What the Heck Is Mastodon?

Top tips and apps for the decentralized social network.

Chances are you’ve heard about Mastodon, the fast-growing social network that offers much of what you love (following friends and interesting people) while skipping many of the things you don’t (such as intrusive advertisements and algorithms choosing what you should see).

But the service’s decentralized nature is quite a bit different from the way other social networks work. Here are some tips for getting started—and the best apps for getting the most out of it.

Pick a server

Much like with email, Mastodon is a system of thousands of independently managed servers. Once you choose a server, you can interact with anyone from any of the others.

Don’t stress about picking a server from Mastodon’s directory—if you change your mind, it’s possible to migrate your data to a different one.

How do you choose? The easiest approach is to join a server with people you know—your company or organization may even have its own. The main Mastodon website also offers a list of reputable servers. Some aim to build a community around a topic of interest (artists, musicians, physicists) or a geographic area, so be sure to read a server’s About page before you sign up.

Write your bio

Mastodon isn’t new—it’s been around since 2016—but its recent surge in popularity means having a good profile will make it easier for others to decide whether to follow you. Be sure to include your interests to help like-minded users find you.

Find your friends

Want to connect with people from other social networks? Many users include their Mastodon handle (such as in their other network profiles—simply search for that handle (or their real name) in Mastodon and click Follow. There are also third-party “move to Mastodon” services that make it easier to find and follow friends from other services.

Apps like Ivory offer useful views and power-user features you won’t find on the Mastodon website.

Understand your timelines

Whether using a web browser or a dedicated Mastodon client, you have three timelines—lists of posts—you can browse:

Home: All posts from people and hashtags you follow—your custom feed.
Local: All posts from accounts on your server—especially useful if you belong to a topic-based server.
Federated: All posts from all servers your server knows about—this is the metaphorical fire hose.

Perfect your posts

You can help make Mastodon a better community with a few simple actions. First, use hashtags (#Architecture, #Chicago, #Foodies) to make your posts more discoverable via Mastodon’s hashtag-focused search. Second, use alt text on your images to make them more accessible. Finally, use a content warning (“CW”) if you’re posting something that might make other users uncomfortable. Mastodon websites and third-party clients make these tasks easy.

Try these apps

While you can view your Mastodon timeline on the web, these apps offer powerful tools for browsing, filtering, posting, and searching the platform.

Other apps include Safari extensions for improving the web view, support for sharing to Mastodon, and more.

If you have a Mac with Apple silicon, you can also use many iPad and iPhone Mastodon apps right on your Mac.