many would call it a "federated microblogging platform" or some variation of that, maybe?
in all honesty, i do not know much about what mastodon is, or how it works, but i do know how to use it :) some of it may sound like gibberish, because technology isn't my strong suit. feel free to say "hey ginger, this is gibberish please elaborate", or even "ginger, that's wrong, please fix it"
mastodon is a social networking website of sorts. it is structured visually like twitter. you have a scrolling timeline with short text posts (or image/video) from users. on the bright side: we're in chronological order, no ads, and you do not see what other people liked popping into your feed.
instead of just having [AT]username you have [AT]username[AT]instance[DOT]something, which is where an email comparison typically comes in. you can reach people on other instances, despite different domains (unlike twitter where everything is localized/centralized to one site), because we are all federated/connected.
to @ (or mention) someone on mastodon or other platforms, you would need their full address. luckily, if you can't remember the full thing but have interacted with them mastodon can guess for you, or pull from a reply.
how to toot
so, we'll focus first off on tooting, which are your posts. they're called toots, giggle all you want or don't, but that's what they're called.
"what's on your mind?" the elusive UI asks... there's an emoji icon there, where your instance (which is your home base, and in this instance it's stardew.city) may have custom emoji! many instances (it's not just stardew.city out there) have a variety of emoji ranging from actual human faces, or emojis folks made themselves. stardew city even has a majority of the pixel art from stardew valley
to the important parts: below your textbox you'll see a paperclip icon, a hamburger icon of three bars filled to various lengths (for polls!), a lock icon or a world icon, and CW. above you'll see your search bar. you'll also see numbers, that's your character limit (standard is 500 but instance and/or system admins can change that if they understand mastodon's code enough and such); it's hefty, and somehow... doesn't always feel like enough space.
a really convenient thing is that links are always 23 characters, regardless of length so they don't impede your character limit.
the paperclip allows you to upload media files! video, gifs, images, even mp3s i think? i haven't tested everything at the first draft of this, so my bad. the fun thing about mastodon being open source is that it changes often, and The People can suggest things on github if the main dev likes/respects/listens to you enough
if you upload something you can also add alt text (also called a caption, or an image description). if you hover over your newly uploaded thing, you'll see an overlay of a top bar, and a thicker bottom bar. the top allows you to delete the thing, or change the placement of the cropped image for folks on the timeline. the bottom is where you type your description of the image, gif, or video!
it's super helpful to folks with screen readers, or folks who don't have data plans and use it on their phone or something without that stuff loading. image descriptions can be another section (or another document all together?) if you'd like, just holler at me
regardless, describe the thing you posted! if it's art you made, say "art i drew of [person, place, thing]". colors, placement of object, focus of image, etc. are all nice to do if you can, but words are hard so even something basic like:
"art i drew of my original character Micah";
"butterfly meme. the butterfly is [X], and the person is saying [ABC]";
"selfie of me"
are ok too, but don't be afraid to test out a longer description when you can and flex those writing skills.
you can also mark the media as sensitive! this should be done in cases of nudity, gore, bugs, and a common one is eye contact (especially with selfies). this goes hand in hand with
content warnings (CW) and some etiquette
when you click the CW button it will turn blue, and the uploaded thing (if an image/video) will be marked sensitive. this appears in the timeline as a blobby color cropped image with a "sensitive content" button on it. a small header box will also pop up above your post "write your warning here". this will take up some characters of your character limit.
think of this box as a subject line of an email in a way, but you can be a bit more detailed sometimes. you'll see folks using them and figure out your own style. i usually list general topics (i won't list them here, but there is another section farther down you can get more info and feel free to read through stardew city's COC for specific examples). as you can assume, the content warning button is to warn people about potentially triggering content. folks also use them for images not described, long emoji posts, jokes, spoilers, and things less serious than triggering topics. it's pretty convenient and nice, tbh.
