torresjrjr(7) 0xF7959E95

Guide to the Fediverse

· Byron Torres

The Fediverse is a decentralised, federated social media network, with over ~4.4 million users and ~10 thousand instances1.

This is a condensed, simplified, plain English guide to understanding the Fediverse, why it’s awesome, and how to join. You can read the whole article, or skip to Getting started.

See also: 30s version

Proposed Fediverse logo

Explanation

The Fediverse (federated + universe) is a decentralised social media network of independent & interconnected servers. Federated social media? What does this mean?

The best analogy is email. Consider this: Alice has an email account on the email service provider gmail.com, which is alice@gmail.com. Her friend Bob has an email account on gmail.com too, which is bob@gmail.com. Alice and Bob can send emails to each other, no problem. Their friend Charlie also has an email account, but on another email service provider yahoo.com, which is charlie@yahoo.com.

Even though Charlie charlie@yahoo.com uses a different server, Alice alice@gmail.com can still communicate via email with him seamlessly. This is because the two email servers use an underlying “email protocol” to send and receive email. To Alice, it makes no difference whether she’s emailing local Bob or far-away Charlie. Why aren’t social media services like that?

Contrast that to Twitter, for example. There’s only one “tweet service provider” twitter.com on where you can make accounts (@alice, @bob, @charlie). While convenient, what if you don’t like how Twitter handles things, or are concerned about your privacy and data? What if they abuse their power and one day arbitrarily delete all of your tweets and account? What if Twitter is hacked and leaves everyone vulnerable? You can’t sign up to some other “tweet service provider”.

Centralised networks vs decentralised Fediverse/Email

Twitter is centralised, whilst email is decentralised. The Fediverse is like a “decentralised Twitter”. There exists hundreds of various Fediverse instances (imagine tweet.com, toot.net, social.org), all of which act as independent but interconnected Twitters (which we’ll see shortly). Users on these instances can tweet/post to any other user on any instance, and do all the usual things like following, liking, and resharing posts. Imagine Alice tweeting from her account on one instance @alice@toot.net to Charlie’s account on another instance @charlie@social.org. This is the power of the Fediverse.

What’s more, the Fediverse is not limited to short “tweet” posts, but other forms of media posts too. Consider YouTube, essentially a centralised network for video posts and comment posts. Imagine if YouTube and Twitter were decentralised, and your Twitter account could “follow/subscribe” a YouTube channel, and “like” and “reply/comment” to their video posts. This experience actually exists in the Fediverse!

In the same way email servers use the email protocols2 to share emails, Fediverse instances use the ActivityPub protocols to share “activities” (posts, likes, replies, follows, etc.). There are a few other protocols, but ActivityPub is the most established. To federate means for two instances to interconnect. Hence, the Fediverse is the entire network of federated instances. And it’s pretty big.

Overview of the Fediverse

By now you understand that the Fediverse isn’t some company or product or service, but a network of independently hosted services. Most hosters are enthusiasts. Here are a list of popular federated services that people host on their own sites:

There are thousands of instances running these services, hosted by everyday people!

What else can I say? I think that fact that a fast Pleroma instance can be hosted on a $3 server speaks for itself
Lain, creator of Pleroma.

Incredibly, all of these services are interconnected and work pretty much seamlessly. Users can interact with others users and content across the entire network. They are truly free to roam, unlike the walled gardens of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

Mastodon, Pleroma, and PeerTube on mobile. All interconnected.

Instances provide many of the typical features like multimedia attachments, and polls, as well as extra features such as content warnings, local & global timelines, custom emoji, markdown formatting, and more. #Hashtags and @mentions are also supported.

Servers aren’t the whole story. While you can always access your Fediverse account in your web browser, various mobile and desktop apps exist as Fediverse clients, so you can post and browse from wherever you please. Since these apps all talk the same ActivityPub protocol, they can be used to log into pretty much any Fediverse server, with minor differences.3

Because of the decentralised nature, instances feel like small towns (or big cities), and you’re free to travel the universe anytime. This homely feel allows for the flourishing of communities, while avoiding feeling like your voice is anchored to one place.

Some instances are international and generic like mastodon.xyz. Some are focused around a region or language, like Swedish fikaverse.club, or Japanese mstdn.jp. Some are topic based, like Free software floss.social, free speech, fan culture, gaming, art, activism, lgbt+, cat pics, etc. Some are big and bustling, while others are small and cozy. There’s probably one suited to you. If choosing an instance is overwhelming, start out with a generic one. They’re all interconnected after all, so there’s no huge commitment.

Getting started

Want a glimpse of the Fediverse? Don’t know where to start? A good first step is a creating an account on a Mastodon instance. It’s the most popular, de facto service. If you’re feeling adventurous, this Themed Servers list has a list of other known Fediverse instances. I recommend signing up to an instance running either Mastodon or Pleroma, since those will be familiar, Twitter-like microblogging instances.

Go ahead! Click a link above and sign up.

Pick a Mastodon instance and browse the Fediverse.

Once you’ve created an account, you may want to access your feed on your mobile. The mobile website your instance provides is probably good enough, but if you’re interested in a dedicated app, I recommend the Husky app for Android, or the Toot! app for iOS. Once downloaded, simply enter the URL of your instance when prompted, then sign into your account.

