Mastodon Quick Start Guide for Humanities Scholars
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a microblogging platform within the Fediverse, and if that made sense to you then you probably wouldn’t be reading this guide.
Mastodon is the name of a piece of software that lets you write and share posts of up to 500 characters (that’s what “microblogging platform” means, and you could probably already figure that part out).
That software lives on a server. You are probably used to websites like Facebook and Twitter, where the software and the server are maintained by the same company, and are basically the same thing. Mastodon is open-source software that can be installed on any server; those servers are called “instances”. And they can talk to (federate with) each other, so that the thing you post on your home instance can be read by your friend on another instance. That’s what the “Fediverse” means.
This is important for three reasons. First, not every instance HAS to federate with every other instance; administrators can choose to mute or block servers where there are a lot of users who engage in abusive behaviour and/or there are poor or no safety policies. This means that there is much less risk of a bunch of random strangers screaming at you while you’re trying to have a conversation.
Second, very often what people experience as a problem with “Mastodon” is actually a problem with their particular instance—especially right now, when there is a huge increase in the volume of users, there’s a lot of lag on the most popular servers, because the system isn’t designed to be used that way. It’s like having a bridge that’s designed to take the load of 10 cars driving across it at any given time; if instead of spreading them out, you stack them all on top of each other right in the middle, there’s a good chance the bridge will collapse because it wasn’t designed to accommodate that much weight at a single point. For that reason, this guide is going to try to steer you towards smaller, less crowded instances, where your experience should be a bit better.
Finally, Mastodon is only one type of software that can run on a federated server—although it is right now the one with the most users. But you can also follow and be followed by people doing longer form blogging, photo sharing, video sharing, music, etc., WITHOUT having to make a separate account. You can see the full range of federated platforms at fediverse.party, and learn more at joinfediverse.wiki
Getting Started with Mastodon
Picking an instance:
Because Mastodon is federated, you have to sign up to a specific instance. I recommend trying to sign up to a smaller, more focussed one; you will have a better experience. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of instances that are likely to be of interest to Humanities scholars:
hcommons.social is run by Humanities Commons.
h-net.social is run by h-net
religion.masto.host is for scholars of religion, working on any tradition, methodology, or period. Full disclosure: I am the instance administrator for this one.
c18.masto.host is specifically for scholars of 18th century global culture, history, literature, philosophy, and ideas.
historians.social is open to all who are interested in history.
medievalist.masto.host is for medievalists, amateur and professional, including academics, re-enactors (including but not limited to the SCA), as well as for those who share any of a wide variety of interests which experience has shown us tend to overlap with the above, including, but not limited to, historical, mythological, fictional, poetical, gaming, and DIY realms.
archaeo.social is for archaeologists, historians, and scholars of the ancient world.
fediphilosophy.org is for active researchers and teachers whose work engages with philosophy.
zirk.us is for general arts & humanities (literature, philosophy, film, music, culture, politics)
sciences.social is for scholars of social science.
writing.exchange is for writers; it seems to tilt a bit towards creative writing, but doesn’t exclude nonfiction writers.
Digipres.club is for digital preservation enthusiasts.
Glammr.us focuses on libraries, archives, museums, public memory, etc.
AusGLAM.space is like Glammr but for Australians.
Scholar.social is the oldest academic-focussed instance in the Fediverse. It is currently closed, which means you can’t just sign up for an account; you will need to email the server administrator and ask to be invited. They are generally happy to issue invitations, they just want to make sure you’re a real person who isn’t going to behave destructively.
fedihum.org is for researchers, teachers, students, and those interested in the field of #DigitalHumanities.
Vis.social is focused on data visualisation and other aspects of SciComm.
mastodon.oeru.org is focussed on Open Educational Resources.
datasci.social is for people researching human-centric data science and adjacent topics, like human-centric data/network science, social data science, computational social science.
mapstodon.space is for mapping/geospatial research.
econtwitter.net is for economists.
There is a lot to be said for just picking an instance, making an account, and then figuring it out as you go along, BUT you should also check the house rules and make sure that they are rules you are comfortable being governed by (and happy to have governing the way that other people interact with you). You can find the server rules by clicking on the “About” link at the very bottom of the page.
Some servers—and scholar.social is one, as is religion.masto.host—have fairly long lists of rules, which can be a bit off-putting. The rules are not there to make life difficult for well-intentioned people who are just learning how things work; they’re there to make life easier for everyone. Remember that Mastodon instances are run on a volunteer basis, and the clearer the rules are the less time the administrator has to spend arguing with people who make life difficult for everyone by pretending that rules don’t apply to them. This is 2022. We’re all tired.
If for any reason you decide you want to change your mind about the instance you signed up for, you can move your account elsewhere, using the instructions here.
Getting set up:
Mastodon works best through the web interface, rather than through an app. That doesn’t mean that you cannot use an appfor normal, everyday posting and reading; for that, I recommend Metatext for iOS and have heard good things about Tusky for Android. But for the initial setup (and for making major changes like migrating your account to another server) you should use the web interface.
