New users of the social networking platform Mastodon no longer need to choose an instance before opening an account. The platform says that other new improvements are “coming soon.”
Big changes are happening at Mastodon, the user-supported and advertising-free decentralized social networking platform that many are seeing as a Twitter replacement. The platform announced on Monday that it’s made it much easier for non-tech-savvy users to open an account in minutes, with other changes “coming soon.”
The easier onboarding experience comes not a minute too soon. Another decentralized social platform that’s currently in beta, Bluesky Social, is betting that easy onboarding will help it grab enough of the people who have been turned off by the difficulty of signing up for Mastodon to turn momentum its way when it’s ready for primetime. Yesterday morning it looked as though Bluesky was going to win that bet; today it looks like maybe not.
The onboarding difficulty that Mastodon has fixed, which required a new user to choose a server (also called “instance”) before proceeding with opening an account, was originally built into the platform on purpose as part of the decentralized platform’s design. It became a stumbling block for new users wanting to give the platform a try, which became obvious a few months back when millions of users started migrating to the platform in response to Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter.
“We understand that deciding which Mastodon service provider to kick off your experience with can be confusing,” Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s founder and CEO said in a blog announcing the change. “We know this is a completely new concept for many people since traditionally the platform and the service provider are one and the same. This choice is what makes Mastodon different from existing social networks, but it also presents a unique onboarding challenge. To make this step easier, we now have a default sign-up option that works with a server we operate.”
The Mastodon Onboarding Fix
The “service providers” Rochko mentions are separate servers operated by different organizations or communities, with each being a complete working instance of Mastodon with its own rules about moderation, acceptable user behavior, and the like. There are currently more than 12,000 of them, and they’re all tied together to form a platform that works as a single unit. You can look at it as a non-dystopian version of the Borg.
This is generally a good thing, but it was confusing for potential new users who have trouble understanding the concept. The platform’s solution was to create an instance to which new users will be automatically joined by default, which will give them time to learn their way around the new platform before deciding if they want to move to another instance. New users who already have a server preference will still be able to choose that instance at signup.
“We believe it’s important for Mastodon to be good as a product on its own merits, and not just because of its ideology,” Rochko said. “If we only attract people who already care about decentralization, our ability to make decentralization mainstream becomes that much harder. Making the onboarding process as easy as possible helps new users get past the sign-up process and more quickly engage with others. This gives us a far better chance of showcasing what decentralized social networks have to offer instead of having that person bounce and never hearing from them again.”
For most users, the decentralized nature of the platform doesn’t come into play. The only way to know that a user that you follow (or who follows you) is on another instance is because that instance is built into the user’s full Mastodon name. For example, my full user name is @BrideOfLinux@mastodon.opencloud.lu, which indicates that I’m on the “opencloud.lu” instance, which is a community server for the city of Luxembourg (they invited me to join and I accepted the invitation, in case you’re wondering). This site, FOSS Force, is @FOSSForce@fosstodon.org, meaning it’s hosted on the fosstodon.org server, which is a server specifically for people and organizations that are involved with free and open-source software.
When I post something, I’m only identified as @BrideOfLinux on the post. You would have to click on that to be taken to my profile to see my long-form name. Users can change instances anytime they like, although posts that they made previous to the change won’t follow them to the new instance.
More Mastodon Changes Are in the Works
Rochko said that more improvements that users have been suggesting are in the works.
Probably the most anticipated of these is “quote posts.” Currently on Mastodon, if you share a post (called “boosting” on Mastodon — the same thing as retweeting), you don’t have an option similar to Twitter’s “Quote Tweet.” In other words, you can boost a post, making it show up on the stream of those who follow you, but you can’t make a comment on it within the post.
Originally, this was by design. Early adopters of Mastodon observed that many “quote tweets” on Twitter were used to make snide, rude, or hateful comments about the post being shared, and thought that by disallowing them they could make the Mastodon experience less toxic. After the mass migration to Mastodon from Twitter began, many new users (including me) have been explaining that quote posts can and are also often used to add value to a boosted post.
Also coming soon will be improved content and profile search. Currently, the only way to search for content on Mastodon is through the use of hashtags, which only works if the same hashtag was used in the original post. In addition, the platform is also promising “groups.” I’ve no idea what this will look like, but I’m imagining something like the groups that can be set up within Facebook’s Messenger, or perhaps something like Reddit’s subreddits.
“We’re also continuously working on improving content and profile discovery, onboarding, and of course our extensive set of moderation tools, as well as removing friction from decentralized features,” Rochko said. “Keep a lookout for these updates soon.”
Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux