February 6, 2023

A Wargamer’s Guide to Mastodon

Pete Viglucci , 9 January 2023

The social media buzz du jour is Mastodon. Much of the dialogue presents Mastodon as a backup to Twitter—as in the contingency plan in the event Twitter up and disappears one day. In almost all cases, Mastodon is presented as an alternative to Twitter; a zero-sum, either-or decision. It’s not.

In this article, I’ll explain why Mastodon is something new altogether and why it might be worth a wargamer’s time to explore. I’ll make comparisons to Twitter along the way to help set the context for the new features that make Mastodon exciting and unique.

What is Mastodon?

I like to describe Mastodon as a combination of Twitter, email and Reddit.

It’s like Twitter because you can follow people, “Like” (or “Favorite” on Mastodon) posts and “Retweet” (or “Boost” on Mastodon) them to your followers. You have a Home timeline of all that activity, just like on Twitter, and it will feel familiar if you are already a Twitter user.mastodonWordLogo

Mastodon is like email because it’s federated and decentralized. That’s a techy way of saying there are many different servers (called “instances” on Mastodon) operated by different individuals and organizations that can communicate with one another through standard protocols. In that way, it’s similar to email. For example, if you registered for an email account with Gmail, you’re not limited to sending email only to other people with Gmail addresses. You can send email to anyone with an email account, no matter which provider they use. Each email server is owned and operated by a different entity, and through the magic of domain name resolution, different servers are able to find one another and in turn enable us to communicate seamlessly.

Mastodon works much the same way. While you sign-up on a particular instance of Mastodon, you are not limited to following and interacting with users on only that instance where you registered your account. You can find, follow and engage with users on any Mastodon instance, just like you can send email to someone who has a different email address domain than you do.

The decentralized and federated architecture also leads to an ecosystem with similarities to Reddit. Each instance is operated by different individuals or entities. That allows for, and encourages servers to focus on particular communities, similar to how Reddit has many different subreddits focused on particular topics and communities.

 

Are there benefits to the Mastodon architecture?

Yes. In fact, the decentralized and federated architecture leads to the best reason for a wargamer to consider Mastodon:

It encourages the creation of smaller communities focused on particular topics and it exposes that content to you in new ways for you to interact with it.

Mastodon provides three “timelines” of activity, rather than one that you have on services like Twitter. They are:mastodonSide

  1. Home
  2. Local (sometimes called “Community”), and
  3. Federated

Home

The Home timeline is similar to a Twitter user’s timeline. It includes all the posts of people you follow, whether their accounts are on your server or another. You’ll see when others Favorite (Like) your posts, the posts other people Boost (Retweet) and all the public posts of those you follow. Many users join Mastodon and stop here. That’s fine if you are looking for a Twitter clone, but I’d encourage you to take one more step and consider the Local timeline.

This is where Mastodon becomes something new and interesting.

Local

The Local timeline includes all public posts on the instance on which you registered your account. That means you have a separate timeline of the public posts that originate from other users on your instance, whether you follow them or not.

This is one of the best features of Mastodon. If you join an instance that closely aligns with your interests, you get a dedicated feed of concentrated and relevant content, without a bunch of noise from other sources. On wargamers.social for example, we are all wargamers who post about wargames. The Local timeline therefore is almost entirely wargame and wargamer related, which is very cool indeed.

Here is a link to the Local timeline so you can see for yourself.

Federated

There is also a “Federated” timeline which is similar to the main public timeline on Twitter. It includes public posts from users who are followed by people on your instance. It can be a bit random as a result, but if you join an instance that is aligned with your interests, chances are that other users on your instance follow people who post things that might interest you too.

 

What else does Mastodon offer?

The first difference to understand between Mastodon and centralized social media platforms is that there are no algorithms or data harvesting whatsoever.

That means no ads, trackers or promoted or prioritized posts, and the actions you take behave how you’d expect. For example, if you Favorite a post, the original author will receive a notification, and that’s it. There is no algorithm selectively alerting your followers to the Favorite in an attempt to increase their engagement. You have complete control over what you see and share.

