Vegard Skjefstad

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Welcome to the Fediverse

Wouldn’t it be great if you could participate on the internet without having your private data and habits sold for profit? You already can. Join the fediverse.

Imagine logging on to a social media site to discuss your anime obsession. But instead of logging on to a site owned, controlled, and monetized on by a Fortune 500 company, you log on to an instance being operated by a fellow anime fanatic in her spare time. The instance you log on to only has about 50 users, but it’s a friendly, tightly knit group of people who all share the same interest as you. No harassment, no hate-speech, no bigotry. Any bad apples not following the Code of Conduct decided by the instance administrator – “don’t be an ass” – is simply banned from participating in the discussion.

The instance you log on to is in many ways an isolated, private island. But it’s also part of a larger network consisting of hundreds of other nodes with hundreds of thousands of users. Most of the instances are owned and operated by private individuals, and together all the instances form a federation.

Welcome to the fediverse.

The Fedi-What-Now?

The fediverse is nothing new. In many ways, it resembles Usenet, a distributed discussion system. Established back in 1980, users can post and read messages to newsgroups. There is no central server, instead messages are forwarded between servers in so-called news feeds.

Wikipedia’s fediverse article attributes its birth to the creation of the identi.ca social network back in 2008. The service received more than 8,000 registrations and 19,000 updates within the first 24 hours, and reached its 1,000,000th four months later. Identi.ca stopped accepting new registrations in 2013.

One of the backbone principals of a federated network, is that the participants have to agree on a common protocol. identi.ca first used OStatus, and then later moved to pump.io. For a while, it looked like OStatus would become the de-facto federation protocol. But now, the vast majority of federated services use ActivityPub.

From Microblogging To Image Sharing.

There are many different services in the fediverse. fediverse.party has a nice overview of some of them. They range from microblogging (Mastodon) and social networks (diaspora*), to decentralized video hosting (PeerTube) and image sharing (PixelFed) .

It’s obvious what kind of well-known services they try to replace: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. This means that they copy many of the features found on the other well-known services. In PixelFed’s case, even the design looks like blatant carbon copy of its nemesis, Instagram.

Not a bad idea in terms of making potential migrants from Instagram feel at home, but a pretty bad idea in terms of potential lawsuits.

The Sky is (Not) the Limit.

The fediverse is growing, albeit slowly. There are several sites on the internet that try to keep track of the fediverse. According to them, it now has roughly 1.4 million active users. Not much, compared to Twitters 350 million active users, or Facebook’s 2.2 billion active users. But it’s a start, and the growth curve is positive. According to the 2018 report published by Fediverse Network1, the fediverse saw a 58% increase in the number of instances last year. Mastodon is the service with the majority of the growth. It gained 717 instances last year, and over 600K users joined Mastodon.

Realistically, the fediverse will probably never replace services like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. But that’s not the ultimate goal, either. Instead, it will become an alternative for people who don’t want to be a part of the surveillance capitalism.

I’m one of those people, and I’m on Mastodon; @vegardskjefstad@mastodon.social. I’ve also deleted my Facebook account, but that doesn’t mean I’ll create another account on a social media service in the fediverse. Mastodon is more than enough for me. For now.

Footnotes

  1. It’s worth noting that the Fediverse Network only started to collect data from the end of April, 2018.

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