Although the Fediverse is still small when compared to the number of users on mainstream platforms, those interested in the future of the internet and regulation should be aware of the Fediverse and how it works, who uses it and why it’s important.
The Fediverse is a network of interconnected servers that communicate with each other based on decentralized networking protocols. These servers have varying uses and different services, such as social media or file hosting.
In order to have a grasp of how the Fediverse works, there is need to understand the central concepts, namely the software platforms that comprise the Fediverse, and the communication protocols used by those software platforms.
Fediverses aren’t websites
Signing up to a Fediverse service isn’t the same as signing up to Elon Musk’s Twitter or Meta’s Facebook, where one creates an account and uses it to communicate only with other users on that platform.
The Fediverse services aren’t single websites, but pieces of open-source software that allow anyone to run their own social networking service using that particular software’s functions.
Picture this; you are running your own kind of Facebook where you keep all the functionality and features that Facebook’s software incorporates, but you determine who’s allowed onto your Facebook and the rules they have to follow. Sounds cool?
Well, the servers on the Fediverse, are called “instances,” and they federate with other “instances”, so the user experience is that of an integrated social network.
This leads to a decentralized distribution of authority and responsibility across the network.
In practice, Mastodon, one of the Fediverses, provides microblogging software, but those hosting instances retain complete authority over how they wish their particular community to function. While this structure provides users and instance owners with greater control, it also means that individual instances must manage their own operations and security.
For example, individual instances are responsible for mitigating distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks themselves—without centralized governance, there’s no centralized protection.
Which protocols are in use in the Fediverse?
A number of different protocols are in use across the Fediverse, including ActivityPub and diaspora. In Fediverses, shared protocols allow users of different software platforms to communicate with each other. For instance, a Mastodon instance and a non-Mastodon instance can communicate when both use the ActivityPub protocol.
In other words, having an account on Friendica doesn’t limit you to communicating only with other Friendica users—because Friendica is part of the Fediverse, users of other services like Mastodon or Pleroma can communicate with you directly without needing to share a platform.
This would be similar to scrolling an Instagram feed, but Facebook posts from friends and from Twitter users one follows also appear integrated into the platform.
How many users are in the Fediverse?
Although it is difficult to estimate the exact number of Fediverse users because of the decentralization of the services, estimates by third parties, show a growth from about 600,000 users in early 2019 to 4.5 million in late 2021.
Different audiences have embraced it for a variety of reasons. Some were concerned about remaining on mainstream social media platforms because of trolling and spamming. For instance, Mastodon focused on its ability to provide a more curated space free from the “toxic behavior” generally prevalent on platforms like Twitter.
In 2017, federated services were described as appealing to “queer and trans” demographic groups who “fled Twitter due to harassment.”
This movement was due in part to the increased power of moderation tools to allow users to curate their own online experiences. For example, Mastodon introduced “defederation” in 2017, which allows instances to block all content from another instance considered problematic or harmful. Instances can also choose to only federate with a small number of other instances vetted for, for example, friendliness to LGBTQ users.
While mainstream social media platforms allow individual users to block others, the Fediverse allows for community-level engagement with, or disengagement from, other communities.