Something went sour on social media, and it became clear when billionaire Elon Musk took over the microblogging platform Twitter. His moves like firing engineers and teams who worked on ethical matters led to technical issues, a rise in discriminatory policies, denial of scientific achievements and intensified hate speech.
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter initiated a mass departure when Twitter Quitters decided to look for a new home on the world wide web. Hundreds of people switched from Twitter to Mastodon, a German open source solution. Even though not brand new, it has been in the making since 2016, and it represents just one drop in the ocean of a bigger idea known as Fediverse.
Fediverse is a group of interconnected servers that mutually communicate and are used for posting different forms of content. They allow installing different software solutions (design and features included) that offer an alternative to monopolistic centrally governed social media.
How Fediverse works is best explained by breaking down the shortcomings of commercial social media. Imagine you can create just a Facebook account that allows you to comment on YouTube and Instagram, like on Twitter or write on Reddit. Of course, this is impossible. These platforms don’t share the same owner and they all have policies in place that require you to register with an account to let you interact.
Fediverse does not work like that. If you create an account on a Mastodon server, you can communicate with the server that hosts Freindica (Facebook’s counterpart), Peertube (YouTube’s counterpart), Pixelfed (Instagram’s counterpart), Lemmy (Reddit’s counterpart) or any other software as long as the servers are not blocking one another. To put it simply, you only need one account for Fediverse, unless you wish to use specific modules of different software solutions.
There are thousands of Mastodon servers, which means there is no centralized governance that hovers over. The servers (also called instances) are most commonly organized by interests, regions and languages. Even though some people like general instances like mastodon.social, others enjoy smaller communities where everybody knows everybody.
Clawing our way out of the algorithm game
Algorithms as we know them from traditional social media do not exist here. On Fediverse, it can depend on the server, the software, but as a whole, it is clean and clear and serves the community on the aforementioned instances without a central governance figure whose aim is to make money. A chronologically organized feed and hashtag-based search take precedence. Most instances and software disable search by text, which drastically reduces the likelihood of trolling and threats. The direct communication model was also embraced by the German and Dutch governments, which created their own Mastodon servers.
Evan Prodromou is one of Fediverse's most notable names. As a developer and advocate of open source principles, Prodromou is the co-creator of ActivityPub, the protocol which powers the most important Fediverse solutions like Mastodon and Lemmy.
ActivtyPub is a powerful idea still in the making, but its significance has caught the eye of the greatest. Mozilla and WordPress already enabled ActivityPub, and Tumblr also announced that they were working on a plugin. The biggest news, however, was Meta’s announcement to make their new platform Threads (Twitter’s direct competitor) compatible with ActivityPub. When and how is still unknown.
“One of the things we did in creating ActivityPub was to make the protocol easily extensible, meaning people could add different ways of working with it, without breaking existing software. I hope to see more creative use of the protocol for doing other kinds of social interactions than microblogging and image sharing. I am particularly interested in using it for games, location-based networking, shared music and live videos” says Prodromou.
Another open source enthusiast we talked to was an early employee of Hootsuite and his name is Chris Trottier. He is one of the most vocal persons on decentralized platforms, and currently, he is working on Calckey, an alternative to Mastodon just with more features and projects like Spacehost, GreatApe and Starseed. Trottier does not hide the fact that Fediverse has its shortcomings, but he also emphasizes that he understands why the current version is appealing to people.
“To be blunt, most Fediverse software is in its infancy and is nowhere near being usable for most consumers. However, people seem to be willing to forgive its shortcomings because what they want is a software that can’t be taken away from them on a lark” says Trottier.
To be fair, it is really difficult to suppress someone on Fediverse. There is so much freedom. In fact, you can create your own server and be the sole user on it. No one can shut you down and you can see all other servers and users unless you blocked each other.
Does this mean that everyone can do what they want? Absolutely not. Users are aware that how they choose to express themselves is the basis of a decent conversation. If you don’t show common decency, your account can be blocked, including at the server level. Tags like #fediblock are additionally available to users so they can pinpoint the ones that stir up conflict. The everyone-can-check-everyone order forms naturally, and it works similar to how open source users can analyze code and check it for errors.
“The benefits of self-hosting are that you have your own space on Fediverse. You get to use your own domain, moderate as you like, customize it as you like, and even more importantly, no one can take your space away from you because you own it“ says Trottier, who is working on Spacehost, a project which is about to enter closed beta and enable users to create a Fediverse server with their preferred software.
Trottier believes that Fediverse will have the same effect the email had. Does this mean the end of social media as we know it?
“It will change how you and I interact. It won’t necessarily kill corporate social media, but it will likely kill the notion that a social media network effect (and social graph) can be owned by one entity.” explains Trottier.
Prodromou and Trottier believe that trying to make Fediverse visible and retain users is the next big mission. Based on the data from FediDB.org, Fediverse surpassed 10 million users in July, but the monthly number of active users is significantly lower, approximately above 2 million.
“Fediverse’s draw isn’t so much about what it is now but what it will become in the future. Not everyone likes this, as some folks prefer mature products. But, for those willing to experiment, it’s incredibly empowering to use social media that can be truly your own” says Trottier.
“The biggest issue with retaining people on a social network is if there are interesting people there and interesting things to see and do. So, we need to do a better job of onboarding people to the network. Once you have a Mastodon account, we need to help you connect with people you already know — friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, as well as content creators who make great photos, write jokes or make videos. That’s not easy right now, so people really have to be motivated to keep going with Mastodon. We need to balance being able to find people on the social web with protecting privacy“ says Prodromou.
