One hundred percent of people’s confusion about Mastodon comes from journalists doing a bad job explaining it. It’s not complicated. In fact, it’s so simple that you already understand it, and you use something exactly like it every single day.
I’m talking about email.
If you understand one basic thing about email, you already know everything you need to know about Mastodon.
- It doesn’t matter what email website you use. It doesn’t matter what email websites your friends use. You can email each other because it’s email and all email addresses can talk to each other. You’re on Gmail and your friend is also on Gmail? Cool, that will work. You’re on Gmail and your friend is on Yahoo? That’s also fine, no problem. You have a company email address in Outlook and your friend has a personal email server in their basement that you don’t really understand? You already know it could not be less of a problem. If you have their email address, you can send them an email.
That’s it, that’s the whole story, that’s what tech bloggers have been typing their fingers off trying to explain. Mastodon is like email. We can all go home now.
Of course, it’s not the same as email. Email is for sending letters on the internet. Mastodon is for making public posts on the internet. So it looks like Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. But it works like email.
It doesn’t matter what Mastodon website you use. It doesn’t matter what Mastodon websites your friends use. You can follow them. They can follow you. You’ll see each other’s posts on your home page. You can “comment” on their posts. You can “like” their posts. You can “share” their posts. It’s the same three things you do on every other social media website, but instead of being forced to use facebook.com or twitter.com to access it, you can sign up with any Mastodon website.
Mastodon websites are also called servers, providers, or instances. But “website” works fine and everybody knows what it is.
There are thousands of Mastodon websites, but that’s not a big deal. There are thousands of email websites, too. You probably didn’t spend a month deciding which one to sign up with, you just jumped on whichever one your friends use. That will be fine here. If none of your friends are on Mastodon yet, check out the official directory of Mastodon websites: https://joinmastodon.org/servers. Don’t overthink it. You can pick one and change your mind later. If you insist on overthinking it, there are Mastodon websites for specific countries, hobbies, careers, languages, and so on.
After you sign up, you’ll get your Mastodon address. It will be something like
@firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s an email address, but for Mastodon. What’s with the extra @ symbol at the front? It’s just part of the address. Copy the whole thing and give it to your friends so they can follow you and “like” your posts. When they give you their Mastodon address, paste it into the Search box on your Mastodon website. Their profile will pop up so you can follow them.
I’m not oversimplifying here. The technical details of Mastodon are fascinating to me, but I’m a hopeless computer nerd and you’re just trying to share Washington Post articles and pictures of your dog. You don’t need to know what ActivityPub is. You don’t even need to know what Fediverse is. When someone says “Fediverse,” substitute it in your head with “Mastodon.”
There’s no more. Explanation complete. The only reason that took 600 words is because if I had explained it in 10, you wouldn’t have believed me. Everyone talks about Mastodon like it’s some futuristic thing for tech-heads. It isn’t. It’s email, repurposed to do what Twitter does, so that you don’t have to use Twitter.
Thanks for your time. My Mastodon address is
@email@example.com. Hope to see you there.