Everything you need to know about Mastodon for higher education

Mastodon, the Twitter alternative everyone's talking about

As clouds of controversy hang over Twitter following Elon Musk's takeover, social media channels have been abuzz with mentions of a more 'wholesome' and 'ethical' alternative. One like Mastodon.

Mastodon's not a new platform—it was conceived back in 2016—but changes at Twitter have given it a new awakening.

Disillusioned Twitter fans, including influential names and celebrities, have been flocking with great fanfare to the microblogging platform.

Many laud it for being a friendlier, nostalgic place reminiscent of the happy dawn of the 'old internet', when MSN chatrooms were at the cutting edge of the digital frontier.  

Mastodon is a place, advocates say, where people speak to each other with care and respect, promoting values over the vitriol all too synonymous with its counterpart. 

Mastodon a Twitter alternative for higher education

On paper, this marks a refreshing change from Twitter and social media as a whole.

And, perhaps, its surge in popularity is also indicative of the wider shift we've seen of late towards more transparent, authentic, and uplifting content. 

Earlier this month, there were a reported 1 million monthly active Mastodon users. While that's not a patch on the 240 million daily active users that Twitter boasts, Mastodon is growing at speed.

And its popularity uptick is a by-product of Musk's changes at Twitter, which have included paid-for 'blue tick' verification and slashes to the workforce. 

What is Mastodon?

First launched in 2016 by German software developer Eugen Rochko, Mastodon feels in some ways a lot like Twitter. 

Mastodon founder

Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko's profile on Mastodon

Users get a profile and a feed, and can follow people, and like or bookmark their content.

As it's a microblogging platform, users can also share their own thoughts and content in posts which, until very recently, were known as 'toots'. (Now, it's simply referred to as 'publish'.)

'Boosting' a post on Mastodon is like retweeting, and users also have the option to lock their account so that it's private.

But while Mastodon may resemble Twitter at a first glance, that's perhaps where the similarities end. This leads us to our next question...

How Mastodon works

To understand what Mastodon is, you need to understand how it's built. 

It's a platform powered by ActivityPub, which describes itself as a "decentralized social networking protocol."

Screenshot of ActivityPub’s decentralized social networking protocol explainer Screenshot of ActivityPub's decentralized social networking protocol explainer

Long-term users—and remember, this isn't a new phenomenon—describe ActivityPub as the "Fediverse".

Unlike the social media platforms we've come to know (and love or loathe), Mastodon isn't a company. It's a piece of open-source software with a network of thousands of communities built around it.

So, there's no algorithm and no tracking.

While Twitter is designed to drive engagement, Mastodon strives to create conversation and community—and to do away with doom-scrolling and disinformation.

How to join Mastondon

To join, users need to set up an account with one of Mastodon's servers. Known as 'instances', these are created by an individual or group taking the Mastodon software and installing it on a server they control.

Therefore, the moderation can vary, as it's up to the individual or group running that 'instance'.  

There's a list of trusted open servers for people to join, or a new user may join a smaller 'instance' set up by someone they know.

There's also a Wizard tool for them to find one aligned with their interests or values. 

Users have a profile and a feed, with the option to connect with anyone across Mastodon, as well as other apps on the Fediverse.

For example, there is a photo-sharing platform called Pixelfed, which is similar in concept to the original Instagram, and a video-sharing site called PeerTube

Mastodon posting example

Example post on Mastodon from Helvetica Blanc

There are many more, and Mastodon users can follow and interact with users on any of them; it's one big, connected network.

There's no screenshot-sharing between one platform and another, as it's all integrated.

Once an account is created, you'll need to enter the server's address each time you sign in using a different browser or mobile app. You can't use the same credentials to sign in on different instances, but you can create different profiles on different servers or you can choose to transfer your data from one server to another one.

In what ways is Mastodon better than Twitter?

Non-profit first

Firstly, Mastodon is a non-profit. In theory, this means it exists to enhance the lives of users rather than make money. 
Those that have already dived into the Mastodon bubble are praising it for its friendly, community feel.

It prides itself on being a 'kinder' platform and, while moderation is up to the 'instance', the fundamentals that underpin Mastodon cite stringent anti-abuse and anti-discrimination policies.

In the wake of widely criticized moderation changes at Twitter, this gives Mastodon appeal. 

