What are federeted social networks and the Fediverse?
Date: 7/24/2022. Last edited: 7/26/2022. By: David Luna
An introduction to the Fediverse
The term Fediverse (“federation” + “universe”) refers to a set of protocols and social networks built on top of them. These projects can be seen as alternatives to mainstream social networks, which usually are isolated and have no interoperability. In the traditional way of using social media, users from one site cannot communicate with the users of another unless they create different profiles in all available platforms. For example, a Facebook user can’t answer a tweet without first opening the Twitter app and logging in.
In contrast to traditional social media, the projects found in the Fediverse can interact with each other by default if they support the appropriate protocols. This decentralization is the core of the Fediverse and distinguishes it from other platforms. Opposite from the previous example, in the Fediverse a Mastodon 1 user can follow a Pixelfed 2 account and view all the new posts of that account from their Mastodon timeline, since they both use the ActivityPub protocol.
Another key difference is that instead of having a single instance where all moderation and content is controlled by a single entity, usually a company, these alternatives promote having smaller instances that can communicate with each other. In the case of Mastodon, users from mstdn.social can see and interact with the posts from mastodon.online , since both of these instances federate with each other.
What does federation mean?
The federation in the Fediverse refers to how different instances can communicate with each other. An instance is a server that allows users to use the social network. For example, twitter.com is a Twitter instance.
This works much like e-mail, where the account me@my_university.edu can send e-mails to other people with accounts in some other server, like you@your_work_account.com . In this case, instance A would be my_university.edu and B would be your_work_account.com . In this sense, e-mail works using federation for communication, and the Fediverse does too. Instead of having a single instance that is responsible for having all e-mail accounts in the world, users can choose to use the service provider they prefer using whatever criteria they find most important. This is not the case in traditional social media, where the only option to use Facebook or any other platform is to register using their app or website.
Another important concept of federation is that rules can be established and communication can be selective. For example, your work may have some e-mail addresses it would like to ignore all correspondence from, be it to avoid spam or phishing. This rule, however, does not apply for the rest of the e-mail servers in the world. It’s up to each instance’s administration team to decide which rules are most important for their server. In the same way as the previous example, an administrator from a given instance may set a rule that forbids sharing spam or certain content, and any other instance that does not abide by these rules won’t be considered when federating, thus their content would be ignored.
It’s all about freedom
Projects in the Fediverse are developed using libre software and distributed using the same kind of licenses. With this kind of approach to development users are free to understand how each platform works by reading the project’s source code if they wish. Each person can even contribute new features or fix bugs if they have the required technical knowledge. This kind of freedom is something that doesn’t exist in propietary platforms. Bugs may be reported or a new functionality requested but all of this may be ignored due to it not being a priority to the company that owns the platform.
Projects in the Fediverse have no obligation to drive up engagement for the sake of profit, since most instances are run by hobbyist part of the community. This lack of an obscure algorithm that optimizes for user retention means that people can navigate without having all of their interactions with the platform being observed and analyzed in order to sell a product.
There’s also the fact that advertising is simply not a thing in the Fediverse like on other social networks. Users don’t have to worry about having their feeds full of spam with irrelevant ads, or worse, ads that are too relevant because the social network is spying on them. Even if someone tries to introduce advertising in their instance, users are free to take the application’s source code and run their own ad-free instance.
In general, the federation brings benefits that are not available in traditional social media. For example, since the Fediverse doesn’t rely on a single company to handle all infrastructure behind each instance, an outage in one instance doesn’t affect the others in the network. Another example is that each administration team can block instances that don’t have rules or simpli allow unwanted content. Even if no instance doesn’t meet someone’s desired rules, everyone is free to create their own.
All of this is a drastic change when compared to traditional platforms that establish rules based on what’s more friendly to advertisers, or that seek to amass a large userbase so they can sell their time as a product to advertising companies. In the Fediverse users have the freedom to establish their own rules and moderate however they see fair, instaed of accepting decisionas made by a company that has no incentives to hear feedback from their users.
Alternatives to mainstream platforms
Most mainstream social networks already have alternatives used by thousands of users all around the globe. Here a non-extensive list of some big projects:
- If you’re using Facebook, you can try Diaspora or Friendica .
- If you’re using Instagram, you can try Pixelfed .
- If you’re using Reddit, you can try Lemmy .
- If you’re using Spotify, SoundCloud or BandCamp, you can try Funkwhale .
- If you’re using Twitter, you can try Mastodon or Pleroma .
- If you’re using YouTube, you can try PeerTube .
- If you’re using Goodreads, you can try Bookwyrm .
Getting started with the Fediverse
To get started with the Fediverse, you can follow these steps:
- From the previous list, choose a platform you would like to try.
- Browse the available instances for that platform. Here are some suggestions for the instances that I myself use:
- Create an account in the instance you chose.
- Start enjoying the Fediverse.
Getting used to these platforms may have a small learning curve, since in some ways they are different to what most are used to, but given enough time and usage it’s easy to understand them.
Helpful accounts in the Fediverse
These are some accounts I find especially helpful to navigate the Fediverse more easily and learn more about it:
- @FediFollows@mastodon.online : recommendations for interesting accounts to follow.
- @firstname.lastname@example.org : tips about the usage of Mastodon and the Fediverse.
- @FediVideos@mas.to : recommendations of interesting videos and livestreams.
Some other resources to look into
- Fediverse.party : a site to explore different networks and protocols used in the Fediverse.