TL;DR – Start on http://mastodon.online if you want to start today. It’s a general server that’s run by the non-profit that develops the Mastodon software. When you join an instance, it’s polite to find out how to help pay for its upkeep. Mastodon itself has a Patreon for example. Read https://fedi.tips and this 10 tips article by axobom
“Joining Mastodon” isn’t the way to think about it.
Back in 2018 CRASH Space spun up a short lived instance of Mastodon, and I wrote a primer on the the Fediverse, ActivityPub and Mastodon then. With this week’s slam on the Mastodon ecosystem it seems like a good time to review and add more of the latest information.
The site that many people are joining, mastodon.social, has been struggling with the large influx of users. The good news is that has had no effect on OTHER instances. So you can still go look at https://some.server.social/public all over the Fediverse. An account on a healthy server can still see posts from a struggling one since the healthy server will be able to go get all the posts for all accounts on its instance that follow accounts on the struggling one and cache them. That’s the Fediverse at work and it’s wonderful! From the earlier primer:
People don’t “join Mastodon” like they “join Twitter.” Mastodon instances continue to multiply and the finding one that feels like a fit will be the first step. Instances provide a home community, but also an address, like an email address, that will be unique in the Fediverse. Users can then follow other addresses on other ActivityPub enabled sites, populating the “Federated Timeline” that all users on the home instance can see. That timeline provides a way to share content from all over the Fediverse with the home community.https://blog.crashspace.org/2018/08/crash-space-joins-the-fediverse/
Instances can come and go depending on the people hosting them. Case in point, ours evaporated. So joining one maintained by the group writing the software can feel more reliable. The Mastodon gGmbH non-profit runs mastodon.social, but also the newer, “smaller” (23k as of this writing) mastodon.online. That one has weathered the influx pretty well. It’s as good of a place to start as any. Unlike other platforms you can MOVE.
Why would someone ever need to move? After joining a big server and getting to know the Fediverse a Mastodon user might want to transfer to “where their friends are” without maintaining two accounts. The move process keeps followers intact. Going the other way, some instances run like targeted forums where posts follow a topic. Those local feeds will generally be manageable and interesting. To keep timelines curated, moderators may tell someone posting things that are off topic or otherwise against the instances rules from their account on that instance to find another place to post from. If that person doesn’t want to have two accounts, the admins will generally let them follow the move process.
Accounts do not have to be on the same instance to follow each other. What gets “followed” is the location of a JSON feed at an address with a user component and a server component like email. Interestingly an account doesn’t even have to be on a server running Mastodon to connect to everyone who has just joined a Mastodon instance! Anything that conforms to the ActivityPub protocol can Federate! For example, a Mastodon fork called Hometown creates an ActivityPub service that is a Twitter/Discord Hybrid. They wanted to be able to have a private-local-only setting which is not a planned feature for Mastodon. Hometown instances still work perfectly with Mastodon instances.
Mastodon relates to ActivityPub like WordPress to RSS, or perhaps more like Mastodon relates to ActivityPub like Gmail to IMAP. Mastodon is a software interacts that with a common protocol, but also adds a lot of sugar.
There are many projects that specialize in a special flavor of ActivityPub traffic. Here’s a list from Project Awesome
- Mastodon – Most known microblogging platform.
- Pleroma – Lightweight microblogging platform.
- GnuSocial – Oldest microblogging platform.
- Microblog.pub – Single-user lightweight microblogging platform.
- Hubzilla – Blog/social networks platform with file, contacts and events sharing.
- Friendica – Social network platform.
- Peertube – Video sharing platform.
- FunkWhale – Audio sharing platform.
- Plume – Blogging platform.
- WriteFreely – Blogging platform.
- Prismo – Link aggregation platform.
- PixelFed – Photograph sharing platform.
- NextCloud Social – Microblogging inside the cloud platform.
Many apps that will let you read Mastodon server provided content will also handle content from these platforms, too.