Time to explore! Most instances split feeds into three timelines:

The local and global timeline is a good place to find users to follow. Others will see your posts pop up on their local timeline too.

We fedizens have a custom. Newcommers are encouraged to publish a post with the #introductions hashtag. Search for “#introductions” for examples, and introduce yourself!

Finally, if you’re uncomfortable with a certain instance’s content or environment, don’t fret. There are plenty of other instances to choose from, and there’s likely one with a moderation policy that’s right for you. See below.

What makes the Fediverse better?

Note: Your own experience can do much more than what a summary can. This is an idealised summary of the Fediverse written to persuade. Never rely solely on other’s opinions. Make your own!

The Fediverse is a newer network which has improved upon what we’ve learnt from legacy networks. Here’s a few great points.

Personal, manageable moderation

Big centralised networks tend to suffer from a lack of moderation and supervision. Spam, trolls, bots, malicious agents, and vulgar content can overwhelm large networks easily, and can leave entire teams of admins paralysed by indecision, trying to please everyone across multiple communities.

The Fediverse is community-oriented by design. Smaller instances means admins can get to know their users on a more personal level. Moderators and users are much more accountable and users feel like they have a voice.

The Fediverse generally handles spam much more gracefully and is more resilient by nature. Instance admins can react more quickly to spam. They can set what ever moderation policies they like, and choose which other instances not to federate with (essentially block) if they don’t find their content appropriate.

This gives users the freedom to choose where to create their account, each according to their personality and comfort level. No one is left out, and no one is subject to content they don’t want to see. Everybody wins.

Check out this excellent video on moderation on the Fediverse (28 min).

Privacy and trust

Big centralised networks are heavily criticised for abusing users’ trust and technical naïvety, collecting and selling private data (searches, images, friends, location) without consent from family and children. These platforms calculate – using massive data centers – their behavioural patterns, vulnerable biases and insecurities to target with ads. The incentive to monetize your private data is so strong, companies will do anything, pass the threshold of creepy.

Most Fediverse servers run on Free and Open Source software, meaning that anyone’s code-literate friend can glance at the code and verify that no such nefarious data-harvesting business is going on.

Ads are unheard of in the Fediverse, since running a server often isn’t too expensive to do. Hosters even tend to crowdfund (successfully so). That means no selling of your data (or soul). As such, the Fediverse has cultivated more personal communities, without the perverse hype/clout culture we see on legacy networks.

Less manipulation and fake news

Arbitrary banning, deceptive shadowbanning, and of course targeted ads, all create a web of distrust and disorientation. It’s well known that big corporations and governments use their money and influence to obfuscate narratives for their own benefit, at the expense of users. This even happens internally within the big tech giants. People need an alternative not subject to the whims of powerful people.

Posts and conversations on the Fediverse are guaranteed to spread and grow organically, free from manipulation, since no instance governs or controls any part of the network other than itself.

Servers don’t “curate” content like legacy networks do. The standard timeline is chronological, which enforces an expectation of ephemerality and discovery-by-sharing. The Fediverse is free from global “trending” features which are routinely used as a manipulation tool to affect the public perception of public views.

It’s much harder for a powerful cabal to successfully abuse every instance of the entire network and target people with fake news and fear, uncertainty & doubt. The Fediverse culture is therefore much more critical and fruitful. People aren’t afraid of speaking the truth, even when it’s dangerous, and especially when it’s right.

Discoverability

One thing centralised networks have an advantage over the Fediverse is that they can provide easy search for users, since they have all the data in one place. Fediverse users can capably search over their local instance, but need more patience when searching over the entire network. A side effect is a weaker set of “overview” features like “trending” or “hashtags”.

Some, however, like it that way. On big central networks, you never know if what’s trending is really trending. Running jokes like “rename YouTube Trending to YouTube’s Picks!” reflect this. Hashtags also don’t always reflect the actual landscape of opinions out there. A surge of #spam can give an air of importance to otherwise frivolous topics.

Bare numbers don’t tell the whole story, therefore most users are content with re-sharing/boosting/forwarding as the main way of sharing information.

Current state of the Fediverse

The big centralised networks ultimately need you, to use them, and to remain ignorant of whats out there. The evolutionary stage of the Fediverse we see today began around 2014, when the theoretical became a real working miracle.

The user base has steadily been rising. As of 2021, there are about ~4.4 million Fediverse users and ~10 thousand instances4. Users of all walks of life, languages, young and old, from innovators to activists, creative artists, and everyday people, all enjoy the freedom and culture of the Fediverse.

What can you do?

Join the Fediverse, be an example of freedom, and spread the word. When you are comfortable, invite your friends.

Support admins and the software developers who made servers free and open source to everyone. Display your gratitude with a donation.

Host your own Fediverse server! If you’re techy or willing to be, set up your own plot of land for others to inhabit.

Or just share this guide.

Further reading

Still interested? Here are some excellent resources, from simple to technical.

Videos:

Last updated: 2021 May 8th


  1. April 2021 - https://the-federation.info/↩︎

  2. The SMTP and IMAP protocols.↩︎

  3. A white lie. Some servers use a common API instead, because it makes the clients more usable.↩︎

  4. April 2021 - https://the-federation.info/↩︎