The Fediverse is not dying, nor is it crumbling. As an ideoform in the collective consciousness of the ’net, the Fediverse is already dead.
What was the Fediverse?
Stripped of technical terminology, the Fediverse (“federated universe”) refers to a bunch of web services which let people share text, images, video and audio with each other without a centralized authority.
Isn’t That Mastodon?
You might be used to hearing about “Mastodon” rather than the Fediverse. Mastodon-the-corporation has done a lot of advertising and promotion, and there’s a good deal of documentation out there on how to start a Mastodon server - but Mastodon isn’t all there is to the Fediverse.
The Fediverse originally consisted of computers running a piece of software called StatusNet, which eventually became GNUSocial. 1 Each server allowed people to post and read messages, which were distributed through a social graph much like that of Twitter or Tumblr. Unlike Twitter or Tumblr, but like e-mail or IRC, those posts were distributed through a “federation protocol” that let users on different servers converse. This network existed as early as 2010, and went through several protocol migrations over time, eventually landing on something called OStatus.
More recently, a German software engineer named Eugen Rochko released software called Mastodon in 2016 2, which implemented OStatus and allowed its users to talk to each other, and to users of GNUSocial. This software had a better user experience for many people than GNUSocial, and wasn’t tainted by association with free software extremism, and as a result began to catch on.
Others have documented the sordid tale of Mastodon’s development better than I could, but suffice it to say that many queer people, people of color, and women have been cast aside by Rochko despite significant and often culturally defining contributions to the software and ecosystem.3,4The organization built around it, Mastodon gGmbH, remains a sigificant cultural force in the distributed social media landscape due to its large budget and market share, using its tens of thousands per month to pay Rochko’s salary, hire contractors, and produce marketing material.
So much for Mastodon.
Diversity of Design
Let’s rewind to 2017. I grew up at the tail end of the Jabber era; my happiest memories of computer-aided socialization involve being signed in to Facebook, Google, and two other XMPP providers from one piece of software at the same time, while chatting about Supernatural. I hated Twitter, missed the culture of content warnings and near-normalization of transness and queer culture I’d experienced on Tumblr, and had a severe mental bias toward open protocols, so I jumped on Mastodon hard - but the dream of the Fediverse was never Mastodon-the-software taking over the social web.
The dream was being able to access the same social graph from any piece of software. Ideally, I would be able to use a Tumblr-alike interface to send posts that could be read by people using a Twitter-like one, and look at images posted by people using an Instagram-alike. The dream was a common underlying protocol used across a single unified network that would allow anyone to talk to anyone else using the software they were most comfortable using.
Fast forward to 2022 and that was exactly what we had - or, you know, we had the Dollar Tree version. Most of the software out there that wasn’t Mastodon was either alpha quality or developed by the worst guy you know. 5 None of it had any innovative moderation features worth talking about, and the Tumblr-alike interface never sprang up, despite my halfhearted attempts to get out-of-band tags into Mastodon-the-software. But we did have the basic gist: a big snuggly social fabric where anyone could talk to anyone else.
Fediverse as Ideoform
That’s where the Fediverse is still stuck in the public consciousness. Whether you call it “the Fediverse” or “Mastodon”, it’s that thing that you see when you log in to mastodon.social, or vulpine.club, or plural.cafe, or witches.live, weirder.earth, or rage.love, or tech.lgbt, or hachyderm.io, or pawoo.net.
The Fediverse is the hopes and dreams of naive kids like me, and of Eugen Rochko’s unified Twitter clone, and of Gab’s “freeze peach” brigade, and of a thousand server operators and six million active users. The Fediverse is a place, with a culture, and you can learn about it by observing it. I don’t just mean the phrase “the Fediverse” - there’s nothing wrong with it, except than that the thing it signifies isn’t meaningful anymore.
The Fediverse is a very particular way of thinking about federated social media that encompasses technical, social, cultural, and mythical elements - and that is exactly why I think it’s dead.
