The Fediverse

A few weeks ago, as Twitter began to go into a tailspin with 50% job cuts – including a complete elimination of its content moderation team – I started to see other digital media pioneers I know and trust talk about an alternative. It’s called Mastodon, and it’s part of a larger trend known as the “Fediverse.”

What is the “Fediverse?” It’s a group of decentralized social networking services built on open source protocols that allow content to be shared – or “federated” – across those servers. That’s the technical explanation, and honestly it’s a little hard to get your mind around at first.

In the vernacular, the Fediverse is a free, open-source alternative to Twitter and potentially all text-based social media.

These “federated” services are based on ActivityPub, an open-source protocol for status-update streams created in 2016. The first line of the ActivityPub site says it all:

"Don’t you miss the days when the web really was the world’s greatest decentralized network? Before everything got locked down into a handful of walled gardens? So do we.""

Mastodon, also launched in 2016, was one of the first services to support the ActivityPub protocol. And while it’s not the only service that uses the protocol, it appears to be the one that is currently taking off the fastest. Here’s how it works.

Anyone can set up a Mastodon server, which can be for either one person – a personal microblog all your own – or for an unlimited number of people. The owners of the server gets to choose who can post on it. If you’re allowed in, you can make a profile on that server and post short status updates called “Toots” that look and act a lot like Tweets or Facebook posts.

You can find and follow other people on your chosen server, just as you would follow someone on Twitter. They can decide to follow you back or not, but in a marked difference from most social networks, you are able to decide if you want them to be able to follow you at all. I personally really like this feature because I think it helps prevent a lot of stalking and unwanted behavior.

You can use Mastodon from any web browser, including on your phone, but there are also a number of apps that allow you to sign in to a Mastodon server. One, simply called “Mastodon,” is run by the Germany-based non-profit that manages the open-source Mastodon code. But there are others. Two that I use currently are Metatext for iOS, and Pinafore, which is a mobile-friend web app.

The important thing to know is that whatever app you use is logging into a server that runs the free, open-souce Mastodon software – not to the Mastodon service itself. What this means is that your data (posts, profile, followers, etc.) are not controlled by a single company, or the Mastodon non-profit (though Mastodon does have its own server that you can use if you want). They are controlled by whoever runs the server you joined. For this reason, knowing who or which organization is running the server you call home is very important. The server I use currently is called Newsie.Social. It’s run by Jeff Brown of the Fourth Estate, an international public benefit corporation whose mission is to “contribute to a healthy society by fostering, supporting and incubating a sustainable and vibrant free press.”

Once you have an account on a server, you get a profile that shows your “Toots” just like Twitter shows your “Tweets.” Here’s mine:

So what’s the “federated” part of all this? Well, when you are logged into your chosen Mastodon server, you have several tabs from which to view posts. The Local tab shows posts from people on your server – so in my case, that means primarily journalists or journalism educators. But there’s another Federated tab that shows posts from people across all Mastodon servers.

The Federated tab is the closest to what you may be used to on Twitter. But in both cases there is one absolutely huge difference: there is no algorithm determining what you see. Whatever is posted next appears first, in reverse chronological order – just as with Twitter and Facebook when they first launched.

Finally, there are no ads on Mastodon servers. This of course gets to the business model / sustainability question. Whoever is running your chosen server – including you if you run your own – needs to pay for the hosting costs. How to cover costs is up to each server administrator, but I know that the server has a special donation page set up. There, you can see what the total annual budget is, contributions and expenses paid. Every server adminstrator needs to figure out how to keep the lights on – an inevitable reality for any type of distributed computing.

There are a lot of other things to know about Mastodon, which I don’t have time to get into here. But if you want to learn more, I’m happy to direct you to this excellent post and presentation by Lisa Williams.

I will be honest that when I first started playing with Mastodon, it felt like a hot mess. I had a profile all my own where I could see only my own posts, and I had no idea how to find other people. But that changed as the few people I did know and follow on Mastodon began sharing how to find other people I might know, or new people through hashtags.

These days, more and more people are moving over from Twitter. An easy way to replicate at least part of the community you have on Twitter is by using the Movetodon service. It logs into your Twitter account, logs into your Mastodon account, and then finds matching Mastodon profiles for the people you follow on Twitter.

As of this date, of the 1,962 people I follow on Twitter, Movetodon could only find 102 that were also on Mastodon. That’s not a lot, but these are early days. However, I have found that the early movers are the type of people who I want to hear from anyway – journalists, educators and techies like me.

So what does this Fediverse stuff all mean, and why am I clearly so excited about it? It goes back to what I posted a month ago when I asked how we let the open internet die.

The Fediverse trend is an opportunity for social media and digital community to return to the roots of the Internet itself and how it was designed to work. Rather than having everything locked up in large companies that provide services in exchange for selling user data to brands, it puts the power of connecting and publishing back in the hands of regular people.

Regardless of how you feel about that aspect, the Fediverse is also growing rapidly. According to the Fediverse Observer, the population of Mastodon users has grown by over 2 million people since this summer, with a total of 7 million. And just in the past few weeks, the hockey-stick nature of that graph indicates that the numbers will be significantly higher in the near future. For that reason alone, it’s an emerging media platform worth a hard look.