CW and sensitive media marking are really helpful for topics big and small. it helps establish consent to interactions with triggering topics, but also in general allowing you to curate your timeline and what you view on a whim without the stress or worry that you or others from seeing something they can't handle or don't want to see at the moment. the fediverse community as a whole uses them really regularly, and you should always read your instances COC for instance-specific guidelines regarding use of CW/sensitive media toggle.
hash tags used in the subject line of a CW will not work, but hashtags in the body of the post will unless you have your posts locked.
posting privacy and timelines
if a post is unlisted (open lock), or private (closed lock), it will not be searchable via hashtag, and will not be posted on the federated or local timelines, which are public timelines. the federated timeline is a feed of all of the folks your instance is federated with. i am, personally, not quite sure how it is populated, but it's a big ol' place that on larger instances is hard to control and moderate when they're not as willing to block/suspend, or if they have small admin/moderation teams...
on stardew city, we are fairly new and small (and we block around 250+ instances) so the federated timeline isn't too hectic. many people on the fediverse never look there and just stay on their local and home timelines.
the local timeline are people only located on your instance, and if the posts are posted publicly (world icon). publicly posted posts also go out to the federated timeline. unlisted posts can be boosted, but do not go out to the public timelines (federated and local). this means, anyone can see and boost your unlisted posts, but they only appear on the home timeline.
some different forks (versions) of mastodon or other platforms have local only posts (specifically glitch-soc i believe, not sure who else), but i am on masto.host and we do not have that merged over on the main mastodon fork. we can all interact though, so that's why the federated timeline can be so big and that's also why explaining this/creating a guide can be a little confusing/difficult.
the home timeline is everyone you follow, plus their boosts and replies. you can turn this off, though, which is kinda nice. click on "home timeline" to the right if you're not already there
there is a hamburger style menu, with sliders. already ticked on is typically "Show Boosts" and "Show Replies"--beware! turning off "show replies" i think also turns off seeing your own replies for some unknown reasons.
you can do the same in the notifications tab, but more detailed including "Desktop notifications", "Show in [notification] column", and "Play sound". do as you wish. you can do "media only" on the local and federated timelines as well.
direct messages are handled within post privacy, but can be viewed separately in most apps and in the browser version. direct messages also show up as a slightly different colors than replies or other posts. you direct message users by switching your post privacy option to the little envelope, and mentioning them. there is no way to turn direct messages off/close your inbox, unfortunately, but there are settings that can help prevent unwanted folks from coming in. we will get to those in the preferences and settings section.
polls work about how you'd expect. up to four voting options, and the longest you can run them is a week. they can be hidden by a CW if desired!
searching allows you to look through the fediverse. there is no plain text search like on twitter, but you can search hashtags and users easily just by typing things in. if you want a specific user, you'll need their whole address (user AT instance DOT something)
ginger, but what about that little arrow? it's a drop down menu for many things including but not limited to: muted users, blocked users, follow requests, pinned toots... convenient place for some things you may want quick access to.
preferences and settings
this is annoyingly complicated and i encourage you to click through everything and look, but right not we're gonna stay simple: the main preferences tab (appearance, notifications, other), filters, and profile. click on the cog that says "preferences" on the right hand side of your screen, towards the bottom of the list of items.
you land first on preferences -> appearance, so that's where we start. you will see the interface language, and site theme. there are three mastodon themes, i use the light one. check them out and see what's good for you! other instances can make custom themes but i don't know how to do that. i will happily link out for this until i learn how
the "advanced web interface" is where you can change your column layout to the three column look:
i think mastodon opens new users up in the single column now? however, the three column layout is what was standard when i joined and i didn't mind it too much, however it definitely can be overwhelming to look at transitioning over from other websites where single column is standard.
they really work similarly to tabs in a browser. i can break it down a little more if desired.
some small features i know very little about are listed next. i turn off auto-play on gifs, but i do not know what "reduce motion in animations" means. confirmation dialogues are also something you can turn off/on, and you have the option to simply mark all media as sensitive, hide media marked as sensitive, or show media marked as sensitive. you can also have all CW auto-expanded.
