Fediverse: the solution for social media or not?

Blog  — Fri 21 Jul 2023

Most people have just become accustomed to the public discussion about AI. However, another discussion is already underway among internet users and tech enthusiasts, namely the one about social media. And despite the title, there is probably no case of Betteridge's law of headlines here.

A discussion about social media?

Big well-known names like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other platforms are currently going through a less pleasant period. Some claim that artificial intelligence (AI) is the cause of their recent challenges and the reason for adopting a more closed nature. So, it does have some overlap with AI after all.

In summary, some of these platforms argue that AI, as it is phrased in the media, puts a heavy strain on their systems. AI, like ChatGPT, acquires knowledge by scouring the internet. ChatGPT specifically claims to have stored 10% of the entire internet, up to September 2021, in its public version.

But apart from the question of whether this is desirable and whether AI may collect all this information without infringing on, for example, copyrights, the question arises whether AI is absorbing information too aggressively, as Twitter and Reddit seem to suggest.

You are the revenue model but receive no guarantees

But if we set AI aside for a moment, you can also ask yourself whether it is correct for major platforms like those mentioned earlier to claim ownership over that information. After all, it was the global community that exchanged all that information, such as texts, images, and videos. Like you.

Platforms facilitate the exchange, and users are given the ability to easily reach others through these platforms. But is it right for a platform to drastically change and suddenly impose special requirements for reaching your network? Or to consider your activity as their property?

At the same time, you are also the revenue model for these platforms. The current platforms earn from ads served to you, and some platforms make deals with other parties to access or use your data. And that's separate from any potential subscriptions you might pay for.

What is Fediverse?

The term 'Fediverse' is expected to appear in the news like 'AI' in the future. It is a portmanteau of 'Federation' and 'Universe'. In short, a combination of two words in one. Fediverse seems to be a good alternative to social media not owned by commercial parties. Fediverse promises that it will never have to bow to investors. It belongs to everyone. It is, in fact, open source.

For newcomers, it takes some getting used to, but it is manageable. Where we currently use Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, or other platforms, one can simply switch to Fediverse. However, confusion begins there immediately. I will explain why.

Decentralized social media

Anyone can start a Fediverse server, which is good, but it can also be confusing. For example, there are Mastodon and Lemmy, to name a few. However, neither of them is directly comparable to the aforementioned well-known platforms like Twitter and Facebook. They act as gateways to what lies behind them, but the real communities are somewhat more hidden.

European governments take the lead

One thing is certain in the Fediverse: all software 'speaks ActivityPub'. That is a technical and open protocol that allows anyone to join the Fediverse. The German Mastodon is an example of this. Due to the unrest at Twitter, the Dutch government is already in the process of setting up its own Mastodon server at social.overheid.nl, for example. This server is intended for government personnel only and is still in its early stages. But the goal is to enable politicians, for example, to continue "tweeting" while the real Twitter might be gradually dismantled.

The German Mastodon is software that 'speaks ActivityPub' and aims to put power back into the hands of users. It should, for instance, not be susceptible to the situation Twitter finds itself in - the threat of collapse. The reason for this is the decentralization of the Fediverse. Anyone can start a server; it is decentralized. And if one registers on one Fediverse server, they can participate in conversations anywhere in the Fediverse.

Think of Fediverse like email

Perhaps the best comparison is with an email address. Wherever you register an email address, you can email anyone. But just like with email addresses, there is a risk that if your email provider stops operating, you lose everything.

In the Fediverse, this is theoretically counteracted by always being able to export a Fediverse account. But if your Fediverse server ceases to exist permanently, it may also come to an end. In theory, a copy of your account should remain safe on any other Fediverse server with which you have interacted, if that was the case. Nevertheless, it feels precarious. And that might be a childhood disease that will be revisited.

What does the future hold for the Fediverse?

The Fediverse is growing, and after the tumult of well-known large platforms, it is growing even faster. Now that governments like the German and Dutch ones seem to be joining, it will only accelerate further, it seems.

From Mastodon to Lemmy, and from social.overheid.nl to lemmy.world and feddit.nl, early adopters are making the switch to the Fediverse. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have recently transitioned from Twitter and Reddit, seeking a home where they can communicate with each other without commercial parties undoing their efforts.

There seem to be a few teething issues, such as the continuity issues discussed earlier, although it is even less certain with a commercial entity, of course. Additionally, the apps, especially for Apple iOS, are still lagging behind for some parts of the Fediverse. Even visiting websites through the mobile browser is not always possible with strict privacy settings. However, this will undoubtedly be resolved in the short term. After all, the Fediverse is for and by people, with many volunteer programmers helping out and even more people engaging in conversations. It could very well become the future of social media.