Even though the Fediverse community counts authors like Neil Gaiman, actors like Stephen Fry and activists like Greta Thunberg, its glory comes from having a significant number of scientists, professors and artists as members. That Fediverse is more about quality than quantity was also confirmed by Thomas Leister, the admin of metalhead.club for heavy metal fans on Mastodon. Leister runs it with two more co-admins and he describes the server community as “full of respect and amicable.” Since the server is based in Germany, users are to adhere to German laws. Those rules are pretty much basic: no pornography, racism or extreme political content. Creating additional bots is forbidden and Thomas emphasized that using content from metalhead.club for AI training is not allowed.
Despite having more than 5,000 registered users on metalhead.club, only around 1/5 is active (1,049 users active as of 6 June 2023). They like, post and boost (Mastodon’s term for retweet) and are always willing to help with donations at Thomas’ request. The last big successful action was buying a faster server and it was almost completely funded out of user donations. The trust Leister enjoys was earned through working hard, transparently publishing costs and investments and communicating with the community. Self-started charity initiatives are all over Fediverse. The GoFundMe campaign of The Texas Observer was an over-night success thanks to the activity of the Mastodon community. A total of $300,000 was raised to prevent the termination of the staff at this 68-year old liberal independent Texas newspaper. The journalists kept their jobs, gained a new audience and got back to writing and publishing.
Fediverse in our local community
Due to its structure, no one can tell for sure how many software users there are in our region. We can only assume that if Fediverse caused a minor explosion across the globe, it must have flown off the handle in the hilly Balkans. Branko Kokanović started the first Mastodon instance in the Balkans, balkan.fedive.rs, that had 135 registered users in the moment of writing this article.
“I could make it about big reasons or deep beliefs and ideologies, but the truth is that I realized that Fediverse in Serbian spelling ends with the letters rs, which is also Serbia’s domain, and I decided to buy the domain fedive.rs. There are a lot of people from the Balkans on Fediverse, but we don’t know the exact number due to the platform’s nature, and I do not have the urge to get them all together under this instance” says Kokanović. Kokanović left us with the impression that letting the Balkan instance evolve organically is probably the best.
“I am not going around convincing people to join Fediverse, just like I did not persuade people that Megadeth was a cool band when I was a teenager, but I did list our Fediverse instance in all the places where Fediverse instances are browsed for, so anyone who is looking can find it. It has to come from the user, not from me” says Kokanović.
One of the more recent Mastodon apps, Trunks Social, is the work of Adnan Begović, a software engineer who was the frameworks team lead at Cyanogen and maintained popular Android ROMs Cyanogenmod/LineageOS. Trunks Social has a web, Android and iOS app in different development phases.
“Trunks Social is just a hobby project to work out the potential capabilities of Flutter. I also just like to keep busy with my time - I can't stand to watch TV, so my mind and my fingers have to be moving. The reason I became involved in the community itself is because I wanted a better experience for Mastodon after moving over from less welcoming products” says Begović.
The Trunks Social creator lives in the USA. He moved there as a refugee and the negative experience shaped who he is today. He is not looking for donations for Trunk Social but rather asks users to help other refugees by donating to Welcome.us. “I don't really care to make money on the project. If things ever get beyond the scope of my wants, I'll give it up, either to another person or an organization” says Begović.
David and Goliath: Fediverse and Meta
If Fediverse wants to grow, it will have to address burning “issues”- issues being in quotes here because a lot of it is relative.
The first one is that the modern user is used to getting everything they want in seconds and in the easiest way possible. The additional step like picking a server during registration is discouraging enough for the average user who does not understand that freedom requires being actively involved in the process, not just clicking.
On the other hand, Fediverse is not centralized, so identity theft is a possibility. There is no universal solution to this except that users create servers with recognizable domain names which would prove their authenticity. When it comes to Mastodon, they can even verify their profile by adding the rel=me attribute on their website and connect their profile to their website.
In the end, disagreement and fear within the Fediverse community when we talk about bringing in mega corporations into the Fediverse. While some consider that Meta and Threads should be accepted, others advocate for blocking Meta servers by default.
“The only thing you can do about Meta coming along is to decide on the terms on how you interact with them. Personally, I don’t welcome Meta. Not that it matters, because Meta will simply come. However, I welcome people that come to Fediverse from Meta. It’s important that people who come from Meta see Fediverse and see past their walled gardens” says Chris Trottier.
A long way is ahead of us
The technological progress of ActivityPub and Fediverse solutions is based on the rising need of the community to show more compassion through more meaningful human-to-human communication.
Billionaires are buying out social media to turn them into playgrounds of their own ego games, while they serve us algorithms that value conflict over solutions for profit purposes. People became a product and their data are being ruthlessly traded.
Such a future seems exhausting, and the only remedy is starting over. When we talk about Fediverse, we are not only talking about software solutions, but ideas that were both neglected and actively suppressed for too long in the digital space. Maybe one of the biggest lessons that need to be learned is that Fediverse is an alternative in a real sense, not a successor. Mastodon can look like Twitter, but it should in no way become Twitter 2.0. Most communities on Fediverse practice self-organization, mental hygiene and common human decency - and that’s exactly what we desperately need on social media these days.
Note: After publishing this issue of ++Mag, the Calckey development team announced a rebrand of their software. In this article, they are referred to by their old name since the information was not known at the time of publishing.