notifications are important for the last three options especially: block notifications from non-followers, block notifications from people you don't follow, and block direct messages from people you don't follow.
the other tab has some privacy settings, where you can opt out of search engine indexing, hide your network of follows/followers, set your posting privacy and language, as well as filter languages on the public timelines.
filters are so great, please use them. you can filter out words, and maybe even more complex things like emojis and hashtags i think. but anyway, you can customize where, for how long, and such of the phrases or words you filter out. it's great for topics that may not always get a CW, or if people are just bad about that CW, or whatever.
these words or phrases, when filtered out just show up as a "Filtered" bar. i wish they operated a little more like a CW, where it showed the word(s) or phrase(s) filtered. i don't know if i'd want the option to view it anyway, i think that would defeat the purpose for me, but i could see why others would desire that and don't think it would be a horrible idea.
profiles and privacy
here is where you can show yourself off! i have no idea of the character limit for a bio, but it's a good size, and can be changed by those who know the coding way of things i'm sure. your limitations for header and avatar are posted right there, which is nice and convenient.
you can lock your account from here, which i encourage! why? because locked accounts can still post publicly when they want this is really just a great feature to keep your private posts very private, but also can post to the entire fediverse if you have something yo want to share.
it's common courtesy to maybe interact a little before following locked accounts. locked accounts can still interact with you, and you can see locked replies from locked accounts if they are replying to you. many folks have public accounts tho, and post publicly all of the time. you can use the fediverse however works best for you and still get to interact with everyone if you want.
i'd also recommend locking your account because just like i can run an instance with very little know-how, so can really anyone else--and they do! because the project is open source, many fascists, nazis, pedophiles, etc. can and do host/run their own instances and can post to the federated timeline, interact with you, etc.
this is also why stardew city has a registration process / an "application". most other instances have open registrations and allow any/all sign ups. this allows for bad actors (harassers, nazis, etc.) to sign up on instances to evade blocks, generate spam bot armies, etc.
maintaining your privacy/safety is the responsibility of your instance admin and their moderating team. make sure you trust them to do the right thing. read their COC or ask questions if you want to know more. this may make mastodon seem intimidating, and even unsafe, but there are so many amazing instances and people on the fediverse doing their best to take an active stance against oppression in all forms and run their space online accordingly. unlike other popular social media sites whose reporting/suspending algorithyms are ineffective to say the least.
next, you'll see the option to mark your account as a bot account. i'd only recommend it if the account is actually a bot because many folks block bots. there are robot instances though, and many folks like "ebooks" bots! you can host your own if you know what you're doing fairly easily--there are many guides, and at least one hosting option for them as well.
continuing on, profile metadata! you can put links there, your pronouns, random lists, call and response... whatever you want! but having a profile filled out (bio and/or metadata) is helpful for folks to know a little about you when interaction begins.
you can also migrate or delete your account! if you find another instance you like, you can put a way for folks to find your new account much more easily, or just remove it all together. the choice is yours.
there is also a "featured hashtag" tab, which features hashtags on your profile that you may use commonly. searching and using hashtags are a great way to meet folks with similar interests on the fediverse. check out the #MastoTips hashtag for some more help.
reading someone's profile is a great way to know how to interact with them. many people include pronouns, common CW topics they use, hashtags of their interests, and sometimes even boundaries such as "no DMs unless we're mutuals" or "interact before following" or "#NoBot" so bots can't follow their account. an introduction post is also very common, and people even often pin that post or a few others to let people know more about them. you can pin at least five toots, although it may be more other places.
the account tab has a place to change your password and email, as well as delete your account. you can also set up Two-Factor Authentication (TFA) and use your phone to generate login tokens. and lastly you can check the apps you've given permission to and revoke access to any unused or unwanted apps.
import and export is where you can import and export followers, blocks, and export your posts (by requesting your archive), but as of right now there are no ways to upload your posts back into a new account. there is a cool repo to search your archive file, and i will link it once i find it again.
