Featured image by Eugen Rochko at Github used in accordance with the AGPL
Dismal Manor Gang has pitched its social media camp at Mastodon.Online. Mastodon is a new federated social network similar to Twitter in many ways but improved in important ways.
- 2022-04-28 Original
- 2022-05-06 Revised adding policies statement to Mastodon and Twitter Compared. Added descriptions of Toot, Favorite, and Boost actions. Added description of post time to live feature.
- Guide to Mastodon
- Mastodon at Digital Ocean and other guides
Mastodon and Twitter Compared
Both Twitter and Mastodon are “microblogging” sites that let you post short notes about anything or nothing at all. Twitter is a corporate property. Mastodon is an emergent phenomenon. Even you can spin up a Mastodon instance at Digital Ocean.
The biggest difference between Twitter and Mastodon is that
All Mastodon acceptable content policies and post propagation rules are clearly described and well known to the users of Mastodon.
No artificial intelligence daemons are making judgements about post compliance with acceptable use policy or a user’s interest in a post. I’ll describe the policies as I understand them after about a week of using Mastodon.
Acceptable Use Policy
Each Mastodon site has its own acceptable use policy and terms of service. Some, like mastodon.online have simple rules. Others are more complex with references to local law, etc in addition to stated policies. Communities that have migrated from Twitter tend to bring their problems with them.
The site’s acceptable use policy really serves as rules of engagement for member to member discourse and member to community posts. It is important that they be simple enough that they can be kept in mind and require only common knowledge.
Moderation and Moderators
Each Mastodon instance does its own human-eyeball moderation. There are no AI’s getting confused by ambiguous language like English homonyms or puns, either deliberate or accidental. Because actual people do the moderation, each Mastodon instance really relies on the members to adhere to the site’s rules of engagement as stated in the About This Server and Terms of Service statements.
Germany has strict speech laws restricting the subject matter regarding 3rd Reich, National Socialism, antisemitism, etc. The French legal system mechanics are radically different than US legal mechanics like presumption of innocence.
And US-uns grotesquely misinterpret the First Amendment’s “Congress shall make no law impeding …” and the permissive speech laws resulting from it. The First Amendment does not give license to incite disorder, defame, lie, cheat, steal, or perpetrate a fraud.
Simplified Terms of Service
As different as local law and legal systems are, it is important to boil down terms of service to common sense norms observed across national boundaries and cultures.
- Be respectful of one another.
- Be truthful.
- Don’t pass on misinformation.
- Avoid judgemental statements about groups or individuals.
- Avoid profane language.
- Avoid explicit sexual subject matter.
- Don’t engage in seditious or conspiratorial speech about your nation or others.
- Don’t encourage insurrection or engage in conspiracies.
- Remember, everything you say may be recorded and subpoenaed.
Greater Mastodon is Emergent
Instances communicate with each other. You listen to your followers and your followers listen to you. Mastodon does not inflict your followers on you. It is up to you to review new follower time lines and to add those of interest to those you are following. You are free to un-follow those who are uncivil.
To have followers you must be interesting and courteous. Most instances have conventions (content warning tags) for tagging speech that might be controversial, explicit, of local vs general interest, etc. You can filter out toots from your timeline views based on content warning tags.
Mastodon Has No Commercial Interests
Mastodon is not trying to monetize you. It is not reselling what you say, what you favorite or boost to your followers, or mining your content to determine your interests for advertising micro-targeting. Mastodon is strictly a soap box in the park like London Speaker’s Corner.
Mastodon is built on some key ideas. The most important is that it is a network of individually owned and operated instances each independent of the other.
The second key notion is that you choose to whom you will listen (ie your following flock). Similarly, those who find you interesting become your followers.
A community of interest operates each server, establishes community standards and norms, and enforces community conduct policy. Post authors write interesting content, usually about the stuff of daily life without resorting to controversy or outrage to draw followers.
Who Pays the Bills?
The operators of small site pay the bills. A typical small site costs about $30 US per month to operate from soup to nuts. This includes domain name, Digital Ocean usage charges, content storage at AWS or Backblaze, site code base backup at GitHub and AWS or Backblaze.
Larger sites require more storage and horsepower. These sites offer Patreon subscriptions or accept donations through PayPal, Amazon Smile, and similar mechanisms.
No site is processing the content passing through it for commercial purposes such as making an advertising target model of you. No commercial interest is getting a piece of the action (well, just the IT providers used).
Local law where the server is located governs the freedom of speech rules in force. Germany and Israel have very different ideas about what may be said than does the US. And no jurisdiction looks favorably upon fraud, sedition, and insurrection. Reference  discusses US first amendment freedom of speech.
Congress and the courts carefully distinguish between what you may say and where it may be said. The first amendment also guarantees freedom of the press. No operator of a means of publication has any obligation to publish what you say, to give it wider dissemination on your behalf. This is as true of Twitter and Facebook as it is of the New England Journal of Medicine, a peer reviewed scholarly publication.
Your “mastodon address”
Each Mastodon account has an account name of the form
For example, @DismalManorGang@mastodon.online is the Dismal Manor household address in the Mastodon Fediverse. There may be other DismalManorGang accounts on other servers but we are guaranteed to be the only one on Mastodon.online.
