Journalists and other content creators around the world are trying to find alternatives to Twitter. Mastodon could be the new place to be, but it takes effort to rebuild networks - or even make it work at all.

The desire to switch is growing after Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter. Musk wants to reduce oversight on the social media platform to make space for freedom of speech. Critics are afraid that the adjustments could result in an environment where it’s easier to find (and post) more hate speech and fake news.

It doesn’t help that shortly after the deal was signed the new Twitter owner started spreading misinformation about the attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband. Later on, he trolled The New York Times (on Twitter) implying that they were the ones spreading fake news.

It didn’t stop there. He also used the first hours of ownership to drop new policy ideas, like asking 20 dollars a month to have a blue check on your Twitter profile. Author Stephen King (with almost 7 million followers) reacted furiously:

20 a month to keep my blue check? Fuck that, they should pay me. If that gets instituted, I’m gone like Enron.

Although Musk subsequently made a counter proposal of 8 dollars a month, the fallout has been driving more and more Twitter users to Mastodon, a social media website with a similar look and feel. The big difference though is that this alternative isn’t a single entity. It’s not even one platform.

What is Mastodon?

Mastodon, like Twitter, is a micro-blogging site. Unlike Twitter, it’s not a single site. The platform is divided into nodes - what they call ‘instances’ - which are essentially sites within sites, each with separate owners, and all with their own policies. Users choose which instance they join, meaning they get to choose who is the owner of their data (an ongoing complaint among Twitter users). There are thousands of these instances, currently hosting 3.5 million users.

Sounds a bit confusing? Well, yes and no. Think of each instance as an island with its own administrator and policy. “When you’d like to switch to Mastodon, first you need to choose the instance (and therefore the server) where all your data will be stored”, Dutch tech journalist Bastiaan Vroegop explains. “For journalists, privacy could be an interesting reason to be on a certain server. And activists should try to avoid Chinese servers, for example. For daily use it doesn’t matter at what instance you are, because you could easily share messages and interact with people on different instances.”

Screenshot of Mastodon. The interface looks familiar to Twitter.

It’s even possible for journalists to use their own server and simply invite people to join them over there. “But maybe that is a bridge too far for most people”, Vroegop says. “But the key point of Mastodon is that it’s decentralised, formed by a group of volunteers.”

Of course Mastodon has its own how to-page to help users get started, but here’s a quick guide to taking the first steps:

Step 1 - Choose your instance

There are filters that help you choose the instance that fits. Go to and find out where to go. There are also lists of interesting people that you can follow afterwards on

For example: here at smartocto, we went to and searched for an instance with English as the operational language, fewer than 10 000 people, and without permission of any NSFW options. We tried out but we’re still not entirely convinced it’s the best option. Fortunately we can move to another instance if this one isn’t the best fit.

At present, the biggest instance is, created by the founder of Mastodon. Unfortunately the server is overloaded by new users and is closed to new users at the moment. “Journalists who want to be on that server, maybe need to wait”, Bastiaan Vroegop says. “But they can start on a different server in the meantime and move when there’s enough space again.”

Step 2 - Make a profile

Under ‘profile and appearance’ you can set an avatar and header, and of course a profile bio. Share whatever you want. Decide whether people can just follow you or if they need to send in a request.

For example, here is the profile of our editor Stefan.

Step 3 - See where everyone is

Use the search function to see where specific contacts are. Use their account name (for example to make sure you’ll find the correct user. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to distribute followers from Twitter to Mastodon. There is a way though to find your own Twitter followers who have a Mastodon account as well. Someone created the tool Debirdify for that purpose.

Step 4 - See how it works

With Mastodon, there are basically three places to see the content shared by others:

  • ‘Home’ is like the living room of your account. Every contact you follow is there.
  • ‘Local’ is the timeline for everyone in that particular instance. If it’s a big instance, you’ll probably get lost, but in smaller instances it might be a good place to be and interact.
  • ‘Federated’ is where you can find the contacts of your contacts.

You can retweet (though, strictly speaking, in Mastadon-speak a tweet is a ‘toot’) other people - that’s called a boost. There is no way to comment on a boost. That is one way Mastodon purposely tries to distinguish itself from Twitter. You are tempted to quote when you should be replying, Mastodon's lead developer once explained. "You speak to your audience instead of the person you are talking to. It becomes performative.

Step 5 - Create new posts, or share photos and videos

Toots can have up to 500 characters instead of 280 on Twitter. That gives the opportunity to share more information in just one post.

Sharing photos and videos could be a problem right now in some instances, because there is not enough server space everywhere. The expectation is that servers will be upgraded as soon as more content creators start using these instances more.

New Mastodon users are in their trying out phase

Since people are trying to find a new place to be besides (or instead of) Twitter, lots of them are just in the try-out phase. Dutch TV personality Tim Hofman tooted the question: ‘If I follow you on Twitter, can you say hello right here?’

It kinda feels awkward to say goodbye to Twitter entirely and many are hedging their bets. Journalists are trying to consolidate their network on while at the same time sticking a wet finger in the air (the ‘air’ being Mastodon). Unfortunately Mastodon doesn’t have the friendliest user experience out there, so it’ll probably take some effort and patience to see where it’s heading. Perhaps everyone will have forgotten about it a couple of weeks from now. We’ll find out. Maybe it’s all part of the thrill of being an early adopter, at the forefront of the next big thing. Perhaps the fact that right now it looks a bit clunky is part of the process.