As of August 14th, CRASH Space has finally joined the ActivityPub based Fediverse by launching it’s own Mastondon instance. By running a Mastodon instance, CRASH Space provides a place for it’s members to congregate online and explore the Fediverse together. Many of us have been online for 20 years+ and have watched as our small weird independent communities have aggregated into private walled gardens. Even if this round of federated social media doesn’t last, the reminder that the internet represents a growing, changing ecosystem that hasn’t run out of tricks yet feels like a breath of fresh air.
What is the Fediverse?
The “Fediverse” is a collection of servers speaking and sharing the same social-networking feed language, in our case, the ActivityPub protocol. ActivityPub became a W3C recommended protocol just this past March, and there are already quite a few projects implementing it, including PeerTube for video. ActivityPub succeeds OStatus, which implemented a sort of pushed-RSS. ActivityPub improved the protocol by implementing concepts like message publicity scope, but neither OStatus or ActivityPub provide for secure communication.
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon seems to be a WordPress (or b2/cafelog?) like turning point in the Fediverse, in that it represents a radical lowering of the bar for getting hooked up. The proliferation of servers means individuals have more choices to find a corner of the Fediverse that feels like home without having to be an admin themselves.
Technically speaking, Mastodon provides an Open Source, Ruby on Rails based implementation of the ActivityPub protocol. It packages together a server and a webclient with sensible defaults. Using the docker-repo, an “instance” can be spun up in an afternoon by someone with someone moderate web server experience and familiarity with Linux command line. The difficulty level for this process lines up about with experimenting on a RasberryPi. However, already at least one Mastodon instance hosting company has come to the rescue since sever maintenance is still server maintenance.
How do Mastodon users sign up?
People don’t “join Mastodon” like they “join Twitter.” Mastodon instances continue to multiply and the finding one that feels like a fit will be the first step. Instances provide a home community, but also an address, like an email address, that will be unique in the Fediverse. Users can then follow other addresses on other ActivityPub enabled sites, populating the “Federated Timeline” that all users on the home instance can see. That timeline provides a way to share content from all over the Fediverse with the home community. Each Mastodon instance can choose to mute or block specific handles or entire other servers. Mastodon.social, run by Eugen Rochko, the lead developer on Mastodon, has a fairly open policy with limitations. Counter.social admins lock it down so no one outside the instance can read what’s posted there. Social.coop makes those decisions together. Choices run the gamut and those of us new to the party have already missed at least one round of block-list wars.
This brings up how much the admins matter. ActivityPub has the same lack of encryption problems as email, and to some that makes it a non-starter. Nothing gets hidden from admins, so, for example, to believe a private message isn’t getting read you have to believe that NONE of the admins on any of the instances mentioned will be poking around. Instances have largely been set up by individuals without formal governance in place, and perhaps not a lot of experience with moderation or running communities. No directory service has been created as of yet to certify or flag servers for their admin practices. Most small instances will not be able to afford to stand up to lawsuits that subpoena user data. Certainly lots of folks are signing up on servers without being aware of the risks.
However, know Mastodon isn’t? It isn’t in charge of the Fediverse. It’s a piece of open software that once installed can be configured however the community running it wants, forked even. The users of software that interface with the Fediverse have the freedom, and responsibility, to work it out.