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The fediverse is happening. Here's how to take part

As Evan says, this is happening. The fediverse is growing much faster than any centralized social network, and you’re going to want to be involved.

I’ve been trying to explain what the fediverse actually is in a few different contexts. One thing that’s revealed to me is that there’s a whole generation of internet users whose entire model of how things work is based on the centralized, VC-funded service model. For them, a service is tied to a domain name and run by a company, and that’s it - even though they likely use email every day. It’s a surprising (to me) way that the prevailing business models for the web have changed the conversation.

So, here’s my attempt to explain it - and why you need to take part.

TLDR version

Everyone’s joining a new social network that is run as a commons instead of as a private company. Nobody can buy it or own it. And it’s growing very quickly.

Sign up using any server that fits with your own location and values and you can talk to anyone across the network, regardless of which server they use.

If you want, grab an app for your mobile device, and you’re good to go.

What is the fediverse?

Like Twitter or Facebook, the fediverse is a way to connect with people and have conversations with them on the web. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, nobody owns it, and it doesn’t have any central point. It’s like the web itself: anyone can run a website using any hosting provider, and then anyone with a web browser can access it. But instead of being a collection of pages, it’s conversations. Anyone can have a conversation using any fediverse provider, and anyone with fediverse software can access it and take part.

That also means there’s no business model; no ads; and no billionaire acquirer who can ruin it. It’s communally owned and maintained as a commons, like the web. (Technically it works using an open protocol called ActivityPub, but unless you’re a developer you don’t need to worry about that.)

Lots of different software can access the fediverse. The most popular right now is something called Mastodon.

How can I take part?

To be a part of the fediverse, you need to make an account and a profile on any fediverse-compatible service.

Lots of people run Mastodon instances. You can converse with anyone on the fediverse using them, but each one has its own rules and policies about what you can post if you create a fediverse account using it. For example, newsie.social is for people in journalism; mastodon.lol describes itself as “a community friendly towards anti-fascists, members of the LGBTQ+ community, hackers, and the like.” You’re likely to be booted off if you have conversations that go against the ethos of the server.

Anyone can install their own - either with their own technical server knowledge or using a hosting provider like masto.host. I maintain werd.social just for me. A lot of news organizations - and even the German government - run their own closed sites. When an account is hosted on a closed site for an organization, you can be sure that the user really is a member of that organization; it’s like verification on Twitter, back when verification meant something, but any organization can do it.

It’s all free, but it’s always a good idea to contribute to the instance’s server costs if you can. After all, there aren’t any venture capitalists with deep pockets, people buying ads, or surveillance capitalism business models paying for it all.

How can I find my friends?

If you’re moving from Twitter, it’s a good idea to stick your fediverse username in your profile. Mine is @ben@werd.social. Then there are a few different tools that let you find your Twitter friends’ new Mastodon accounts:

Fedifinder will scrape your followed users, your followers, and your lists for fediverse handles, and then export them in a format that you can import straight into Mastodon. Debirdify also does the same thing. Twitodon needs both parties to actually be registered with Twitodon itself to work.

What about finding interesting conversations?

The fediverse doesn’t have universal search. At some point, this will probably change: this is one place where someone is likely to find an opening for a VC-funded service, for better or worse. For now, you can find topics you’re interested in through hashtags.

Mastodon also has the concept of the content warning (“CW”), which you can think of as a wrapper around posts. If you’re posting something that you think others might not want to read, you can wrap it in a CW. So when you search for conversations attached to a hashtag, you might see a lot of CWs. There’s an easy setting in Mastodon to automatically open content wrapped in these warnings - if you don’t have triggers for certain topics, it’s a no-brainer to turn this on.

So is this just like Twitter?

No. It’s its own space with its own norms and forms. It’s far more flexible than Twitter, but also more welcoming in some important ways: communities tend to be more inclusive and considerate around things like alternative text on images for the visually impaired. It certainly also has its problems.

It’s undeniably true that it’s got rougher edges. This is an open source, decentralized space, with software that’s largely been written by volunteers. That’s how the web and email both got started; the software, and community norms on the fediverse itself, will both evolve over time. The exciting thing is that we all get to get involved and help it grow and change.

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Email: ben@werd.io

Twitter: @benwerd

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