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New Shiny Part 2: Making Mastodon Comfy

Cute elephant collage element, cute

TL;DR: some practical tips are bullet-pointed at the bottom. 

I can always tell I’ve started A New Thing way beyond my comfort zone when it shows up in my recurring dreamspaces.

Lately I’ve been dreaming a lot about the new social networking system I’ve joined. (It seriously isn’t social media in the commonly accepted sense, so in my stubborn way, I have trouble calling it that. BUT I DIGRESS.) 

I found a smaller “instance” or node or server on the network to move into: zirk.us, instead of Mastodon.social. 

Zirk.us is an instance dedicated to arts & humanities, poetry, photography and so on,  being run by folks who are transparent about the logistical costs of being online & growing the membership only as fast as it can add moderation & technical support.

And yes, I confess I migrated there in no small part because it’s called zirk.us, pronounced zerk-us, like circus, like Herkes, so how could I resist? (Answer, I couldn’t.)

Manipulative social engineering is the main reason I backed away from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. Interacting with other humans is hard enough. Trying to make connections while simultaneously fighting a system designed to exhaust and use me was increasingly not worth the effort.

side note: Your Mastodon May Vary. the Fediverse is *NOT* equitably welcoming. I come at it with undeniable privileges. The Fediverse’s splintered, uneven nature and lack of institutional-level reporting & blocking system make many of its major instances hostile places, unsafe for people who are targets of exclusionary hate & institutional bigotry.

In contrast, my main issues are mental health and focus-related, and in those areas, the Mastodon software interface shines. It is beautifully designed for building defenses & supports.

I changed a bunch of things right away to cut back on information overload, doom-depression, & focus exhaustion.  I am now going to tediously go through all those things I did, because that way when I forget what I did, I will have a reference for myself.

And, maybe, possibly, it might prove useful to someone else somehow, someday. That said, ‘m doing this in my shorthand, there won’t be full explanations of which menu I was in or where I was looking on the screen, etc. 

First I tinkered with my profile settings through Edit Profile.

Adding a profile pic & banner are key to making myself knowable & demonstrating I am a Real Person. Filled out the bio & later edited to be kind to those using screenreaders: put hashtags at the end, not sprinkled throughout the text. 

PREFERENCES:

  •  Appearance 1: enable “enhanced web interface,” which enables multiple columns to be viewed & pinned in place. I’ve since learned this format  is too intense for some people, but I prefer my information to be in predictable, static places on the screen.)
  • Appearance 2: enable SLOW MODE.  Disables infinite scroll. I choose when I’m ready to access new posts. I love, love, LOVE this. But wait, there’s more.
  • Appearance 3: crop all images to a 16:9 the better for me to tune them out
  • hide sensitive media, again, again, conserving my limited visual attentiveness
  • Other: I selected English, so I wouldn’t be trying to parse my way through posts in other languages. 

FILTERS

 So easy to set up. So customizable. Easy to append. Easy to edit, if I decide I want to change where/if I want to look at the topics I’m filtering out. I set up three perma-filters before I made my first post. One for references to Twitter or Musk, one for Trump related material, and one for pandemic related keywords. I’ve added a couple more since then. 

There’s even the ability to decide how rigorous you want the filter to be, with warnings or hiding entirely, from just some feeds or all occurrences anywhere.

Filters complete, I went from Edit Profile back to the main screen.

Home, Local & Federated columns showed up automatically. I went up to the bar of icons at the top left & clicked on the bell to bring up a Notifications column too. Then I promptly started tinkering with all the column settings.

Column settings are tucked behind a little icon I think looks like an abacus. I unpinned the Local & Federated feeds immediately, and pinned the Notifications. I didn’t pin the Home feed, but I did toggle “Show replies” off so I wouldn’t get caught up puzzling through posts without context. 

