When Moving to Mastodon, How Do You Pick The Right Instance?

A daunting choice -- but not irrevocable!

Originally published on The Nexus of Privacy

Feel free to skip to the resources for finding the right instance for you.  Or, if you want some background, and reasons why the choice of an instance matters so much, read on!

A lot of people are once again looking at the Fediverse as an alternative to Twitter these days. Well, more accurately, a lot of people are looking at Mastodon as an alternative, and Mastodon’s part of a much larger ecosystem of interconnected social media sites and services called the Fediverse.  But Mastodon’s getting the most attention, because it’s got the biggest installed base and a lot of similarities to Twitter, so that’s what I’m going to focus on in this post.

One of the challenges for newcomers to Mastodon is that you’re faced with  a major decision you face when signing up: what server (aka “instance”) to choose? Different instances have different focuses: are geographically focused (sfba.social), identity-based (tech.lgbt), interest-based (mastodon.art), professional (infosec.exchange), a group of friends (friend.camp), or even lipogrammatic (oulipo.social, which doesn’t allow the letter ‘e’ in posts).   Others are “general purpose”, without a specific focus – like mastodon.social, mastodon.ai, and hachyderm.io. The choice isn’t irrevocable – you can migrate your account to another instance and keep the list of who you’re following and who’s following you – but it’s still daunting.

Newcomers are often told that it doesn’t matter what instance you’re on, or to just sign up for mastodon.social (the “flagship” instance, which is the default for mobile apps and spreadmastodon.com) and worry about it later.  This is really horrible advice, because what instance you’re on has a big effect on your experience – and for most people, mastodon.social is not a good place to start.  

Hera’s some of the reasons why the instance you’re on has such a big effect on your experience:

  • Check Community Policies – Instance admins’ policies and moderation choices set the norms of the site. As @RadioAngel points out, moderation can be extremely bad to non-existent on the bigger instances – and a lack of training and rules for moderators can lead to entire instances turning into a dumpster fire overnight. People of color and women on instances that aren’t well-moderated face a higher risk of being targeted for harassment (and are less likely to get quick help when it happens), and often have to deal with a lot more of Mastodon’s endemic reply guys and “HOA racism”.
  • Look at What’s Being Posted There – An instance’s “local” timeline (showing all the posts accounts on an instance make) is a good way of finding new people to follow, so it can make sense to choose something that matches your interests (like mastodon.art, fosstodon.social, hci.social, infosec.exchange, social.coop) or physical location (like sfba.social or wien.rocks). Less positively, for huge sites like mastodon.social, the “local” timeline has so much activity that most people find it a not-very-useful firehose.  Worse, if you choose an instance that’s mostly white techbros, then that’s who you’ll mostly be exposed to.  
  • Check if it’s running regular Mastodon – Some instances run forks (variants) like glitch-soc or Hometown that have user experience, privacy, and anti-harassment improvements that Mastodon’s lead developer and BDFL (Benevolent Dictator For Life) Eugen Rochko has kept out of the official release.
  • Figure Out Blocking Policies – Instances can and do block other instances, so if you wind up on an instance that also hosts nazis or TERFs, you won’t have access to a lot of the Fediverse.
  • Pick an Admin With a Solid Reputation – Instance admins can read everybody’s private messages, and are responsible for the security of the site, so if you’re doing anything where privacy matters to you, you want to be on a site with admins you can trust.  
  • Are They Cool With Meta? – As another of my articles discusses, different instances are likely to make opposing decisions about whether to collaborate with Facebook’s parent company Meta, who’s introducing a new Twitter competitor that’s reportedly going to be compatible with Mastodon and the fediverse sometime in the next few months. If you want nothing to do with Meta, you’ll want to be on an instance that blocks them.

You can find out some of this information in advance, but it can be time-consuming, and there’s a lot that’s hard to know up front.  If you’ve got friends who are already on Mastodon, ask them what instances they recommend.  If not, use sites like fedifinder.glitch.me to find out what servers people you’re following on Twitter are using and see what they think.

