Some Tricks To Making Mastodon Way More Useful
from the a-non-beginners-guide dept
It’s been interesting to watch over the last few months as tons of people have migrated from Twitter to Mastodon (or similar compatible ActivityPub-based social media platforms). I’ve noticed, however, that some people keep running into the same issues and challenges as they discover that Mastodon is different than what they’re used to with Twitter. There are a few tips and tricks I’ve been sharing with various people that seemed pretty broadly applicable, so I figured it was worth doing a post laying them out.
A couple of quick things to note: these are unlikely to be universal. It’s just a few of the things that I’ve found that take the Mastodon experience to a new, better, more useful level. In other words, yes, this is highly subjective. Also, some of the tools I’m discussing are relatively new, often developed by users who saw the need and decided to build something (again, this is something that’s nice about the open platform that enables anyone to see something that they feel can be improved… and improve it). This also means that it’s highly likely that there will be even more of these kinds of tools and add-ons from others in the near future, and they may surpass most of the suggestions here. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list.
Separately, there are a million “how to get started with Mastodon” posts and articles out there. If you’re brand new to Mastodon, I highly recommend checking those out first to get the basics down. This post is more about taking your Mastodoning to a new level. Perhaps the most comprehensive guide is found at Fedi.tips. A few other good beginner posts are Adam Field’s post on Medium, Dell Cameron’s guide at Gizmodo, Tamilore Oladipo’s guide at Buffer, Amanda Silberling’s guide at TechCrunch, and, finally, Noelle’s wonderful GuideToMastodon.com, which kicks off with the same advice I’ve given tons of people: DON’T PANIC. You’ll figure it out. Lots of people have and so will you.
All of those should give you a pretty good basis for understanding Mastodon, and (in particular) some of its differences from Twitter, which seem to be the things that trip people up the most.
Finding people to follow
My biggest “beginner” suggestion is to find and follow a few fairly active accounts, and then when they “boost” someone interesting, follow those people as well. If you’re trying to “migrate” from Twitter, there are a bunch of tools to try to find the people you follow there, including Fedifinder and Debirdify, but the one I found to have the cleanest interface, and the most useful (and allows one-click following) is Movetodon.
If you’re looking for new people to follow around a particular subject, there are a variety of lists out there, including Trunk, Fediverse.info, Fedi.Directory, and PressCheck.org (which verifies journalists, specifically).
A very cool tool I only recently discovered is Followgraph. You put in your Mastodon handle, it looks up all the people you follow and all the people they follow, and then recommends to you the people who lots of your followers follow, but you don’t… It’s pretty useful in surfacing people I might want to follow (though it also surfaces some people I know about but deliberately don’t want to follow).
I also, generally, recommend not cross posting between Twitter and Mastodon, but there are perfectly good reasons to ignore this suggestion. My thinking on it is that this is somewhere different, and you should learn to use it “natively.” Also, it feels like many people set up a cross-poster and then go off and ignore Mastodon, so their accounts are sort of zombie accounts.
This is probably the tip that is most well known and most commonly suggested for going from Mastodon beginner to expert. If you go into settings and click the box to “enable advanced web interface” then you end up with a multi-column interface.
For people who are familiar with Tweetdeck, the unfortunately long-neglected, multi-column Twitter app that initially made Twitter super useful, was purchased by Twitter, and then basically languished, that’s what you effectively get with the advanced web interface.
There are a few tricks to making this interface more useful as well. The left most column is for search (more on that in a bit) and posting. The right most column is basically the “active” column. This takes a little getting used to, but once you figure it out it makes sense. It can be the “getting started” menu (this is what it is when you first log in):
However, if you click on a particular post to see a thread or replies or whatnot, the post you click on takes over this column. This is a bit different from Twitter/Tweetdeck, but kinda makes sense once you get used to it, as it leaves your other columns in place. To get back to the menu, you can click the “hamburger” menu button that is in the left-most column. It may be a little confusing to have to click something in the left-most column to get the right-most column to go back to the menu, but (again) if you think of the right-most column as the “active” column, it makes sense.
Make use of lists
This is a useful feature whether or not you use the advanced view on Mastodon. If you follow enough people that there is a relatively active flow of new posts, I’ve found that lists are a super useful way to focus in on more interesting stuff, without it becoming overwhelming. This is the same thing that I did with Twitter in the early days, creating a series of “lists” of users, so I could narrow down what I’m following for specific purposes.