What Killed the Fediverse?
It turns out that the unified social fabric sucks. There are a lot of people out there that I don’t want to talk to, and lots of them don’t want to talk to me (though some really do.) There are people who post things that are illegal in my jurisdiction. There are people who harass people of color incessantly for the crime of daring to talk about their day to day lives, and people who just cannot wait to tell anyone who isn’t using their favorite flavor of open source desktop environment that they should die in a fire. 6
Communities as the Unit of Moderation
See, because you need an always-on computer in order to really reliably use decentralized social media, people tend to run Mastodon or other such software on computers in datacenters (“in the cloud”), and then log in from their personal devices, like logging in to check your e-mail. These servers are responsible for collecting messages for people and sending them back and forth - that’s “federation”.
So, naturally, the people who set these servers up had the ability to define some basic rules and community norms, and as Mastodon-the-software grew moderation features, it became much easier for those server operators to moderate their users’ experiences (or delegate that responsibility to a few other people.)
Mastodon, and soon other software as well, got the ability to exchange reports. If a user on one server had a problem with a user on another, not only could they complain to their server’s administrators, but to the people that provided the offending user access as well. Norms began to form around expectations of behavior, both from users and moderators on other servers, and some servers began to defederate - that is, stop talking to - others for various reasons.
I’ll be the first to admit that some of these reasons are, frankly, pretty silly - personal spats between admins, intentional escalations of intra-community arguments, and so forth - but others aren’t. After all, if you run an LGBTQ+ focused server, why would you let users on the FRC server talk to yours after the first instance of harassment? It’s not going to go well.
I would like to acknowledge the work of Black fedizen Marcia X in starting and stewarding #FediBlock, a hashtag that many admins subscribe to and to which many people post information about potentially problematic instances. It’s not a blocklist, but rather a loose standard and set of norms that enables people doing critical community work to coordinate and share information.
So, what was a unified social fabric very quickly became torn, with some servers totally isolating themselves and others simply cutting off contact with a few they found distasteful. Problems started to be obscured, circumscribed, and segregated.
What kind of problems, you ask?
Right Wing Extremism
There are a number of right-wing extremists, up to and including white nationalists and self-proclaimed neo-Nazis, who run Mastodon or Mastodon-compatible servers and communicate over them. I’ve never seen most of these servers, because the servers I use block them all and they tend to block us too (a rift I have in the past called the Great Fedi Divide), but they’re definitely out there.
“The Fediverse”, as an ideoform, has become tainted by extremism because extremists do use the software and protocols that it comprises.
Racism has been a problem in the GNUSocial-descended distributed social graph for a long time, and has been talked about extensively. From the demise of PlayVicious, 7 a Black-run server, to Black users being “asked” (harassed) about hiding their personal life experiences behind “politics” CWs, it’s undeniable that it’s a huge issue in even the non-right-wing communities.
A Quick Aside on CWs
Top-notch demoscener Blackle Mori implemented so-called “content warnings” for Mastodon-the-software in 2017. CWs allow the author of a post to hide it behind a
<details>element so the post’s text and media don’t automatically show up; a single click is required to read the post. It’s also possible to set one’s Mastodon account to always, automatically expand content warnings. It looks kind of like this:
it’s beenONE WEEK SINCE YOU LOOKED AT ME
People use CWs for media spoilers and for sexual, triggering, or upsetting content, but also for just about everything else including jokes and pranks, inconsistently and idiosyncratically. On other compatible software, it’s sometimes just called “subject”, as in the subject line of an e-mail.
I want to be extremely clear that it is my opinion is that the behavior of harassment and the cultural expectation that marginalized people hide their experiences behind “politics” CWs is the problem, not the use of CWs in the first place.
“The Fediverse”, as an ideoform, has become tainted by racism because people who use the software and protocols comprising it do racist things, and that software and the social structures surrounding it are bad at defending its users of color, and especially its Black users, against harassment.
