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Mastodon might sound like the title of a killer-shark movie but it’s actually the name of Twitter’s hot new social media rival.

Well, actually, “new” isn’t quite accurate – it’s actually been around for six years – but the platform is now seeing an unprecedented influx of users, and it has Elon Musk to thank for that.

The Tesla founder’s controversial takeover of Twitter has sent formerly-committed tweeters running for the hills and seeking a new outlet for their public musings, memes and diatribes.

Enter: Mastodon, a social network with a similar MO to its blue bird-stamped rival but with plenty of differences – some of which take a bit of getting used to.

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Here, indy100 will guide all aspiring Mastodoners (?) on what to expect from your potential new home.

Signing up

“Oh please,” you sigh, “I know how to create an online account, I do it on an almost daily basis.”

Aha, but that was before you’d even heard the name Mastodon, wasn’t it?

The first thing you’ll see when you head to the “join Mastodon” section of the website is the word “Servers” followed a brief explanation of why you can’t do Mastodon without them.

Basically, as the blurb says, “servers” are providers – which basically work as communities – and to join the site, you have to join one of these.

On the lefthand side of the page you’ll see that you can pick your region (just note, so far only Europe and North America are available, it hasn’t reached Africa, Asia, etc. yet), and from there you choose your specific server. These range from “beer and free software lovers” in France to metalheads in Germany.

The names can be a bit obscure, ie “maly.io” but some are more self-explanatory, like “mastodonapp.uk” which is for – you guessed it – people in the UK or “who want to talk to folks over here in the UK.”

This leads us on to the next key point, that joining a server doesn’t mean you’re locked into that sole community; you can interact with users across the other servers, too. But choose carefully because your server will form part of your username.

So if you join Mastodonapp.uk, to use our earlier example, your name will be whatever your handle is followed by “@mastodonapp.uk”. Now let’s say, I don’k know… Elon Musk joined the pettingzoo.co sever, he’d then be known as “elonmusk@pettingzoo.co”.

Still, just be mindful that you might not get your first choice. Some of the most popular servers are struggling with the recent surge in demand and are running slowly or have even paused registrations as a result. Others require applications to join them, and others are requesting donations because they don’t get paid – this is because Mastodon is a crowdfunded nonprofit, not a multibillion dollar corporation.

You might also face some technical issues when signing up. I filled in all my details and was told that I’d need to click a link in a confirmation email I’d been sent in order to finalise my set-up… except that the email didn’t arrive. It's no surprise some people feel like this:

Why are there all these servers?

There’s no “Chief Twit” here – no one big cheese to rule them all. Put simply, Mastodon isn’t owned by one person or company: each server is its own entity, with its own team behind it, and Mastodon is simply a network allowing all of these to connect.

The appeal of decentralised platforms like these is that they’re not run by a sole dictator who can, for example, decree that all verified users must suddenly pay for the privilege.

But there’s also a notable downside: you’re putting your faith in whoever’s in charge of your server, so if they suddenly call it quits, you’ll be booted out of Mastodon. Don’t panic, though, the platform is asking server owners to give their users three months’ notice if they decide to shut down.

Here’s how the network’s German-born founder and CEO Eugen Rochko (who goes by the username @Gargron@mastodon.social), puts it: “The technology itself [...] allows basically anyone to host their own independent social media server, and to basically be able to do anything they want with it.”

However, he insisted in an interview with TIME magazine, this makes the platform less of a free-for-all than Facebook or Twitter because “when you host your own server, you can also decide what rules you want to enforce on that server, which allows communities to create safer spaces than they could otherwise have.”

“You can have communities that have much stricter rules than Twitter has,” he stressed.

Here's what some users think of the whole server thing:

What's Mastodon like to use?

Once you’re in (if you ever get that confirmation email…) you’ll see that the site/app’s format is pretty similar to Twitter’s. You’ll be greeted with a stream of different users’ posts, called “toots”, which can be “liked”, commented on and shared, plus you can search different hashtags.

You can also search for people but this is more complicated: if they are part of your server you can simply search for them by name, but if they’re on a different server you need to enter their full address (so “elonmusk@pettingzoo.co”, to use our earlier example).

Also unlike on Twitter, your experience won’t be curated: you’ll see what people are posting in real-time, so in chronological order, rather than via a collection of top toots. Plus, you won’t receive follow suggestions based on users whose content you might be interested in. For the moment at least, Mastodon doesn’t use all those fancy algorithms that try to read your mind. There are also no adverts cluttering up the page.

That said, the platform does promote certain servers over others, as Rochko explained in his TIME interview: “On our website, and our apps, we provide a default list of curated servers that people can make accounts on.

“Any server that wants to be promoted by us has to agree to a certain basic set of rules, one of which is that no hate speech is allowed, no sexism, no racism, no homophobia, or transphobia.”

How does Mastodon protect users?

Given that each server sets its own rules and is its own boss, Mastodon can't enforce traditional moderation standards. And if this is ringing alarm bells, Rochko is determined to muffle these by insisting his methods of combatting hate speech and bots are, in fact, more effective and more democratic.

He explained that administrators of different servers have the power to band together and block hateful operators, thereby banishing them from the sphere, telling TIME: "When they find out that there’s a new hate speech server, they may decide that they don’t want to receive any messages from the server and block it on their end.

"Through, I guess you could call it the democratic process, the hateful server can get ostracised or can get split off into basically, a little echo chamber, which is, I guess, no better or worse than them being in some other echo chamber."

He added: "The internet is full of spam. It’s full of abuse, of course. Mastodon provides the facilities necessary to deal with unwanted content, both on the user end and on the operator end."


How many people are on Mastodon?

Rochko tooted on Monday morning that they had just hit 1,028,362 monthly active users. Of these, almost half – 489,003 – had joined since Thursday, and 1,124 new servers had been set up.

“That’s pretty cool,” he added with refreshing composure.

The platform also has around 4.5 million registered accounts, according to TIME magazine.

What’s with the name?

“I called it Mastodon because I’m not good at naming things. I just chose whatever came to my mind at the time,” Rochko admitted prosaically. “There was obviously no ambition of going big with it at the time.”

We’re wondering why he was thinking of a Mastodon at all, given that they’re a type of mammoth that went extinct more than 10,000 years ago.

Still, if recent hype is anything to go by, the platform is a long way from being killed off.

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