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Welcome to the Fediverse!

An estimated 140,000 Twitter users have declared their intention to abandon the social media platform and move to the self-hosted social networking service Mastodon. According to some industry watchers, Mastodon has been growing by more than a million users per month since Twitter was acquired by Tesla founder Elon Musk. Last month, Mastodon reported (ironically, with a tweet) that the platform had just passed the two-million active user mark, bolstering its claim to being the largest decentralized social network on the Internet.

Mastodon is definitely having a moment. Like most of our readers, I knew about decentralized social media platforms, such as Mastodon, Diaspora, Minds, and Manyverse—or I thought I did. It wasn't until I saw the farewell to Twitter tweet by James Gosling (Father of Java) last month, that I realized I wasn't as well-informed on the topic as I thought I was. Gosling's tweet conjured pleas by many of his followers to join them on Mastodon, and he later announced (again, ironically, on Twitter) that he would be moving at least some of his social media activities to that platform. His Mastodon handle is @[email protected].

Since I saw that tweet, I've been getting up to speed on decentralized social media platforms. I joined Mastodon (@[email protected]), and I will be trying others. With the fate of Twitter… let's say, uncertain… it's an apt moment for all of us who use these platforms to consider alternatives. But joining the conversation currently underway via the collection of independently hosted servers that has come to be called "The Fediverse" takes some getting used to.

Some reporters have referred to Mastodon as an "upstart" social network, but it was actually founded in 2016 by computer scientist Eugen Rochko, then 24, to provide free and open-source software for running self-hosted social networking services. Mastodon is crowdfunded and does not publish ads; as of November 2022, it was supported by just 3,500 people. Since 2021 it has been registered in Germany as a not-for-profit.

Each Mastodon server, called an "instance," is set up by an individual, and it has its own set of rules and standards of behavior. Each instance can interact with other instances in much the same way your Gmail account can send and receive messages from an Outlook or Yahoo account. If you don't want to host your own instance, you can simply join one of the existing Mastodon instances, such as Mastodon Social.

The instances collectively form a microblogging platform similar to Twitter (the posts are called "toots," unfortunately), which is likely one reason it has been attracting the first wave of disillusioned tweeters. It's worth noting that the number of Twitter users who have fully abandoned the platform so far is small compared to the chorus promising to do so. According to the authors of a recently published case study ("Challenges in the Decentralized Web: The Mastodon Case"), of the tens of thousands of Twitter users who have said they plan to move to Mastodon, just 1.6 per cent have actually quit Twitter. It's a stat that makes sense; these are uncertain times and people probably just want to save their spot in case the Musk Massacre actually turns things around.  

I'm a fan of social media. They promote knowledge sharing and community building in the high-tech world. I've learned about best practices, shifting trends, and the where-and-when of events that matter to me. I've connected with knowledgeable experts and developed long-standing relationship with kindred spirits all over the world.

I've also had to wade through the underlying swamp of misinformation, cyberbullying, and outright crime. (Be careful not to git any onya!)

I'm not sure decentralized social media platforms will make that swamp much shallower, but they could. Mastodon gGmbH, the German non-profit that develops the Mastodon software, has published a document called "The Mastodon Server Covenant," which lays out a list of content moderation guidelines to which those on its server network are strongly encourages to commit. The list, which includes things like an admonition to implement daily backups and metadata recommendations, begins with this: "Users must have the confidence that they are joining a safe space, free from white supremacy, antisemitism, and transphobia of other platforms."

Mastodon instances can impose various levels of moderation with regard to other instances, ranging from "no moderation" (which is the default), to "filtered but still accessible," "available only to users they follow," and "fully banned." And there are lots of potentially swamp-draining individual content-moderation policies. Mastodon Social, for example, prohibits "racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, or casteism," as well as "harassment, dogpiling or doxing of other users."

And yet, the essential promise of these platforms is that the absence of a central authority fosters independence, censorship resistance, ownership of personal data, and improved control over user-generated content. In the Fediverse, no single group dictates the rules to another group.

That's one of the reasons the social media platform Gab changed its software infrastructure to run on a fork of Mastodon in 2019. Wikipedia describes Gab as "…an American alt-tech microblogging and social networking service known for its far-right userbase." The operators of that network made the infrastructure change, it was reported at the time, as a way of circumventing bans by Apple and Google of Gab's smartphone app.

In an essay set for publication in the Journal of Free Speech Law sometime next year ("Moderating the Fediverse: Content Moderation on Distributed Social Media"), Alan Z Rozenshtein, associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota Law School, pointed to Gab as "a useful case study in how decentralized social media can self-police."

"On the one hand," Rozenshtein wrote, "there was no way for Mastodon to expel Gab from the Fediverse. As Mastodon’s founder Eugen Rochko explained, 'You have to understand it’s not actually possible to do anything platform-wide because it’s decentralized. . . . I don’t have the control.' On the other hand, individual Mastodon instances could—and the most popular ones did—refuse to interact with the Gab instance, effectively cutting it off from most of the network in a spontaneous, bottom-up process of instance-by-instance decision making. Ultimately, Gab was left almost entirely isolated, with more than 99% of its users interacting only with other Gab users. Gab responded by 'defederating:' voluntarily cutting itself off from the remaining instances that were still willing to communicate with it."

The response to Gab entering the Fediverse by other instances, Rozenshtein wrote, was an example of the principle of content moderation subsidiarity [italics mine].

"As the Gab story demonstrates," he explained, "the biggest benefit of a decentralized moderation model is its embrace of content-moderation subsidiarity: each community can choose its own content moderation standards according to its own needs and values, while at the same time recognizing and respecting other communities’ content-moderation choices. This is in stark contrast to the problem faced by large, centralized platforms, which by their nature must choose a single moderation standard, which different groups of users will inevitably find either under- or over-inclusive."

But as Rochko noted above, because there's a lack of a centralized Fediverse authority, there's simply no way to fully exclude even the most harmful content from the network. And Fediverse administrators aren't exactly rolling in resources.

And that's another thing that separates decentralized social networks from its better funded brethren: No sponsors, which means no dependence on advertising, which has, some would argue, corrupted the centralized platforms. The old saw, "If you can't figure out what the product is, it's you," which epitomizes those platforms, doesn't apply in the Fediverse. There's a kind of economic neutrality in this space.

To start your exploration of the Fediverse, you could do worse than Mastodon. Visit JoinMastodon.org to get the ball rolling. According to the website, the servers listed there have all committed "to specific standards of technical reliability and responsible content moderation."

Along with Mastodon, I'm going to be exploring the following list of decentralized social media platforms, in no particular order. I've included links to their home pages.

Diaspora: Launched in 2010, it's one of the oldest decentralized social media networks. It has more than a million users, it's independently run, and users own their data.

Minds: A growing platform that’s "dedicated to Internet freedom." It allows users to "speak freely, protect their privacy, earn crypto rewards, and take back control of their social media." Has more than 2 million users.

Manyverse: A free and open-source social network "without the bad stuff. Built on the peer-to-peer SSB protocol. Available for desktop and mobile.

Peepeth: An Ethereum blockchain-powered social network. Encourages "mindful engagement and positive contribution."

Steemit: Founded in 2014, it's a blockchain-based blogging and social media site. It was developed using STEEM blockchain technology.

I'm still on Twitter (@johnkwaters), for now, anyway. Love to hear what you think about all this.

Posted by John K. Waters on December 12, 2022