Further, your timeline will always be a chronological view of the people you follow and related activity—resulting in a Home timeline that is the direct result of the effort you put into curating your follows. You won’t “miss” posts from the people you follow because an algorithm decides not to show them to you.

On a community-oriented server like wargamers.social, it’s easy to build a Home timeline quickly by browsing the Local timeline and finding interesting people to follow. With over 400 registered users as of the writing of this article, you’ll find wargaming enthusiasts, content creators, and the designers and publishers of the games we love and play. Here is a link to a thread of content creators1 that would be a great group for new users to follow.

The second difference is that you have more control over the content and visibility of your posts. When you are composing a post you can choose if your post is public (visible to everyone), unlisted (visible in your profile and to your followers, but won’t show up in timelines), for your followers only, or private to the people you mention in the post, like a direct message. Posts inherit the visibility of the parent post unless you change it. That means that if you initiate a private chat with another user, all subsequent replies will remain private by default.

You can also edit and delete posts, so there’s no need to worry if you select the wrong visibility by mistake or you have second thoughts about a comment you’ve made. Simply delete and repost with the correct visibility or edit the post to your liking.

The third difference to understand is that the federated architecture decentralizes ownership. There is no single person or entity who can own Mastodon, like there is no single person or entity who can own email.

Those benefits do come with some concessions.

ACD-Mastodon
The Armchair Dragoons are found on Mastodon at wargamers.social/@armchairdragoons

 

Challenges to getting started

The biggest barrier to adoption of Mastodon is related to its biggest benefit—the architecture. In order to take advantage of the Local timeline and community-oriented content, you need to find an instance that is aligned with your interests and sign up there. This is different than the centralized social media platforms where you head to the website and get up and running with a few clicks. Mastodon takes effort and that can turn off the casual user.

That said, one of the neat things you can do in Mastodon is move your account to a new instance. If you have an account on one instance, then find another that you like better, you can move your account there instead. You do lose the posts from the old account (you can archive them first), but you retain your follows and followers.

Many Mastodon users have multiple accounts that represent different interests. The mobile apps make it easy to switch between them. They do that to take advantage of the Local timelines. For example, if you like wargames, you could have an account on wargamers.social. If you also like golf, you could have another account on a server that caters to golfers, and then use a mobile app to switch between them and participate independently within each community.

On the one hand, Mastodon is more complicated than centralized social media platforms, where you have one identity and one timeline representing all activity. On the other, it’s easier to separate different parts of your life if that’s important to you.

 

What are the risks?

The flip side of not using the big providers is that the complexity and infrastructure costs are shifted to instance owners. For a small community like wargamers.social, that’s not a big deal. In larger communities, however, the costs can be significant, and the owners of the instances will sometimes look to the community to subsidize the operating costs via donations.

Content moderation is similarly federated to the instance owners. Moderators can be recruited and help, but it is up to the individual communities to set their own rules and police themselves. It’s potentially expensive in time and there may be real issues to deal with, not the usual wargamer flame wars, but the potential for illegal content and associated potential liability.

On wargamers.social, I play the moderation role for now, but if the instance continues to gain traction and people think it’s useful and fun, then we’ll form a governing board to represent the community and set and enforce the rules. Likewise, I’ll open the infrastructure administration to those who have the skills and desire to help. The goal of wargamers.social is to create a useful and fun utility that is community-owned and governed.

The wargamers.social instance follows the Mastodon Server Covenant, which are commitments defined by the Mastodon gGmbH non-profit that I make to the community to give users comfort that the time and energy they spend on Mastodon is not for naught. These are:

  • Active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.
    • We’re here to talk about gaming and related topics without the toxicity and noise of other platforms.
  • Daily backups
    • It is important for you to have the confidence that a trip over the power cable or a rogue bit flip will not erase all of your data. Having a backup strategy is a basic necessity of providing a public service.
  • At least one other person with emergency access to the server infrastructure
    • A second administrator is on hand to mitigate the risk of a life event preventing me from administering the environment.
  • Commitment to give users 3 months advance warning in case of shutting down
    • Sometimes services shut down; it is the cycle of life. I commit to maintaining 12 months of operating costs on hand to ensure you have time to move to another instance in the event the [wargamers.social](https://wargamers.social) instance shuts down.

