After Elon Musk took over Twitter in 2022, there was a great deal of disruption, and some people started looking for alternatives. One alternative that got a lot of press was Mastodon. This article will explain how authors can set up a Mastodon account, and get the most out of it.
What is Mastodon?
In some ways, Mastodon is similar to Twitter. It’s a micro-blogging social media site, which allows users to post short messages known as toots. Mastodon has equivalents to Twitter’s retweet and like functions, known as boost and favourite on Mastodon. There are differences, of course. The one that seems to cause the most confusion is that there isn’t a single place to sign up. Anyone can set up a Mastodon instance (also known as a server), which means that there are lots to choose from, and this can confuse people, but it’s not as complex as it might sound.
It’s probably easiest to think of Mastodon as being similar to email in many ways. Just as your email address is made up of your local name followed by your server (eg Robin@AuthorHelp.uk), a Mastodon handle is similar (eg @RPBook@historians.social). But whatever email service you use, you can send emails to other services, and people on other services can email you. In the same way, Robin (on historians.social), Jen (on toot.lgbt) and the Author Help account (on opalstack.social) can all follow and interact with each other.
Register an account
Although it’s not essential, there are advantages to joining an instance that is focused on books and/or authors. Mastodon has a local feed which shows posts from people on the same instance, as well as a federated feed, which shows posts from people all over Mastodon. So the local feed on a book-focused instance will be more interesting and useful. Here are some servers that fit those criteria:
Every instance admin can set their own rules, so make sure you check the rules before joining. Once you’ve found one that is a good fit, click the “Create account” button. Once you’ve accepted the instance’s rules, you’ll be presented with a form asking for your display name, user name, email address, and password.
Set up your profile
Once you have an account, it’s a good idea to add at least a bio and a photo to your profile. This will make it more likely that people will follow you when they come across you. You can also add a header image, and a link to your website in the “Profile metadata” section. If you’re migrating from Twitter, you can use the same profile image and photo as you used there.
When editing your profile, there is a section labelled “Verification”. This has a short piece of HTML code that you can add to your website to verify that your account belongs to the owner of the website. Adding that code to your author website will allow people to verify that the account belongs to you.
It’s also a good idea to write an introduction post. Add a #introduction hashtag, and use hashtags for anything that people are likely to search for, such as #author and the genre that you write in. There’s no full-text search on Mastodon, but it is possible to search for hashtags, so they’re very important. If a hashtag has multiple words, be sure to capitalise the first letter of each word to make it easier to read, especially for screen readers (eg #MilitaryHistory instead of #militaryhistory). After posting, pin the introduction post. To do this on the web interface, click the three dots at the bottom right of the post, and select “Pin on profile”.
In general use, there are a lot of similarities between Mastodon and Twitter. You can post toots, which can be up to 500 characters long, and can include images or polls. For longer messages, you can reply to your own toot to create a thread. You can favourite, boost, and reply to other people’s toots.
Many authors that use Twitter say that the best part of it is the conversations that they have, and this is also true of Mastodon. Remember, it’s social media, and people are there to be sociable. It’s important to be part of the conversation — reply to and boost other people’s posts. Your own posts should be more than simply links to buy your books. There’s no need to discuss private things, you can talk about your research, how the writing is going, what you’ve been reading, etc.
Privacy and content warnings
The privacy level for each toot can be individually set. The default is Public, which means anyone can see it. Unlisted means that anyone can see it, but it won’t appear in searches, timelines, etc. This is useful when writing a thread — the initial post can be set to Public, with the rest of the thread set to unlisted. Anyone that clicks on the first post will see the rest, but the replies won’t clog your followers’ timelines.
The other options are Followers only, which means that only your followers will see it, and Mentioned people only, which is analogous to a direct message. Note, though, that direct messages aren’t completely private — the instance admin will be able to see them.
Mastodon also allows a content warning to be applied to a toot. When you set a content warning, you add a message which is all that is visible by default — users have to click to open the full message. This is useful when posting things that some may find difficult, and some servers may require self-promotion messages to be behind a content warning.
Hashtags and groups
As mentioned earlier, there is no full-text search at Mastodon, but hashtags are searchable, which makes them very important. There are also groups, which boost any posts that they are tagged in.
This is a short list of useful hashtags for authors:
Be sure to include any that are relevant when posting. Hashtags can be followed in the same way as accounts, so it’s worth following some to find interesting conversations to join or people to follow.
The following accounts are groups. If you mention them in a post, they will boost your post, so that it is sent to their followers. Again, it is a good idea to follow at least some of them so that you can get involved in the conversations:
The culture at Mastodon emphasises inclusivity and accessibility. Using camel case (capitalising the first word of each word) in hashtags is an example of this.
Another important part is in the use of images. If you add an image to a toot, add a text description or caption. This is important for anyone using a screen reader, as this is what the screen reader will read to tell the user what the image is. We recommend following the Alt Text Reminder bot, which will send a reminder if you forget to add alt text to an image.
There are several ways to find people on Mastodon. Searching appropriate hashtags is a good start, and once you find someone interesting, it’s worth looking through their follows and followers lists.
There are also directories of accounts that post about specific topics. They each have a different approach, so you may find different people on each:
Mastodon is probably different to other social media that you’ve used, but that means that you can treat it as a fresh start. Remember that social media should be enjoyable. Don’t get hung up on things like follower numbers, but rather concentrate on finding people that you enjoy talking to and taking part in interesting conversations. There are no guarantees that you will sell books, but if you enjoy your time there, then that will matter less.