in User freedom

As Elon Musk took over Twitter, people are migrating to alternative social networks. One of them being Mastodon, it is a decentralized social network based on a protocol named ActivityPub. This protocol is what Fediverse is built upon.

But we don’t want to talk about the technical stuff behind the Fediverse. What we want to talk about is simply how Fediverse and/or Mastodon work. Mastodon is just a part of Fediverse, not all of it. Fediverse is a word built by mixing the two words of federation and universe.

The Fediverse is a network of connected different social platforms making it possible for users to communicate with each other. For example, they can follow each other or send posts to each other or simply share whatever they want without being forced to sign up on a single centralized social network, or a web site, app, whatsoever.

Mastodon, Pleroma, GNU Social, and Pixelfed are some of these different social networks all connected to each other using the protocol they are built upon. Each of those social networks have many instances or servers. So they are federated with each other and each of those federations are also federated to other federations.

If it’s too complicated for you, imagine earth. We have multiple countries, all having relationships with each other, and within every country, there are many cities which are also connected with each other. Now every city also can connect to another city whether it’s inside the country or outside.

The diagram shows the common Fediverse platforms with the underlying protocols. Here it is also shown in color which platforms can communicate with which and what functions are implemented. The platforms are illustrated by the predominant sense and purpose in the pattern of the Fediverse logo.
Imke Senst, Mike Kuketz, RockyIII (licensed CC BY-SA 4.0)

Let’s take USA, England, and Iran as examples. From different continents and every one of which has many cities. Now we consider USA as Mastodon, England as Pleroma, and Iran as GNU Social.

These countries (social networks) have relationships with each other. USA and England have their own relationship, USA and Iran have their own, and Iran and England have their own also.

Every one of these countries (social networks) have their own cities (instances/servers). USA for example has New York and Washington and some smaller cities like Fort Myers, Florida. Each of these cities (instances) are also connected with each other, and also connected to other countries (social networks), like London in England or Tehran in Iran. A person (user) in Tehran (an instance) from Iran (GNU Social) can communicate with another person (another user) from New York (an instance) in USA (Mastodon).

This is basically how the Fediverse works. Fediverse is not a single social network or a web site. Fediverse is a federation of sites and networks all connected to each other.

Another example is email. You (using Gmail) can send a message to your friend (using Yahoo). Both of you can also send and receive messages from your other friends (using AOL). None of you are forced to sign up on a single site or service to be able to send and receive emails.

You surely will understand how the usernames and our user IDs work on Fediverse. Connecting with each other is pretty simple. As everyone can run an instance, people can sign up on any instance they desire or feel welcome.

Say I signed up on mstdn.io with the username of “arh” and you signed up on mastodon.world with “jason” as your username. Just like how you’re @jason on Twitter, you’re @jason on mastodon.world, and your Fediverse ID is @jason@mastodon.world. As Mastodon is federated, you can follow me by searching for @arh@mstdn.io as I’m arh on mstdn.io instance.

And as Mastodon is part of Fediverse, someone with “sara” as username on a Pleroma instance, such as pleroma.social, can be followed by a Mastoson user if the user searches for @sara@pleroma.social. You surely know that pleroma.social is just one example. If you sign up on a pleroma instance named animelovers.xyz with “maggie” as username, then I can follow you by entering @maggie@animelovers.xyz.

Doesn’t matter if someone uses Pleroma or Mastodon, both these social networks are federated with each other, as all social networks in Fediverse are, so the users can interact with each other without being forced to sign up on various web sites or do anything technical.

It as simple as that.

Unlike Twitter which is controlled by a single entity (currently Elon Musk), the Fediverse is moderated by those who run the instances. This prevents dictatorship because every person can run an instance. If you don’t like a person on an instance, you can block that person or even block the whole instance for yourself.

Now I’ve heard some complaints about how Fediverse, or Mastodon, may not have some features people are used to have on Twitter. Or how the way Fediverse works brings some concerns. Let’s answer them.

Verification

Verification process is different from Twitter or other centralized social networks. Anyone can be verified on Fediverse. Unlike Twitter, that a single entity decides who can be verified, on Fediverse you can verify yourself.

And on Fediverse, you don’t need to identify yourself to verify you’re the one behind a specific project or organization. Verification can be done in few different ways.

One way is to place a code on your web page and link to that web page on your Mastodon profile. This is a built-in feature on Mastodon profiles. The code on your web site then can be read from your Mastodon instance and if it reads the code pointing to your Mastodon profile, a green tick will show next to the link you put on your Mastodon profile.

This tick shows that you’re really behind that web page. The code is ready to post, you don’t need to write it. You just copy and paste it to your web site. That easy.

An example of a verified profile on Mastodon with a green tick next to the URL placed in the profile.

The other way of verifying yourself, which you may find hard to do, is to (create and) use a PGP/GPG encryption key and sign a message claiming your Mastodon/Fediverse profile. That may be somehow complicated for you, so we don’t get to that.

One other way is to simply link to your Fediverse profile on other social networks you’re on, or link to your Fediverse profile from your organization web page, without putting that code we talked about. It won’t show a green tick but it does the job. After all, the point of verification is to assure people it’s really you, not to show off, right?

However, Fediverse has a lot of possibilities and you’re not limited to just few ways. You can be creative, or just spend some time on Fediverse and observe how people do it, and you’ll be fine.