After you have created an account on the server of your choice, the very first thing you should do is fill out your profile. Again, this is 2022, everyone is tired of bots, don’t go out there looking like this is your first day on the internet and you don’t know any better. Stick up a picture. Put in some hashtags.
A really cool thing about Mastodon is that you can self-verify by putting the verification code on a website that you link in your profile metadata—for example, I’ve done this with my Humanities Commons page.
Adding that code turns that link green when someone views your profile; it confirms that the person who runs your Mastodon account is also the person who has control over the content of the linked website—that you are who you say you are.
A useful first account to follow is @firstname.lastname@example.org; you will find all sorts of helpful tips there.
You probably also want to go to Preferences > Other > Opt out of search engine indexing–although be aware that a search engine can choose to ignore this and index your public posts anyways. (It’s 2022. You know that nothing that isn’t end to end encrypted is really private, and someone can still screenshot your encrypted messages, right?)
Another useful thing to do right away on the web client is to go to settings/preferences/appearance and check “Enable advanced web interface”. This will let you set up a column that will display all the chatter on specific hashtags (more on that below).
Making your first post:
OK, it doesn’t have to be your FIRST post, but you should post an introduction. You should probably post it as public so that people can see it (more on post visibility below, but the screenshot shows how to select public visibility).
You should also tag it #introduction. Tags are really important on Mastodon; there is no full-text search (this is deliberate, and if you’re wondering why, think about the sort of person who name searches on Twitter and how great it is when they insert themselves into a conversation). Use tags liberally if you are seeking conversations with people who are also interested in those sorts of things.
After you have made your #introduction post, click on the ellipsis at the bottom of the screen and select “Pin on profile”. This will do exactly what it says: pin the post to the top of your profile so that people who have found your profile (either because you sent them a follow request, or they saw another post of yours) can see it.
Finding your people:
Nobody is on social media for the platform, they’re there for the conversation; your experience of a platform is going to be determined by the quality of conversation it lets you have, and the people it lets you have that conversation with. So the next thing you need to do is find the people you want to talk to.
Adding people you already know:
If you already know someone’s user name, you can just put it into the search box, and it should pull up their profile and then you click the follow button and that’s that.
If this doesn’t work, there are a few possibilities:
- If the person you are trying to reach is on another instance, it’s really important that you include both parts of their username.
- It is possible that the instance they are on has been blocked by your own instance; you can check this by searching on the “About” page for your own instance. If this happens, you can always contact them and let them know about the issue (usually instances get blocked for good reasons, and usually people who have inadvertently signed up for a problematic server would rather know that than not) or you can move yourself to an account on another instance that does let you see them.
- The server could just be really, really busy and starting to buckle a bit under the strain. A good way of telling if this is the issue is to check whether search autocomplete is working. If it is, then probably the server is doing just fine; if it’s not, then you should probably try again in a few hours.
NOTE: you do need to be on your own instance and use the search to add people; if you go directly to the profile of someone on another instance using your browser, you will be prompted to make an account on that instance, because the servers are different websites that don’t pass your login data between them.
Meeting new people:
You will eventually meet people organically, by having their posts boosted into your timeline and discovering that they’re interesting people you want to talk to. But to get you past the initial quiet spell, there’s a page which has collected lists of academic accounts arranged by discipline that you can use to get started.
Note that these lists are all opt-in: people have chosen to add themselves. Collecting public lists of people without their consent is generally frowned upon on Mastodon. So if you want yourself to be found, add yourself to the appropriate list (or lists); nobody will do it for you.
You can also discover new people through interest-specific hashtags. Hashtags work pretty much exactly the same way on Mastodon as they do on any other site, with one exception: you can choose to pin specific hashtags so that you see all the posts (that are visible from your instance) with a hashtag. Just search for the hashtag, click on the result, and then click on the little slider bar button and select “Pin”. This will put a column with posts just from that hashtag on the main webpage.
Some Mastodon-specific hashtags that you might want to pay attention to are:
#AcademicMastodon #AcademicFedi #AcademicToots
#Religidons (study of religion) #Histodons (history) #Litodons (literature) #BookHistodons (book history)
#GothsAssemble (Gothic Studies) #Medievodons (medieval studies) #Victodon (19th c. studies) #Mododon (modernist studies)
#Japodons (Japanese Studies)
…and, of course, #Procrastidon
This list is non-exhaustive and I will add to it as I find and remember more.
Keeping track of your people:
Because Mastodon is decentralised, every post isn’t stored on every server; if you want to make sure your server gets copies of what someone on another server posts, you need to follow them. And because of that, you can end up with a pretty large list of people you follow. There are a couple good ways of dealing with this.
First, lists. You can make visible-only-to-you lists of people you follow by going to their profile, clicking on the three dots, and selecting “Add or Remove from Lists”.
I can’t demonstrate these functions using my own account, so let’s take a moment to appreciate my spouse for letting me screenshot theirs about 5 minutes after they set it up.
You can access your lists either through the “Getting Started” column on the advanced web interface, or by clicking the 3 dots on your own profile. And you can pin a list just like you can pin a hashtag.
Another useful feature that future you will be thankful if you start using sooner rather than later is profile notes. When you are viewing someone’s profile, you will see a field that says “Click to add note”. This lets you put a note, which only you can see, to remind you who this person is, and why you followed them (or, in some cases, why you unfollowed them!)
