How we deployed Mastodon for a UK Audience in less than an hour

An introduction to the birth of ATLAS's latest project, MastodonApp.UK

5 min read
A Dashboard in dark mode showing various metrics of interest.
The dashboard from our instance after a few weeks of running. 

Late in the evening of November 4th 2022 our team observed what proved to be the start of a large number of users on Twitter moving onto Mastodon. I personally tried to sign up to some of the Mastodon sites that folks were moving to but couldn't get on to the sites due to closed user registration. With that I decided to build my own and get onto Mastodon, the birth of MastodonApp.UK, our instance!

Our first challenge was finding a domain name we liked, a challenge that was much easier said than done! Our goal was to have a name that was very clearly Mastodon related and specific to the UK Region. Looking on the Mastodon website at a number of other regional instances I quickly noticed there was no existing UK instance, so our goal was "mastodon[dot]uk" as the domain. Unfortunately we had been beaten to that domain some years ago. We looked at a few other similar names with a .uk or TLD but struggled to find one that worked. After some trial and error we settled on our current name, MastodonApp.UK

As soon as we had completed the purchase of the domain name and it was showing up as a site in our Cloudflare Dashboard we were able to start the infrastructure provisioning. Using a VPS in the new London Region from Superior Networks, we deployed an Ubuntu 20.04 virtual machine, ran through our basic updates and bootstrapping to get the VM ready for the Mastodon Install. We ran through all of the pre-requisites to ensure the machine was both prepared and hardened in line with the Mastodon site's recommendations.

From here the actual install of Mastodon was fairly simple, there are some really well documented steps here on the Mastodon Website. It took a little bit of time to tweak things exactly how we wanted them and ensure the site was working properly. We ran into some original challenges getting the site to run with Cloudflare in front of it which we resolved some time after we launched, the issues appear to be the result of legitimate errors that we had to troubleshoot and resolve before the site would work with Cloudflare properly.

Once we were happy that the site was running we invited a few friends to join to ensure things like e-mails were working as configured through the setup process (initially configured to use Mailgun) and that the site appeared to work as we would have expected it to. As soon as we had confidence, we reached out to the Mastodon team to ask to be listed on their website as the first UK regional instance.

Over the next hour or two we saw over 100 people sign up and start using the site. We quickly learnt about Relays and why they were essential for us at that size, and linked in with all of the popular relays we could find. Users started to use the site and enjoy themselves, and I and the team were able to keep up with every post locally posted. We setup a basic set of rules and utilised the same blocked instance list as the instance, which is run by the Mastodon team. Our goal was to get something stood up and usable as quickly as possible, and to refine this model as part of operating the site in anger.

I was fortunate enough to be on annual leave from my day job at this time, so had the time to dedicate to setting everything up and maintaining it, and on the first night it was a fairly late night getting to bed! At the time I did eventually go to bed we had somewhere in the region of 150 accounts registered and therefore new users that were joining us on the site.

Waking up the next morning, the site had just over 1,500 people that had registered an account. I didn't expect to hit 1,000 users much less anything beyond it, so was thrilled to see the site doing well. We quickly roped in friends and family to help with some of the moderation and to help keep on top of things, we had a large number of overnight reports and were quickly starting to figure our way through how the network of servers operated and importantly the lines we needed to draw especially around our moderation policies and how we could ensure we were a safe and inclusive space for all.

The site continued to take off throughout the day and we started to see an increasing number of users join us, including reporters and celebrates. As the site was growing, so was the attention we were getting from the press, the day after we first launched the site Zoe Kleinman, the BBC's first technology editor, reached out in relation to an article she was working on and wanted to know more about the sites journey as well as the growth we were seeing, after a great phone conversation the article was published the next day and was at one point the number 1 article on the BBC Site (Note not just BBC News!) for the day, this article saw a huge increase in traffic for us. It's worth at this point noting as an aside, while I was on leave I had planned a get away, and the article was published while I was driving to pick my partner up for a long weekend away (And what would later become #ZooTrip on our Mastodon Server).

During my time away we grew from around 1,500 lovely folks on our site, to over 20,000. There's another blog post coming about how we handled the scaling up of such an order of magnitude as well as some of the major technical challenges we faced. While I was away we saw a surge in support queries, which were originally landing in a shared mailbox for ATLAS rather than a dedicated MastodonApp Support desk, we also saw continued demand for press interviews, which was a new and quite scary experience for me. The interview with Zoe from the BBC as well as with The Times were primarily research conversations with some of the conversation being quoted. While I was away I also had a phone interview with LBC News which was both exciting and scary having your words broadcast to an audience, though thankfully (for me!) the segment was pre-recorded and edited. By far the most scary interview (Which was very scary because I didn't know it was live until the night before the interview was scheduled!) was the interview with Times Radio on their Breakfast show and at around 8AM, a peak listening time for a lot of radio shows. If you've never done a live interview like this before it really is a weird experience, and trying to do it in a hotel on your 4G Hotspot and a set of Airpods certainly made the experience all the more weird!

Looking back (And being very thankful my partner was as understanding as they were for turning our romantic get-away into a press tour and technical troubleshooting time!) I'm still really happy with the site and how we started to set things up. We've had a fair few challenges with the site, however the technical side of the site was mostly solid and we haven't had any major issues that have really bitten us (yet!) however the majority of our challenges have been in refining our rules and understanding the best way to run a community of this size and scale, I am hugely appreciative to the other UK & Ireland Admins whom I work with on a lot of the technical and policy challenges we've ran into, as well as the folks that reached out to help inform our moderation decisions and site policies. We are still learning though, and I have no doubt the site will continue to evolve and develop in the future.

There are going to be a few more posts coming up over the next few weeks (probably months!) talking about MastodonApp UK and what we've done to tackle some fairly huge technical challenges, if you've like to get these delivered direct to your inbox, please do sign-up for our follow list