Is the future of social media decentralized? That question might have felt absurd a few years ago, but the Fediverse challenges long-held assumptions about how social media should work.
Unlike the social networks that have risen to dominance over the past two decades, Fediverse is a decentralized collection of servers that communicate via an open protocol. The idea isn’t new, but it’s gained traction as centralized social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Tiktok become mired in controversy.
“You basically lose your entire social graph when you leave [to another social network], that’s a super high wall,” says Tim Chambers, principal and co-founder of Dewey Digital and admin of the Mastodon server indieweb.social. “However, when things get sufficiently chaotic on platforms, as Twitter now sees, that’s a force powerful enough to incite such migrations.”
What is the Fediverse?
The Fediverse reverses this trend with an open, freely available protocol called ActivityPub. In 2018, the World Wide Web Consotrtium (W3C) defined the ActivityPub protocol, which defines client-to-server and server-to-server interactions to build a decentralized social media framework. They were based on similar, earlier protocols like Pump.io, created by open source advocate and Open Earth director of Open Tech Evan Prodromou.
Mastodon, a text-based social network similar to Twitter, is the most popular example of ActivityPub in action. Users can post text, share pictures and follow others. But unlike Twitter, Mastodon isn’t hosted as a single service, but as a collection of independent servers that communicate via ActivityPub. Joining Mastodon means joining a server with its own community and code of conduct. Users can interact with users on other servers, but their account will be hosted on the server of their choice.
Mastodon.social is one of several thousand Mastodon servers that communicate using the ActivityPub Mastodon.social protocol
Chambers has observed this community focus in the movement of Twitter’s users. “There is early evidence that immediately after Musk’s acquisition, entire communities began migrating to Mastodon in relatively large cohorts,” says Chambers. For example, Twitter CEO Elon Musk’s decision to ban journalists covering a Twitter account that tracked the location of his private jet prompted many to shut down the service. Journa.host, a mastodon server for professional and retired journalists, was founded on November 4th, 2022 and now has over 1,000 active users.
Fediverse’s connected but independent servers give users more control. Everyone has the option to join whichever server they think is best, and switching to a new server is relatively easy. Servers can also block other servers, providing more opportunities to respond to harassment or objectionable content.
However, that power is also a hindrance as users have to think more about how they interact with the Fediverse. Its open nature also allows anyone to create third-party clients, which requires users to make another decision.
Ivory is one of many third-party customers hoping to improve Mastodon’s user experience. ivory
This can be intimidating, but Chambers believes developers will eventually resolve these issues. “Other problems with Mastodon, such as For example, learning the onboarding process for users and learning how this network differs from Twitter are less of a hassle than some, I think,” he says. “Most of these problems are being solved by new clients for mobile and desktop apps like Ivory or Mona. The whole area of Mastodon app is developing very fast to solve the user experience problem.”
And Mastodon is hardly the Fediverse’s only offering. There’s also PeerTube, a decentralized video sharing system; PixelFed, a similar open image-sharing server; Friendica, a more Facebook-like social media system; and Funkwhale, a community-driven music platform.
How popular is Mastodon?
However, Mastodon remains the marquee platform, at least for now. Recent waves of promotions for Mastodon have also brought in more users – many more users. Mastodon reached one million active users in November 2022, and the number of active monthly users on Fediverse-connected platforms has more than quadrupled since November 2022. This increase sparked fears that commercial interests could follow the trend, a fear that has been amplified by Mask Network’s purchase of Pawoo.net, the second largest mastodon server in the world, appeared to be a reality. The platform is decentralized, but what if companies buy the most popular servers?
“I think the design of the network makes it difficult to implement some of the more abusive business models that we see on siled social media.”
– Evan Prodromou,
But not everyone shares this concern. “I am not against commercial ventures in the Fediverse. I think the design of the network makes it difficult to implement some of the more abusive business models that we see on siled social media,” says Prodromou. “But I really appreciate how aware and active Fediverse users are.” Time has proven so far that Prodromou’s lack of concern is justified as the purchase of Pawoo.net was not followed by the purchase of other Mastodon servers.
Instead, most companies looking to support decentralized social media add support for ActivityPub or, in some cases, build new platforms for a decentralized future. Meta is rumored to be working on its own decentralized social network, codenamed P92, which is said to include ActivityPub support. WordPress, Flipboard and Mozilla have all announced features that integrate with Fediverse.
Not everyone welcomes ActivityPub, however. Bluesky, a decentralized social media startup backed by Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey (who sits on Bluesky’s board of directors), is building its own decentralized service from the ground up. The company defended its approach in a Twitter post on April 6 last year.
Bluesky’s stance hints at a possible conflict between decentralized protocols. While not public yet, Bluesky is listed on Apple’s App Store as a private beta by invitation only. However, Prodromou has strong words for any organization looking to get into social media with a new decentralized social media protocol. “I’m not interested in any protocol other than ActivityPub,” he says. “Anyone working on brand new protocols in 2023 should stop immediately. You will do more harm than good.”
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