masto: Understanding and managing Mastodon with multiple accounts and Mac Sengi

OK, there are many guides on the Fediverse, but celebrating the three-week anniversary of joining, I was talking with Paul and realized that I probably should write down the highly opinionated way that I’m trying to use it and also explain the basic architecture. It is constantly discussed as open Twitter, but it actually works quite differently and that’s super confusing, so first here are the various models and what it is closest to:

  1. Twitter. OK, you have a single user identity typically (although you can create as many fake accounts as you like. You don’t join groups, but depending on who you follow, you get a custom feed, so curating the content comes down to following the right people.
  2. 1990s Forums and 1980 BBSes. For those of you old enough to remember, your log in to a forum, and then you see posts and topics from the people there. There is no expectation you see anything but where you browse. If you like old cars, you are on that Forum and it is very relevant, but you need a login for each website that hosts it. This is like the old Bulletin Board Services which were actually more like email in that you got notes that are sent to you.
  3. Reddit and Discord. This is like a 1990s Forum but better in that you have a single identity and then you go to various special groups that are called subreddits in Reddit and in Discord they are called Discord Servers.

Mastodon (you have to remember it comes from the mind of a single developer) is like Twitter in that you get a single-user login, but like 1990s Forums in that, you have a home server and you immediately see the content on the home server, so it has three concepts:

  1. Home Timeline. These is called different things, but for your user identity, it is everyone that you follow. One thing that is very confusing is that you will see boosts ( what are basically retweets) and favorites (so you can look at them later). But you will see the numbers are very low compared with Twitter. it seems like no one is really there. But what is happening is that for performance reasons, those are only the favorites and boosts on your local home server. So it just measures how popular that post was on your server. So don’t think that no one is there, most of the time if you are on @mastodon.social for instance and you like something on @sigmoid.social, it just means that not that many people on your home server are paying attention.
  2. Local Timeline. This has a lot of names, but this is the most like a Subreddit or a 1990s Forum, this is basically a list of the latest posts (they used to call them toots) on your home server. This means that you have to be pretty careful about picking your home server. For instance, if you care about science and machine learning then having an account on @sigmoid.social is smart. If you care about security then @infosec.exchange is a good place. So the main lesson here is that unless you want a complete mismatch of topics it’s probably a good idea to have multiple logins to servers that specialize (see the list below for what I’m doing).
  3. Public or Federated Timeline. OK, unlike Twitter, this is not algorithmic but is basically a list of what the people you follow and the people on your server are following. So it is a curation based on you and the people on your home server. This is another reason to pick your servers wisely. For instance, if you care about information security, it probably makes sense to find a big instance with lots of people talking about it, then the local timeline will be filled with the right stuff and the federated timeline will also be biased that way. Then you can follow (or unfollow) the right (or get rid of the wrong stuff).

One way to use Mastodon if you are just starting

All of this leads to the problem of how to find things on Mastodon since it’s hard to know how to start also as you can see from the above, who you follow and what instance you start on really makes a difference in what you see. So for a tech nerd interested in special topics, here is one way to do it. Note that the notation here is a little strange. It is sort of an email address and a Twitter handle got married:

  1. @richtong@mastodon.social. Get on a big instance if you want to get a feel of the overall community, then you can look at the local timeline and start following folks. I’m right now using the @mastodon.social account for this general feel and the federated timeline is the next place to look. This is where I put things like Apple news and regular updates things
  2. @rich@sigmoid.social. It takes a while to find it, but sigmoid is the place where machine learning folks hang out. So I have a separate home server and log in. This means that like the Forums, you don’t have a single user identity which is a little confusing, but it does improve curation
  3. @richt@hachyderm.io. This is where the DevOps and programmers seem to hang out so its where I go to for that kind of feed.
  4. @richt@infosec.exchange. The same for security and privacy
  5. @richt@mastodon.cloud. This is a big instance like @mastodon.social but I use this for all things about society.

The final aside is that since this is not advertising-based, as a good citizen, you might consider a small Patreon investment in running these servers. Also, note I tried to pick big ones so that I could rapidly curate the right feeds, but others are just rolling their own instances and then you get exactly what you want.

Curating your followers and moving them around

My biggest problem is that I forget which account I’m using so I have the wrong follower on the wrong account. The easiest way to fix this is with the right client (see below), but I find that Sengi is just about perfect for this. If I find I have followed at the wrong account, you click on the person, then click on the account you want on the left and then click on the followers.

Figuring out what client to use on the Mac (and using iPad apps on Apple Silicon)

The last complexity is that there are a zillion clients out there to use. Mastodon supplies web and mobile clients, but of course sort of like changing your Linux distro, who wants to use that, so here are the ones I’ve found useful for Mac Mastodon clients in order of my current favorites:

  1. Sengi. This is another open-source client that I’m actually liking a lot mainly because it is multiple accounts focused. Basically, you add a bunch of accounts and then you can add any timelines you want. So if you have the division listed above, you can have your @mastodon.social, @sigmoid.social, and @hachyderm.io home timelines all in a single screen and that makes it easy to track all your interests. The other applications really assume you have one account and then you context switch. Sengi is multi-account aware fundamentally. The other nice thing is that you can move follows around very easily. Just click on the left Search and this will bring up a person. Then click the icons on the left for each instance and you can see in the upper right of the person pane a blue icon that means you are following and not. This makes it a few clicks to clean up follows. The search is not that intuitive up there and it does need a big screen but very useful!
  2. Mastonaut. This has a nice client that one person is doing. I really like the panes for home, local and global timelines and that it is easy to move one follow to a different account. If you have the wrong account following, just double-click on the profile and then change accounts and there you have it. It is nice that it is open source. The main confusion is where is the Search feature. Turns out that this is in the menu bar but not in the graphical interface so confusing. Same with the accounts you get hotkeys to move and pull down, but actually editing them in is Preferences > Accounts which is confusing. Pretty nice though
  3. Whalebird. This is another one, but I found it hard to figure out mainly because in the login section when I type in a domain name it says unauthorized account which seems to be an open issue there. Sigh. It has a Slack-like user interface

And on Apple Silicon M1 and M2 Macs, you can also run iPad applications so that opens up which you can see by going to your App Store and then click on your profile and then selecting the tab which is iPhone & iPad Apps for ones that allow this:

  1. Ice Cubes. I haven’t used this one much yet, but it’s on most people’s top list.
  2. Ivory. Although this is supposed to work I don’t see it on my list because I don’t think I have the iPad version. This is from Tapbots which has a great reputation for Mac clients. The main thing is to adjust the settings. No one really has swipe left and swipe right correct on IOS but that doesn’t matter much for the mac. But I would like better keyboard shortcuts πŸ™‚

Figuring out your IOS client and it is literally raining clients, the ones I’ve used so far are thanks to Reddit:

  1. Ivory. This is a paid application with a subscription, so you are really supporting some great developers. Main pain is that you have to go into settings to enable boost and favorite with a single click.
  2. Mammoth. I actually like this one the most right now because of the single click. This is a one man band who is writing this so hats off to him for the great work!
  3. Ice Cube. I have not used it but does have some good Reddit recommendations and really good App Store ratings.

I’m Rich & Co.

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