The Fediverse: A brief introduction for non-nerds

Copyright © 2022 — Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

What (I hear you ask) is the Fediverse? (Okay, I've only heard one person expressing mild interest, but close enough.)

Imagine that Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, etc, could all share posts and comments with each other. You could login on, say, Twitter, and see a newsfeed containing everything from your friends and contacts on the other services. You could comment from Twitter on a Youtube video, and your comment would be readable by folks on Instagram who were involved in the same discussion.

Okay? Now imagine that Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, etc, are just software that any technically competent person can install on their own web server. You just download a copy of Facebook software and install it. There's no central Facebook authority controlling how you can use it. Instead, there are hundreds or thousands of Facebook sites, some huge and some small and some just for one household. Ditto for Twitter sites, Youtube sites, and so forth. Every site operator sets their own rules for their site.

And they all share posts and comments with each other.

That, my friends, is the Fediverse. It isn't a dream of the future, it's in operation today — except the software is called Mastodon, Peertube, Pleroma, Hubzilla, Pixelfed, and dozens of others. It's cantankerous, it doesn't always work perfectly, and you've got to personally take some effort to filter out the numerous unsavory members, because no megacorporation's algorithm is doing it for you. But it works.

Who's in charge here?

Nobody regulates the content of the whole Fediverse. It's a loose network of thousands of individually-operated social media servers which are "federated" in a network of equals. So nobody is in charge of all of it.

Instead, content moderation is more local. Each of the individual Fediverse sites may (or may not) be moderated by its owner. Most of them have rules of conduct. Some of them block connections to other specific Fediverse sites, some don't. If you don't like the rules on one, you can pick another (or create your own, if you've got some skills).

At a lower level, some Fediverse software lets users set up private groups, or moderated public groups, and the group owner can moderate these as they prefer.

And at the individual user level, most Fediverse software has a variety of "block" tools. Rather than demanding that somebody protect you from people you don't like, you can protect yourself by blocking their posts. They still post, you just don't see it. With some Fediverse software, you can even block based on whether specific words are present or absent, and you can restrict who can see your own posts.

We're everywhere

Decentralization also means the Fediverse is protected against some types of major outages. On October 4th, 2021, all of Facebook went down. The thing that broke Facebook was really darn technical, and I don't understand it well.

But the Fediverse did not go down that day. It's almost impossible for the whole Fediverse to fail, because it's spread across thousands of independently-operated servers. One server can go down, but the Fediverse continues on — and if you're using a Fediverse server that allows "nomadic identity" and you have cloned your identity to a different server, all you need to do is login to your cloned account and continue as if nothing had happened.

But... to be honest, the Fediverse doesn't always work perfectly as of 2022, and you'll need to be tolerant of some glitches and oddities. It's a complex system built by a lot of volunteers who don't always agree on the technical issues.

Bad and good

As long as I'm talking about negatives, I've got to warn you that a lot of people who were booted off of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube ended up on Fediverse servers, and some of those people are pretty icky. You can find almost every sort of person that you despise. So keep this in mind when you're selecting a server/community, and expect to spend occasional effort to block the people you can't stand. That's the flip side of less-regulated speech.

And less-regulated speech is my favorite thing about the Fediverse. There are no algorithms controlling what I can say and what I can see. I'm not an extreme radical, but I've still gotten censored twice by Facebook, because their automated system can't tell the difference between real disinformation and hate speech vs criticism or parody of the same. I can't have an open conversation on Facebook, because I have to guess how the omnipotent algorithm will misinterpret every word. In the Fediverse, no such problem.

Beyond that, what are some other good things? Here is one person's curated list of some of the best and most interesting stuff in the Fediverse, sorted by category:

FediFollows' Big List of Recommended Accounts to Follow

The Fediverse has become enough of a "thing" that some major organizations are now using it — for example, the European Union and the German government. The government of China has also taken notice: on June 9, 2022 they blocked their citizens from accessing a bunch of major Fediverse sites.

