A Few Thoughts on the Fediverse

This site has historically been more of a repository. Like an Age of Empires-style storage pit, I’ve normally chucked content at it just so it’s somewhere permanent. However, in an attempt to make more of a thing of it – and, indeed, to promote the ideals of a 20-year-old World Wide Web – I’m gonna try doing some blogging. Again.

This must be the fifth time, at least, I’ve tried this. Hey, chuck stuff at a wall and wait for it to stick.

On top of that, I’ve now hooked this blog up to The Fediverse! Which, as a concept, it’s taking a little time for me to get my head around; as it seems to be for the vast majority of the Internet. This post probably isn’t going to go far into demystifying the Fediverse for anyone, but then again, maybe it will. Sometimes, all it takes is to talk about something and it all becomes clear…and sometimes it has the exact opposite effect.

My friend Kath put it quite well. Ever used Discord? You sign up for an account, but you can’t actually do very much with it until you join a server. It works very much like IRC did (and still does!), in fact.

An explanation of how Mastodon works, as a comparison to Discord.

To use Mastodon as an example, since to many that is the de facto Fediverse, that works in a similar way. The differences are that instead of opening an account and then finding a server, you have to find a server (or instance) first and open an account there. Immediately, you’re presented with a hurdle. How should you know which instance to join? Is there a difference? Is it permanemenement?

Knowing which instance to join is down to you. Each instance is independently-operated, and usually they’re based around a central theme. There are a few “general” instances as well. Think of it as moving a Sim to university, but not choosing their major until they’re in junior year. In effect, therefore, you’re not “joining Mastodon” as such. You’re joining an independent server which happens to run the Mastodon software.

Yeah, that doesn’t help a great deal, huh. Anyway, moving on…

The whole point of this approach is so that no single person can ever “own” Mastodon. Or any Fediverse service, for that matter. If you really wanted to, you could even spin up your own server and just hang out there on your own. I’ve seen quite a few people who have done that, and it seems to be working pretty well for them. I’ve also seen quite a few people saying that it’s best to spread out – that the Fediverse concept works best if everyone joins lots of smaller servers, instead of a few (or one!) big server.

But hang on a tick. Joining a tiny server with ten other people, that doesn’t sound like fun. What if you don’t like any of them? Are you doomed to hang out with ten incompatible individuals for the portion of eternity you spend surfing the Fediverse?

This is where the “fedi” bit comes in. It’s federated! Essentially, that means that every instance can talk to every other instance – assuming instance A isn’t blocked by instance 2, that is. So, Dave McGuffin has an account on…er…Example Server 1. Let’s say their handle is @dave@social.example.com. Nicola Bogeys has an account on…well, how about Example Server B. @nicola@social.example.org.

Dave can easily see everything that other members of Example 1 post. Nicola can easily see everything that other members of Example B post. Crikey, this is becoming the most tedious pastiche of Dr. Seuss ever. BUT! Through the power of federation, Dave can nip off and follow Nicola, and now he can see Nicola’s posts, and all the posts from both his own server and Example B! Nicola’s not following back, though. Dave’s a bit dodgy, and the Example 1 crowd are frighteningly dull.

The other beauty of it is, the Fediverse isn’t just Mastodon. There are a whole bunch of other Fediverse services out there – this site is one of them! And since they all use a common standard (ActivityPub), it means you can follow a Pixelfed or a Peertube account from your Mastodon profile, and it all “Just Works”.

As ever, there’s always a catch. Something I’ve considered is the fact that, with such a vast array of servers, who’s to stop someone impersonating you? There is a method of verification (on Mastodon, at least – not sure about other services as yet) whereby you put a specific link on your website, and you’ll get a nice green tick on your profile to prove it’s you. A couple of problems here:

  • You need to have your own website, on which you can add arbitrary HTML. Easy enough for me…not exactly something that your average Jimmy Gubbins can sort out easily. I can think of a very quick-and-dirty workaround, and that’s to create a Wikipedia account and just stick it on your profile page. But that brings me to the other issue:
  • What’s to stop someone from making @lunarloony@mastodon.art (for example), grabbing lunarloony.xyz, and verifying themselves that way? I doubt anyone would ever do that to me; but Stephen Fry, on the other hand…

Of course, having Twitter-style verification also wouldn’t really work, since you’ll only be verified on your home instance. I don’t really know what the solution is here; I guess the best remedy for this is to encourage vigilance in users. Frankly, the world could do with a bit more critical thinking skill.

I’m also considering the fact that, as the Fediverse grows, individual servers are seriously going to have their work cut out for them. I saw a post earlier saying that even a server with a single person (albeit one with a large following) ends up using a significant amount of hardware resource. I can only imagine the sort of strain the big servers are under right now. What happens when we start seeing users with millions of followers? Presumably if other social networks can handle it, then there’s no reason Mastodon servers et al. can’t – but the cost must be staggering.

Anyway, this has gone on quite long enough. My closing thoughts: this really does feel like the way forward. I’m excited. We’re on the edge of a new frontier – and maybe it’ll all explode in our faces and we’ll have to crawl back to monopolised, centralised services once again.

But maybe it won’t…and we can take back the World Wide Web for ourselves again. (Dark Age ending, anyone?)

By the way: if you wanna follow my blog within Mastodon, or Friendica, or whatever other Fediverse service you’re using – it’s @lunarloony . See you there.

About LunarLoony

IT support technician by day, artist also by day, video game enthusiast by day as well. Not keen on doing things by night... when else am I supposed to sleep? I have been making internet things since about 2005, and advocate for personal websites and blogs and things. I also run Broken Circus, where I make short films about video game history!
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