A few thoughts on the Fediverse

This is going to be a slightly rambling collection of thoughts about the state of the web, including but not limited to the whole Twitter fiasco.

It's the year 2022, and for some reason, the web enjoyed by billions, is a bit shit.

This generally unfavourable situation has been exacerbated lately by the unfortunate decision of one billionaire to buy one of the most popular communications platforms and turn it into his personal toy.

Now we, as a global community, are in the miserable position of using more or less billionaire toys exclusively for all our communication and content distribution. There are exceptions, like Wordpress, which, as far as I can tell, is owned by a rather benevolent Matt Mullenweg - who, again as far as I can tell, is not yet a billionaire (also, the software itself is open source and apparently he's toying with the idea of making Tumblr, owned by his company Automattic, ActivityPub-ready).

A lot of this grew organically. People didn't wake up one day and said: "I want to become part of a trend which will ultimately turn the web into a number of big platforms with almost limitless power." In the end, what got us here was the ease of use.

Facebook was easier and less clunky than updating your blog, Twitter was easier than sending a text message to a thousand people simultaneously and Instagram was easier than inviting all your friends to come look at your vacation photos.

Still, no matter how we got here, here we are, and all those big platforms have turned into utter rubbish. Fortunately, the spirit of the early web, even the Internet, never went away. It just got drowned out by whatever investors could throw their money at.

The Fediverse

In short, the fediverse, as it's now being called, is a collection of software that can be used in a decentralised manner, while still allowing for communication between all the various nodes.

It's a bit like this thing we've all been using for a while now: the Internet!

I have been interested in decentralised communications or content distribution for a while now (I even created something called The Self-Hosted Web to promote using alternative software). I set up my own Mastodon server (before that a Pleroma server, which is a leaner version, using the same ActivityPub protocol), but due to a lack of time it all languished for most of its existence.

But the past week has finally allowed all of this to shine. Due to that billionaire buying Twitter and deciding to ruin the fuck out of it, many more people have become interested in the idea of joining an alternative network.

Now, I'm aware that calling Mastodon a Twitter-alternative is frowned upon in some circles, and while it does bear some resemblance, it is quite true - Mastodon isn't a Twitter alternative, it's in fact a better Twitter.

Mastodon is software that allows for a Twitter-like experience, but due to its decentralised and privacy-centric architecture, it doesn't fully replicate the Twitter experience. Which is brilliant.

An algorithm to rule them all

Back when Facebook was still a thing, everyone was up in arms about "the algorithm". Most people, especially politicians, didn't really know what an algorithm was, which didn't keep them from voicing their concerns about it and demanding it be laid bare (despite most probably not having a clue as to what to do with it once that were to happen).

These days, people are more concerned about the Twitter algorithm. It pushes tweets, invites people to fave, comment or retweet, thereby pushing engagement to levels that end up causing huge controversies and a very tribalistic kind of conversation.

With Mastodon, there's no such algorithm. Toots, as they're called, are presented in a chronological fashion, and apart from boosted toots - by the people you actually follow - your timeline is exactly what you decide it to be. And yes, this means less engagement, but you know what? That's as far from a bad thing as can be.

Ask yourself this: who's profiting from more engagement and the types of tribalistic wars that go on in the comments on Twitter? Certainly not the users, but rather the company that gets to sell a ton of ads alongside those comments.

So while Mastodon doesn't push for more engagement, it instead facilitates conversations that are more sincere and less ephemeral. Which, before the advent of the platformisation of the web, was the way we all communicated on the web. We had our own blogs, connected via backlinks and blogrolls, or we had forums, which made the whole experience of reading and commenting far more linear than it is today (not always great, but certainly better than Twitter pile-ons).

Where from here?

With renewed interest in Mastodon comes interest in federated software in general, of which there is quite a bit. Pixelfed to replace Instagram, PeerTube to replace YouTube, Matrix to replace anything to do with communication, be it Slack clones, video- or voice-telephony.

And while I don't think that the vast majority of people will upend their Internet-routines overnight to become part of a federated network, quite a few will, and it'll give the idea of an open Internet at least a fighting chance. Because, you know, if the Internet does one thing well, it's to disrupt the status quo. Only this time it'll be its very own.

If, for some reason, you stumbled upon this not by clicking the link I posted on Mastodon: find me on there at https://hemmer.land/@richard