an introduction to the Fediverse

if you've been on the internet lately, especially around techy folks, you've probably heard a good bit about the Fediverse by now. or perhaps you haven't heard of the Fediverse at all, but you've heard a lot about Mastodon. i'm writing this blog post to have something i can direct people with common questions to, so i don't have to keep answering them over and over.

what is the Fediverse?

the Fediverse is a network of independent servers (frequently called "instances") which communicate with eachother over the ActivityPub protocol. think of it like twitter if it was shaped like email.

of course, if you're not a huge nerd, you probably do not know what half of those words meant, and couldn't actually get what that was supposed to mean. so i'm going to make things into a metaphor, with cute pictures.

if you do not like cute pictures, you can skip them by clicking here.

every instance is like a building. the big ones are like skyscrapers, with lots of different people in them. but other people have their own instances by themselves, or with only a few friends.

a tall building and a house

of course, you can share your posts to people on the same instance as you with no effort. they're on the same server, it's trivial. but what if you want to interact with someone on another instance? with traditional social media, that would be impossible. you'd have to make an account on the other one and share it manually. like going over to their house to hang out.

a tall building and a house with a person running from the tall building to the house with an envelope and arrow above the person

but with ActivityPub, you don't have to leave your instance to send posts to other instances. your posts are automatically shared to every instance with someone that follows you, and people can follow you from just about anywhere. it's like being pen pals with someone, sending letters from your house to theirs and vice versa. ActivityPub is like the postal service, sending your messages without you having to leave your digital home.

a tall building and a house with a truck driving from the tall building to the house with an envelope and arrow above the truck

the "fed" in "fediverse" is short for federated, it's the adjective to describe this sort of layout. everyone has a single instance that's their home, but they can talk to people on almost any other instance without having to worry too much about things.

to summarize what this means for the average user, here's the traits that you'll probably care about.

  • your account is tied to a single instance, meaning you have to log into the same one every time. just bookmark whatever one you use and remember it!
  • the account your instance is on doesn't matter that much from a technological perspective. however, people might judge you based off other people on the instance you're on, even if you don't know them.
  • the admins of the instance you're on control what instances they federate with. this means they can block spammers and bigots, but they might also make decisions you disagree with. make sure you trust them!

what is Mastodon?

another common confusion point comes from Mastodon in particular. when people refer to "Mastodon", they can be referring to any of three things, each of which are under the same name.

what is usually thought of as "Mastodon" by users is the Mastodon server software. the Mastodon server software is a piece of open source software. it is not truly owned by any one person or company, but it is primarily maintained by Mastodon gGmBH, and they have control over what goes into the main version of Mastodon. however, anyone can modify the software as they wish, to create their own server.

what is commonly referred to as "Mastodon" by journalists is the Mastodon corporation, Mastodon gGmbH. Mastodon gGmbH is a nonprofit corporation in Germany which oversees the development of the Mastodon server software and operates multiple flagship instances. however, they do not have direct control over the vast majority of Mastodon instances, nor the greater Fediverse, only the ones they run.

what is sometimes erroneously referred to as the "Mastodon Network" is the Fediverse as a whole. while Mastodon makes up a significant portion of the Fediverse, many people do not use Mastodon. to act as if Mastodon controls the entirety of the Fediverse is foolish, as they are only a part of the greater network.

what is defederation?

if you spend a decent amount of time on the Fediverse, you'll eventually find people arguing about "defederation" or "#FediBlock". or maybe you went to follow one of your friends that's on another instance, only to find you can't see their account at all! so what's that all about?

every instance on the Fediverse is its own separate community, and each one has different rules and moderation. while admins can ban users who misbehave on their own instance, they don't have nearly as much control over users on other instance. if an admin doesn't want to deal with another instance, they can block that instance for any reason they want.

the vast majority of these blocks are done for legitimate reasons. there are some instances out there which have little to no moderation, either due to negligence or on purpose, and blocking them is the best way to avoid having your feed filled with spam and bigotry. be grateful that your instance's admin is willing to put up with all that for you! in general, this system is a good thing to have, even if some people can abuse the power they get from it.

if you want to make sure you don't have any problems with defederation getting in the way of talking to your friends, find an instance with an admin you trust, or use whichever one your friends are on if you haven't already joined one yourself. look for an instance which publicly discloses its blocklist, and make sure it doesn't block any instances that your friends are on.

how can i join?

in order to join the Fediverse, you first have to find an instance to join. unlike a centralized platform, there isn't just one place to sign up. of course, this is a bit of added complexity, but it's not as hard as you might think.

if you already have a friend using the Fediverse, i'd recommend just joining whatever instance they're on if it has open registrations, or asking them for a recommendation. people who have been on the fediverse for a while tend to have strong opinions on their favorite instance, and will generally be happy to suggest some. i'd recommend staying away from larger instances however, as they defeat the point of decentralization. if you know someone who runs their own instance, ask them if you can join it!

if you're technically inclined, and enjoy hosting things yourself, you can run your own instance, even just for yourself. i personally run Akkoma on my own instance, but i can also recommend GoToSocial as well. you'll need a server that's exposed to the internet and can run 24/7 to host things; most admins i've met use a VPS for it. however, be warned that running your own server means you have to make all the moderation decisions yourself, which can be pretty time-consuming given all the bad people out there. so don't be ashamed if you just choose to use someone else's server too!

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