i have no idea what the development tab is for or how to use it, and the other tabs are for admins/moderators. i can continue this guide including those tabs upon request (but i only know a little bit about all that's in there).
i add this section because i feel it is important to encourage users to use the accessibility tools designed into this platform to make it more accessible to all. people with mental health issues, and/or disabilities of varying kinds use the internet every day just like most people do, and the functions mastodon has to help them use the fediverse are important for everyone to use
i do not know how many people view CW as accessibility, but i sure do. content warnings, addressed earlier in this post briefly, are commonly used on mastodon for a variety of reasons. however they also serve an important function: to keep people safe. tagging triggering content is not a science, so there will never be a perfect all encompassing guide, however i will break down some common warnings and etiquette in the fediverse surrounding these subject boxes.
content warnings are typically seen with "triggering" content. a trigger, in the psychological sense (which is where the term comes from) is an involuntary reaction to stimuli that reminds you of a past traumatic event. a "trigger" can also be something that starts up regressive behaviors/causes relapses in certain self harming behavior. some mental health issues that are aided by the proper use of CW include, but are not limited to: PTSD, eating disorders, psychosis, phobias, autism, etc. i have written more about triggers/the human stress response from a psychological perspective here if you'd like to learn more!
common warnings can include, but are not limited to:
eye contact for selfies
blood, gore, or violence
food and drink
drugs and alcohol
insects or bugs
suicidal thoughts or ideation
in my experience and belief, clear and specific CW are important. adding specifiers such as "political/politics", "police violence", "animated", "trans antagonism", "anti-queer", "positive", "detailed/descriptive", "joke", etc. are helpful for those who may be trying to preserve their own mental health and sanity. content warnings can even tell you how to interact with a post such as using "do not boost, for pinning", or "do not @" indicating they want no responses/replies.constant barrages of the death of marginalized folks, and the harm of even more can be draining. be respectful and kind. asking for content warnings is never frowned upon, but approach the other person with respect and simply mute or block them if they choose not to add one and you feel you cannot interact with their posts safely any longer.
some folks "boost with a content warning", meaning they will ask the original poster if they can link the post in question (or copy and link the post) in a new post of their own, with a CW they add. i think this is a great practice, personally!
i would also recommend using the CW post for spoilers, posts longer than 500 characters if your instance allows such things, ASCII images (the bunny holding the sign, In Our House meme format, etc.), and emoji spam. the latter two cause issues with screen readers.
something that is a little more associated with accessibility is captioning your images/media. as shown earlier in the post, this feature is built in to the mastodon fork of the fediverse, and is fairly simple to use. it is unfortunately not big and super noticeable, you can't always see the whole image while describing, and not all mobile apps have it. make sure to petition your dev for it, and maybe even improvements!
a tricky part is that folks often don't know what to say! that makes sense. it takes practice, and some learning, but it's an important skill to improve on. caption any text in the image, including the user/website it's from if it is a screen capture. colors, placement of objects, focus of the image, and anything important to the post should be described.
"a photo of two rainbows, one much brighter than the other, over the city. taken from my window"
"Orson, my original character. he is an orc type with green skin, and a very furrowed face. he has one tusk fully grown, and another broken off. he is bald and has pointed ears."
"a selfie of me!"
"my cat, gem. she's an orange tabby with blue eyes. only her face is visible in the bottom left corner, as she is covered in a blanket"
"a gif/video of my website. i scroll and press different pages to show off my finished project."
hashtags are pretty useful on the fediverse, as they allow you to explore different instances and find other users with common interests. the federated timeline is also good for such things, but can often be crowded.
they work similarly to other websites (with the exception of tumblr, who allowed spacing). for those with screen readers, or any problems processing words, it's really best to use "Camel Case". which is to say, type #LikeThis and not #likethis. screen readers will read the second one as if it were all one word, and will sound like gibberish. when the hashtags are long, it's hard for almost anyone to read it if there are not Distinct Separations Of Words.