Into the Fediverse

Posted by Thomas Gideon on 2 January 2023

I am enjoying a week off, to celebrate fifty years so far on this planet. I thought I'd write as part of this time I made for myself. I have been self hosting my own services for a while--email, web sites, shared contacts and calendars, RSS aggregator, and others. I recently upgraded and expanded my fleet. I now host a couple of instances of Mastodon. One of them is the social outlet of this site,

I signed up on Fosstodon a year and a half before the first signs of what would happen to Twitter under Elon Musk's ownership. I felt like I did when I stopped using Google Reader and switched to self hosting Tiny Tiny RSS. I don't claim any prescience or insight. I had invested a lot in both and was sensitive to even subtle disagreeable changes early on. For RSS it was UI changes in Reader that irritated me towards an exit. For Twitter and Facebook the motivating annoyances could simply be attributed to surveillance capitalism. I tired of not trusting my posts were seen by friends and family. The incentives of the site owners is now wildly at odds with the well being of the users.

If you aren't familiar, Fosstodon is an instance of Mastodon, server software for social networking. What makes Mastodon special, or actually not special, is that it interoperates with any other software that speaks the same protocol, ActivityPub. There are plenty of software options to choose from, as a user or a self hoster like me. The collection of all these interoperable servers running dozens of different programs is often called the Fediverse. Communicating through an open protocol is federation. For a user that means you have to find someplace to sign up, a problem that is harder than it should be. Once you do, you can connect and share with anyone, anywhere using a compatible server. For Mastodon alone, there are now about nine million active users. Well known commercial services like Flickr and Tumblr are considering adopting support. If you have more specific needs or technical knowledge, there are some good choices like services that favor image or video sharing, ones that have no length limit on posts for a form of social blogging.

I'd like to explore more of these options eventually. One promising one, Castopod, plans to support ActivityPub. I like the idea of social sharing baked right in. I see it as highly complementary of RSS. For now, I have spun up as a single user instance.

I migrated the social graph I had built up at Fosstodon over to my own instance. No slight meant to Fosstodon at all, it was a great place for me to start. I may even migrate back if I tire of being on a server by myself. The Fediverse lacks centralized discovery, by design, so finding people to follow and talk with can be challenging. A large instance, like Fosstodon, has a lively local timeline. On a Mastodon server that's the stream of posts from all locally signed up users. I found I'd followed enough people that most of my discovery was by referral. I thought a single user instance would be a fun way to work on my self hosting setup and skills. I will write about that setup and what I've learned later. I liked the idea of my tech social identity in the Fediverse being my own, like my website.

So far, I have enjoyed the latest step on my journey into the Fediverse. I still get frustrated at times but have more options here. Other developers are creating tools to address specific frustrations, especially around discovery. There is a robust meta-discussion about features and needs, some that have led to forks and changes already. I expect we'll see more, as the amount of people and attention continues to grow. If I am not enjoying the conversations I am having here, unlike on closed and commercial platforms, I can actually do something about it other than heading for the exit.