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Understanding Mastodon, the Fediverse, and why you should migrate from Twitter

The Fediverse is an incredibly good idea that should seem pretty obvious to anyone who has ever made a phone call, driven on roads, mailed a letter, sent an email, or browsed the web; decentralized, federated systems are stronger, fairer, and more sustainable than centralized dictatorships. That’s exactly what the Fediverse is except instead of decentralized groups of post offices in every country, the Fediverse is a collection of decentralized little social networks installed on different servers throughout the internet. You know, kind of like the actual internet; a ton of decentralized computers connected to each other. 

Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, etc. are all centralized platforms just like dictatorships. Being on Twitter is like working at a cotton plantation in 1865; it’s nice to have food and shelter and a job, but the boss in the big house with all the money makes all decisions for you and profits off of the things you do.  Wouldn’t you rather have a more equitable form of social networking? Keep reading for a better explanation of how the Fediverse works.

What is Mastodon?

People who have just heard about Mastodon on Twitter and in the news seem to not quite understand what it is. They’re referring to it as if it’s its own new centralized social network, but that’s not it at all.  Mastodon is just one type of social network server software that can join the Fediverse. It’s like WordPress on the web… something you install on a web server, but you don’t have to install WordPress to have a website on the web, you can make a website in tons of other ways and still be on the web and visible by any web browser by any person on the internet. By the way, it’s also possible to make WordPress sites part of the Fediverse with a plug-in, but we’ll get to that later.

Another analogy would be that Mastodon is a type of car. You can drive it on all of the roads and go anywhere anyone else can go, but it’s not the only type of car on the roads. It is a good type, but there are others. How would you like it if Elon Musk was in charge of creating all roads and deciding which car you were allowed to drive? That’s what Twitter is like now.

What is the Fediverse?

The easiest way to describe the Fediverse is that it’s a network of social networks. All of the little social networks use the ActivityPub standard to enable people on each little social network to publicly communicate with people on any of the other little social networks. (You can learn more about ActivityPub here.) It’s a “Federated Universe” of small social networks that connect together to form a large social network full of diverse technology and non-segregated communications. Think of them as communities; some can be insular, some can be open.

A good analogy is email. You can choose any email provider you want and you’ll be able to send messages to anyone on any other email provider anywhere in the world (and in space, too.)  You can choose any email client program you want. You can choose any email server software you want. You can make your own. As long as it all follows the open-source decentralized email standard rules, you can communicate with all of the other servers and people also using those standards.  The big difference is that the messages (posts and replies) on the Fediverse are all public for everyone to see because that’s what social networks are.

This Federated Universe of social networks has been in development for years. I’ve written about it numerous times on Pocketnow. The reason it started so long ago is because intelligent people know that centralized systems like Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, etc. are not designed for sustainability. They’re designed to grow a userbase and then start abusing that userbase for profit and control as much as possible. Eventually, centralized entities will become destructive and self-serving.

People always eventually realize the disadvantages of dictatorships like this and will revolt for something more democratic and fair. A system where society as a whole gets together, agrees on a certain set of rules, and says, “Hey, lets try not to screw each other over,” is a much better idea than putting one person in charge of everything.  The ability for anyone to participate equally is what the Fediverse is about.

Twitter’s Mass Exodus called “Elongate”

Earlier this month Elon Musk took over at Twitter. He bought the company for $44 billion without doing any due diligence at all, then fired about 50% of the staff, and has said he will be charging $20 or $8 per month for the little blue checkmark icon to be shown next to your name. This has caused a total mess at Twitter, not only within the company but among its users.  Elon is changing the rules just about every day. As soon as people could just buy fake blue checkmarks, they started making parody accounts about Elon Musk. He didn’t like that and changed the rules again. Celebrity comedian Kathy Griffin (now on the Fediverse here) and others were banned from Twitter because of the jokes.

The science, pandemic, and academia Twitter users were among the first to migrate to the Fediverse en-masse when Elon took over, and the migration numbers have been increasing since then.

Back in April, when Elon Musk was still thinking about buying Twitter, I suggested he make a Fediverse instance instead. Now everyone else is doing it!