When users sign up for a fediverse server (also known as an “instance”, as in, “an instance of the Mastodon software” or “an instance of that dungeon”), they sign up for the operators’ moderation decisions. Sometimes, that means that two users will sign up on two different servers, intending to talk to each other, and at a later time, for reasons inscruitable to them, find themselves unable to do so. This has happened a few times, and it’s probably extremely frustrating every time. (It’s never happened to me, thankfully.)
“The Fediverse”, as an ideoform, has become tainted by instance drama because users of the software and protocols that comprise it sometimes lose access to parts of their social graph unexpectedly and without much explaination.
Misattribution of Malice
The problem is, these issues - and there are many others, believe me - are misattributed in two directions. First, outsiders look at “the Fediverse”, the holistic social fabric that connects all of its users, and see stories about horrible racism and people losing access to their friends and think that “the Fediverse” is racist and fragile. Second, insiders look at “the Fediverse” and see their curated timelines, their intact social connections, their diverse groups of contacts, and their meaningful relationships and think that “the Fediverse” can’t possibly be racist and fragile.
In other words, people on the outside attribute malice too broadly to the entire network, while people on the inside attribute malice too narrowly to a few individuals or, at most, a few servers.
I’ve certainly been guilty of the latter. While I’m too well aware of the racist harassment people of color face via distributed social media to discount it, I’m sure I don’t grasp its full extent, and my positive interactions via the exceptionally well-maintained social filters of Weirder Earth definitely skew my perception of “the Fediverse” towards the positive. Similarly, my Mastodon accounts have been more durable than any other social media I’ve had, and my social graph more durable still, so I have to put in some effort to empathise with people who have a worse experience.
As a result, conversation about “the Fediverse” is impossible. We can’t meaningfully argue over whether or not “the Fediverse” (or “Mastodon”-the-network) is racist; of course it is, of course it isn’t only. We can’t meaningfully argue over whether or not “the Fediverse” is fragile; of course it is, of course it isn’t only.
I think any distributed social media “insider” who can stand some discussion of child sexual abuse (yeah, sorry) should read this absolutely awful piece of journalism entitled “A Social Media Platform For Pedophiles”, which sums things up perfectly:
It doesn’t matter that you can’t see them, as a Mastodon user you are sharing a social media platform with them.
We Killed the Fediverse
We killed the Fediverse with bad language. Thinking back to my original definition at the top of this article, I hope it’s clear that “the Fediverse” is essentially a useless term:
the Fediverse refers to a bunch of web services which let people share text, images, video and audio with each other without a centralized authority.
What’s a “web service”? Is it the software that defines how people can post and how posts move around? Is it the servers running that software that people log into? Is it the communities that surround those servers, the people on them and the policies those people set? Is it the set of connections between those servers?
It seems clear to me that simply using the same social media software as someone doesn’t make you part of their social network. As an example, some Mastodon instances have a “allowlist”, meaning they don’t talk to any other servers by default. There’s very little sense in which those servers are part of my social network, because I can’t see or interact with their posts.
But what about if my server talks to another server that talks to your server? We can have mutual friends; my posts can make it to your server, and vice versa. Are we part of the same social network? Sure.
And what about three links removed? What if our servers could talk to each other - they don’t block each other, and neither one is in allowlist mode - but nobody on mine has ever reached out to anyone on yours, and vice versa? Technically, they have no knowledge of each other, but they could at any moment. Are we both in “the Fediverse”?
It’s a meaningless term, because the social graph is so complicated, it’s almost impossible to say whether a given server is “part of the Fediverse”.
Gargron Killed the Fediverse
Rochko (whose handle is Gargron) didn’t help. Branding the first server running Mastodon-the-software “Mastodon Dot Social” was a terrible idea, and branding Mastodon gGmbH as such and calling himself “CEO of Mastodon” in Forbes was even worse. That’s where we get misconceptions like the article above saying that everyone using Mastodon is using a social network for people who like to look at explicit images of children, even though the vast majority of Mastodon servers outside of jurisdictions where it’s legal don’t connect to the servers in question.
