A guide to and thoughts on Mastodon and the Fediverse

As written by a dabbling quasi-layperson who has explored it a bit for a semester

So, at this point two (2) of my friends have shown some level of interest in ‘mastodon’. Between Twitter’s Billionaire-induced collapse and just the fact that I’ve been talking about it. – I am tempted to quote the Dr. Doofenshmirtz meme just as much as anyone as nerdy as I would be. But these two friends both have something in common, which is some slight – Confusion-question-mark? about a lot of things pertaining the subject.

So I am making this post, specifically to show them, in hopes of making what I learned from a bit of exploration and trial-and-erroring clearer to them… And so I can easily show it to anyone else who asks me about this. Make everyone’s life easier, I guess.

I wanted the debut of this blog to be an in-depth review of Sonic Frontiers, but I don’t control when my hyperfocus mode kicks in, and it kicked in for this. So. Here we are now.

Bit one: The “Fediverse”

So Mastodon is actually a part of a bigger… Thing. Which the veterans of this space, most of whom are very techy linux-sysadmin types, say is called ‘the Fediverse’…

Though donning my communicologist hat for a few seconds, should these applications and services ever reach widespread use with “normal people”, I will not be surprised if “mastodon” becomes a generic name for everything even remotely fediverse related, for the same reason the only place you’ll ever see a Q-Tip be called a “Cotton Swab” is on Television where they have to care about trademark names. (And also the same reason why no one calls it GNU-Plus-Linux)

The “fediverse” name is, however, the more accurate one. As it describes what is actually a dozen different services over thousands of separate servers, all of which can talk to each other, through what is called “Federation”

Bit two: What does this all mean though?

It might be easier to make sense of it all if I describe it with an example: I created an account on equestria.social, a website that runs the Mastodon application. (This is called a “mastodon instance” by the fediverse people! And my account being made within equestria.social, makes that site my ‘home instance’) – This has given me an address of sorts, think of it like an e-mail address. This address is @vinesnfluff@equestria.social.

But! Through this account, whether I’m on the equestria.social website or on a mastodon app for my phone, I can see and interact with posts from other sites, such as tech.lgbt, fosstodon.org, meow.social, masto.ai, opensource.org – Just to name servers from which I have boosted posts in recent times.

Interaction with stuff from other servers is quasi-seamless. You can even leave your own feed (which is populated with accounts you follow), and open a “Federated Timeline”, which will show you posts from any instance that happens to be within the federation as they come. And this can help me find other accounts to follow and such.

In practice this means that if you copied that address I wrote above, @vinesnfluff@equestria.social, onto the search bar, regardless on which mastodon site or application you were, you’d find my account, and regardless of where you’d created your account, you would be able to see it, follow it, read its posts, send me hate-DM’s, etc. But this actually goes one step further!

Bit three: The fediverse is BIG and CONFUSING

There is good reason why the veterans of the space insist you should call it ‘fediverse’, not ‘mastodon’ or anything else of the sort. Put simply, Mastodon is just one of the applications which exists within the ‘universe’. To use the ‘-verse’ terminology, Mastodon would be like one star system, with its instances being different planets. But there are other star systems! A few examples include Pleroma, Lemmy, Peertube, and Pixelfed. What are these?

Well, basically, they are other programmes that a system admin could be running on their server, resulting in a very different user experience should you access their site, for applications that suit other uses better…

But! because of how the open standards talk to each other, you often can look at posts that were made from a Pleroma instance, or a Lemmy instance, or a Pixelfed instance – From within Mastodon. And the opposite is also often true! Basically, so long as the road of federation is open between servers, you could, from within Mastodon, look at a post that was made on Pixelfed and interact with it.

To put this into perspective, imagine if a post from DeviantArt actually existed inside Twitter. Not a link. Not a share. Not the same content copied between the sites but otherwise independent, the actual same post. You could reply to the “tweet” and it’d show up as a comment on dA, and vice-versa, dA comments could show up as “tweets” inside your Twitter and this interaction would be mostly seamless.

This means that, say, if you are browsing around your Mastodon feed, you might see a post that is far longer than 500 characters, and you might wonder why that happens. Well, that is because that post was made from within a different application, designed for a different purpose, but that application was also in the fediverse, and so that post could also appear inside Mastodon! Mastodon and Pleroma both aim to be Twitter alternatives, but for instance, Pixelfed is image-oriented, meant for art. Lemmy positions itself as a Reddit equivalent. Plume is meant for full-on blogs with formatted long-form posts. Etc.

