Mastodon and the Fediverse: Beginners Start Here

What is Mastodon? What is the Fediverse?

The Fediverse (or “Fedi”) is a collection of thousands of independent social media servers that talk to each other seamlessly. This means that the millions of users on these servers can interact with each other as if they were on a single social network.

The most popular type of Fedi server is called Mastodon (or “Masto”) and works a bit like a calmer, more friendly version of Twitter. Click here for a cute animated video about Mastodon ⧉ that explains the basic principles of a federated social network. You might also want to watch this short video about the Fediverse ⧉ that emphasises the importance of common technical standards.

There are many kinds of Fediverse servers, often with a specific purpose such as photo sharing, video sharing, livestreaming, book clubs etc. See the end of this page for a list of examples

Although the various types of servers work very differently, they talk to each other with a common technical standard called ActivityPub, which means even if you’re not on the same type of server, you can still interact as though you were.

For example, someone on Mastodon (a Twitter-like service) can subscribe to an account on PeerTube (a YouTube-like service), and the PeerTube videos will appear in the Mastodon user’s timeline. They can interact with the videos entirely within Mastodon, and their interactions will also appear next to the video on PeerTube, because the servers communicate and allow users to interact.

How do I join?

The easiest way to get started is probably to join a Mastodon server. The easiest way to do that is to sign up on the Mastodon website ⧉ or install the official app ⧉. Both of these methods show you a list of servers which have made specific commitments to technical reliability and responsible moderation.

Once you’re comfortable, you might want to consider doing something adventurous such as moving to another Masto server, using a third party app, or even a totally different kind of Fediverse server. But for beginners, Mastodon is probably the easiest and safest route into the Fediverse.

Do I need multiple accounts? Do I need to join lots of servers?

No. You only need one account on one server to follow and interact with people from all across the Fediverse.

Think of it like your telephone: you only need one phone with one SIM card to call anyone in the world.

You don’t need phones for every phone network, because the world’s phone networks talk to each other.

You don’t need an account for every Fediverse server, because the world’s Fediverse servers talk to each other.

Who owns the Fediverse? Is the Fediverse owned by a corporation or venture capital firm? Can it be bought out by Google/Facebook/Elon Musk?

To the last two questions: no and no.

No one can buy the Fediverse or Mastodon because there is no single thing that could be bought. The Fedi is made up of thousands of independently owned and run servers, which makes it extremely difficult or impossible for anyone to buy the network.

Most Fedi servers belong to unpaid volunteers, or non-profit community groups and co-ops. The running costs are covered by the server owners themselves and donations from their users. There are no investors, no venture capital firms, no ads, no trackers.

Companies can start their own Fedi server if they want to, anyone can, but all they would control is their own server. They would have no control over the thousands of other servers out there.

The Fediverse is built on free and open source software, made by many independent groups, and the software copyrights are licensed in such a way that no company or organisation could ever take control of them.

Who sets the rules on the Fediverse? How do I find out what the rules are on my server?

The owner of a server sets the rules for that server. Some servers may have joint ownership through a co-operative, and some servers may consult their members for what the rules should be, but usually there is a single owner who simply decides what is appropriate.

If you go to a server’s website and click the “Learn more” link, you will be taken to that server’s info page which includes the server’s rules. It’s worth reading these before joining a server. They’re usually relatively short and written in clear plain language, so it’s not a big task.

Most servers will have rules against bigotry, abuse, threats etc, but it is totally up to a server’s owner to decide. That’s why it’s important to check a server’s rules before you sign up or transfer an account. They are not all the same and it’s best to know the kind of place you are joining.

Who gets to start their own server?

Anyone. You don’t need tech skills, and you don’t need much money either.

If you use a managed hosting service, the price starts from around 8 euros or 8 dollars a month and the service will handle all the technical stuff.

Once your server is set up, you can follow people on other servers and they can follow you. You don’t have to do this though, it’s much easier to just join someone else’s server, but it’s there as an option. Many people enjoy growing their own server.

You can find out more info on running your own Fediverse server over on my other site GrowYourOwn.Services ⧉ and there’s a long-form Mastodon server tutorial ⧉ there too.

Why is the Fediverse on so many separate servers?

