Decentralized Social Media for Human Beings | #socialmedia


For the last two decades, social media has been the arena into which thoughts are thrown — open to inspection by friends, family, colleagues, and the wider world. Facebook and Twitter have long dominated the sphere, although newer platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat are immensely popular among younger users.

Despite their popularity, all of these companies have huge problems, especially when it comes to privacy and surveillance. Instagram and Facebook, in particular, seem to encourage users to become the worst version of themselves, with abuse and threats a regular occurrence.

Facebook’s privacy issues are no secret. From data leaks and tracking to spying on users through their cameras, Facebook is perhaps one of the worst platforms for upholding privacy. And Twitter is no better. Most notably, Twitter used phone numbers and email addresses to target people with advertising, despite users only giving these email addresses for security purposes.

But patchy privacy isn’t the only issue. Traditional social media platforms force you to hold separate accounts for every platform you use, which is annoying if nothing else. Wouldn’t it be better to have one seamless account that gives you access to all social media platforms in one place and actually keeps you private?

Introducing — the Fediverse.

The Fediverse is Your Alternative Social Media Platform 

If you were paying attention during the last US election, you may have noticed a number of so-called ‘alternative’ social media platforms. People dissatisfied with moderation policies on mainstream services flocked to offerings such as “Gab”, while former President Trump is currently planning his own social media platform called “Truth Social”.

The technology behind Gab and Truth Social isn’t new; both platforms are built with ActivityPub protocols using open-source code, which means that the software can be modified, distributed, copied, and contributed to by anyone.

Gab and Truth Social may be the most obvious and well-known platforms built using ActivityPub, but there are many more. In fact, there are thousands of independent social media platforms with millions of users, making up a huge social media landscape known as the “Fediverse”.

While there are some general interest Fediverse servers, most are dedicated to specific  interests where users can express themselves as part of a group; they can easily talk to others who may have common experiences, backgrounds, or philosophical viewpoints.

In the Fediverse, there are platforms dedicated to anime and anarchy, particular cities and countries, adult material, and technology (to name a few).

By default, users on any Fediverse server (known as “instances”) can interact with users on any other instance. So, just because you prefer to surround yourself with furry enthusiasts, doesn’t mean you can’t also follow people who like to discuss radical feminism or violent anarchy.

While I run my own single-user instance, I’m also able to follow my colleague — Glyn Moody — who has an account on mastodon.social. This is one of the larger instances, with more than 600,000 users.

The reason why I can follow and engage with users on different platforms with varying rules, character limits, and moderation policies is because of “federation”; this means that individual instances allow connection to, and interaction with, other instances.

The Fediverse is decentralized and has no central point of control, so if one platform is taken down, the rest of the Fediverse survives. It’s also impossible to ban someone from the entire network — they can set up an account on a different server (or create their own) and take their followers with them.

My own single-user instance federates with around 300 others

Individual admins can completely block communication between their server and other servers in the Fediverse; this is known as “defederation”, which is usually initiated for privacy purposes or philosophical differences.

To discover more about the Fediverse and why anyone would choose to take on the responsibility of running their own platform, we reached out to Kev Quirk, who is co-admin of Fosstodon — a mid-sized instance with 20,000 users, loosely based around open-source software. We wanted to find out what drove him and fellow co-admin Mike Stone to found a successful social media service, and what it takes to keep it running.

The Fosstodon Story

PIA: Why the Fediverse, and why an instance focused on free and open-source software (FOSS)?

KQ: Mike and I knew each other from Google+, which was our primary social network for quite some time. We were both interested in Linux and open source, so we ended up chatting fairly often; we got to know each other pretty well over the years. Anyway, Google announced that they were shutting G+ down (shock horror) and I posted on my G+ account asking whether anyone knew of any alternatives.

Mike had heard of this fledgling Twitter clone called “Mastodon”; it was open source, which tugged at our heart strings. The whole decentralized thing didn’t really play into it at the time — we just wanted something that wasn’t mainstream.

I signed up for an account on mastodon.technology (I think) and was pretty impressed. I had some good interactions, but it was general tech, not open-source focused. I DM’d Mike saying that there were no open-source-focused instances that I could find and, knowing he was a SysAdmin, would he fancy starting one with me. He said yeah, [so] I came up with the name and the rest is history.