In my case, I’ve created four lists: “must read,” “journalism,” “law,” and “tech.” These should be somewhat self-explanatory, but I put the accounts I want to make sure I don’t miss into “must read” and those are usually the first thing I’ll check when checking in on Mastodon. Then I’ll bounce between the other lists and the home feed (of everyone I follow). I do not use either the federated feed or the local feed, as they are (for me) firehoses of noise. On some smaller, more focused, servers, I think the local feed can be quite useful, but for most major servers, it’s mostly useless.
I have seen some new Mastodon users focus on the local and federated feeds, and then get frustrated. I think it’s generally best to ignore the federated feed entirely, and only use the local feed on more tight-knit focused servers.
In the advanced web view, lists are even more powerful, as you can pin them and see all of them next to each other. This is also a little confusing at first, but if you create a list, and then access it (via the “getting started menu” where you click on “lists” and then the list of your choice), you then need to “pin” the list to have it show permanently in the advanced web view. You do this by clicking the slider settings button, followed by the “pin” button:
Once “pinned” you can then move the column left or right in the advanced view with the arrow buttons:
The list interface in Mastodon isn’t the best, and I highly recommend the Mastodon List Manager app, written by Andrew Beers. It has a somewhat simple interface, but it works so much better than the built in list interface. Beers’ app shows all of the people you follow in a giant list, and then puts any list (and you can create new ones directly in the interface) as a kind of grid next to the names of those you follow. You can then check off what lists (if any) you want to put the people you follow onto. It’s very simple, and it just works (for what it’s worth, I ran into a few bugs with it, and Andrew was quite helpful in getting them sorted out and fixed).
This setup makes it super easy to create lists and assign people you follow to various lists. It’s way easier than Mastodon’s built in setup.
There are some limitations to lists. Currently, (unlike Twitter) there really isn’t a way to make your list “public” or to share it. You can export the list as a CSV and in theory share that, but it’s much more complicated than Twitter’s ability to make a list public and have other people follow it. Also, I’ve seen a number of people complain that (again, unlike Twitter) you can’t add users to lists who you don’t follow. I’ve never used that feature on Twitter myself as the people I put on lists are always people I already follow, but some people like to do that to keep tabs on certain people/topics without having to “follow” them in their main feed.
Better UI options
Even as useful and helpful as the advanced web UI is, there are alternative interfaces as well. Most of the really unique efforts are on mobile, and not with the “official” Mastodon apps. I highly recommend checking out a few such apps to figure out what works for you. I use Tusky on Android and find that it works for me, but I hear good things about many other options. And, it sounds as though a bunch of developers are working on even nicer iOS apps as well (the folks who made the popular Tweetbot for Twitter are working on one called Ivory that lots of people are talking about).
However, for regular desktop use there are some additional options as well. I’ve played around with Sengi, Whalebird, TheDesk, and Hyperspace, and none of them really did much for me, to be honest. The advanced web interface struck me as better for me, personally, than any of those apps.
However, there is one other interface that I really like: Pinafore.social. It is not a downloadable desktop client like those above, rather it’s simply an alternative web interface for your existing Mastodon account, that is very clean, and very simple. It has a Twitter-like feel to it, and the site is quick and responsive. If you like a very clean interface better than a more cluttered one, you may like Pinafore quite a lot. Here’s a screenshot of what it looks like on my account:
You can access your notifications or your lists (via the “Community” tab) and it’s all quite nice. I use it probably 30% of the time, though I still use the advanced web interface more of the time. However, when that gets overwhelming, sometimes it’s nice to just switch over to Pinafore and have the cleaner interface.
In an ideal world, I’d love to see what Pinafore’s developer, Nolan Lawson, would do if he created an “advanced web view” version of Pinafore, but on the site he claims it’s not on the roadmap to create a multi-column view version (though I still wish someone else might take the idea and run with it).
This is another area that I’m hoping we’ll see a lot more development in over the next few months, as it’s a wide open space, and the nice thing about such an open system is that anyone can design an interface or app for it.
There are some really useful browser extensions that make Mastodon much more useful. I know that some people shy away from browser extensions, especially as they may represent a security risk. But if you’re okay with it (and the main one I’m recommending makes its source code available for people to review), they make things quite useful.
The main extension I recommend is FediAct. One complaint I’ve seen from some users is that if you end up on a Mastodon post on a different server, it’s a little bit complicated to interact with it. This is where the nature of federation feels a little complicated, though it’s not that difficult once you understand it. If you view content from other servers through your own server, you can easily interact with it, because that content has effectively been copied over to your server, and your interactions link back with the original.
