastodeck.

Does Mastodon have DM’s?

Yes, but they work very differently from the DM’s in Twitter. It’s implemented as a private conversation that looks like a post. More info here. They are not end-to-end encrypted (your server host can read them) and should not be used for sensitive information. Use Signal for private communication.

How can I get verified?

There is no verification system in Mastodon similar to Twitter’s dreaded “blue ticks”. This means that identity has to be proven externally. People you see with a checkmark in their Mastodon name simply placed it there as an emoji – it has no meaning, other than being a joke. You could just as well place a monkey or poop emoji there :)

If you want to prove your identity on Mastodon, you can do it by listing websites in your profile that are under your control. There is a way to formally verify these links by including a piece of HTML code on the page you’re linking to. The Mastodon docs have more information. This guide from fedi-tips is also very good. Also check out this excellent Mastodon Link Debugger tool.

For example, in my profile, I prove that I am the owner/user that has the rights over jeroen-baert.be and my Github profile. This should give users high confidence that I am who I claim to be.

An example of verified links on Mastodon

Mastodon is not Twitter (and it doesn’t have to be)

Although they are both microblogging platforms, there are subtle and less subtle differences in the ways both platforms work and operate. You might have to take a while to adapt to a new way of doing things.

  • No recommendation engine or promotion for viral tweets: giving someone a favorite(=likes) just communicates to the author that you appreciated the post. favorite away!
    • If you still want to keep track of the dopamine hits of people liking your content, check out MastoMetrics
  • Every instance is run by volunteers. There might be outages, slowness or hiccups. Be patient.
  • Reverse chronological timeline only: no ads, just the posts of people you follow, with the most recent ones at the top.
  • Use boosts (=retweets) liberally: Boosts are important for the discoverability of Mastodon users. If you like something and want to spread it to your followers, boost the post!
  • No quoting, by design. Explained here and here. (Update: they are coming.)
  • Use Content Warnings
  • Use image descriptions to help people with disabilities

Mastodon is just the start of the Fediverse

The fediverse is bigger than Mastodon! There are lots of great decentralized services that are worth checking out. Thanks to Sean Tilley for collecting these:

Crossposting between Twitter and Mastodon / Posting to both

There are tools that can post tweets to Mastodon and vice versa, saving you some time from typing or copy-pasting your content twice, if you choose to engage on both platforms with the same stuff.

Buffer is a tool that allows you to post to multiple networks: Twitter, Mastodon, LInkedIn.

There is an open-source Mastodon-Twitter Crossposter, developed by the awesome Renato Lond. It has shut down, so if you want to use it, you’ll have to host your own instance. Another crossposter tool that you can self-host is this Mastodon-Bot by Yogthos.

Not all content is interchangeable: Retweets or Quote Tweets lose their meaning on Mastodon and intrinsically link to features on Twitter (accounts, t.co links, …). My advice is to not blindly forward or copy retweets or quote tweets. If you have to link to Twitter content, I can recommend Nitter, a tool that offers Twitter content without all the tracking.

Export your Mastodon data

Mastodon servers don’t hold your data hostage. Go to preferences, choose import and export, then data export and request a zip file of all your data.

Export your Twitter data

Just in case Twitter ever goes down, it’s nice to have a local backup of all the tweets and content you wrote over the years. You can request a big zip file with all that information on the Twitter website.

  • Click More in the main navigation menu to the left of your timeline.
  • Select Settings and privacy.
  • Select Account under Settings.
  • Click Your Twitter data under Data and permissions.

Download that zip file and store it somewhere safe. It’s a good idea to do this for other services (like Google) too. If you want to, you can convert all this data to something more manageable later. This is also a nice tool to convert your Twitter archive.

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