Rob’s guide to Mastodon

Rob Cowell
5 min readNov 8, 2022

Mas…what, why and who?

Mastodon is quite obviously analogous to Twitter in terms of the UI/UX for the end user, but there are significant differences in the architecture which impact how we establish a presence and how we connect with the community. That community has started onboarding with Mastodon in droves, for two primary reasons :-

  • Dissatisfaction with Twitter and recent news surrounding it
  • Fear of missing out on connecting with others that have moved across

Within the Salesforce community, I’ve seen quite a few names join Mastodon this weekend, both from the customer community and from Salesforce employees itself.

What’s different?

The primary difference most folks will talk about is that Twitter is centralised and run by a company, whereas Mastodon is decentralised and anyone is free to either join a server of their choice, or even start their own (more on that later).

However, this does not mean that there are lots of siloed instances and joining a different one from your friends means you cannot see their posts (or in Mastodon parlance, “toots” as opposed to “tweets”).

The way that Mastodon keeps everyone connected is through federation and you’ll see this term used and abused often. The superset of all these networked servers, exchanging posts with each other for a larger whole, is often referred to as the Fediverse or Fedi for short.

Structurally, this results in three spheres of visibility — folks in your immediate list that you follow, folks “local” to the same server instance as you, and folks “global” across this whole Fediverse. Like most concepts, this is best explained with an image :-

There are advantages and disadvantages abound in Mastodon, but first, let’s dig into the how…

How do I get started?

There a multitude of instances/servers to choose from. Many are aligned to particular groups or interests. Some folks host their own, some are more generalised. In practice, the best approach is to select a server that best aligns to your interests or goals, but that also has a moderation policy and/or acceptable use policy that you agree to. Since anyone is able to start a Mastodon instance, this should be done with care.

Once you have selected your “home” in the Fediverse, it’s usually pretty straightforward to sign up for an account. Some instances may require a review/vetting process, but most are instant access. There’s of course a (mostly) standard web interface as well as some mobile and desktop clients available.

Where is everyone?

There are tools available, such as Debirdify, that allow you to discover who amongst your followers are also on Mastodon. As far as I can tell, this is reliant on them having their Mastodon username listed in their Twitter profile bio, like fredbloggs@mastodon.server but I’ve not yet dug that far into how it finds them.

Your connections don’t need to be on the same instance as you to be able to follow them, as the federated model keeps things connected. Rogue servers, with poor content or poor moderation policies tend to get de-linked, i.e., server operators can effectively blacklist content from others that have a bad reputation. The idea here is that it becomes inherently self-governing.

Companies and verification

There seems to be a very low “company account” presence at the moment, from what I’ve seen and certainly there seems to be an air of wariness of the arrival of the corporates. Realistically, I think it’s inevitable — as an organisation you would want to have a presence where your customers/community are — but it should be approached carefully. Don’t spook the horses (or mastodons).

In terms of authenticity/verification, this is a little more nuanced in a multi-instance, distributed world. Don’t make the mistake of trying to register the same handle on every instance — this is neither achievable or desirable. There are two better approaches, by design.

Backlink verification

By having a custom link on our website that links back to Mastodon, with a particular structure, then posting the website link in the custom metadata on our profile, the two entities link with each other and indicate you are the authentic owner of that account

For example, I have my own site www.alphatron.co.uk as my profile account, then in the HTML of the homepage, I have the following markup

<a rel="me" href="<https://fosstodon.org/@RobSalesforce>">Mastodon</a>

and once both parts are in place, after a short delay, I appear as verified on my profile, like so

Running your own instance

The other approach, arguably stronger, is to run your own dedicated company instance of Mastodon (it’s free and open-source software on Github) that only has your company account as a user. Quite obviously, this represents a higher overhead of creation and maintenance — there are tutorials for quickly doing this on services like AWS, Azure, DigitalOcean etc — but it does provide two additional safeguards. Authenticity and trust to folks viewing your content, and it shields you from any disruption or issues when using someone else’s server. Although we’ve happily entrusted things with Twitter’s servers for years, so….

Engagement

  1. There are significantly fewer users on Mastodon, across the entire Fediverse, but it’s been growing exponentially over the last few days
  2. Likes (or “favourites” on Mastodon) don’t elevate your prominence
  3. Retweets (or “boosts” on Mastodon) do elevate your prominence — sharing is caring :-)
  4. The platform doesn’t seem to be ready for company accounts when it comes to analytics, engagement scores, etc. I could be wrong or there could be third-party tools for this

That’s about all I can come up with on the first weekend of usage. Once you get your head around the setup and the differences from Twitter outlined above, it’s quite easy to use.

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Rob Cowell

Salesforce Dev/Architect with a bunch of unfounded opinions