Adding relays to your Mastodon instance

If you run a private instance of Mastodon it can feel mighty lonely sometimes. This is due to an inherent design characteristic of Mastodon and federated services in general…how does one instance get information from another instance? Typically, if you have a user on your instance that follows someone else then that information will be added to your instance, along with any hashtags they use and so on. If you run a small server, then obvious there are far fewer ways for information to flow to your instance.

Solving this problem is a matter of ensuring more data is flowing into your instance so that it can then see more content, and most importantly as of version 4.0 of Mastodon, additional hashtags. The easiest way of doing this (aside from running a large instance) is to use relays.

Relays, in essence, take in feeds from a number of instances and passes them to other instances attached to the relay. Finding a relay to add to your instance is as easy as going to and picking one or more to add to your instance. Relay servers usually support both Pleroma as well as Mastodon but remember the information you add to each is different. Be sure to add the right URL.

Screenshot showing relay URLs

You can subscribe to a relay by visiting /admin/relays in the admin dashboard of your instance and clicking the “Add New Relay” button. Simply pick a relay server from the list and add it using the correct URL. For Mastodon, the URL will end with /inbox in almost every case. After a short while you will begin to see your Federated timeline be populated with posts from other instances. Your instance will now see a lot of new content including hashtags that you can follow.

Keep in mind that bringing in this cost does have a cost associated with it. All instances of Mastodon will store everything it sees locally, including post content and media like images and video. It is a good idea to set retention limits on your system so that you are not storing everything ever seen forever. On my system I set my retention limits to 14 days for media and content cache and 7 days for user archives. You will find your instance’s content retention policy at /admin/settings/content_retention.

In addition to using more disk space (and bandwidth transferring all that media) you will also incur more processing time on your instance. The amount of space and processing you need depends heavily on which or how many relay services you add to your instance. For my instance I struck a balance between getting enough data flowing so that hashtags were interesting but not so much that I increased my costs unnecessarily. You can track this information in both your admin dashboard at /admin/dashboard (scroll to the bottom) as well as your chosen object storage provider (you did set one up right?).

If you are running a private instance and feel a bit left out I hope this helps you get the activity you are looking for. Also remember to follow a lot of people and boost content you like instead of just liking it. This will lead to more followers for yourself, more interactions and a more interesting timeline!

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