Curated Lists Worth Viewing

  • fedi.garden is a small human-curated list of nice, well run servers on Mastodon and the wider Fediverse, run by the same person who runs the invaluable fedi.tips site, and all the sites listed on fedi.garden have promised to obey specific standards of reliability and responsible moderation. Small sites are much more likely to have a community feel and responsive moderators; as Mastodon.art’s Curator says, “It’s more like belonging to a home that looks after you and your online wellbeing, as opposed to being one person in a sea of strangers forming connections with people on lots of disparate islands.”  
  • joinmastodon.org/servers has a list of servers that have agreed to the Mastodon Server Covenant, which (like fedi.garden’s standards) includes “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.” Bear in mind that this is very high level, and the site’s reality may not align with these values – for example if they don’t have enough trained moderators, there may still be problems with racism hate speech and harassment.  Still, it’s something.
  • fediverse.party has a much longer list of instances, classified by region and topic.
  • mastodon.help’s instance search tool includes the ability to search for sites baesd on the text in their site description. You can also specify the most-used language, number of users, connectivity to other sites, and several other terms. For example, here’s the results of a search for instances where English is the most-spoken language, mention privacy in their description, have at least 20 active users, and are connected to at least 100 other instances.  The results contain a list of the most frequent hashtags, how long the site has been around, usage statistics, and the version of the software (so you can see if it’s running glitch or Hometown), and the admin’s email.  Useful!
  • If you’re looking for a server near you, fediverse.observer’s map and the fediverse.party list are two good options.
  • instances.social lets you search by instance size and language.  It used to also allow searching by policies (for example, does it allow NSFW content) but that no longer seems to be an option.
  • The Anti-Meta Fedi Pact and Instances with 25+ members that have signed the FediPact lists many (alhough not all) of the instances how have committed to not working with Meta.

Yeah, it’d be a lot easier if a single site provided all of that functionality.  Welcome to the Fediverse.

Before You Join

You can can also find out some information about a server before you set up an account:

  • Servers’ “About” pages typically give an overview of what the site’s about and list the site’s policies (as a list of rules or a code of conduct), and what version of the software the site is using.  A change in Mastodon version 4.0 made these harder to find  but you can still get there: it’s the “Learn More” link on the left-hand side of the web interface, and the … button on the right sidebar on phones. How intuitive! One thing to look for on the About page is the site’s policy about hate speech and harassment.  If they talk about “free speech” in their description, rules, or code of conduct, that’s often (although not always) code for an almost-anything-goes attitude. Of course some sites with good policies don’t actually enforce them in practice, but sites with bad policies are big red flags.  Also useful: many sitesinclude a list of instances they’ve blocked or limited, along with explanations.  This is one of the best ways to see if they’re moderating actively – and what they consider cause for blocking. On the other hand, publishing a list of blocked instances can potentially open moderators up to harassment many instances intentionally don’t publish the list .
  • Many servers let you look at the local timeline even without logging in.  On the web interface, it’s the “local” link on the right-hand-side of the page; on the phone it’s the unrecognizable icon on the right hand side below the # and above the globe. Of course, to reduce the risk of harassment and abuse, some servers don’t make this available.
  • Servers’ “explore” pages show the most active posts on the server’s “federated” timeline, which also includes all posts from other instances.  This is typically also what you see when you visit a site you’re not logged into.

RadioAngel has some good suggestions about what to look for when choosing an instance:

  • Do they have limits on how many users can join the instance? (This is in force to keep the mod to report ratio healthy).
  • Do they have a dedicated team of mods? Who are they?
  • Read their ‘About’ & ‘Limited Servers’ sections. Who are they blocking? What are they blocking for?
  • How active is the instance? Despite being invite only or limiting registrations temporarily, is there a lot of activity?

Try Out a Few Different Places

If you’ve got the time, one good option is to set up accounts on multiple instances and experience them first hand.  Right now, I’m primarily using @jdp23@indieweb.social as my main public-facing account, but also have accounts on hci.social and scholar.social for my research-y interests, one on wandering.shop that focuses more on writing, and so on.  Most Mastodon mobile apps, and web interfaces like or elk.zone, make it fairly easy to switch between accounts on multiple instances; or you can do what I do and use multiple tabs in your browser.

And keep in mind that you’re not locked into your initial choice. If the instance you’ve chosen isn’t working for you, find another one!  Mastodon lets you move your followers over to a different account, and Mastodon Content Mover lets you move your posts as well (it’s still under development, but I’ve heard from several people that it works fairly well).

Jon Pincus is the founder of the Nexus of Privacy newsletter, author of Mastodon: a partial history, and a software engineer / entrepreneur / strategist and activist who focuses on justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality.

Thanks to RadioAngel for the permission to quote their excellent suggestions, and thanks to @sloot for catching a big editing error in an earlier version!

Image credit: “Question Mark” by Hana Chramostova licensed under CC1.0 Universal Public Domain license, via PublicDomainPictures.net

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