I distinctly remember us saying, “If we get 100 members, that would be brilliant!” Little did we know we would end up becoming one of the biggest tech-focused (not just open-source-focused) instances on the Fediverse!

PIA: How much of your time does Fosstodon take up? What are your other time commitments?

KQ: Mike and I both have families and full-time jobs. So, we made the decision right from the start that we wouldn’t self-host. I’d heard of Masto.Host — again another fledgling company at the time, so we decided to give them a shot. That proved to be a great decision — Hugo, the guy who runs Masto.host is brilliant. The uptime and performance are exceptional, and five years on, Mike and I have a great relationship with him.

Hosting with Hugo saves us a ton of time and allows us to focus on the community instead of the servers, which is exactly what we wanted. We also have a few mods that help with approving accounts and dealing with reports. All in all, I’d say I spend around 3-4 hours a week dealing with admin stuff relating to Fosstodon. [It’s] really not that much in the grand scheme of things, which is why I think we’ve been successful. As admins, Mike and I are very active in the community, which helps.

PIA: One of the selling points of the Fediverse is that it is ‘free’. What do you understand this to mean?

KQ: Free has a number of connotations to me. Free as in beer — i.e. something doesn’t cost any money. And free as in freedom — our users are free to move to another instance and we won’t hold their data hostage. They’re also free from any kind of tracking.

To me, the latter is far more important. I’m happy to pay for a service that offers me freedom, as long as I think it’s value for money. Fosstodon is free in both senses of the word, though.

We are supported by Patreon donations from our members, so Fosstodon isn’t free (as in beer) for some of our members, but I hope they get value from it. Both Mike and I donate financially to the project, too. Side note: Any spare funds we have over and above our hosting charges are pooled and we run regular donations to open-source projects that our community chooses. So far we have donated $1,750 to open-source projects, [which is] something the team and I are VERY proud of.

PIA: Is Fosstodon de-federated from other instances? Why?

KQ: Yeah, we have de-federated with a number of instances — mainly for spam, NSFW content, or content we deem inappropriate, like far-left-or-right politics, etc. We make no secret of the fact that Fosstodon isn’t a ‘freedom of speech’ space; it’s all in our Code of Conduct

We also have a list of de-federated instances here

PIA: How do you deal with spam?

KQ: Spam is a major problem on the Fediverse. Honestly, Mastodon leaves a lot to be desired in this space. Around a year ago, when we were at ~15k users, we decided to close our doors and have an approvals process for all new accounts. We ask every new member who signs up to give us a reason why they want to join. If there’s any ambiguity in their reasoning, we don’t approve. [It] sounds quite cut throat, but it’s worked so far. The number of reports we deal with has plummeted, and we’re highly regarded in our community as being a safe space.

PIA: Is the Fediverse right for everyone? Should everyone join an instance and would you want them to?

KQ: No, I don’t think it is, unfortunately. It’s a niche social network and a very complicated one, too. The concept of instance and federation is a difficult one to wrap your head around. I wrote a post on how it all works, and we have a bot who sends a DM to new users with those details (and some other links) to try and lower that learning curve. Here’s the post if you’re interested: https://kevq.uk/how-does-mastodon-work/

Once you become accustomed to how Mastodon and the Fediverse works, it’s not difficult, but I don’t think many people will have the inclination to learn, which is fine.

PIA: FOSS is in the name, but how does Fosstodon actually support FOSS?

KQ: I mentioned this earlier — we donate any excess funds to open-source projects.

PIA: Web3 is supposedly the coming thing. Do you have an opinion on this?

KQ: Goodness me; yes I do! I’m not sure they will be suitable for publication on the PIA blog, though! I wrote a manifesto about Web 1.0 and Web3. It’s very much NSFW, though, so I won’t provide a link here. I’ll sum my opinion on Web3 up as the following: it’s an utter farce, and if Zuckerberg is paving the way for this whole thing, it’s doomed to become a dangerous farce. #DeleteFacebook

PIA: Fosstodon has just under 20k users and still has registration open. Will you allow it to grow indefinitely?