The address form and the ActivityPub protocols allow buddies using other servers to communicate with us. For example, if Twitter community PalsPorch were to set up a Mastodon server PalsPorch.online and OllieDog held an account, I could communicate with Ollie using the address OllieDog@PalsPorch.online.
ActivityPub supports many sorts of exchanges in addition to micro-blogging. For example, pixelfed.org is a photo posting site and peertube.org is a video sharing site. Both are non-commercial and both are able to interoperate with Mastodon federates.
Your Home Timeline
Your home timeline is the sequence of posts made by those you follow. It includes both toots originating locally and those originating in the federation.
Your local timeline
Each server maintains a local timeline containing all of the posts entered by users of that server. No external content appears in this feed.
The Federation Timeline
The federation timeline is the sequence of all posts on other Mastodon instances followed by one or more accounts on the local instance.
Mastodon calls posts “Toots”. Tooting adds a post to your profile. When adding the post, Mastodon sends a new post event to each of your followers. All toots go to all followers. No artificial intelligence is deciding who gets what or how far it goes. It just goes to your followers, all of them.
Clicking the star on a post appearing on your timeline marks it as a favorite. This does two things.
- Favoriting sends a favorite notification to the post’s originator. This action tells the originator that you as a follower value his post.
- Favoriting the post adds the post to the table of favorite posts in your profile. This is a record keeping action only. The post goes no further based on addition to your favorites table. Those visiting your profile may view your favorite posts table.
Boosting a Post
Boosting a post adds it to your timeline as a new post. It retains its origination identification. Like posts you write, a new post notification is sent to your followers. Boost posts you believe to be of interest to your followers. Recently, posts I’ve boosted accurately describe (per my understanding) how Mastodon works. Usually, a developer or admin is the author.
Post Time to Live
Mastodon has a post time to live feature. Periodically (daily?) Mastodon culls any posts older than the time to live value you have set. Your account is born with this feature disabled. You must turn it on. The default time to live is 2 weeks but you may adjust this to one of several values in a drop down widget. I have set post time to live to 1 month. I find it hard to believe that little I say will be of permanent interest.
The posts don’t disappear completely. There are rules for favorites in your favorites table. They can be culled or not. And there are rules for posts you boost. They can be culled or not.
Finding an Audience
Unlike Twitter, Mastodon uses no AI content routing algorithms based on your favorites or boosts. It is not issuing toots to you to see what you’ll bite. You receive the your home timeline, the site local timeline, or a federation timeline that is the union of timelines from the servers hosting those you are following.
So it is up to you to attract and keep followers by being interesting and respectful of their interest. If they like your work, they can give it a boost which passes it on to their followers. But you’ve got to earn it.
Write a Bio
Write a bio that gives an audience a reason to give a listen to you. Briefly describe your background and how you use the account. Enable recommendations. Add hashtags describing the account. Dismal Manor Gang uses #furry and #greyhound so folks know it is a pet account about greyhounds.
Write Pinned Posts
A good pinned post introduces one of the characters. A good pinned post lets your audience know where in the world you are, your time zone matters, cultural knowledge you are likely to have, local idioms, customs, places, and things you’ll need explained,etc. Your pronouns are less important than your interests and activities. Hopefully, no one will be talking about you in the third-person where English pronouns become gendered.
Write Interesting Content
Mastodon, like Twitter, will reward a cute photo but it will reward a cute photo with a cute story or comment even more. You can use the image description to write a second bit of story. Post regularly so that the after supper crowd can find you.
Remember to write for the world
At the very least, write for the larger English-speaking audience. Explain cultural references. Use slang with some care. In South Carolina shag dancing is a local version of the jitterbug dance. In the UK shagging refers to sexual intercourse. Knowing where you live makes it possible to interpret such overloaded slang correctly. For example, there is dinner dinner and dinner supper. And on and on. And exact fare. And what the hell is exact change? It doesn’t make sense even here.
Respond to continue the conversation
Answer questions when you have the necessary knowledge. I often respond to a dog post with an appropriate photo and description of similar mischief or misadventure that happened to one of us. Give favorites to good photos and stories. Boost good posts.
Look for people to follow
Review the Local timeline to find interesting authors. Follow them. You can also do the same with the Federated timeline.
Review the Hashtags and Timelines
Assign hashtags to your account in the profile. Use hashtags in your posts. Search for users and toots having your hashtags of interest. Follow interesting authors.
Give Gold Stars
Mastodon gold stars and boosts tell originators that you value their post. Be generous with them, especially while searching for an audience.
Give Others a Boost
Mastodon will automatically send your posts to those who follow you. Mastodon will automatically send the posts of those your are following to you. And that’s it.
I believe Follows move a post only one node through the social network graph. I can’t find this stated explicitly but it follows from the descriptions of follows and following.
To move a post down the graph, you need to boost it. Boosting forwards a toot you have received to your followers. Boosting is a very important courtesy to extend to the creators of interesting material.
Boosts and hashtag search of the local and federation feeds are the primary means of discovering other members.
To my knowledge, there is no mechanism to forward a toot from its node of origin to the edges of the social network graph to which the originator belongs.