The Fediverse is decentralised for many reasons:

  • It stops anyone buying the Fediverse out. There is no single network, so there’s no single thing anyone could purchase. Pretty much all centralised services have eventually been bought out by nasty people, so by decentralising itself the Fediverse protects itself from nasty people.
  • It empowers the user. If the people running a Fedi server do something bad, users can move their accounts to a different Fedi server without losing their followers. This discourages server owners from doing anything bad in the first place, and gives users lots of options if the worst happens.
  • It lets anyone start their own server, even non-technical people. The simplicity of a small server means it only costs about $8 per month from a managed hosting company (which does all the technical stuff for you ⧉).
  • It means each server can make its own rules, so if there are any disagreements people can move to a different server with different rules, or even start their own server with rules they write themselves.
  • If one server goes down, other servers keep working. Problems on one server don’t bring down the whole network.

What if a server misbehaves? What if it allows its members to do something really bad?

If a server does something awful like encouraging spam or allowing abuse or whatever, other servers can block it. The worse a server behaves, the more other servers will block it, and the very worst-behaved servers will find themselves completely isolated.

Does Mastodon or the Fediverse use ads or trackers or algorithms or blockchain or cryptocurrency or anything annoying like that?

No.

There are no ads, no trackers, the timeline shows all posts from everyone you follow in chronological order, and there is no blockchain/cryptocurrency/web3.

Fediverse servers connect to each other using traditional sustainable methods that email and websites have used for decades.

I thought “decentralised” meant blockchain/web3?

No.

The so-called “web3” is just marketing crap that con artists have used to promote blockchain-based get-rich-quick schemes ⧉. Part of the deceptive marketing around web3 scams includes trying to steal the term “decentralised”, but in reality blockchain schemes are just about trying to make money through dodgy investments, they don’t care about their users.

Honest, proven, sustainable decentralised networks are nothing to do with blockchain/web3.

So, what is a true decentralised social network?

True decentralised networks are where many independent service providers talk to each other in a process known as “federation”, so that even people on totally different providers can still communicate. The Fediverse takes its name from this: it’s a Federated Universe of independent social network servers.

Federated networks have been around for centuries, and all of us have used them all our lives. The entire world is built around federated communications networks. The postal service is federated, different post offices around the world exchange letters and parcels. The traditional telephone network is federated, and so is email. That’s why you can make a call or send an email to someone else even if you’re using a completely different provider, because the providers on a federated network talk to each other.

Federated networks have been the default for human communications from the earliest days, since before computers or the internet even existed. It’s this sensible, sustainable, common sense tradition that the Fediverse is bringing to the modern social media world.

What other kinds of servers are on the Fediverse?

As well as Mastodon ⧉, there are lots of other server types on the Fediverse, for example:

BookWyrm ⧉ – A social reading platform, an alternative to Amazon’s GoodReads

Friendica ⧉ – A Facebook-style interface and add-ons like calendars, a bit more complicated to use because it provides loads of options, and long posts with no character limits.

Funkwhale ⧉ – Music and podcast storage and sharing

Mobilizon ⧉ – Event organisation, the Fedi’s alternative to Facebook Events

OwnCast ⧉ – Video livestreaming with a chat window at the side, very much in the style of Twitch

PeerTube ⧉ – YouTube-style video sharing site which uses P2P technology to allow even small servers to have videos go viral, as the more people view a video the more bandwidth it gets

PixelFed ⧉ – Photo sharing site, similar in style to Instagram and Tumblr

WriteFreely ⧉ – Minimalist blog where focus is on the text, like a calmer version of Medium

…and that’s just some of them.

What’s that rainbow pentagon thing that everyone seems to use on the Fediverse?

You mean this?

The most commonly used Fediverse logo, a bright multicoloured pentagon with corners marked by dots and lines joining the corners across the middle of the shape.

It’s the Fediverse logo!

Well, sort of. There’s no central authority on the Fediverse to choose an official logo, but many community members published their own suggestions and one of them has become very widely used. This is probably the nearest the Fediverse will ever get to an official logo.

The creator of the logo released it into the Public Domain, so anyone can use it for any purpose. It’s effectively the flag of the Fediverse, and used to represent it in discussions, videos, apps and lots of other contexts.

The logo’s creator published high quality versions of the logo available to download on Wikimedia Commons ⧉.

What do I do next? Are there any other guides to Mastodon and the Fediverse?

If you’ve finished reading this page, you can take a look at the rest of this guide, or go on to the next section about Basic Tips.

For an alternative perspective from another guide, there’s a good one called An Increasingly Less Brief Guide to Mastodon ⧉ and another called Mastodon Help ⧉.

If you speak Indonesian, there is a guide at Panduan Fediverse ⧉.

There’s also the official documentation for Mastodon ⧉, but it’s very technical.

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