Fediverse Deserves

Your Notice,

Even If

You’re Not

Using It

Ernie Smith
Editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly internet history newsletter, and a frequent contributor to Vice’s Motherboard.

Mastodon is known as a Twitter alternative for the technical, but its underlying protocol could help solve some of social media’s biggest headaches.

You might find it a bit uncomfortable to build your social presence on the digital frontier, which is perhaps why Meta’s Threads or Bluesky look a lot more attractive to brands than the fediverse—a loose connection of federated networks, most notably Mastodon, built on an open-source communications protocol called ActivityPub. Even LinkedIn might feel safer in comparison.

The social media pros I’ve talked to have suggested it feels like chaos and not in a good way. That probably explains why brands haven’t made the leap, unless their audiences are suitably technical. (My Linux jokes do really well there.)

Admittedly, even though I’m a fan, I’ll be the first to admit that the fediverse—the loose collection of connected servers that Mastodon and other ActivityPub-compatible services connect to—doesn’t have the fit and finish of a network built for mass consumption. Still, with a little help from Twitter and Reddit’s recent troubles, it has attracted roughly 10 million total users and nearly 2 million monthly active users, according to FediDB.

While that pales in comparison to the estimated 100 million users on Threads, That’s well above Bluesky’s 1 million users and Post.news’ 440,000 users. (Threads, of course, benefited from Instagram’s existing network effects.)

That may not be enough to move your needle. But ignoring the potential of ActivityPub entirely is a mistake because services like it often shape the corporate world. It could be a way to control your brand’s digital destiny.

Most social networks work like a hub-and-spoke model, where users tend to pull information from one centralized resource. Platforms on the fediverse use servers that could talk to anyone on the network.

The effect is similar to early social networks like GeoCities, which relied on interest-based communities. Mastodon ups the ante by encouraging robust local servers with distinct local timelines—but that can still talk to the outside world. If you’re into anime, you can join a server with a robust anime community—but you don’t always have to focus on anime. But the real power of the fediverse is that these servers can scale into something the size of Twitter, but rely on a network of individual hosts who share the server bill and resources.

This has benefits from a moderation standpoint. Dealing with trolls on other social networks is a bit of a crap shoot, but joining smaller servers on Mastodon or competing platforms like Firefish allows you to tailor your experience accordingly.

Prefer free speech over heavy moderation? You can join a server like that. Want to join a more closed-in community instead? You can join a server using software with tighter controls, like Hometown, or join a Reddit-style community hosted on Lemmy.

Just want to use something that feels like Twitter? Hop on a larger server, like Mastodon.social. And if the trolls show up, server mods can block both them and their server—and so can end users.

And if you find that one server isn’t a fit for you, you can take your identity and your followers—but not, in most cases, your posts—to a new server with you.All this can confuse folks used to centralized networks (i.e. most of us), but it’s a throwback to earlier internet distribution models. The fediverse model evokes Usenet, for example. Another common comparison is XMPP, an open-source protocol commonly used as an alternative to AOL Instant Messenger. And the account naming conventions closely follow the cues of email.

To put it all another way, ActivityPub is open architecture, like RSS. That kind of plumbing will become more valuable on the internet over time, even if it never reaches the scale of Twitter, X, or whatever Elon’s calling it today.

That puts it closer to IRC or old-school mailing lists, which are still used in many pockets, even if they aren’t quite mainstream. These old networks can still have commercial value—XMPP, once known as Jabber, has evolved into an essential communication protocol for the internet of things.

Unlike those, however, ActivityPub is riding a wave of developer buzz, which makes it likely that later generations of apps will support it natively. It has formal support from the World Wide Web Consortium. And it can plug into many mediums, making it possible to share content once and have it spread across many platforms, making it easier to support multiple networks with your content.

Admittedly, some challenges could dampen its uptake. While Meta is publicly interested in connecting Threads to Mastodon, many existing Mastodon users are understandably concerned that it might ruin the network—and there’s a chance that could scare Meta off. (Threads already has a huge user base, after all.) But others see this as a way to strengthen the value of existing networks—existing platforms like Tumblr, Flickr, Flipboard, and Medium are also interested in joining the fediverse.

If the fediverse does find a way to get past its cultural challenges with commercialism, it could solve a pair of problems that often slow down major brands online: building an audience and building trust.

Every time a new social network appears, time is often wasted convincing your biggest advocates to follow you on the hot new thing, with no guarantee that the social network will be anything other than a flash in the pan. There’s no guarantee any of these networks will be nearly as effective, which is why many brands have continued to focus on building traditional email lists.

Plus, there’s the whole factor of impersonation and verification, which Elon Musk has muddied the waters on, but remains a major problem for large companies. The fediverse has a much better solution than many proprietary networks: You could self-host your account and attach it to your domain, just like you might host a content hub, and have that account plug into the rest of the fediverse.

A social presence hosted on a first-party website could naturally carry a level of brand association that a checkmark next to a username might lack these days. (If you don’t want to use your domain, Mastodon also has a very easy form of self-verification that works quite well, no $8 surcharge needed.)

You could transfer your existing followers to another ActivityPub-compatible server, potentially speeding up ramp-up time to the next new thing.

Some examples of what this could look like are already in the wild—the European Commission, for example, has 85,000 followers on an account on its own dedicated server.

Suppose Threads and other networks plug into the fediverse. In that case, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that large companies might be able to build connections with their fans this way while avoiding some of the inherent risks that traditionally come with new networks.

The idea of “owning” your audience has been a somewhat foreign concept in the social media era. The fediverse could finally make it possible.

What does it mean to take your following with you?

It means you can move from one Fediverse server to another without losing the people who followed you on the other server, as long as those two servers don’t have restrictions from connecting. Most Fediverse servers can speak to each other, except in rare cases when they prefer not to.

What happens if your following isn’t on the new server?

In those rare cases where a server denies a connection to another, and your followers are based on that server, you won’t be able to speak to them.

What would allow content to come with you or not?

While your followers can follow you to a new server, your posts will stay behind on your previous server but will stay accessible as long as that server stays online. As stated earlier, so long as those two servers can speak to each other, your content would remain accessible from the new server, even if you moved servers.

Can you join two servers? What happens if you are very interested in two servers?

You have to choose a home server, so you can only be primarily on one. You could still see content on that other server and they could see your content, as long as they allow each other to connect to each other.

Do you agree with this?
Do you disagree or have a completely different perspective?
We’d love to know