Privacy

Most Fediverse social networks are created with privacy in mind. That doesn’t mean they’re always safe, it means they don’t spy on you by default. You won’t see ads, tracking, and/or algorithms o show you what you don’t want. Fedi (short for Fediverse) networks are built for true experience of social networking, without treating you like a product.

Even if you don’t trust any instance, you can create your own. And if you can’t or don’t know how, there are services that will give you a space in exchange for money and they will run the technical stuff for you. Of course you have to trust them to be good.

However, your data is stored on the instance you sign up. If you sign up on social.linux.pizza (a Mastodon instance), only those who run that instance will have access to your data (such as email registered, IP address, last time you used it, etc). If it is placed in Sweden, then they are subjected to Swedish laws. No other instance will have access to your data unless you give them to it or your instance decides to share them. It is better for your privacy because unlike Twitter which is a mega corporation working with governments (specially US), many Fedi admins are just programmers outside US and most hate what governments do to people’s privacy, so they may refuse to work with them.

I saw someone complaining about European Union having its own instance on Fediverse and worried about how they handle privacy.

Those behind that instance can’t access your data unless you give it to them. Fediverse has no central database so unless you sign up on EU’s instance, you’re safe from them collecting your data. And you don’t need to sign up on their instance, that’s the beauty of Fediverse. It’s federated, you can interact with them on your own instance.

Mastodon includes a number of specific privacy features. Each message has a variety of privacy options available, and users can choose whether the message is public or private. Public messages display on a global feed, known as a timeline, and private messages are only shared on the timelines of the user’s followers. Messages can also be marked as unlisted from timelines or direct between users. Users can also mark their accounts as completely private.

Stability

Many Fedi instances are there for a long time. For example, mstdn.social is providing service to people since 2019. Some go back to 2017. If an instance goes down, all you need to do is to use the migration option built in Mastodon and all your followers will automatically move. You can also export your data (such as following list, bookmarks, and favorites) and import them to your new account.

As for posts, it’s now currently possible to migrate them but Mastodon and Fedi networks are built to experience the current moment, for social networking, not to store posts and notes. We have blogs for that matter. And nobody values old accounts over new ones, people generally value your current content and personality.

Plus, Twitter and others are no better than Fediverse. Many major social networks such as Google Plus went down. And many are migrating from Twitter, so I believe Mastodon and other Fedi networks are no less stable than other social networks.

People and Friends

If you’re worried that not enough people are on Fedi, Mastodon alone has about a million and a hundred monthly active users around the network. There are thousands of instances for public and personal use and it’s growing fast. You definitely will find your desired communities and make friends, both new and refuges from Twitter.

You may not gain a million followers but I’ve seen people with 60K followers there so if you care about numbers, there’s that.

Fedi people are mostly nice. Even if you see some idiots, you can block them easily, report them, or even mute a whole instance for yourself. Doing it is pretty easy, and tools provided for you are far better than those on Twitter. Privacy and moderation tools on Fedi are built around the special experience of federated social networks so you won’t feel any lack of needed features to control your own space.

Instances are connected to each other but some instances may decide to block other instances based on the good of people on their own instance. If you’re unhappy with that, you can easily migrate to somewhere else. There are many instances you can choose from based on the experience and level of freedom, or even the content you want.

One way to find a community is to search for a hashtag and follow people talking about it. My advice is to follow a ton of people and build your own network of people, you can always unfollow later.

Moderation

Mastodon uses community-based moderation, in which each server can limit, or filter out undesirable types of content. For example, mastodon.social and several other servers ban content that is illegal in Germany or France, including Nazi symbolism, Holocaust denial, and incitement of violence against ethnics. Servers can also choose to limit, or filter out messages with disparaging content.

Small, closely related communities deal with unwanted behavior more effectively than a large company’s small safety team. Users can also block and report others to administrators, much like on Twitter.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no Nazi content. Some instances (which are mostly blocked by others) are famous for their right-wing racist content. If you’re uncomfortable with them, and your instance doesn’t block them, do it yourself. It’s easy.

Features and using

Mastodon and other Fedi networks have various apps. You’re not limited to web site or official apps. I believe you can find them on your phone’s app store.

As for features, some apps may give you more features and better experience than other ones. Specially the older apps, as they have more experience and user base, may give you a better user experience. Mastodon has a lot of features.

Mastodon has features to search for hashtags and people, create polls, post privately, limit posts to your followers, local and federated timelines, custom emojis on instances, and changing the user interface for yourself. Needless to mention dark themes and other basic stuff such as content warning feature that you may not find on other social networks.

Plus, Mastodon is optimized for disabled people in various people. There is a large disabled community on Mastodon and they feel welcome, safe, and can use the Fediverse social networks easily with much less problems than other ones.

Oh, one thing worth mentioning is that Mastodon post limit is 500 characters. Some other instances and some other social networks on Fedi provide more characters.

That’s it

I know you probably don’t want to read this long article telling you Fediverse is simple to use, but believe me, most of it is self-explaining. It’s really very easy to use. You won’t need to even spend a day on it to find out about features and ways to use it.

My final advice is to sign up on smaller instances for the sake of federated networks, and more importantly, read your instance’s community guidelines and rules for best experience.

Good luck and have fun. Oh, and if you signed up, follow me on Mastodon and let me know how you feel.