Estimated reading time: 12 minute(s)

On July 9, 2022, Mr. Drew DeVault, a developer and commentator on tech and free and open source software, published a post to his personal blog titled The Fediverse can be pretty toxic. The premise of his post is that the Fediverse, which is a blanket term for a number of social media software implementations of the ActivityPub, OStatus, and Zap protocols, solves some of the inherent problems of centralized, big tech social media, but not others. He sees the issue as having roots in the fact that most of the Fediverse networks clone the user interface and functionality of big tech proprietary social networks, even as they do away with the centralization, advertising, and algorithms.

Depiction of the difference between centralized and decentralized social media. The isolated bubble on the left depicts Twitter. The interconnected bubbles on the right depict federated social networks.  Public Domain image from Openclipart.
Depiction of the difference between centralized and decentralized social media. The isolated bubble on the left depicts Twitter. The interconnected bubbles on the right depict federated social networks. Public Domain image from Openclipart.

I will note from the outset that I am not interested in Mr. DeVault’s toxicity critique per se, and to the extent I would contemplate it, I would likely concur only in part. However, Mr. DeVault does touch on what I think is a nagging issue in the Fediverse, that many of the social media software implementations mirror in design the popular big tech social media platforms.

Before I start my substantive commentary, I will provide a brief introduction to the Fediverse for readers who are not already familiar with the term.

What is the Fediverse? A Brief Introduction

The most popular social media platforms are centralized and controlled by major corporations. For simplicity’s sake, I will restrict my inquiry to those under the umbrella of Meta (Facebook and Instagram), Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest.

The Fediverse is aptly described by Fediverse Party as follows:

[The Fediverse] … is a common name for federated social media networks running on free open software on a myriad of servers across the world.

There are a number of free and open source alternatives to proprietary big tech social media platforms. The “Fediverse” refers to social media software that can be installed on individual servers and that interface with implementations on different servers through the use of common, decentralized protocols (the idea is similar how people on one email server can send emails to and receive emails from users on a different server – for example, someone who uses Gmail can communicate with someone who uses Proton Mail). Most of the current popular implementations are based on ActivityPub, but some use the OStatus, Zot, and diaspora protocols. I have discussed in some detail on The New Leaf Journal two ActivityPub-based Fediverse networks: Pixelfed and Mastodon.

Unofficial proposal for a Fedievrse logo. Public Domain image clipped from Openclipart.
Unofficial proposal for a Fedievrse logo. Public Domain image clipped from Openclipart.

While each Fediverse network has unique features and functionality, most can broadly be described as an alternative to a more well-known proprietary social media platform. Belowi is a non-exhaustive list of examples:

  • Twitter Alternatives: Mastodon, Pleroma, Misskey, GNU Social
  • Instagram Alternatives: Pixelfed
  • Facebook Alternatives: Friendica
  • Google+ Alternatives: diaspora
  • YouTube Alternatives: PeerTube
  • Soundcloud Alternatives: Funkwhale
  • Medium Alternatives: WriteFreely, Plume
  • Unique CMS: Hubzilla

Mastodon has the largest number of instances (individual Mastodon servers) and users by a significant margin, making it the proverbial mascot of the Fediverse. Mr. DeVault’s article focuses on Mastodon, also making reference to Pleroma and the now little-used GNU Social, both of which are also functional alternatives to Twitter.

The Fediverse’s Mimicry

I will set aside most of Mr. DeVault’s critique because many of the issues he presents are not of any particular interest to me. Instead, I will focus on one part of a single sentence and then segue into my own critique of the Fediverse:

But [Mastodon] is still just a Twitter clone…

Herein lies a key issue inherent in most of the current implementations of the decentralized protocols that underlie the fediverse. They are clones of preexisting social media platforms.

To be sure, Mastodon is not an exact clone of Twitter. Beyond the obvious distinguishing point that Mastodon is decentralized and anyone can start their own server, Mr. DeVault observed that Mastodon has a higher character limit (500 characters) than does Twitter (280), a point I had to navigate when syndicating posts from the former to the latter. While I have not used Pleroma, I know that it can be configured to have even higher character limits than Mastodon.

Mastodon is not unique in having a case of clone syndrome. Pixelfed, which I think is the best current Fediverse implementation, is designed to replicate Instagram. Friendica is a stand-in for Facebook. Diaspora, which uses now-uncommon protocols, was first built as a quasi-alternative to Facebook and the now-defunct Google+. One need not think hard to figure out what PeerTube is an alternative to.

Before continuing, I will give special mention to Hubzilla, which provides a robust CMS and is capable of being a blog, a Twitter stand-in, and a quasi Facebook, Wiki, and more depending on what its users want to do with it. While Hubzilla promises a true nomadic identity, for a number of reasons I do not think Hubzilla is very accessible to the ordinary social media user or content creator in its current form.