However, if you end up on a different server entirely, that server doesn’t know you’re logged into a different federated server, and therefore can’t interact directly. Instead, you have a couple of choices on how to interact, with the most basic one being that when you click to do something, it will ask you to indicate your own Mastodon instance address before effectively moving you over to interact with it on your own server. It’s clunky and a little bit of a nuisance.
Apparently, there was a period of time where Mastodon had built in tools to get around that, but people quickly realized that’s a pretty big security problem, as you’re effectively opening up a cross site scripting hole.
FediAct, however, allows you to do this while controlling it directly in your browser, and making Mastodon work the way most people think it should work. You plug your own instance into the extension, and then if you end up on a different server, you can still like and boost posts just like you could on your own server. It works and is nice and solves one of the bigger headaches people have with Mastodon’s federated setup.
There’s a separate extension called Roam that some people have recommended, which does some of the same things as FediAct regarding interacting with people on other servers. It also has a bunch of other features, including making it easier to post to Mastodon from anywhere, and to schedule posts to show up at a later date. It’s got a very clean interface and looks nice, but I haven’t really done much with it so far.
One of the things people often remind newbies on Mastodon about is that there is no text search: just users and hashtags. Some people find this frustrating (perhaps for good reason), but it does encourage people to make better use of hashtags (something I often still forget to do). That said, there is a nice (relatively new) feature on Mastodon: the ability to follow hashtags. If you find a hashtag that you want to follow, you can follow it just like you would follow a person:
This can be useful if you want to follow a particular topic more than just a few individuals who tweet about that topic. Unfortunately, it appears you cannot yet add hashtags to lists, which would be really helpful and hopefully will be an upgrade at some point soon.
As lots of people will remind you, Mastodon is just one implementation for ActivityPub, and there are lots of others. Some of those are designed to create totally different services (like PeerTube and PixelFed), but some of them are just alternative, but usually compatible, takes on creating a microblogging setup. Some of these are forks of Mastodon’s open source code, whereas others appear to be built separately from the ground up, but still made compatible (somewhat) with Mastodon, so you can still follow and communicate with the folks rushing to Mastodon while potentially actually not using Mastodon at all.
There are some forks that are more minor changes to Mastodon, like Hometown and Glitch. Hometown makes very minor changes to Mastodon with things like better list management and better rendering of rich text. Glitch adds a lot more like, better formatting tools, hiding follower counts, a better threaded mode and more.
Then there are just generally alternative takes on microblogging that either are built on or cooperate with ActivityPub. Some of these are more lightweight than Mastodon, and many have more features. This includes things like Pleroma, friendi.ca, and Misskey (which also has forks like Calckey and FoundKey). There are a bunch of other ones as well, and each has some different features, including some features or UI options that people feel are missing from Mastodon.
If you’re finding that Mastodon just isn’t doing it for you, it might be worth looking at the feature sets and UIs of these other platforms to see if they’re more your speed. For the most part, you’ll still be able to communicate with everyone on Mastodon… just via a non-Mastodon server (though sometimes they still call themselves Mastodon, just because).
There are, also, instances that have changed the feature set directly. For example, while the default Mastodon post is limited to 500 characters, there are a bunch of servers that have expanded that. For example, I’m pretty sure that infosec.exchange (a popular instance for the infosec crowd, obviously, that I believe is running the Glitch fork) allows for posts up to 11,000 characters. Or there’s qoto.org, which basically would let you post a novella with a limit of 65,535 characters. It has also implemented quote tweet functionality (all of the “key” forks have this as well), rich text, and actual full text search.
In short, even if there are features you think are missing from Mastodon itself, there may be other instances that have already implemented them, or if you’re technically proficient, you may explore setting up your own alternative instance.
One thing to note: there are (reasonable) complaints from people on smaller instances that some of those may not function as well, as the federated nature of Mastodon means that certain content is effectively excluded from those servers. This creates some problems, and while there are some attempts to solve them (with things like relays) there definitely are some downsides to joining a tiny instance. Of course there are some downsides to joining a giant instance as well. Once again, hopefully these are solvable problems, but did want to flag it for people rushing off to join different instances.
Again, this is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but it does show a bunch of tools, features, and services that I’ve found useful in getting around some of the limitations of Matodon that seem to frustrate some users, and to make this open, federated, social network much more useful.