How to create your own Mastodon Instance (and why this is a terrible idea).

I have never really had a lot of time for Social Media.

A long, long time ago when I worked at Command Prompt my partner and I created all the things that you’re supposed to create in order to hit all the commonly-accepted business touchstones of the modern age; a company Facebook page, Twitter accounts, a few other bits and pieces of assorted nonsense. I tried to get into it – I really did – but at the end of the day it was a toolbox that I had no interest in. I could rant at length about my specific beefs with the whole enterprise, but while I’d very much enjoy indulging in that I’m also keenly aware that this sort of behavior falls into the general bucket of Old Man Complaining About These Kids Today, and honestly, nobody needs another tirade in that general vein. I’ll merely confine myself to saying that Social Media is all about connecting people with other people, and that pretty much all people are just ghastly and generally awful, and probably shouldn’t be connected with each other any more that is absolutely necessary, and even then we should probably cut back on that as much as possible, you filthy, filthy animals.

(Not you, gentle reader. You’re great. No, really.)

When Command Prompt later dropped most of its Social Media presence I was enormously relieved. Even later, when I jumped ship leaving the whole shebang in the possibly-far-more-competent hands of my cohort, I tried to delete my Facebook account without a lot of success, and have mostly just decided that ignoring it and losing the password for it is the most prudent and sensible course of action. I kept a Twitter account going because in a global pandemic it was a useful thing to have access to (so that I could find out where to find toilet paper and peruse new and creative things to make with gin and the dwindling contents of my fridge), but now that Twitter seems to be lurching drunkenly to an uncertain terminus I – and apparently a lot of other people – have started wondering whether Mastodon might not be a credible alternative.

Mastodon seems to have garnered a reputation for being intensely complex, but I’m not sure that’s a well-deserved criticism. Unlike monolithic… well, monoliths like Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or what have you, Mastodon instances exist as a network of smaller servers that can be run and administered fairly simply by individuals or small groups. If Twitter is some doomed cruise ship going down in stormy waters, then Mastodon instances are a vast flotilla of small fishing vessels, rafts, lifeboats and yachts that folks can jump onto.

Actually, as metaphors go that’s pretty apt; the experience of using Mastodon is a broadly similar conceptual experience to using Twitter but with small differences, compromises and inconveniences that can be worked around if you’re willing to be reasonable about the whole business. If you’re being rescued from your burning, sinking cruise ship (a large, metal contraption that floats and travels on the water and allows you to store some of your stuff) then jumping onto a fishing boat is going to be a broadly similar experience (a smaller, wooden contraption that floats and travels on the water and allows you to store some of your stuff). If you’re content with those basic qualities then you’ll be fine, but if you’re expecting shuffleboard, a buffet table and wet bar in your room then you’re in for a rude awakening. Also? Fish.

Setting up your own Mastodon instance is moderately complicated, but not unrealistically so. You’ll need the following:

• A domain name – so that the world at large can find your Mastodon instance.

• A Virtual Private Server (VPS) – so that you can have a virtual server that can hold and execute the code required to operate your instance.

• An Object Storage provider – something AWS storage-compatible seems to be the ideal solution so that you can have a place to store media, images, and data that you and your users might upload to the instance.

• Some kind of SMTP service – so that you can send email notifications to users. (Note: you can use your existing SMTP servers, but that’s a bad idea for lots and lots of reasons. Fortunately a brisk and concise googling can probably find you other options in the SMTP provider space.)

So, four things. The domain name is simple enough – simply sign up for something apt and pithy with the domain name registrar of your choice (provided that they offer some kind of basic DNS configuration, that is). The SMTP service can be dealt with inexpensively by Postmark (my personal favorite), and while there are many options for VPS and Object Storage I’d counsel looking at Digital Ocean because they’re price and feature competitive and offer a simple, one-click Mastodon install.

I’m going assume that you went with Digital Ocean – because that’s what I use for my VPS stuff – and because they offer a blow-by-blow, easy-to-follow setup procedure that you can work through while drinking your Lapsang Souchong and humming happily to yourself, content with the world as you ponder your career as a Burgeoning Social Media Pioneer™. Congratulations!

Except, no. No, no, no. A thousand times no, you poor, muddle-headed nincompoop.