The Fundamental Problem With The Fediverse Clone Wars

Mr. DeVault opined that the Mastodon and Pleroma, being “Twitter clone[s],” come with “the social and psychological ills” that are present in Twitter. Mr. DeVault is over the target with his assessment that there is a cost to replicating Twitter’s structure and functionality even if you eliminate Twitter’s centralization and algorithms, but I will approach the issue from a different angle.

One should have a reason for wanting to build a new product or service. In the case of building an alternative to big tech proprietary social media, I can only assume that the reason for building an alternative is the belief that the alternative can be better (or if not better in a cosmic sense, better for particular use-cases or circumstances). Now assume for example, that I want to build an alternative to Twitter – a forum where people can post short-form content and engage in discussions. In building an alternative, one should consider why an alternative is needed or desirable. What are Twitter’s problems and how can an alternative fix them?

The Fediverse offers decentralization as a general solution to the ills of big tech, proprietary social media. Decentralization allows individuals and groups to create their own social media communities and control the extent to which they interact with other communities, if at all. The Fediverse approach also removes algorithms and advertising from the occasion, giving people the opportunity to control their own data. For whatever it is worth, I agree broadly with the use of decentralized solutions to centralized problems.

However, in the case of creating an alternative to an established, centralized, commercial social media platform, one should consider whether the only problems that exist in the established platform have to do with centralization, advertising, and algorithms. If the answer is yes, creating a Twitter alternative is as simple as making a microblogging platform that replicates most of Twitter’s functionality with a few tweaks and a new coat of paint. However, if there are issues that stem from the design and user interface of Twitter itself, it is far less clear that creating a decentralized version of Twitter will cure it of all of its ills.

In March 2021, I published an article prompted by Mr. Haruki Murakami’s explanation of why he abstains from social media (I assume he was referring to platforms such as Facebook and Twitter). Mr. Murakami stated:

Generally speaking, the quality of writing [on social media] isn’t very good. Reading good writing and listening to good music are incredibly important things in life. So, to phrase it from the other way around, there’s nothing better than not listening to bad music and not reading bad writing.

Haruki Murakami

I agree with the first half of Mr. Murakami’s quote. But assuming arguendo that Mr. Murakami is correct that the median content on social media is “not very good,” we must ask why this is the case. I suggested in my article that the issues stem from the structure of social media itself:

Social media encourages users to seek reactions – whether through self-indulgent commentary and updates or chasing whatever is trending at the moment. Reaction porn is not useful or pleasant, let alone something that people would want to read for generations to come. Thus, even posters who may otherwise be recognized for their writing talent can produce awful content on social media.

N.A. Ferrell

I will add to my 2021 commentary to incorporate a point that was implied, albeit not expressly stated, by Mr. Murakami. Even if one avoids succumbing to the temptation to consume and produce reaction porn, there is an art to composing thought-provoking or humorous short-form content within the confines of Twitter’s character limit or Mastodon’s longer-form character limit. There are vastly more people who think of themselves as expert posters than there are actual expert posters. That Twitter, and Mastodon to a lesser extent, make posting so easy does little to improve the overall quality of the content. Combine the fact that it is difficult to curate content on either platform without restricting oneself to following a limited number of individual accounts and one can begin to see where the Twitter clone enterprise runs into a problem.

This is not to say that all clones are equal. While Instagram encourages bad posting behavior, I had found that the quality of content on the main instance of Pixelfed, which very much replicates Instagram’s look and feel, is high. The Pixelfed developer and the team behind it are cognizant of trying to introduce features that encourage good content and healthy interactions, but Pixelfed has an advantage over networks trying to replicate Twitter in that it is easier to post nice photos than interesting rapid-fire musings.

Before I continue, do note that none of this is to say that Twitter or free and open source implementations of its underlying concept are completely devoid of good content (Mr. Murakami implicitly acknowledged the same in his quote). For example, I use Mastodon to post links to New Leaf Journal articles (I note that I make no effort to be a top Mastodon/Twitter poster, and I would most likely not have accounts on either in the absence of something to promote). My experience with Mastodon (limited as it may be) improved when I moved my account from the main Mastodon server run by the project developer to a smaller server at Linuxrocks.online. Through joining a good server, following interesting accounts, and using filters to screen contents and topics that I have no interest in on Mastodon, I have achieved an activity stream comprised of reasonably interesting content. Due to the sheer scope of Twitter, there are many interesting Twitter posters as well, but Twitter has serious systemic flaws that cannot be overcome by a small percentage of good posters.

What Is The Alternative To Cloning Social Media Platforms?

