“How do I choose which Mastodon server to join? It’s SO CONFUSING! I just want to sign up to ‘Mastodon’!”
This seems to be a common refrain from some people exploring Mastodon as part of the Twitter migration/exodus.
The reality is that the Mastodon server you join is most important in the beginning when you are trying to discover new users. Over time, and as you follow more and more people, the server you are on becomes less important.
Let me explain...
I routinely point out to people asking these questions that it is a lot like choosing your email provider - do you use the email address your ISP gives you? Or Gmail? Hotmail? Yahoo mail? Protonmail? Or even run your own email server?
No matter where you have an email address, you can send email to anyone else using email. Similarly, when you sign up on a Mastodon server (or “instance” to use the older term), you can view and interact with people on any other Mastodon server.
But that still doesn’t seem to register for some folks in an era when we are used to centralized, monolithic social platforms. You just join Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or… whatever service. Mastodon is different - you have to make a choice.
I’ve been using Mastodon since December 2016, and in my opinion, which server you are on really matters the most when you are first starting out and seeking to discover new users. Here’s why. In your Mastodon view on the web or in apps, there are three “timelines” (or “feeds”) that you can view:
- Home - all the posts (or “toots”) of people you follow
- Local - all the posts of people on your local server
- Federated - all the posts of people across the Fediverse who are followed by people on your local server
When you are starting out, your home feed will likely be pretty empty, and so Mastodon will be a bit of a ghost town to you. What’s the point of going into it if you only see a couple of posts?
This is where the Local and Federated timelines are important. They help you discover new users to follow.
With the Local timeline, you get to see posts from all the people on your server. So if, for instance, you join techpolicy.social, you will discover posts and people to follow interested in technology policy. If you join mastodon.art, you will discover more people interested in art. If you join fosstodon.org, you’ll discover posts and people interested in free and open source software. If you join ipv6.social… you guessed it, you’ll discover people interested in IPv6. 😀
Beyond the Local timeline, the Federated timeline will help you discover all the Mastodon users on other servers that people on your server follow. So on techpolicy.social, odds are that you will discover other people interested in tech policy, as well as probably tech news sites, and all the other kinds of accounts people there follow. If your account is on mastodon.art, your Federated timeline will probably tend to have more artistic people mixed in. On fostodon.org, your Federated timeline will probably have more people using Linux, developers, and people advocating for free and open source software.
By viewing the Local and Federated timelines, you can find people to follow!
Each person you follow will then start to appear in your Home timeline.
At some point, you will follow enough people that your Home timeline is all you really need to pay attention to. There are sufficient people posting that you only really have the time to read your Home timeline.
The Local and Federated timelines aren’t as important any more. I mean… you still might dip into them from time to time to see if there are new people to discover, but you don’t really need to do so anymore.
This is the key point. The server you choose to join is most important in the beginning when you are trying to find people. But you don’t have to worry too much. Pick one you like and start there.
Over time, much like what email server you are on, it won’t matter quite as much.
 Yes, it’s a little more complicated than that, but I’m simplifying for the purpose of this article.