Setting-up Mastodon: an appropriate social media platform for the 2020s 🐘
This post provides tips on setting-up a Mastodon account. It’s mostly focussed on the tech but it deserves a brief intro on the wider context motivating this blog post. It covers:
- Why Mastodon?
- Which Mastodon server to choose?
- Getting set-up
- Crossposting to Twitter with moa.party
- Thoughts on appropriate social media platforms for the 2020s
Introduction: why Mastodon
Twitter has been purchased by Elon Musk, a prominent technologist and car salesperson with questionable judgement when it comes to social media. This, in combination with evidence of rapid spread of disinformation and hatred centralised platforms, has triggered a period of rapid change for Twitter, to put it mildly.
According to one user on the Twitter alternative Mastodon (the topic of this post):
A collapse in ad revenues has been followed with an immediate 50% reduction in employee headcount.
Incidentally, for a taster, this is how the post looks on the platform (surprisingly similar to Twitter):
Even the founder of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, signalled his regret about the direction of travel of the platform that he pioneered:
Folks at Twitter past and present are strong and resilient. They will always find a way no matter how difficult the moment. I realize many are angry with me. I own the responsibility for why everyone is in this situation: I grew the company size too quickly. I apologize for that.
— jack ((jack?)) November 5, 2022
These statements and associated events create two broad reasons to explore alternatives for people like me who like to share my views and engage in open and hopefully civil communications:
- Many people do not want to be part of a platform that is becoming increasingly toxic.
- If the rate of change accelerates, some have suggested that the future of Twitter itself is at risk and it may be prudent to have some redundancy in your social media plans if so.
Regarding the second point, the changes outlined above have the potential to generate knock-on feedback loops, as highlighted by people on Twitter and elsewhere. So where to go?
There are lots of alternatives but Mastodon is mature, relatively well-known and similar to Twitter in many ways (La Cava, Greco, and Tagarelli 2022). It has more than 30k stars on GitHub: much loved by users and developers alike.
Furthermore, #Mastodon is trending on Twitter itself, signalling a group dynamic element. Many of the people I rate and follow on Twitter are already on Mastodon, including @underdarkGIS, @djnavarro and @UrbanDemog.
Fun theory on this: Elon Musk is genuinely committed to creating a more open world. But his approach to achieving it is not to “‘Open Source’ Twitter’s Algorithms” as stated in a Bloomberg article earlier this year, but to deliberately sabotage proprietary platforms so that open source alternatives flourish. That may seem far fetched but if it was Elon’s true aim he has been successful: Mastodon already has a strong developer community (Mastodon’s codebase has almost 700 contributors from around the world) and could represent a short cut to ensuring that the dominant platforms people use are open source.
As outlined in a post by the people who run the fosstodon instance, sign-ups to the server are booming.
So, assuming you want to join, let’s take a dive in!
Which Mastodon server to join?
Short answer: it’s up to you. Fosstodon.org seems like a good option to me. The choice of Mastodon server is covered in a blog post by Danielle Navarro, who points out advantages of the more decentralised model compared with Twitter’s centralised model:
First off, mastodon is not a single application: it’s a distributed network of servers that all talk to each other using a shared protocol. If two servers talk to each other they are said to be “federated” with one another, and the network as a whole is referred to as the “fediverse”.
There are many different servers out there that are independently running mastodon: these are called mastodon instances. You can sign up for an account at one or more of these servers. The most popular instance is mastodon.social, but for reasons I’ll talk about in a moment this might not be the best choice for you!
That post goes on to highlight a key benefit of the approach: it does not matter that much which your primary account is because you can still interact with federated instances. You can choose from a range of servers, some of which are described later in the post based on your interests. Fosstodon.org is a reasonable choice for people interested in free and open source software and data science but there are many other good options, including:
- fosstodon.org one of the big ones with 30k+ users including my Geocomputation with R colleague Jakub Nowosad and Anita Graser
- masto.pt, a server for Portuguese communities with 3k+ users, home to Rosa Felix
- mapstodon.space, a new server for mapping, currently with just over 100 users including Alex Singleton
- mastodon.online, home to many people including Antonio Paez and Cait Robinson
- sciences.social, home to Barney Harris
- toot.community, home of Rafael Pereira
- mastodon.green, home to Ben Anderson
A really cool thing about this list, other than the diversity, is that people can and do follow each other between those instances. To see a list of the top instances at instances.social.
The sign-up process is fairly simple: choose a server from and click to sign up! There are detailed instructions in many articles online, one of the best I have found is published by PC Mag.
Crossposting with moa.party
Crossposting is the process of automatically posting from one platform or account to one or more other platforms or accounts. Although I like what I’ve seen of Mastodon so far, no online system can be guaranteed to see 100% uptime. Indeed, the great people running fosstodon.org outlined issues that they have faced already:
This [surge of interest in alternatives to Twitter] effectively resulted in a sustained DDoS that lasted for around 36 hours. As you can imagine, that was a lot of fun for myself and the team.
As shown in the screenshot below, I even experienced some temporary downtime shortly after joining (and getting lots of boosts):
In this context, redundancy is good. Furthermore, while I may have the capacity to set-up a new social media account, I cannot guarantee that others will. So, unlike the author of the PC Mag article on migrating, I plan to keep my Twitter account alive. If you do, crossposting can be good for various reasons, in particular for accessibility: making work widely available to the public is one way to maximise the chances of your work having positive impact beyond your immediate sphere of influence.
So how to crosspost? Simple answer: enter moa.party.
As shown in the screenshot below, you can choose the options that are appropriate for you.
After that it simply worked! I ‘tooted’ from my Masterdon account and, after a minute or so, the same content appeared on Twitter. Magic thanks to moa.party!
I cannot guarantee that it will always work and I don’t know how scalable the service is. But for now I’m stoked that not only have I set-up a new social media account — on a platform that is based on open source software and community values — but also have a way to get my work out to as many people as possible. The two versions of the message below show that Masterdon toots are very similar to Twitter tweets, spot the difference!
OK here goes, first attempt at ‘tooting’ from my new #mastodon account 🐘 📢 Topic: georectifying #CAD drawing of housing development and geodigitizing #osm data. Appropriate topic for #fosstodon? Hope so, more soon! pic.twitter.com/fwnHJeY9Mj
— Robin Lovelace ((robinlovelace?)) November 5, 2022
Even if Twitter does become the MySpace of the 2020s, it is unlikely to happen over night. And the platform has many great people, despite some of the recent changes outlined above. Let’s see what happens. If nothing else, having alternatives like Mastodon allows you to choose to interact in the virtual spaces where you feel most at home.