There is an important place for the type of “clone” Fediverse networks that Mr. DeVault described in his post – both because they implement formulas that have proven to be successful in terms of attracting ordinary users and also because they provide alternatives to people who want recognizable alternatives to big tech, proprietary social media platforms. However, there are two points to consider when evaluating the utility of clones. First, flaws inherent in the structure of a proprietary platform will likely exist in a clone, although this can be mitigated to some degree (see e.g., Pixelfed’s main instance and some smaller Mastodon instances). Second, so long as a Fediverse platform has an obvious big tech analogue, its appeal will most likely be limited to people who are already using (or who previously used) the big tech analogue but have an issue with the corporate philosophy of the analogue, its advertising, or its centralization. Moreover, in light of the fact that the user-base of Fediverse platforms is minuscule compared to the big tech proprietary platforms, it will also only attract people who are willing to give up the number of potential views (if not always interactions) that the big tech analogue offers.

I think it is a good thing that developers have created clear alternatives to the major big tech social media platforms in the Fediverse, but for the reasons that I articulated above, the appeal of these alternatives is limited. They are the answer to a question, but they leave many questions unanswered. Before I continue to discuss some of my broader ideas, I will suggest that developers working with ActivityPub and other decentralized protocols built for social media should consider concepts that are demonstrably different, in terms of use-cases and functionality, than the social media that hundreds of millions of people around the world use today. I respect Hubzilla for doing something different and unique that cannot be readily found elsewhere, while noting it has a ways to go before it would be attractive to ordinary social media users and bloggers. (As you will find below, Medium/Tumblr alternatives WriteFreely and Plume encompass some ideas that could fit nicely into my ideal for social media.) The Fediverse already has solid alternatives to big tech services. The future should be social media software and networks that offer something different and unique while taking advantage of the unique features that ActivityPub and other federated protocols offer.

One may note that I recently expressed some qualms about Minds, a free and open source social media platform, for its centralization and its particular implementation of crypto currencies. Here, I express some concerns about the current selection of Fediverse networks, with a few qualified exceptions. I have made it more than clear that I am not a fan of proprietary centralized social media platforms. One may begin to suspect that I dislike every implementation of social media. Now to be sure, that is not far from the mark, but the issue is too important to solve fully with Get Of My Lawn Social. Is there a better way forward?

Indeed there is – albeit I will only offer a few suggestions in brief in the instant post, reserving some more long-form thoughts on the subject for future pieces.

Mr. Larry Sanger had the right idea when he suggested a future in which the basis of social media could be WordPress blogs run by individual users. This baseline concept is correct, but I diverge from Mr. Sanger to the extent that his implementation too closely resembles a personal Twitter account for reasons that I discussed regarding Twitter’s structure. Interestingly, WordPress has plugins to implement ActivityPub on individual sites, which has the effect of making it possible to follow individual WordPress blogs from ActivityPub-compliant fediverse networks (I would implement it at The New Leaf Journal but for one qualm I have about how the plugin handles accounts).

Social media should start locally. Nothing is more local than a personal website. In an ideal social media environment, the foundation of a social network is a collection of personal websites, which can freely associate with other personal websites (or, if participants so choose, group websites). Communities can begin with websites owned by people who know each other in real life and expand from there. These websites should make use of open standards, including the ubiquitous RSS and Atom, making it possible for people to follow public content without needing an account on any server or platform. The IndieWeb project is based on creating standards and protocols that allow individual websites to communicate with one another, and I think that its focus (not implementation, focus) is even more over the target of what we are looking for than the current slate of Fediverse networks, lest it becomes easier for non-tech savvy individuals to run their own Fediverse instances.

ActivityPub is relatively well-developed (that is my non-developer impression) and several of the Fediverse networks built on top of it are relatively mature (note that although it does not Federate, former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social is built on Mastodon and Soapbox, the latter being a front-end for Pleroma). Several IndieWeb standards such as Webmentions (a sort of commenting system between websites) work, although few websites implement them (The New Leaf Journal implements Webmentions, albeit I still have not decided how to display them). What is the hold-up?

(Aside: I will single out projects based on SSB Scuttlebutt, particulary Manyverse, as being worth following – and I will say the same of the peer-to-peer concept behind Retroshare. I will also note Movim as an interesting project to build a social blogging platform on top of XMPP.)

At the moment, both the Fediverse and IndieWeb projects are very niche. They each have robust communities, but the communities are small. Although I do not think the Fediverse is particularly complicated, explaining how it works and what its benefits are is easier said than done (multiply that a few times over for the IndieWeb project). A barrier to entry for any social media enterprise is that social media is inherently social, meaning that people go where their friend networks are (contrast with tennis and baseball where the idea is to “hit ’em where they ain’t“). Pioneers are seldom successful at migrating their networks, and the idea of migrating a network from a centralized platform to siloed personal sites is even more daunting than migrating the network to a Fediverse instance (which, with the exception of the large de facto official instances, may not be reliable in the long-run).

To be sure, there is a long way to go before my ideal social media gains traction, if it ever does at all. But much work has been done by open source developers to lay the groundwork for a better social media future, and I look forward to writing more about these important issues and questions here at the perennially virid New Leaf Journal.