The huge increase in users joining the Fediverse has caused many servers to be overwhelmed. Now some parts of the Fediverse have to handle over 100,000 new users per day.

Graph Source

Graph Source

How to join the Fediverse

There are two basic ways you can join the Fediverse:

  1. Find a server (instance) that’s accepting new users and sign up
  2. Make your own server (instance)

The first option is exactly as easy as signing up for Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or TIkTok or anything else, except that it will probably require less personal information since just about all instances on the Fediverse are not trying to use your communications data to profit off of you.

Yes, you do have to figure out which instance you want to join though, but this is not much different from going to the Twitter website or the Facebook website; you choose which one to sign up for (or you do both.)  The big difference is that you have the privilege of having more choices and that’s a really good thing. You can choose one that’s made for scientists, or human computer interaction researchers, or academia, etc.  If you like Mastodon, there’s a questionnaire site here that will help you choose an instance to join.

Types of instances

But wait, before you find a Mastodon instance, let me tell you about all of the other types of Fediverse instances!  Don’t forget that whichever Fediverse platform you choose, you can follow and interact with people on other platforms and other instances. Of course, you can sign up for more than one instance if you want, too.

  • Mastodon is very similar to Twitter. This is why many are flocking to it.
  • PixelFed is very similar to Instagram before Instagram added TikTok and OnlyFans style features. It’s like the old Instagram where people shared pictures and could comment on them.
  • PeerTube is very similar to YouTube, but you don’t have to bend to the rules of Google and worry about demonetization of the account. Also see: Web Monetization in PeerTube
  • Funkwhale is a music sharing platform like SoundCloud.
  • Friendica is similar to Facebook with posts, photo galleries, and events.

But wait, there’s a lot more! Check out this list of other platforms compatible with the Fediverse. You’ll see software there that can turn WordPress or Drupal sites into Fediverse instances, too. Fediverse.party is another good place to find information on other instances.

There’s nothing stopping anyone from developing other platforms that use the ActivityPub standard to communicate with the Fediverse either. Twitter could federate if it wanted to. Facebook could do it. LinkedIn or YouTube could do it. They probably won’t because tech freedom for the people is not what they want. 

Make your own instance

There are a couple disadvantages to joining someone else’s Fediverse instance: 1. You have to find one that you like, and 2. You’ll have to follow the rules of the person or business who made the instance. So, if you want to make your own instance and make your own rules and own all of your own data, everyone on the Fediverse will 100% welcome that (unless you’re doing really bad things like promoting genocide, racism, etc. and then many of the other Fediverse instances will probably block your instance). 

So why not make your own?  It’s not that difficult and might take an hour or so, but you’ll need to set up a server in your house or in a cloud-hosting provider, and you’ll have to buy a domain name to use with it. So it’s not really free, but if you’re only going to have a few people using your instance, it can be very inexpensive. If you want to have a million people on your instance, you’re going to have to spend more on a fast servers, fast internet, electricity, and maybe hire some people to help, but it will still be cheaper than $44bn.

You can rent a managed instance. This is just like paying a web hosting provider to host your website. You get all of the control for making it do what you want, but someone else is running the hardware, internet, and power. There are a number of businesses out there now that offer this service. You can see a small list on the Join the Fediverse Wiki. Hosting prices can be as low as 4 Euros per month. 

You can rent a cloud hosted server and install an instance yourself. This is more difficult than renting a managed instance, but it’s cheaper and more flexible. It’s not that difficult either. Here are some instructions also on the JoinFediverse Wiki. Basically, you buy a cloud server from someplace like Hetzner, point a domain to it with DNS, install Yunohost software, and then install the platform software of your choice. The same process can obviously be followed if you have a Linux server in your home or business and you know how to install software on it.

How does moderation work?

That’s a good question. Big social networks have robots searching for keywords and banning or disciplining people as they see fit. On the Fediverse, most instances have the usual report & block functions and reports go to the user’s instance owner; an actual human. This way the owner of the instance can choose disciplinary action accordingly. You can find more details about how it works in this white paper.

How businesses should join the Fediverse

With a system as diverse and open to innovation as the Fediverse, there are plenty of opportunities for businesses, but less opportunities for abusive business practices, and that’s a good thing. It’s not going to be possible for one super rich person to buy out all of the instances around the world and turn it into a surveillance capitalism money machine like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc. do. 