KQ: We’ve discussed this as a team a number of times actually, especially when we took the decision to require approval to sign up. We decided we wouldn’t limit the amount of members for the foreseeable future. Personally, though, I prefer smaller networks than massive Goliaths, so we may close registration if we feel the community has become too big, but we have no plans to do that any time soon. The project is well funded, so we can continue to grow for some time to come yet.

PIA: Is there anything else you want to add?

KQ: Nothing about Fosstodon, but I did want to mention that I’ve been a happy PIA customer for a few years now. I just wanted to say thanks for running a great service!

The Fediverse Can Replace All Your Social Media

One of the factors that makes Fosstodon such a success is the human aspect. Accounts need to be manually approved, and the instance is small enough for moderation to be carried out by a real human volunteer, rather than by algorithm or by an overworked team of traumatized gig workers. 

On Twitter, 97% of accounts reported for direct misogynist abuse — including racist comments and death threats — remained active after 48 hours. Facebook figures are similarly disheartening, with the company failing to act on at least 89% of all reported anti-semitic posts. Such appalling numbers are unthinkable on Fosstodon.

“Our Code of Conduct is very clear on all this, and honestly, we really don’t see much of that here in Fosstodon,” says Kev. “But the few times it has happened, the community are quick to flag it and we don’t mess around with warnings — we ban [users] immediately. It’s extremely rare for a report to be open more than 24hrs.”

The thriving community on Fosstodon depends on the conversation between users on the platform itself and on other instances. Different instances are founded with different purposes in mind. Fosstodon runs on Mastodon software, which gives it a Twitter-like feel. Instances such as “spinster.xyz” run on Soapbox, which gives an experience more akin to Facebook.

These are far from the only Fediverse back-ends. The ActivityPub protocol allows for a huge range of functionality that can replicate or imitate the experience of a variety of platforms. These platforms are usually tailored to deal with a particular kind of media, such as photos, videos, or audio.

Here are some of my favorites:

Pixelfed 

Positioned as an alternative to Instagram and other image sharing apps, Pixelfed powers 180 instances — the largest of which is pixelfed.social with 65,000 users.

Images can be easily uploaded via the mobile app or through the instance website. The app supports multiple accounts, and, of course, you can apply a range of filters and other image manipulation tools before submitting your selfies and cat photos for the approval of the Fediverse.

Pixelfed instances are home to more than just cat pictures.

As Pixelfed instances are image oriented, you’ll initially be exposed to photos from members on the same instance. However, you can follow and see updates from users on other Pixelfed instances, as well as from the Fediverse at large.

BitTube

BitTube is a video hosting platform offering a similar experience to YouTube. Videos can be easily uploaded to the instance, shared within the Fediverse, and viewed by those outside it.

Here’s how the BitTube creators describe it: “BitTube is a blockchain based video streaming platform using P2P (BitTorrent) directly in the web browser with WebTorrent and Airtime reward system where users earn TUBE cryptocurrency.”

BitTube is a competent, federated video streaming platform similar to YouTube.

BitTube offers a range of desktop and mobile apps.

Lemmy

Lemmy is a link aggregator similar to Reddit or Hacker News. You can participate in ‘communities’ similar to subreddits, and can either submit text posts or links to news stories. Posts can be upvoted or downvoted by users on any Lemmy instance, but not by anyone on different instance types in the wider Fediverse.

The Lemmy interface is instantly recognizable to Reddit users.

Is the Fediverse Right for You?

The instances I’ve highlighted are simply here to give a sample of each software type and an example of which instances to visit. In reality, there are tens, hundreds, or thousands of instances using either Mastodon, Lemmy, Pixelfed, or BitTube. It doesn’t matter which one you pick, as the entirety of the Fediverse is accessible from each one.

Instances are easy to find through fedidb.org, and each instance has its own account creation policy, code of conduct, and theme.

It’s also relatively simple to host your own Instance at home. If you already have a Nextcloud server, you’ll find that it has a ready-to-go Fediverse server available in the form of Nextcloud social.

The Fediverse isn’t for everyone. The fact that Facebook still has an estimated 2 billion daily active users indicates that many people are quite happy with the wobbly privacy of the most popular social networks.

But if you yearn for a decentralized social media experience based around shared interests, where you aren’t subjected to surveillance capitalism, the Fediverse is a great place to start.

Featured image Credit Alex Gleason | CC-BY-SA 4.0

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