Bit four: DE-Federation

It is also worth mentioning that – While all the instances of all the different applications within the Fediverse CAN talk to each other, not all of them DO. If you join any community on the Fediverse, any at all, you will inevitably, eventually, hear discourse about something they call hashtag-Fediblock. Whether it be people bringing up some instance that they feel should be blocked, or people saying it is literally nineteen-eighty-four super-hyper censorship. What’s hashtag-Fediblock?

Well, put simply, administrators of instances within the Fediverse can choose to disconnect from other specific instances. Meaning that posts on those instances will no longer be visible to those within the blocking instance.

Suppose, for example, that I were the admin of an LGBTQ-oriented instance. And I knew that this other instance had a lot of transphobic members and such. Rather than trying to persuade that instance’s admin to ban the transphobes, or trying to somehow get that other instance off the air, or some other fool’s errand like that… I could simply and harmlessly disconnect my instance from theirs. Thus making it so their users could not interact with mine without a lot of hoop-jumping, and greatly reducing the damage they could do.

A de-federation, or fediblock, is not a full on blockage, mind. Suppose I had an account on Instance A that is blocked from interacting with Instance B. I could still make an account ON Instance B… And provided I followed Instance B’s rules while there, I could keep that account and interact with people from Instance B as much as I wanted.

Additionally, users can in fact mute other users or instances locally, for themselves, without making a change to their whole instance.

Bit five: What does this mean for ME?

(normal people stop reading after this one ends :P)

In short? That you should dip your toes into the Fediverse, if just for the fun of it… And for doing so have lots of options. And honestly, having these many options can be super overwhelming? Like, knowing that you’re not just joining a social media site, but inserting yourself into a whole “universe” of different “social media sites” that all integrate with each other? Overwhelming. Where do I even start? What do I even do?

Honestly. I’d say you should do what I did. Which is to just. Hold your breath and dive in, even if you don’t fully get it.

Look at any instance of whatever Fediverse application you feel is close enough. My first fedi account was on beehaw.org, a Lemmy Instance that seeks to be “like reddit but pleasant”, through it I looked at some Mastodon posts and decided to move house to Mastodon, where I have since stayed (though I moved instances within Mastodon).

Since the Fediverse is one big mega-network-of-networks, an account on one instance of one application is all you need to start exploring. If you ever change your mind and feel like a different application or instance fits you better, migration is a four-step process, so not entirely effortless but also not a complete nightmare either.

Bit six: The part where I’m a nerd about why all of this is cool

There is a whole separate effort-post I could make about cognitohazards, about perception, and about how a word can become in and of itself “dirty” by emotional association with unpleasant things. Today is not the day I make that post, however. Suffices to say, there are two words that are, in my own heart, dirty by association, even though they shouldn’t be?

These words are ‘decentralised’ and ‘censorship’. The first one brings to my mind the memory of Bitcoin-evangelists, both of the true believer who genuinely thinks the fake-math-money inside his computer is some great tool of resistance against the government and the grifter who knows it’s all fake but needs the true believer for his investment to turn a profit. The second one brings to mind the kind of idiot with no filter whatsoever, who thinks experiencing consequences for their generalised lack of a filter, whether it be getting their social media account blocked/banned, or simply some other people calling them an asshole, is instead some great conspiracy to silence them.

I do realise that these associations are mostly a me problem. A case of being too online and exposing myself to certain types of content way too much. Truth is, we should be talking about censorship, because it is more relevant right now than it’s been for a long while. And decentralisation? Actual decentralisation is a good thing.

The thing that is happening on Twitter, while pretty entertaining, both because Twitter was a cesspit and because getting to laugh at a man that is functionally royalty is cathartic in this hellworld we live in – Should alarm you. It is healthy to look at it and realise that what is happening there is not a good thing.

