The Fediverse points to our future on social media, after Musk – The New Stack

After the announcement that he had accepted Elon Musk’s offer to acquire Twitter, many Twitter users began to rekindle their old Mastodon, Tumblr and other social media accounts. There has also been talk among Twitterati about resurrecting their blogs and putting their faith in RSS (Really Simple Syndication) back. But for those of you who wish to flee the Musk kingdom, finding a new social media home is only part of the solution. After all, it’s easy to start blogging or Mastodon again, but how do you network on these platforms? How will people discover you and your content?

An emerging solution is the so-called “Fediverse”. The term is a portmanteau of “federation” and “universe” and, according to Wikipedia, is “a collection of federated (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (that is i.e. social networks, microblogging, blogs or websites) and file hosting, but which, although hosted independently, can communicate with each other.

A statistics website called The-Federation.info, managed by Jason Robinson, lists 15 fediver protocols, 86 projects and approximately 5.25 million users (of which just under 1.5 million were active in the last 6 month).

In terms of user numbers, Fediverse is a drop in the bucket compared to Twitter, which has around 217 million daily active users. But again, five or 10 years from now, we could see Elon Musk’s takeover in 2022 as the tipping point for a mass migration from Twitter to the Fediverse. This notion may be a fantasy, but regardless, let’s take a look at the current state of the fedivers to assess how the technologies compare.

Mastodon and its multiple communities

Mastodon is Fediverse’s most popular app, with around 3.7 million total users as of this writing. Many of these users likely signed up for Mastodon in 2017 or 2018, when it first received favorable media coverage as a sort of decentralized, open-source version of Twitter. I joined Mastodon myself in mid-2017 and used it sporadically until mid-2019 (and yes, I just revived my account). In my review of Mastodon in June 2017, I made the following distinction between it and Twitter:

“Where Mastodon really differs from Twitter is that it’s made up of multiple communities, rather than just one massive community that is Twitter. In that sense, Mastodon is actually more like Reddit than Twitter.

This means that, unlike Twitter, you can choose to join Mastodon from one of many “instances” – each instance being a niche community. For example, there are communities dedicated to hobbies, geographies, job roles, and more. All of these communities are interconnected though, as they use the same underlying protocol (more on that shortly). This allows you to follow people on different instances.

Looking ahead to 2022, five years after I wrote my review, Mastodon’s “multiple communities” functionality – and indeed the federated world at large – might be just what society needs in the age of social media. post-Musk.

The power user problem

There have been many comments about Elon Musk’s use of Twitter over the past five years or so, during which time he has amassed an audience of over 86 million followers (16 times the total number of Twitter users). fediverse!). Even before acquiring the company, Musk had massive influence on the Twitter platform. Indeed, anyone with more than 100,000 Twitter followers has an outsized influence on what other Twitter users see. This is partly because Twitter’s algorithms, over which we have no control, prioritize content from popular users because they get more “engagement”. But therein lies the catch: the larger your follower count, the more likely you are to get engagement.

This is the crux of the problem with centralized social networks like Twitter – the vast majority of us are just Twitter “readers” because our feeds are clogged with the likes of @elonmusk and other power users. We can write anything we want, but relatively few people will see it in their feeds. It’s not that different from the pre-internet era, when mass media controlled the narrative. Only now is Musk and his fellow power users increasingly controlling the narrative.

Fediverse offers a way back: by letting you choose a niche community to join, but still allowing you to “follow” individual people in other communities.

How to solve this problem and get back to the read/write web? Fediverse offers a way back: by letting you choose a niche community to join, but still allowing you to “follow” individual people in other communities. Mastodon has this feature; and it also has the advantage of not being controlled by a black box algorithm, like Twitter. In other words: on Twitter, there is no guarantee that the people you follow will actually appear in your feed, whereas in Mastodon, your feed is completely controlled by you.

Mastodon has another great feature that encourages diversity of voices in your streams, without forcing power users on you. In addition to the “Home” feed, which shows you an unfiltered feed of the people you follow, Mastodon has “Local” and “Federated” feeds – which show “toots” (the equivalent of tweets) from your local instance and beyond. The bottom line here is that none of these three streams will prioritize power users. You can see the weird power user on the “Federated” feed, but their content won’t get the VIP treatment like on Twitter.

Protocols

The beauty of Fediverse is that it’s entirely driven by open standards. Needless to say, Twitter is a proprietary platform (soon to be privately owned, to boot). Fediverse is therefore a much more attractive platform for users to entrust their data to – there is no risk of that data being locked into a single product. Open standards also mean that developers can build on fedivers without fear of having the rug pulled out at a later date (which notoriously happened with Twitter in 2012).

The main protocol on fedivers is ActivityPub, a decentralized social networking protocol that has been endorsed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Mastodon is one of the Fediverse apps that uses ActivityPub. By the way, the Mastodon product itself is a browser-based Ruby on Rails application with a React.js frontend. So being web-based, rather than primarily a native app like Twitter, is yet another “freedom” enjoyed by Mastodon (I put ironic quotes around that word, as Musk supporters – and indeed musk itself – cited “free speech” as a key benefit of his takeover).

Matrix, which I described last year, is another fast-growing protocol in Fedivers. It is the only other protocol on the fediver used by more than 1,000 nodes (1,927 for Matrix, at the time of writing, versus 8,086 for Mastodon). Matrix is ​​a decentralized open standard for real-time communications, so products built on Matrix could provide an alternative to using commercial instant messaging products like Slack or WhatsApp. Matrix is ​​worth watching, although current consumer sentiment appears to favor privacy-focused messaging products like Signal and Telegram.

Is it worth starting over with social media?

In conclusion, fedivers undoubtedly have mature protocols (although still relatively new) and there are a growing number of viable alternatives to centralized products like Twitter (although not as “friendly” in terms of interface).

However, the main advantage of centralized products such as Twitter and Facebook is their built-in network effects. If you replaced Twitter with Mastodon, you will immediately lose the majority of your followers. You’re basically going to start over. But that might just be what it takes, to flush out the elite of power users from your social media feed.

So is Twitter in immediate danger of a rush of users to multiple alternatives like Mastodon? I don’t think that’s happening, but I think the multi-community aspect of Fedivers offers a glimpse into the future of our social media. It makes no sense to be mere consumers of content from power users, when the whole point of the web is to have two-way conversations with other people. The future of social media is made up of smaller, open networks that interact with each other – which is exactly what the Fediverse enables.

Presentation image via Pexels.

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