Why or Why Not Host Your Own
Like we did in 2018, your group may consider spinning up an instance to be online as a community together. Or you might want one just for you if you already have your own domain for email.
The pros and cons of running an ActivityPub service match the pros and cons of managing an email server or forum software. Admins get control over all the content on that domain, which, if it’s for a business, may be expected. If it’s more of social group that’s a bit more complicated. In the end when you “get” to make decisions you then also “get” to be responsible for them. There is a good article by one of the maintainers of chaos.social that talks about the good the bad and the ugly of running a more general topic server.
With a private instance, no matter if the rest of the network goes down, the instance itself will have saved copies of everything liked/bookmarked/etc. Once an instance gets opened up to more users it will need a lot of storage because that’s true of everything everyone interacts with. That ability to maintain an archive is a feature of the Fediverse, but it is also one of the reasons some instances have lots of blocking set up. Being stuck storing content that’s illegal in the place where the server lives can have consequences!
CRASH Space’s instance got decommissioned because after the initial fun of poking around the backend, the admin (me) didn’t care to maintain a custom docker install for the number of people actually using the software. Nor did she care to learn Ruby to contribute to the project. Just like with an email server, decide on what work load is right for you or your organization.
Where and How to Host
Right now these are the two main options I’d recommend depending on your (US based) needs. Managed hosting at masto.host or spinning up a droplet on DigitalOcean. If you have a server at your disposal the Mastodon foundation provides more detailed directions.
A caveat to managed hosting, Mastodon does not seem to have been built with managed hosting in mind. The real innovation in managed-host blogging came with a plugin architecture one could access from the front end (Hi WordPress!). None of that is available in Mastodon. Through the administrative front end of Mastodon you can upload custom CSS and tweak the your instances governance rules, but that’s it. No installing templates, adding features, etc. The trade off is that you don’t have to manage the server. This round I chose this path so I can focus on writing an example client while keeping “my main” on a bigger server.
New since 2018 DigitalOcean offers a Mastodon hosting droplet ready to go. The CRASH Space instance ended, in part, because it would have required me to spend more time per week staying updated on Docker shenanigans than I wanted to for the amount of people actually using it. Now, 4 years latter, the ready to run droplet seems more viable.
Privacy on the Fediverse
ActivityPub traffic does not promise encryption. Like eMail, SMS, Twitter DMs, and frankly too many things online, the people who run the servers or relays can see everything. The revolution should not be ActivityPub’d as they say. As I said in 2018:
In the announcement and the FAQ about our Mastodon instance I felt it was important to mention that the ActivityPub protocol keeps all the pitfalls of email, leaving admins like me with God Powers over the content on the servers. The fact that CS members know me could be considered reassuring or stifling depending on the day. Would you rather be in a big city or a small town? At least in the Fediverse small towns actually get a say in how they’re run. Small towns create a much stronger social contract, i.e. Tod would totally rat me out if I start spending my days reading other people’s private messages. That said, in the long run, I’d like to see more situations where we don’t have to trust the pinky swear “It’s safe because I said so!” Moving this needle will likely take setting up regulations and governing bodies and auditors so nothing will be changing over night. In the mean time, please do have fun in the Fediverse, but if you want to send something more private, use Signal.https://blog.crashspace.org/2018/08/tuesday-sweep-21-august-2018/
Since this time I’m playing around with Managed hosting, it isn’t me that has direct access to the database it is the folks at masto.host, which is a pro or a con depending on the use case.
Also, deleting posts is out of the poster’s or originating server’s hands. Content gets cached on other servers and making sure something gets wiped everywhere can’t really be done for certain. But nor can one trust closed companies to do that when asked, so again, it depends on the threat model.
Interestingly, I recently learned about a more secure open protocol called matrix. Perhaps one day it could be combined with the Fediverse for a more private way to pass around distributed information? We shall see.
Poke around, have fun. Like with all social media If participating in the Fediverse brings you joy or value, do it. When it doesn’t, stop.