 

Conclusion

Many people approach Mastodon looking to replicate Twitter. They choose a large, generalist instance and use it like they always have. If that’s what you want, then by all means, have fun. The beauty of the platform shines when you understand that Mastodon is not merely a Twitter clone. It has many similarities, but the addition of the Local timeline, community feel, and absence of data harvesting or advertisements make it something all its own. Communities can have full control over their corner of the internet and users have full control over their online personas. Find the instance that aligns to your interests and consider establishing or moving your account there. You’ll be much more satisfied in the end.

Hopefully, this article makes it easier for you to give Mastodon a try. If you’re interested, here’s a link that will get your account setup in a few minutes.

If you do take the plunge, here are a few tips to get you up  and running quickly.

 

Mastodon Tips for New Users

Tip 1:Post-Mastodon

  • Your Home timeline is a constant stream of activity. It’s easy to lose the context of what you’re seeing. To ground yourself, click the text in a post. You’ll jump into a view of the thread, with the posts organized in chronological order.
  • In the Local timeline, the posts are neatly organized by thread. Click the text in a post and you’ll see the thread view.

Tip 2:

  • On Mastodon, Favorite = Twitter Like
  • You can also bookmark a post. Here’s the difference:
  • Favorite: The post will be added to your favorites list, and a favorite notification will be delivered to its author.
  • Bookmark: The post will be privately added to your bookmarks list without generating a notification.
  • You can access the Favorite and Bookmark lists on the right side of the web interface.

Tip 3:

  • When you are composing a post, click the “globe” icon in the bottom toolbar. You can choose if your post is public, unlisted (public, but won’t show up in timelines), for your followers or private to the people you mention in the post.
  • Posts inherit the visibility of the parent unless you change it.
  • You can always delete and repost if you select the wrong visibility by mistake.

Tip 4:

  • Lists let you organize the users you follow and their posts into categories meaningful to you.
  • For example, you could create a list called “Content Creators,” and add all the users that create videos, blogs or podcasts. When they post new content, you’ll be sure to see it.
  • If you use the multi-column interface (see Tip 5), then you could pin lists in dedicated columns in the interface.

Tip 5:

  • Use a multi-column interface to see more at once. Think TweetDeck if you use that to organize Twitter.
  • Log in with a browser on your computer. Go to Preferences->Appearance and select “Enable advanced web interface” and save.
  • Back in Mastodon, you’ll now see a multi-column interface.
  • You can have the Home feed in one, Local in another, notifications in another, whatever you want.
  • Pin or unpin the columns by clicking the settings icon at the top right of each column

Tip 6:

  • You can create links to make it easy for your friends and followers on other platforms to find and follow you on Mastodon.
  • From Preferences, select “Invite people.” Make sure to check “Invite to follow your account” and click the “Generate Invite Link” button. Your new link will appear on the page.
  • Copy the link and share away. When anyone signs up using your link, they will automatically follow you.

Tip 7

  • Content warnings allow you to mask a post that might be considered sensitive by other users. Wargames don’t typically fall into the NSFW category, but we’ve all seen topics that can elicit an emotional response. It’s also a way to create collapsible content or hide spoilers.
  • Click the “CW” icon in the toolbar in the web interface. Add a content warning, and your content below. Readers will have to click to see the content in their timelines.
  • Easy way to be considerate of others.

 

About the Author

I’m a long time gamer and student of history. I enjoy many different games and systems and lean towards the “series” games like ASL, BCS, OCS, GCACW, GBACW, etc. to get the most play for time invested learning. I very much appreciate all the content creators that make it easy to stay involved even when life gets in the way. The wargamers.social Mastodon server is my effort to give something back.

pete-Mastodon

 


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Footnotes

  1. ed note: including us!

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