Can we expect increased censorship or regulation of the Fediverse by governments of the more-free world? Who can guess? For the moment, though, government attention is on the big social media sites, and the Fediverse remains pretty free.

What about privacy? I mentioned above that in some cases you can restrict who can see your posts. Is this secure? No — it's the same as Facebook, Twitter, and for that matter, e-mail. An unscrupulous person who controls a web server can read anything, with a little effort, because your posts and comments are not encrypted. If you're worried about this, you should also worry about Google reading your GMail. The only way around this is to use strong encryption at the sending and receiving end. There are a very few Fediverse server applications that have this ability built-in, but it's not common.

Only ten thousand to choose from

So, if the Fediverse sounds interesting, how do you decide where to sign up? There are a few ways to approach this.

Do you already have friends using the Fediverse? Ask around — they may have recommendations, and they may be willing to help out a newbie.

Are you looking for a community, where most of the interaction is between members of the same site? Try searching here or here for a Fediverse site that matches your personal interests, or check a map here to find a site near your home.

Do you already have an online community, and you all want to move to a less-regulated home? Somebody in your group is probably a computer nerd. Ask them if they want to set up a Fediverse server just for your group.

Are you most interested in particular software features? Here is a very long (and nerdy) list of Fediverse server software.

Do you need the ability to communicate with the maximum number of active Fediverse users (roughly a million people)? This is where we run into technical issues. Some parts of the Fediverse can't talk to other parts, because they don't speak the same electronic language. Currently, some Friendica and Hubzilla sites offer the best chance of connecting to everyone, but at the cost of annoying compatibility issues. For the best tradeoff between connectivity and compatibility, I recommend choosing a site that supports "ActivityPub", which is the most widely supported way for Fediverse sites to communicate with each other.

Also, some Fediverse sites refuse to talk to other parts, due to legal or philosophical or political differences. Look for an "About" page before signing up. (Here are a couple of random examples from mstdn.social, which blocks a lot of sites and has a lot of rules, and Free Speech Extremist, which doesn't.)

Free samples

Do you want to look around first, without setting up an account? Some Fediverse sites offer a public stream, showing posts from their own site and (sometimes) posts that their own members are reading from other sites. Let's start with the two sites I mentioned in the previous paragraph:

  • mstdn.social runs Mastodon software (which has some resemblance to Twitter) and bills itself as "a general-purpose Mastodon server with a 1000 character limit." (Short character limits are common, but not universal, for Mastodon-based sites.)
  • Free Speech Extremist uses Pleroma software. Be warned: the site name is quite literal, and you will find extremely offensive material.

Whoa, what happened there? Same Fediverse, but viewed from two different sites, with two different usage policies and two different user communities. It is common for "free speech" sites to attract people who enjoy being really offensive.

But maybe you want that sort of freedom. I'm not going to judge, but here's a practical issue to consider. A lot of the more-tightly-moderated Fediverse sites block access to "free speech" sites. So you can say what you want, but a lot of people won't ever hear you — because they've intentionally chosen a site that blocks yours.

Let's look at the public streams on a few more sites:

  • zotum.net runs Hubzilla software, which looks superficially like Facebook but has a bunch of extra features.
  • scicomm.xyz is a Mastodon-based site for "scientists, science students, science communicators, future-scientists, or anyone with a rational mindset".
  • Bloggers might be interested in Write Freely, which is designed for longer articles. An example is at Paper.wf.
  • Tired of words? Tanuki Tunes is a music-sharing Fediverse site, running on Funkwhale.
  • For videos, check out PeerTube-based sites such as PeerTube(LIVE).

Honorable mention to diaspora*, which is technically part of the Fediverse but doesn't support the aforementioned "ActivityPub" language for communicating with non-diaspora* sites:

  • Diaspora Europe's homepage will let you sample recent posts on popular topics.

Not for everyone, but maybe for you?

If the Fediverse looks interesting, I hope you'll check it out. My own home page is currently at zap.dog/channel/billstatler (from some services such as Mastodon, you would find this under the address @billstatler@zap.dog).

Thanks for reading!