Q: What's this "Federation thing?"

A: A bunch of communities, on different servers, sharing /some/ but not necessarily /all/ of their traffic. Or, in some cases, none. It depends.

The User Guide has a good section:
github.com/tootsuite/mastodon/

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Q: Is there a realtime-updating network overview with zoomable historical data?

A: Yes: mnm.eliotberriot.com/

Screenshot showing 2 days of data as of 12 April, 2017. mastodon.cloud/media/RCObGXKeN

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mastodon.cloud

Generalistic and moderated instance.