A fluffy, unicorn-rich Fediverse awaits. Probably.

Welcome to the Fediverse, starry-eyed noob (TwitterMigration, day 3)

I discovered the Fediverse as I kicked MyHub.ai’s shiny new tyres in early 2020, and I’m kicking myself now for not diving in then.

This is one in a series of posts derived from my chapter in an upcoming book on Personal Knowledge Graphs, along with or some of the side-avenues I discovered along the way and couldn’t fit in. Browse all posts (indeed, all content) related to the chapter on my Hub.

I didn’t actually join Mastodon (the most popular Fediverse app) until last week, when Elon Musk triggered the #twittermigration. Within 36 hours I became for reasons unknown a “mod” (demi-admin) of the server I joined, so I thought I’d share what I’m discovering as I discover it. I’m publishing this on Day 3 of my Fediverse foray, so it’s my starry-eyed optimist version. Life being what it is, other versions will surely follow.

Backing up briefly: Like most people, I heard of Mastodon when it launched in 2016, but didn’t realise the full potential of the underlying “ActivityPub” protocol, which is used by all apps on the Fediverse.

Revisiting the Fediverse in 2020 was a Copernican moment

Launching the alpha version of myhub.ai in early 2020 brought me back into contact with the Fediverse and much more. This was a Copernican moment for MyHub.ai, which transformed (in my plans, at least) from a centralised platform at the heart of its own solar system into just another opensource toolkit, albeit one supporting a decentralised, AI-driven, self-financed collective intelligence ecosystem owned and managed by a data union of its users. More on that, as well as a foretaste of the first spinoff project which is coming online soon, in:

Although I launched a Fediverse Overview on my Hub, however, I still didn’t actually join, for reasons explored later. I’m currently crossposting Twitter<->Mastodon, but pretty soon I’ll probably turn that off and treat both places as completely separate activities. Here’s why.

It’s fun!

There’s a whole world out there beyond the limits of Twitter, and I haven’t felt this way since 2007.

No ads, no content marketing bullshit (yet), no Institutions and companies shouting for my attention as they screw their thumbs tightly into their ears (OK, there are a few, but they’re unintentionally funny), no nutcases and/or disinfo bots proclaiming their beliefs in the economic benefits of Brexit or the irrefutable evidence of chemtrails — none, in short, of the complete bullshit that’s invaded my timeline since I joined Twitter 15 years ago and has slowly but surely eroded the pleasure I had in the app.

For the first time in years I explored with my shields down

In the Fediverse, in contrast, there are actual people, rather than salespeople selling their personal or employers’ brands. I genuinely enjoyed diving in, reading and reacting and following, posting my bio and #introduction post and generally poking around. For the first time in years I could explore an information space with my shields down. It felt great.

Experiences will vary

Even though this is the starry-eyed optimist’s version, I’m fully aware that everything I wrote above (apart from the bit about having fun) could be wrong, or might be wrong sometime soon, or could be wrong for you even if it was true for me. How so?

The Fediverse is not one place

Not even Mastodon is one place. They’re built from myriads of individual servers. I joined the @campaign.openworlds.info server, for example, so my full address is @mathew@campaign.openworlds.info, although on my local server I’m just “@mathew”.

<Simplifications follow> Like email servers and unlike Twitter and Facebook, different Fediverse servers talk to each other without problem, so I can interact with @anyone@any.server. But that does not mean that all the content published on all Fediverse servers is available to me when I login. These servers are networked incompletely — each server decides which other servers to connect (“federate”) to.

Small is Beautiful when you value community over audience

This is a feature, not a bug — Small is Beautiful when you value community over audience:

  • each server is its own community garden, with generally a common topic of interest and local content moderation policies covering things like free/hate speech, etc. tuned to that particular community’s needs (contrast that with how well Zuck’s and Elon’s policies are working when applied to billions and driven by surveillance capitalism);
  • you can visit any garden you want;
  • but your community can cut off the toxic ones so their crap doesn’t appear in your timeline (see below);
  • and you can always decamp to another server if you wish (in theory; I think the admin needs to lend a hand).

This is true not just of Mastodon but (in theory) all Fediverse apps — I can use my Mastodon account to interact with your Peertube account, for example (again, in theory). The Fediverse thus promises a landscape of interconnected gardens of all shapes and sizes, each managed according to its inhabitant’s needs. People can roam everywhere, talk to anyone and change “home garden” at will.

stop copying today’s dominant apps, and start offering something unique

That makes it a competitive, innovative landscape: my hope is that the #twittermigration kickstarts a wave of innovation we haven’t seen since Facebook et al tightened their grip on our online experience a decade ago, and that soon the Fediverse will stop copying today’s dominant apps, and start offering something unique, thus removing one of the top reasons many people don’t make the change (below).

Three timelines

Enough theory: how does the Fediverse — specifically Mastodon — differ from what you’re used to?