Mastodon's social media rules and guidelines

Mastodon's Server rules


Mastodon is also customizable in a way that Twitter isn't.

It thrives on having a network of individual communities, all of which have different principles and content guidelines.

This brings users a wider variety of experiences.

And, because of these small communities within Mastodon, it makes it more personal and promotes direct and meaningful conversations rather than endless shouting into the Twitter void.

Again, this is likely to be a huge draw for people that use Twitter for positive conversation and healthy debates over influencers plugging their own work or political views. 

Mastodon a Twitter alternative for higher ed

Mastodon features servers that users can join to connect with others

Integration with other apps

The way Mastodon integrates other apps across the Fediverse in a way Twitter can't is another draw.


Meanwhile, verification—another current topic of hot debate at Twitter—is also different. It's a lot more complex, in that it involves linking to personal websites and back-linking or approval from a 'central authority', but it's free. And trusted.

This is in stark contrast to recent changes at Twitter which allow anyone to get a verification or 'blue tick' by paying a monthly fee. As predicted, this has opened the floodgates to fake accounts and therefore accusations of creating a disinformation breeding ground. 

What are the drawbacks of Mastodon compared to Twitter?

For all its positivity and potential, the concept of joining servers or 'instances' on Mastodon is alien to many.

Of course, this decentralization is part of its appeal and is what makes it the great antidote to the big social media guns of the moment.

Nonetheless, it's a layer of complexity that may be the blocker to mass migration. And, at present, waiting lists to join servers have been reported.  

While strong moral and ethical values underpin Mastodon, signing up to different servers is not without its pitfalls due to the lack of centralized moderation.

But there are spam-fighting measures in place and, like Twitter, there's the option for moderators to freeze, suspend, limit, or silence accounts.

And rogue servers can still be banned or 'de-federated' by other 'instances,' so that they're simply circulating hate or disinformation amongst themselves rather than the wider social network.

Of course, audience-wise, Mastodon cannot yet compare to the likes of Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, or Instagram.

But whether this is negative or positive depends on the user.

For individuals looking for connections, this could lend itself to more personal interactions with those with common interests.

But if you're an influencer, organization, or business wanting to build a big audience, it's perhaps different.

When it comes to interface and usability, Twitter still wins.

Everything looks and feels easier to navigate. Complaints about Mastodon include its discoverability and search functions.

And, ultimately, what many people love about Twitter is that it is one huge 'town square' of worldwide users; a place where you can learn and discover things by scrolling or searching that weren't otherwise on your radar. 

Is it time for your university or college to move over to Mastodon? 

A lot remains to be seen here. When it comes to digital marketing and student recruitment, higher education will need to keep an eye on user figures, age ranges, and demographics to decipher its impact as it grows.

But there is potential. For example, a university could start its own server on Mastodon where students can communicate in a safe and trusted place, a bit like the way Facebook originally set out.

Mastodon University of Limerick account

University of Limerick, already a fan of TikTok, has already set up their Mastodon account

Or groups for prospective students are a possibility, too.

And then there's the prospect of more general university servers for a whole collection of institutions and the students, and even staff, within them to communicate.

And these will benefit from the seamless ability to share content like videos and images from other Fediverse apps.

But the fact that Mastodon's popularity hinges on niche interests is perhaps the most interesting to higher education.

For example, youngsters with a passion for history might join a server specific to this interest; there's then the potential there to promote your university's academic offering and expertise in that field. 

So, while universities aren't clamoring to set up Mastodon accounts and 'instances' just yet, it might be something we see in the not-too-distant future.

Or it could be a flash in the pan. It remains to be seen how this will play out.

For a year in tech that began with the hailing of the Metaverse, it feels somewhat ironic that it ends with so much talk of Mastodon, a social media platform celebrated for its simple and nostalgic feel.

And, if nothing else, it does sate the thirst for a friendlier, more authentic internet we've seen this year with the popularity of other apps like BeReal.

It certainly offers opportunities for higher education not yet realized.

But will this Twitter 'rival' takeover? That looks unlikely, as long as Mastodon's more popular counterpart remains in existence.

It will, however, continue to fill the void for frustrated Twitter users disenchanted with the platform.

And, while Twitter's future remains uncertain—with changes happening at a rapid pace and speculation on its financial viability—it will be waiting in the wings.

Has your university got a Mastodon account yet?

Do you think its popularity will grow or die out? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or across our social channels.

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