Finally, in addition to blocking people, which stops them from seeing or interacting with your posts at all, you can also stop people from following you (soft-block). In your settings, under Follows and Followers, you will find these options for removing unwanted followers:
Talking to People
We are now firmly in “just wade in and figure it out” territory, but for the sake of completeness here are a few notes about things that work differently on Mastodon than on other social media platforms you may be familiar with.
Controlling Post Visibility
We already noted above that you can control the visibility of your posts; here’s what that means.
First, there are a few different ways that people encounter posts: through their home feed, which is made up of people they follow, or through the local timeline on their particular instance, which displays all the public activity on a given instance. Similarly, the Federated timeline displays all the public activity that a given instance is aware of.
- Public and Unlisted posts are both visible to anyone. Public posts can be boosted into someone else’s home, local, or federated timeline, and found via hashtag search.
- Unlisted posts cannot be found via a hashtag search, and they will not appear on the local or federated timeline, but they are visible to, e.g., someone who clicks on the parent post. A number of instances request that people make all but the first post in a thread unlisted to avoid cluttering the local timeline.
- Followers Only posts are exactly what they sound like: they’re only visible to people who follow you.
- Mentioned people only is the Mastodon version of direct messaging; the posts are only visible to people who are mentioned. Be careful about talking behind someone’s back, though; if you include their @username they will become part of the conversation.
I’ll be honest, the most frequent reason for me to delete and re-draft a post (see below) is because I set the wrong level of visibility.
Interacting with other people’s posts
These are the symbols that you will see at the bottom of a post. From left to right, they are:
Reply: This is self explanatory. But you can adjust the visibility of your reply (e.g., make it unlisted, or even make it a private reply to the author)
Boost: Boosting a post will make it visible to people who follow you, and to your local timeline. This is a very good thing to do, because Mastodon doesn’t have an algorithm that decides what its users are going to see; it’s the people on the network who decide what’s important, and boosts are the way they decide. It is fine, and even a good idea, to boost your own posts.
Favourite: Favouriting a post is a private thumbs up between you and the post’s author; it will send them a notification that you’ve favourited it, but it will not make the post more visible to other people; if that is what you want to do, you should boost the post instead.
Bookmark: Bookmarking a post saves it for your future reference, without notifying the post’s author.
Share: This pops up a menu of other services that you can send the post to. I’m on MacOS, so it gives me the normal options to AirDrop, send through Messenger, etc. I have no idea what this button does on Windows, or if it even exists there.
More: This pops up a much bigger menu with options for filtering or blocking the post or poster, if it’s someone else’s post, or pinning, editing, or deleting and re-drafting the post if it’s your own.
As of version 4.0, you have two ways of editing a post: Edit, or Delete and Re-Draft.
The edit button lets you change the text of the post. You can fix a typo, or add more hashtags, or even add an image.
Editing a post will send a notification to anyone who boosted the original post.
The two things you can’t do are add Alt-Text to an image you already attached (you need to delete and re-add it; this is probably a bug that will be fixed but that’s the way it works right now) and change the privacy settings on a post. To change privacy settings, you need to delete & re-draft. Be aware, though, that this will cause any replies, or later posts in a thread, to be orphaned.
Content warnings on Mastodon actually block out the content of a post unless a person clicks to reveal it. This means that they’re used pretty frequently, as much as a polite way of keeping from cluttering other people’s timelines as to give people a choice about whether to view specific types of content; in fact, a lot of people call them “Content Wrappers”, and use them like email subject headings. For example, very often people posting about super mundane things will use CWs so that they aren’t forcing everyone to hear constant updates about the TV show they’re watching.
Adding a content warning is easy; just click on CW at the bottom of the composing window, and put the text of the warning in the text box that appears.
If you find that clicking on posts to expand is really, really irritating, you can change your settings so that you don’t have to: just tick the box that says “Always expand posts marked with content warnings.”
Different instances may have set out different expectations for the use of CWs; you should adhere to the guidelines for your own instance, but you should not expect people on other instances to be bound by the same set of norms. If there is content that you would rather always have behind a CW (electoral politics is a fairly frequent example), you can use filters to mute posts with certain words, and you can add multiple words to each filter. You can also specify exactly which contexts you would like the filter to apply to–so, for example, if you don’t want to see posts on a topic in your ordinary browsing, but don’t want to risk missing notifications that might contain a filtered word, you can set the filter so it doesn’t apply to your notifications.
Selecting “Hide with a warning” will cause the post to appear in your timeline with the label you set for that particular filter list, and the option to show the post anyways. Selecting “Hide completely” will prevent the post from appearing at all.
It’s also really easy to add image descriptions on Mastodon: once you upload the image, it will tell you that there is no description added.
Click on those words and a description editor will pop up. Type in your text and off you go.
There is a lot of more technically specific information that you can look for if you need it, but hopefully this guide has been enough to help you get started. Good luck, and happy posting!
-A. M. Vincent
First written: 5 November 2022
Last update: 27 November 2022 (updated server list, added instructions on using filters)
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