In my opinion, I think businesses should each make their own Fediverse instances for employees and marketing purposes. All employees could have their own accounts that they can use to publicly post and communicate with customers. The rest of the Fediverse can choose for themselves which business instances they want to follow and communicate with. A business having a Fediverse address like “social.Microsoft.com” or “social.NYtimes.com” makes MUCH more sense than having everyone be on Twitter.  It reminds me of the old days of the internet where some businesses used AOL for email. Having an email account with your company’s actual domain name in the address ads so much more credibility and professionalism to your communications.  The same could be true with the Fediverse. 

Using Twitter for microblogging is like using AOL for the internet.

Businesses could add analytics capabilities and advertisements to ONLY their instances and only people who opt-in to following users on those business instances would be affected. This could even encourage better business practices since businesses would have to earn customers based on merits instead of just paying a massive social network system to pour advertisements onto everyone.  Businesses might start sponsoring specific Fediverse instances as well based on the audience of those instances. People who don’t like that can easily transfer themselves to a different instance. 

Fediverse Tips and Etiquette

Mastodon is very much like good old Twitter. You type some stuff, add a picture, add some hashtags, and press “post” to send it to the internet. It does have an edit button which really deletes the original post and copies it into a draft of a new post. That means any replies or boosts will be gone after an edit. 

I recommend signing up through a web browser, not an app, as this will be easier depending on which instance you choose. You might even just want to use the web app instead of a dedicated app client for a while, too.

Hashtags are important as there are no algorithms spying on the things you post and trying to feed you other content to increase engagement.  Also, the community likes it when you create a post with the hash tag, say something about yourself, and pin it to your profile. 

You can verify yourself and give your profile a nice green checkmark by creating a special link on your website (or a website) that links to your Fediverse profile and then also creating a link to that website in your Fediverse profile’s metadata fields. See the exact syntax to follow here.

Another great feature in Mastodon is the “CW” button. This stands for “Content Warning” and it’s a nice way of hiding what you write from being instantly visible in everyone’s feed. The CW button will give you a “warning” field where you can type a description of what you’re going to talk about. Then when other people see it, they’ll have to press a button to read the full post. This will be great for talking about movie and TV show spoilers! But it’s also good for talking about things that might be triggering for other people; you know, politics, GIF pronunciation, and stuff like that. 

There’s even an interface for migrating to a different server/instance. The process exports your followers and follows list and adds a badge to your old profile notifying users of the new address you’ve moved to. The process currently does not migrate your existing posts, but that feature may come in the future. 

Finding people to follow is just like Twitter but without any privacy violating contact list scraping. You have to search for the people you want to follow, but you can also look at hashtags, local timelines, the public timeline, and the follow lists of other people you already follow. There are also directory lists that you can import in order to follow a huge number of people all at once. Take a look at Trunk for the Fediverse (communitywiki.org), and Fedi.Directory for things like that.

This Debirdify (pruvisto.org) tool is really helpful in finding people to follow too. It can scrape your list of follows on Twitter and try to recognize Fediverse addresses in the profiles of people you follow. Then it will create a CSV file which you can import into Mastodon so you can instantly follow a large number of people that you were following on Twitter. 

Conclusion

I’ve been on the Fediverse for some years now, and it has become a really fascinating place ever since all of the intelligent people on Twitter started switching over. I’m really enjoying the instance I signed up for in 2019. See: Librem One is a new privacy & freedom focused software suite for your smartphone.  It’s a fork of Mastodon where Purism made some modifications like removing the local timeline, public timeline, and direct messaging. 

The diverse ecosystem of the Fediverse is really amazing. Diversity in tech is very important for sustainability and growth. The good software will become more popular organically, but the allowance for anyone to innovate within the system remains. By allowing anyone to contribute equally, the Fediverse is surely going to be a lasting network of social networks. 

Further Reading

By Adam Z. Lein

Designer & web developer since the mid 1990's starting on the DEC intranet. User experience consultant since 1998. Photographer since 1995. Tech journalist since 2002.

Fediverse Profile