What were you thinking? Didn’t you read the title – you know, the thing in big letters at the top of the screen, about how setting up a Mastodon instance was a – and I quote directly – “terrible idea“? No. No you didn’t. And now you’re doomed and probably going to prison for a hundred years. Maybe longer. Probably longer.

You see, the thing about being a Burgeoning Social Media Pioneer™ is that there are responsibilities and considerations that are easily glossed over or just plain missed. I mean, Twitter is like an iceberg; two-thirds of the enterprise are under the water and doing things you don’t see (and now that – as of the date of writing this – Twitter has disposed of most of those people that particular iceberg is looking pretty shaky). That’s the stuff that keeps the thing afloat, and unless you know what you’re getting into, you too might sink. Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s see…

Firstly, you’re going to have to start thinking about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and how that’s going to impact you. I mentioned up top that Social Media users are ghastly and awful, and yes, that might have been a little presumptuous, but there are definitely bad folks out there. Let’s say – purely for the sake of argument – that @joeschmo@mastodon.mycoolserver posts a link to a pirated stream of Marvel’s next big movie. That’s bad, but you’re protected from liability for any copyright violations that your end users might carry out provided that you’re registered with the U.S Copyright Office, and that you’re provided them with a Designation of Agent to Receive Notifications of Claimed Infringement. Oh, and if you’re checking those notifications and don’t dawdle about pulling copyrighted content off your instance as close to immediately as is humanly possible.

That’ll cost you less than ten bucks a year, which, okay, it isn’t bad. What might edge it into bad territory is that details of said Designated Agent are publicly available, so unless you’re cool with your name and home address being out there for all to see, then you might want to consider a P.O. Box, which will be… well, it’ll be more than ten bucks a year, that’s for sure.

Of course, the smart move would be to incorporate as an LLC so that you have a legal entity between you and the roiling, lawless barbarians of humanity as they try to ruin you with the fruits of their sheer petty-minded greed, moronic tribalism and general dreadfulness. I can’t speak for other states, but in California that’ll set you back eight hundred dollars a year, with additional filing fees. Make sure you pay the bill on time, too; while everyone I’ve ever talked to at the California Franchise Tax Board has been genuinely pleasant and understanding, the FTB is not renowned for its institutional mercy or sense of humor. Oh, and you’ll probably need a discreet taxpayer ID too (which you can get from the IRS, and it’s really saying something that getting a thing from the IRS is the simplest, easiest and most enjoyable of the remedies you’re going to have to slog through).

Once you’ve got that out of the way then you should take a long look at your liability. If your LLC name is on your instance (which, y’know, it should be) then you’re going to have to think long and hard about liability insurance. Apple makes its Consultants carry a couple of million dollars’ worth of insurance, and you’ll probably be in for the same. You’re probably looking at about a thousand dollars a year, give or take. Make sure any legal fees are covered by your policy. Still, that’s all you have to do.

Oh, wait, it isn’t. You should also register with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children because while you really, really hope that nobody on your instance is posting CSAM then playing catch-up with your duty to report post-fact is a deeply, potentially life-changingly and ruinously problematic place to be. Oh, and if you or any of your users are operating in the EU then you should probably have a handle on your GDPR responsibilities and obligations. If you’re operating in other, non-EU countries then I would strongly recommend consulting qualified legal professionals to check up on the laundry list of additional items you’ll need to work your way through.

Here’s the thing about Social Media; it’s a bad, bad thing. It elevates every level of discourse – good and evil – and puts a megaphone in the hands of every unhinged do-gooder or psychotic crank, ensuring that they’re always a little louder than the regular user who only cares about cute cat videos. But there’s a difference between something like Twitter and something like Mastodon; the former is a platform, and the latter is a protocol. Starting your own Mastodon instance seems like starting, say, a Slack channel, or (for those of us old enough to remember) a BBS or newsgroup, but the practical reality of the thing is that Mastodon is just the means to the end of creating a platform – and isn’t a platform unto itself.

At the end of the day, there are responsibilities inherent in owning that platform – and they’re responsibilities that are severe and inflexible. If you know what you’re getting into, and if you’re willing to take those responsibilities on? Good luck to you.

If you’re not, then… well. Good luck.

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