While dunking on Twitter as a whole is Twitter’s (and to be honest the rest of the web’s) favourite pastime – It is at best naïve and at worst dangerous to ignore the weight Twitter had. Because it had weight. Because it was important. It was where corporations went to advertise, yes. It was where politicians with more savvy than ‘none’ sought to make the bulk of their campaigns. Heck, for a lot of journalists and would-be journalists, Twitter was the go-to place to both break new stories with a speed that no other means of communication could match and to get a feel for the pulse of how society was reacting to certain events. Twitter’s Trending Topics were, in fact, a valuable tool in knowing what things were on the public’s mind at any given time.

Twitter… Mattered. I hate to admit it, but it mattered.

One man. One man with an amount of money no one should ever have, was able to just. Buy Twitter. The entire thing. The whole platform is now at his whims. He does not answer to a board. He does not answer to anyone. At least for now.

And actual censorship has been taking place on Twitter. Accounts that merely criticized Elon were “suspended indefinitely”. An account that tracked Elon’s private jet (using information that had always been publically available, but giving it an audience) got surprise-banned, along with every other flight-tracking account run by that user, including ones that tracked things like NASA flights and such.

Elon Musk, is at the present time the actual king of Twitter, with complete and absolute power over the platform and answering to no one.

Will he probably back the fuck down when he realises how much money he is losing and how much bad PR he’s generating for himself? Possibly. Will people continue to communicate and just take their business elsewhere no matter how hard Elon Musk oversteps? Most definitely. Even if the Twitter corporation and all its associated services utterly collapse due to this, there will be a thousand other services, both corporate and independent, growing in its corpse. It is already happening. It will continue to happen.

This isn’t, to cite the meme, literally 1984. Which is part of why it’s so much fun to laugh at King Musk and his antics: The stakes are, to be honest, actually pretty low right now.

But imagine, for one second, that it had not been an incompetent man who failed into success by being a literal slave-owner’s dumb manchild antics. Imagine instead that, say, a government took power in a major and powerful country like the US of A, and for the sake of argument, imagine that, whoever you are, whatever your political affiliations are, you hate this government and they hate you. Now imagine that centralised Media Platforms like Twitter and whatnot were seized by a government like that. Imagine that they started running complex censorship on those platforms to silence their opponents. That every other platform were made illegal. Or. Worse. Imagine they started quietly using those centralized platforms to gather information.

Twitter and its ilk actually collect a lot more data than just ‘whatever you knowingly post there’, it is well known that they know your location, they know when you go into and out of their site/app and from/to where you are doing so. And that is just the stuff we know about. Because they are closed off black boxes and no one but those who work there (and are under extensive NDAs) actually know how they work, they could be collecting far more. They could be listening in on your conversations and recording them, they could be watching your eyes through the camera on your device, and even with extensive knowledge of technology and the means and desire to study it, you could still never find out about the full extent of what it is doing.

Again, imagine a government that hates you having access to all that data. Using it to ruin your life or outright kill you.

Now realise that this isn’t some dark sci-fi scenario: This literally already happens if you live in mainland China. All it would take for it to happen to you, in whatever country you are in, is for your government to have the will to do so. The data is already there, and it is buyable by anyone willing to pay for it. It’s an amount of money that very few individuals can afford, but which corporate and government entities can pay with their equivalent of milk money.

And this is why Decentralization and Open Standards are important. And we should be talking about them.

Because the Fediverse isn’t one site running a service, but a thousand different sites running a dozen different services, it is very hard to actually censor. No one can “buy Mastodon” and become a petty dictator of Mastodon. People running individual instances can play petty dictator, if they want to, but you can always move to another instance, defederate, leave them alone in their empty kingdom.

Because the Fediverse runs on open source code, one can know exactly what data is going in and coming out of it. I mean, I do not have the skill to read computer code, maybe you do, reader, maybe you don’t. The point is, someone can, in fact anyone can if they are willing to put in the work and study. What’s more, because the code is open and not really ‘owned’ by anyone, should this ever change, should Mastodon decide to start collecting metadata to sell, anyone with the know-how could fork out an older version of the codebase, and continue making an alternative program that is functionally equal but without the “evil” programmed in.

This matters. This is important. This is powerful stuff.

Bit seven: Uhhhh….

If you have read my nonsense this far. WOW! Thank you so much. I can really get away from myself when I want to talk about something, and then I don’t know when to stfu. If you enjoyed it, what is wrong with you, idk, maybe show it to your friends or drop me a comment or talk to me on Masto. Like every info-dumping neurodivergent person, I thrive on attention, give me it.