In a previous blog post, I recommended some Mastodon servers for people moving to the Fediverse. Since then, the great migration of November 2022 happened, and an awful lot of those servers turned out to be horrifically ill-equipped for the increase in users. I don’t mean in terms of technical infrastructure, but governance and moderation.
So instead, I’m going to talk about what to look for in a server, rather than recommending any particular ones.
Where do I even find servers?
One good way is to ask people you know who are on the fediverse. There are also server directories out there. Fedi.garden is a good one.
Servers should have a page listing their rules and other information. If the site URL doesn’t direct you there, look for links on the page that say “About” or “Learn more” or similar.
Some Mastodon servers allow you to view public posts by their members, by clicking the “Local” link in the sidebar or adding
/public/local to the URL. This can help you get a feel of a site’s overall vibe.
Questions to ask
What are their rules?
Now, granted, plenty of servers have great-sounding rules they can’t—or won’t—actually enforce. But if the server doesn’t list any rules or it’s some wishy-washy bullshit like “Just don’t be an asshole,” it’s a red flag.
Some servers require any NSFW content, like porn, to be marked as sensitive so viewers must click through to see them. Some allow positive discussion of things like pedophilia and bestiality. Some are only looking for members who are ham radio operators, or artisans, or published scientists, or Alaska residents. Merveilles.town requires all its members’ profile pics be in black and white. Oulipo.social forbids using the letter “e”. Make sure a server’s rules are in line with your values and conduct!
How is it run?
Many servers are run according to the venerable “Benign Dictator For Life” model. On small servers, the admin might informally consult members about decisions. Some servers are run by collectives. A few are more structured and operate as non-profits or co-operatives, with committees that members can participate in. What kind of governance is important to you?
What is their mod-to-user ratio?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how many mods a server needs. Many small servers can be run by one admin who also moderates. I feel that once you get above a few hundred members, you need extra moderators. If it is a large server with thousands of members, there should be a mod team listed somewhere on their About page or external site.
Think about what kind of social media experience you want to have. Do you want servers known for bad behaviour to be preemptively blocked? If you report a post or an account, how fast should the server staff take action? Do you want mods/admins who are more like party hosts (helping introduce people to each other, organizing social events or hashtag games), or like paramedics (only showing up in an emergency)?
How is the site funded?
Mastodon does not have ads. Therefore, servers need another way to keep the lights on. Many servers are funded by their members and have a dedicated Patreon or OpenCollective page, or at least a PayPal button. A few require a paid subscription. The larger a server is, the more money it takes to run. A very small server can be run with an admin’s own money and occasional tips. A very large one is a full-time job. You should think about what level of financial transparency you want from a social media site.
How does the site deal with growth?
Many servers ran just fine before growing too big to handle after the November 2022 wave. You should ask the admin how they’ve changed their operations to deal with more users, or whether they would close registrations if they got more users than they felt they could responsibly handle (and what that number is). If they haven’t thought about it, or if they plan to grow indefinitely, it is a bad sign.
If you are interested in joining a server and have questions about any of these, email the admin and ask! They will probably be happy to answer your questions. If you can’t get a hold of an actual human in a timely manner…well, that also tells you something.
Some further considerations
In general, the larger a server is, the worse it is run. This is counterintuitive if you are used to centralized, corporate websites, but it makes sense if you know how the Fediverse actually works.
You see some site with a huge number of members and you instinctively think, they must be some official, professional joint, yeah? NO. There are a lot of tech-proficient people who can easily set up, maintain, and optimize server infrastructure, but who are completely incompetent when it comes to moderation and community management. I would go so far as to say that some of the most technically proficient people are the worst at the human aspect of things. Only a few rare people are good at both.
Many people who run really big servers just want to be The Next Twitter. They put a lot of thought into Growth and Scaling, and very little into keeping users safe or cultivating a good community. The person running a 10,000-user server is just as likely to be a clueless, bumbling fool as the person with a 10-user one, except the former is more likely to get overwhelmed, neglect to do any moderation, throw a shit fit when other servers block them for poor moderation, burn out spectacularly, and shut down the server. I’ve seen this happen many times.
In general I would strongly recommend going with a smaller server—under 1000 members.
If you find a server you like better, you can migrate. Basically, you make an account on your new server, then go back to your old server and point your old account towards it. You can migrate your followers and the people you follow, but you can’t migrate your posts. This is a sore spot for some people, but from an admin/mod’s perspective, they don’t want to go through a new member’s entire post history to make sure it conforms with the rules.
Not all follows/followers will transfer seamlessly. If servers mute each other, you may need to make/approve a follow request. If they block each other, following won’t be possible.
Many servers hide the list of other servers they block, because it can be a vector for harassment. They probably won’t tell a total stranger every server that’s on their blocklist. But it is reasonable to ask if a server blocks any really big ones, like the flagships mastodon.social and mastodon.online, because that will affect who you can follow and whose posts are visible.
No time for all that?
If you feel that your follower count is the most important measure of reach, regardless of the level of “engagement” you get—
If you want a server to fund itself by showing you ads and selling your data, instead of asking for donations—
If you just want to join whatever everyone else is joining without having to think about how a site is run, its ethics, its finances—
If you don’t have time for this shit because you need to get your message out as fast as possible to as many people as possible—
Then the Fediverse is probably not right for you at this time, and you are better served by staying on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, etc., despite their downsides.
But if you are open to trying a new way of doing social media, and you’re looking for alternatives to centralized sites owned by giant evil corporations, give it a try.