NOTIFICATIONS & COLUMNS:

  • I also moved the Notifications column to the far left using the little arrows to the right of the pin/unpin toggle. Pinning eliminates the ultra-distracting badge in the Getting Started column.  Being able to rearrange the visible columns to match the day’s brain order: priceless
  • enabled “show all categories”  It defaults to only showing “all” & mentions, but I can’t keep up & like to go through replies, favs, boosts individually t my own speed. (Again, some find that to be *more* distracting. My love of static information sources is showing.)
  • turned off all the sound alerts & half the other alerts.

Then I went to the Getting Started column on the right & clicked on Lists so I could fine-tune my various info sources.

LISTS.

Like Filters, Lists are similar to features of Twitter & FB, but they’re implemented as readily-accessible, highly-visible elements, proving they’re integral to the experience, not post-hoc additions buried three menus deep & requiring multiple moves back & forth to set up.

Lists are my besties. My tolerance for different types of input varies radically with my mood & energy level. 

  •  a *very* small “Frenz” list for people whose posts I can almost always handle
  • my Writing Community List
  • Interesting Strangers
  • Fun Bots, for days when automated cat pics or astronomy photos are all I can stand
  •  And one more for News–which includes people who mainly post or boost only politics or current events.

The “Interesting Strangers” is by far the largest. Sometimes people move from that to Frenz, sometimes the other way — It’s EASY to change people’s list status. There’s a single menu for adjusting all your interactions w/each person. 

And I can put people on multiple lists, too so I don’t miss friend posts if I’m only in the mood for skimming news, or looking for book recs, f’rex.

Once I tailored my notifications & made lists, I could start adding people, which brings up the last best things: Notes & Muting & Hide Boosts.

FOLLOWING

Following best practice: IMMEDIATELY click on the 3-dot menu & add the person to a list or lists. Since I rarely have Home, Local, or Federated up, this is critical to seeing someone’s posts at all. (If I had to wait & do it afterwards, I would forget. If I had to click into sub-menus, I wouldn’t do it. This way, it’s *done.*)

 I can also hide that individual’s boosts right then & there, if a quick look indicates they post interesting things but also a high proportion of boosts I don’t care about–OR I CAN CHANGE THAT SETTING LATER just as easily. 

Ditto for the mute function — if I want to follow someone so I can find them later, but don’t have a lot of interest in their current posts/boosts, I can simply mute them. 

And Notes? Notes is the ice cream on the hot, fresh slice of fruit pie. It’s a memo line in the profile I see where I can to leave myself an explanation for “Why Am I following this person?”  I can’t say it’s private bc the instance admins see everything, but it doesn’t show up to that person, and that’s all I could ask.

I regularly & randomly lose important contextual connections, I seriously conflate people & places, and I am horrible about keeping track of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey time. Did a thing happen last year, 5 years ago, or when I was 14? I DUNNO.

Basically all the people I have ever known have always been with me everywhere I go. On Twitter & FB, where it’s hard/impossible to design & edit lists on impulse, I got used to doing a lot of looking blankly at posts & stressing over “where do I know them from? Why am I following them? Should I reply? Should I scroll on?” 

I reserve notes for people outside the “Interesting Strangers” list since that label is an explanation all by itself. But when I’m surfing through Writing Community, (f’rex) or my rare jaunts through the Local or Home feed,  it’s a huge relief to see my reminder “on a panel w/ them at WorldCon” or “cool person I bought a book from,” “Person who said a kind thing the first day on Mastodon” etc.

Notes, lists, filters, muting, etc — none of these are necessary for being in the Fediverse. But they do make it a lot easier for me to navigate it without losing my mind or using up all my energy.

Bottom line: there’s a lot about the interface that’s familiar, but the ways the familiar have been revised makes all the difference. It’s wild how much improvement the small changes in design have made.


This post comes to you by the magic of copy/paste & cross-posting from my blog on Patreon. Please consider becoming a regular patron if you like what I write & help me smother my impostor syndrome with pocketbook votes. Otherwise stay tuned to this channel for the next installment.

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