What’s the Deal With Mastodon Instances?

an ai-generated image of a cartoon mastodon using a laptop
In light of Elon Musk opting to go a different path from my recommendations, Twitter is managing to fall into a state of chaos at a rate that’s frankly impressive.

A lot of Twitter users are jumping ship to Mastodon. It’s familiar to Twitter users. You write short posts (we call them toots) and you follow people. But structurally, the network and moderation models are very different.

Mastodon Does Things a Little Differently

If you want to join Twitter you get an account on Twitter itself. If you want to join Mastodon there is no one Mastodon; there are many instances of Mastodon.

That’s not as unfamiliar as you might think. If you want an email address there isn’t a single company you get an account with; instead there are lots of email providers. And no matter which email provider you pick, you can email anyone else with an email address, and they can email you. Mastodon is kind of like that too.

Picking an Instance

So, the short story is that you can sign up on any instance you want and you’ll be on Mastodon.

If you go to joinmastodon.org they have a directory of instances you can browse, and you can pick a general-purpose instance and you’ll probably be fine.

Mastodon instances are run by volunteers who aren’t paid, and the people who run them have to pay server bills. I recommend that you kick them a few bucks every month to help with the expenses (if they seek donations).

Hell, if you wanted to you could even host your own instance, just like you can host your own email server. It’s well-documented and there’s even Mastodon hosting as a service.


There are three different main timelines on Mastodon: your home timeline, the local timeline, and the federated timeline.

The home timeline works like classic Twitter. It’s a reverse chronological timeline of toots from people you are following. That’s one characteristic of Mastodon that helps make it less toxic; you aren’t being pushed content by some algorithm; you are in control of who you see toots from.

The local timeline is a timeline of all the toots from all the people on your Mastodon instance. If you joined an instance centered around a particular community or interest, this might be useful to you. If you’re on a more general-purpose instance like mastodon.social, this will feel more like a firehose of toots.

Mastodon instances can choose to federate with each other as well. When your instance federates with another instance, your federated timeline will include toots from your own instance, and all the other instances yours federates with. If, for example, you’re a member of an instance for people interested in retro gaming in Portland, your instance might federate with other instances that are centered around retro gaming.

Federation doesn’t affect who you can follow and who can follow you, though!

One Account? Or Many?

I initially made an account on mastodon.social because I just wanted to get my feet wet with Mastodon and my way of thinking about it worked was similar to how I thought Twitter worked.

But I do have more than one account now, and my secondary accounts are in smaller communities centered around specific things.

One of the things I always liked about Twitter was that when I followed people I primarily followed them because of a single shared interest but over time I’d get to learn more about some of their other interests. So with that in mind I don’t think you should compartmentalize your personality into different accounts, but if there’s a particular topic you want to get really deep about, it might make sense to join an instance focused on that specific thing. And you can always boost (equivalent of retweeting) your toots from specific instances if you want to share it with your more general audience.


One of Twitter’s major points of weakness has been moderation, and moderating Twitter has been difficult in part because there is only one Twitter for the entire world to use.

An ideal Mastodon ecosystem consists of a large number of instances, each of which has a small number of users. These instances get to set their own rules for what is acceptable and what isn’t, and by not having too many people, it’s not too burdensome to moderate.

I like Mastodon because most of the instances don’t tolerate far-right bullshit and racism and that kind of thing.

And if someone comes along and does make an instance that does tolerate that (and it happens), instance admins can completely block the entire instance in one fell swoop.

In practice this works pretty well, and it does a good job of accommodating differences in values. Whereas big singleton social networks like Facebook and Tumblr are not friendly to nudity and sexually explicit material, there are lots of Mastodon instances that are just fine with it, and you can have an account on there without worrying constantly about moderators (and people on a stricter instance can still follow you, if they choose to). This more closely resembles how human networks work, where different groups have different social norms.

Moving Instances

an image from Arrested Development where Michael Bluth proclaims he is out of this family

You know all the times that Twitter pissed you off and you said “okay, I’m done with Twitter” and then you were back next week because all the people you knew were on Twitter still and didn’t follow you elsewhere?

On Mastodon, you can move instances with relative ease. Not all your data moves perfectly right now, but you can move frictionlessly to a new instance without losing your social graph.

So pick an instance and don’t overthink it! It’s not a permanent decision.

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