There’s loads of content explaining this better by people who know it better, so I’ll just steer you to the one toot (like a Tweet, but longer) I needed to understand why I see three timelines on my Mastodon server:

  • Home timeline: toots from people I follow, including toots they boosted (RT’d)
  • Local timeline: toots from my local server/garden/community
  • Federated timeline: it’s complicated…
image and explanation: @cassolotl@queer.party

Apart from that the rest is pretty familiar: notifications feed, favourites and bookmarks, private conversations among a limited group of friends, etc. When you look closer, however, there are a few differences designed to improve quality and reduce optimising for enragement: there are no Quote Tweets, for example, and toot metrics are not visible from the feed:

This simple change makes you judge a post first by its content, rather than the score attached to it — 4 Twitter features Mastodon is better for not having

The one thing I miss is good threading. Other than that, pretty much like Twitter. Which is probably one of the reasons I didn’t join earlier.

Why didn’t I join earlier?

I haven’t quite figured this one out. Perhaps the pandemic, and/or my focus on myhub.ai, and/or the following reasons.

“It’s just like Twitter, but with none of your friends!”

That may now be an overstatement thanks to Mr Musk, but if you’ve been on Twitter for more than five minutes your network there will inevitably be bigger than your (non-existent) Mastodon network. Duh.

Unfortunately, rebuilding your Twitter network won’t be easy — after all, many of your friends simply aren’t there! And because Twitter et al rely on you being locked inside their walled garden by your friends (who are in turn locked in there by you), you can’t just connect an app to your Twitter account and search Mastodon for them.

it’s more fun exploring new places and meeting new people than being held prisoner in a toxic wasteland

But as you probably know from real life, it’s fun exploring new places and meeting new people, so starting from scratch is not a chore. Moreover, it’s less fun being held prisoner in a toxic wasteland by billionaires who watch and sell every move you make to their business partners. So when that gets too much for you, don’t forget to bring your friends (just try not to make your grand announcement at 3am):

(if you must know I had covid insomnia)

Which server?

I just couldn’t make up my mind which server to join. I hope this isn’t the main reason stopping me, because it’s ridiculous: not only are there tools to help you find the best server for your tastes (try instants.social), it also doesn’t matter where you start: you can follow anyone on any server from any server, and even move servers without losing your network if you want.

In the end I simply went where I knew someone. I’ve known him since I joined a community for ActivityPub experts, where I helped (a little) with a Fediverse training webinar for EC staff in early 2021. He and I didn’t hit it off first time round, but I felt I could trust him.

So look at the people you follow. Chances are someone you know has posted their Fediverse account in their Twitter bio, like me (see above). Ask them what they think. Or just use instants.social.

One thing I knew I wouldn’t do, however, is to simply go to the largest server (Mastodon.social). Right now it’s struggling to cope with #Twittermigration flood, and as set out above you can be based anywhere anyway. The one advantage in joining a large server is that the local feed will have more content, but by definition that won’t be a ‘Small is beautiful’ community with a common interest. It will simply feel more like Twitter. And I have Twitter for that.

Big city, friendly towns

Because I’m not leaving Twitter. I think.

In fairness, I have reason to doubt myself: 6 months after posting Don’t #DeleteFacebook. Take back control with digital minimalism in May 2018, I’d done a quiet quit on Facebook. And I pretty much dropped LinkedIn without even noticing a year or two later.

see Twitter and Mastodon as complementary, not competitors

But right now, I see Twitter and Mastodon as complementary, not competitors. At the risk of exaggerating to make a point:

Big Bad Twitter

Visiting Twitter, for me, will be like going to what people in the Australian bush call “the Big Smoke” - the city. It’s a big, vibrant, dangerous and exciting place: crowded with people streaming past you, plenty of them sleazy, some of them outright criminal and more than the occasional sidewalk madman, foaming at the mouth.

It’s genuinely risky to be here: there are rules, but they’re not consistently applied and there’s absolutely no redress. To make things worse you have zero say in how anything works, and you’ll never, ever meet the Mayor, let alone have a say in who has the job.

But you’ll always discover something or someone new there. Every second person’s selling something, but one in 20 is selling what you need. Besides, you’re selling too, and the place is literally built for business: there are shops and ads everywhere and some of them are yours, and there’s all sorts of tricks to get you the punters you need, if you have deep enough pockets.

The constant noise and ever-louder attention-seeking is exhausting, however, so you always need a shower when you get home.

Your local neighbourhood Fediverse

Your Fediverse experience is different. People don’t go there to make money and neither do you. Your local server is more like a village: it’s small, most people know each other and you all share a common interest in keeping the sidewalks tidy.

But it’s not insular. There are thousands of villages a short hop away, and while each is different, reflecting its inhabitants, you’re in contact with people in many of them as often as you are with your neighbours.

But your village feels best to you. You chose it because you agreed with its rules and how they are applied. There are arguments, of course — what community doesn’t have those? — but everyone knows the people in charge. And both you and they know that you can always just leave for another village if you dislike how things are run without losing your contacts.

This is a fairy tale

The true picture, of course, is not quite like this. I’ve literally been active in the Fediverse for 48 hours, so mistakes are as inevitable as my optimism. In fact I already know there’s plenty of devil in the details left out for reasons of length, so I’m almost certainly going to follow this post with another when I’ve learnt more.

So I’m not advocating you abandon Twitter. I am suggesting you seek a toehold in the Fediverse, and that you bring some friends. Consider it an insurance policy against the more pessimistic predictions about Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter. Including this one:

Mine is not the only fairy tale

Postscript

This post went live with another one which sets the scene for a collective intelligence pilot project some friends and I are launching next month, so why not check it out?

To stay in touch with me as I explore both Fediverse and collective intelligence:

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