Mastodon and the Fediverse: Decentralized Social Networking

Mastodon and the Fediverse: Decentralized Social Networking

Given the numerous privacy violations that have come out about major social networking sites like Facebook, it’s no wonder that many former users have sought alternatives. One such social network is Mastodon, a free and open source self-hosted social networking service that uses the ActivityPub social networking standard and the OStatus standard for federated microblogging.

Mastodon’s founder is Eugen Rochko, a German programmer. His main account is at https://mastodon.social/@Gargron. On the surface, Mastodon appears to look a lot like Twitter. Posts on Mastodon are referred to as “toots” (similar to tweets), and have a 500 character limit. One major difference between Mastodon and Twitter, however, is the fact that Mastodon is “federated,” i.e. distributed across many different servers. Each of these servers is called an “instance,” and users on different instances can interact with one another despite not being members of the same instance. Lists of these instances can be found on sites like Mastodon: Choosing a community, fediverse.party, and Mastodon instances.



One such instance is https://mstdn.social, whose admin is @stux. Stux is an immensely popular admin due to his friendly nature and cat avatar. As a matter of fact, he even has a fan club! Other fediverse admins may have those too, but they are unknown at this time. Mstdn.social also has an onion site, at http://c6usaa6obkiahck7rkn2phbffb3strd375pfpxmawuexnmectjizyjad.onion.

Of Mastodon, stux says, “Everyone deserves a secure and friendly social media platform where they can be who they are without being afraid of [being] bullied or worse. Think for yourself and join a platform that cares about privacy and the user instead of profit and market value. Open source is the future of software; why run away from it? Embrace it!”   

In Mastodon’s web interface (shown below), users have the option of viewing different timelines: the local timeline (which is just for that specific instance), or the federated timeline (which consists of toots from all instances that are federated with the instance you’re logged into at the moment). 

When posting a toot, users also have the option of adjusting status privacy: it can be public (viewable by everyone, including on other instances), unlisted (viewable by everyone, but not in public timelines), followers only (only viewable by people who follow you), or direct (as a private message). You also have the option of using a content warning (CW) if you think the content of your toot might be objectionable to others (e.g. politics or nudity).  

Mastodon instances often cater to different interests and social groups. Mstdn.social doesn’t have a particular theme, although many of its members seem to like cats and internet memes as a general rule. Other instances do have a specific motif: snouts.online is a furry-oriented, sex-positive, and LGBTQA+ instance. Snouts is one instance which requires approval from an admin before joining, which is quite common; you need to state why you're interested in joining before you get approved. This is to prevent trolls, spam, and hate. 

Resistance.social is a left-leaning political instance, whose members sometimes play the roles of superheroes (in a real life context, however). Of particular popularity are characters from the Marvel Comics and Marvel Cinematic Universe, such as Iron Man, Spiderman, Black Widow, Queen Ramonda, and Dr. Stephen Strange. At present, many of the toots are concerned with the 2020 U.S. presidential election and issues surrounding it - though its members aren't above having fun, either! 

Beyond just Mastodon, the fediverse also comprises several other types of software with federating capabilities. One of these is Pleroma, which, like Mastodon, is microblogging server software that can federate with other servers that use the same federation standards (i.e. OStatus and ActivityPub). The instance below is wetfish.space:

The creator of Pleroma is @lain, who, on her blog, describes it as:

...a microblogging server software that can federate (= exchange messages with) other servers that support the same federation standards...[w]hat that means is that you can host a server for yourself or your friends and stay in control of your online identity, but still exchange messages with people on larger servers. Pleroma will federate with all servers that implement either OStatus or ActivityPub, like GNU Social, Friendica, Hubzilla and Mastodon.



Like Mastodon, Pleroma consists of instances that pertain to different interests, like coding, coffee, and anime. As opposed to Mastodon, one major difference in the interface of Pleroma is that even when you aren’t logged into an instance, you can see the Public Timeline and the Whole Known Network (known as the “federated timeline” on Mastodon).

The Whole Known Network displays all of the local posts from the current instance as well as posts from any other servers that are connected to that instance. Also as on Mastodon, you have sections for notifications, direct messages, and interactions. Pleroma, too, has a content warning feature, although the censored images appear like this:




The fediverse even has what you might call its own Instagram, known as Pixelfed. Like on Instagram, Pixelfed consists of image sharing, but as with Mastodon and Pleroma, it’s federated, so if you share an image, it can be seen on any network that’s connected to the same instance.

There are a number of different ways to share images on Pixelfed. You can upload them directly from the desktop interface, or you can use a Pixelfed mobile app, like morii, made by developer glitchpizza. Like other parts of the fediverse, Pixelfed also consists of many different instances, such as pixelfed.social, pixfed.com, and pixelfed.uno. Each instance has its own themes and user base, though the basic layout looks similar.    

On Pixelfed, you can organize your photos into albums of up to four photos each, or sort them into "collections" (e.g. nature, city, etc.). Like Instagram, Pixelfed also has filters and stories (which disappear after 24 hours).

While these are some of the most popular fediverse networks, there are quite a few others, so it's worth taking the time to explore and find which ones are right for your personality. If you have yet to join any of these networks, go ahead and check them out; you might find a community you never even knew existed!