The Press Killed the Fediverse
That journalists don’t even try to sort through this mess is understandable, but extremely frustrating, especially when Vice and Forbes coverage is likely the first exposure many people will have to the concept. Even when the press does mention the concept of the Fediverse, they rarely try to define it, because it’s a useless, meaningless word.
We Have to Keep Going
So, what do I think we should do? You have no particular reason to listen to me, but here’s my advice.
“The Fediverse” needs to end, and I don’t think anything should replace it. Speak instead about communities, and prioritize the strength of those communities. Speak about the way those communities interact, and don’t; the way they form strands and islands and gulfs. I’ve taken to calling this the Social Archipelago.
This change is already becoming formalized. Some servers, especially those that are often blocked by others, have started pacts that aim to establish an island of continued communication by applying legalism and formal reviews to problems of interpersonal communication. 8 Some server software (such as Akkoma and Calkey) has explicit technical support for the idea of a “suggested timeline” or “bubble” of federated instances - a sort of halfway allowlisting that allows server operators to further curate their users’ experiences. 9
For those of us already using distributed social media:
- Speak about being Octodon or Universedon or Hachyderm or Weirder Earth users, rather than Fediverse users. Take inspiration from communities like Merveilles Town that define a unique and cohesive local culture.
- Have a relationship, even a superficial one, with your server’s operators. Understand their policies, their limits, and their needs. Donate to keep the lights on if you can.
- Don’t pretend that every problem people discuss about “the Fediverse” only applies to other people and other servers.
- Take reports of harassment and racism seriously, even if you can’t see it from your own vantage point. Combat racism within your own social circles and take the time to educate yourself on antiracism.
For current and prospective server operators:
- Keep things small. Moderation is key, and community building gets harder the more people you have to include.
- Accept the Archipelago. Don’t try to connect to every server there is; some of them definitely contain content you and your users don’t want to see, and many of them probably don’t want your users interacting with theirs. Have a set of policies about who you federate with, and stick to them.
- Have a plan for burnout, technical problems, and interpersonal conflict. Have policies and funds to fall back on.
- Build governance structures into your operations. Co-ops with tight-knit technical and moderation committies are probably ideal, but even something as simple as a succession document can save everyone a lot of trouble.
- Ask your users for help! They’re part of your community, and their goals likely align strongly with yours.
And finally, for people on the outside:
- Please don’t judge every island in the Social Archipelago by the bad things that have happened one other servers running the same genre of software.
- Don’t act like harmless aspects of the culture of certain parts of the Social Archipelago - liberal use of CWs, for instance - are axiomatically bad because they come from “the Fediverse”.
- If you don’t see a space in the Archipelago that looks good to you, consider making one. There’s some great starting advice at RunYourOwn.Social.
- Give it a chance, or don’t. Sign up for a cool looking community with moderators you trust, or don’t. It’s not corporate social media; it’s not going to enclose your social graph in a proprietary shell you have to have an account on to access. That’s the whole point.
Ultimately, I’m still an idealist. I don’t think proprietary, centralized solutions - even cozy bug themed ones - are the answer to social media. I think that medium-sized co-op communities are as good as it gets for now, until we get easy to use, resiliant, secure peer to peer social media. I believe that progress can be made on racism and on stability in the Social Archipelago.
I believe in communities, and I believe in us. Let’s do it!
This originally read “all the software”; this isn’t fair. There is some pretty good ActivityPub software out there, like Peertube. Also, being alpha quality isn’t a bad thing! GoToSocial is alpha, but I use it, and it’s nice. It just, you know, isn’t feature complete and definitely isn’t something to rely on. ↩︎
I use KDE Plasma, by the way. ↩︎
Such as the United Federation of Instances ↩︎
Thanks to @firstname.lastname@example.org for pointing this out. ↩︎