What is Mastodon, the new social media kid on the block

Mastodon has drawn many an eye from netizens across the country... but what makes this platform a free, open-source federated social network server and how does it work?

November 08, 2019 09:42 pm | Updated November 28, 2021 11:16 am IST

In the past few days, Mastodon has been seeing a considerable influx of Indian users, who have labelled the platform as a more egalitarian social network.

In the past few days, Mastodon has been seeing a considerable influx of Indian users, who have labelled the platform as a more egalitarian social network.

Mastodon, founded on October 5, 2016 by Eugen Rochko, calls itself a “federation” comprising thousands of communities, similar to Reddit and with timelines much like Twitter. Like any social network, users can create profiles, post images, messages and videos, all while following other users.

In a way, it has that Reddit-like feel with the open-source properties. Expressing yourself works differently too – unlike Twitter’s 280-character count, Mastodon offers a 500-character space for users to express themselves.

The etymology of Mastodon alludes to the mammoth-like extinct creature which is the platform’s avatar. Perhaps the name of the platform refers to its indescribably large size.

No, Mastodon is not new by any means. In fact they’ve undergone many revisions over the past couple of years, learning from the masses and by continually developing their infrastructure. Mastodon 3.0 now promises a “safer social media experience” equipped with effective anti-abuse tools to protect yourself and other users from harassment as well as servers with strict codes of conduct. There are also more moderators involved in the upkeep of the platform.

Also read: Campaign against Twitter by Dalit activists

Mastodon’s pull-factor lies in its infrastructure; so we will compare it with Twitter to make it a little more comprehensive. Twitter is centralised, meaning all interactions take place on a single server controlled by one company... but Mastodon is decentralised, meaning it is a collection of many instances which communicate with each other to form a wider network. Each of these instances, per se, have their own admin with its own policies. In this sense, it is ‘federated.’

In a July 2018 blog post for JoinMastodon.org, Rochko shared he used Twitter’s model to further Mastodon’s development. “Very early on in the development of Mastodon I’ve decided that centralisation and unexpected algorithmic changes were not the only one of Twitter’s problems. Harassment and tools to deal with it have always been lacking on Twitter’s end.” Obviously Twitter has evolved since then, creating blocking and reporting tools with permanent effects.


Rochko also added, in the same post, “I need to delineate that the design decisions are more about what the software nudges you towards, rather than a tamper-proof barrier against some behaviours, which is not possible. Mastodon deliberately does not support arbitrary search... What does arbitrary search accomplish? People and brands search for their own name to self-insert into conversations they were not invited to.”


This explains why, in the past few days, Indian users have labelled Mastodon as a more egalitarian social network. After the suspension of SC lawyer Sanjay Hegde’s Twitter account (not once, but twice) for opinion taken out of context, users have accused Twitter of being inconsistent with its strict policies.

How does it all work?

Mastodon is comprised of individual servers, called instances, as opposed to a centralised server, the model used by platforms like Twitter.

Instances like mastodon.xyz and mastodon.social are more general in its outlook: anyone can join. Other instances are restrictive in focus, which are meant for people who share specific interests, such as say, MotoGP fans.

Each instance is an individual server, which is run by its owner, who moderates it, besides controlling membership to the instance, and the content that is allowed on it. For example, inditoot.com is a social network for Indians, run by Indian owners on a specific Mastodon instance, which is denoted by “inditoot”.

Can users from one instance communicate with users from another instance? Sure. If User A from instance Red wants to communicate to user B from another instance, say, Blue, they simply add the B’s Mastodon handle followed by their instance name to their “toot”. In this case, it will be @B@Blue. If B wants to communicate to A, he or she will add @A@Red to their toot.

Communication between instances

Instances are not readily visible to every other instance. A pair of instances will communicate with each other only if there is a connection between a user on one instance ( i.e., a local user) and a user on the target instance.

In such a case, the two instances is said to form a ‘federation’. Another policy that the owners of an instance can frame is the rules for the ‘federated timeline’ of the users of their instance. Going back to the earlier example, since person A of instance Blue follows person B of the Red instance, the federated timeline of instance Blue will now include posts from instance Red (note: the federated timeline is different from the instance-specific, or local timeline, which will contain posts by the users of that specific instance alone). This, unless the owner of instance Blue chooses to ban/prevent posts from instance Red.

Since complete freedom is given to owners to moderate the kind of content that is available to users of an instance, it naturally follows that users of a particular instance are usually like-minded, or know what they are signing up for when they join a particular instance.

How do I get Mastodon?

The most recommended way for getting started with Mastodon is to sign up and join its flagship instance — mastodon.social — to get a feel of the platform.

Mastodon does not have an official app. On JoinMastodon.org, one can browse Mastodon-compatible apps for Android, iOS, web, desktop and SailfishOS. Once you download the app compatible with your phone’s operating system, you can sign up and start browsing the instance of your choice.

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