Fediverse, Self-hosting, Blockchain & more: What's the Decentralized Web?
We explore ONE approach to the decentralized web: the Fediverse. How it works, how to join, how to make use of it, what's great about it and what could be improved.
Part 1- Discovering one approach to the decentralized Web: the Fediverse.
What is the Fediverse?
This article is dedicated to Ilya Zhitomirskiy, who took his own life in 2011 while working on a distributed social network that became an essential part of the Fediverse and its history: Diaspora.
The Fediverse is the name given to an informal collection of federated services, including social networks, running Free, Open-Source software. These services are decentralized across a myriad of servers around the globe. It is not a protocol, but a collection of applications and protocols made to talk to each other while (roughly) following the same 'spirit': no personal data collection, no centralization, less censorship, and more cooperation between developers.
Microblogging, sharing photos, watching videos, even listening to music: there's one or more than one decentralized version of your favorite app for just about everything. An excellent place to start discovering the Fediverse is fediverse.to, a 'directory' of the services offered. A more technical hub is fediverse.space which provides a visual representation of the Fediverse, the activity on each instance and how each relates to the other.
Don't think of the Fediverse as a collection of substandard software! Contrary to the oft-mocked 'dated' look of some GNU/FLOSS applications, the various apps found on the Fediverse are visually and functionally competitive with the best of what the commercial space has to offer!
Interesting factoid: the two major competitors to Twitter - Gab.com and TRUTH Social - are 'forks' (clones) of Mastodon, one of the several Twitter equivalents on the Fediverse. Instead of reinventing the wheel, both companies controversially opted to clone the repos and "turn off the code" that allows for the interconnectivity between server instances, essentially "recentralizing" the software.
It is not the first time commercial enterprises have tried to take advantage of open source software - I remember when in 2015, various groups of individuals threatened to take the Ethereum codebase and launch their copy before we could instantiate the network. Human nature never changes!
The Fediverse in numbers
The Fediverse is much larger than you might expect: over 10,000 'nodes' (servers), five and half million registered users, and over half a billion posts ranging from photos uploaded to status updates (source: https://the-federation.info).
However, it sits at a reasonably conservative one million Monthly Active Users, which may seem inconsequential compared to the centralized social giants. On the other hand, as of 2022, it's likely several orders of magnitude larger than the user base of blockchain-based 'dApps' should you exclude the realm of exchanges and defi frontends.
Another interesting number is zero (0, nill, zilch). That's the cost of posting photos of your breakfast or updating your social media status timeline. Zero is also the number of tokens available to pump & dump on the decentralized web formed by the Fediverse. Zero is, therefore, the market capitalization of these fundamentally altruistic projects. It might come as a surprise - and we'll explore why it's neither a disaster nor a panacea in the second part of this article.
How do I get started?
I imagine you're now quite keen to give it a go. There's no particular browser to use, no complex technical instructions to follow and nothing to buy. I'm going to assume you'd like to explore an alternative to Twitter, so let's look at one of the several matching Fediverse alternatives: Mastodon.
Step 1: Head to https://instances.social/list/advanced - on the left-hand side of the screen, select your language of choice, what's your level of tolerance for NSFW content and hit search.
As a new user, it's probably tempting to go on the most notable instance because we've been brainwashed into understanding the web in a top-down, pyramidal way where the "winner takes all". You need to remember the whole point of this exercise is to decentralize the web, so do not be afraid to join a minor instance that better reflects your worldview - it (mostly) won't impact your capacity to browse everything anyways.
Step 2: Create an account on that instance. All the instances share the same rough look and feel - after all, it's all the same software, just different servers!
Step 3- You'll need to find a few people to get started, and https://communitywiki.org/trunk is an excellent place to find like-minded individuals. You're ready to build the echo chamber of your dreams! Yes, that's sarcasm, but it's also important to note that decentralization cannot fix human psychology.
And you're done. Congratulations, you're now using the Fediverse!
Mastodon is a microblogging platform, so it works just like Twitter does. The difference is that because there are multiple servers at play, you'll need to specify where your account 'lives' when following someone else. My handle is email@example.com, and yours could be from any of the 3788 instances available.
And there lies the significant difference with the centralized web. If Twitter goes down, is censored in your country or hosts content that violates your local laws, you can't do anything about it. With Mastodon, you're an instance jump away to find a server that better represents you.
Don't care for microblogging? At the time of writing, 24 other services were available on the Fediverse - head to fediverse.observer/list to find the instance of your dreams.
The Fediverse is the web, so there's almost no learning curve. I say almost because you probably aren't used to the many advantages open protocols offer. Twitter, Google and Meta have done a fantastic job at setting the expectation bar so low that it can be a bit overwhelming to have access to so much choice:
Endless choice of both protocols and clients
Regardless of protocol, you can leverage many clients irrespective of which operating system or hardware you're on, including minority platforms forgotten by the tech giants. You're free to use more than one software made by more than one team to browse the same data. You could spend days discovering new options - it's hugely liberating - or simply pick something you're comfortable with on both desktop and mobile.
Interconnectivity between any service
Because the various tech leads of these open protocols are excellent people, they made it possible for you to follow another user using the login you own on a different instance - even from a different protocol. In plain English, if I enjoy the tech tutorial videos from Veronica Explains on TILvids, I can simply 'subscribe' to that channel using my Mastodon login.
Tinkering and a sense of achievement just like in the 90s
Since the code is open source, you can run your own instance of any of the Fediverse services - at home or on a 3rd party host. Try to avoid the very large hosting platforms - *cough* Amazon *cough* - to stay in line with the philosophy of decentralization! Some people take great pride in doing so, something Chris Tottier describes eloquently in this article on his journey to build his own PixelFed (an Instagram equivalent) instance. Many will enjoy the feeling of "regaining power" over something they felt they had lost permanently - and, in the case of my younger readers, may have never known!
An opportunity to make the open mentality go viral
The concepts and engineering principles underpinning the Fediverse are highly advantageous to users, and soon, you'll be wondering why your favorite app doesn't implement them. For example, a service I use to generate email addresses on the fly - Anonaddy (unrelated to the Fediverse)- executes on these principles of openness to perfection. I pay them to host a software they developed but keep access to the source code, so should that company go under (God forbid), I can restore the service on my servers in a few clicks. Once you're 'hooked', you'll find it inconvenient to "go back" to centralized options.
Let's be honest: as of 2022, the Fediverse still attracts geeks and like-minded individuals that miss the "good old days" of the Internet, the days when we still dreamt of a cyberspace that would transcend nations, abolish monopolies and leave no one but the Luddites behind.
Re-centralization looms, always
If you're not familiar with the fantastic Matrix protocol and its element.io chat client, you're missing out. I was lucky to host Matthew Hodgson at one of my Ethereum meetups, and five years ago, Matrix was already innovating on features major chat clients would be thrilled to have today.
While not part of the Fediverse, it shares a common problem. Anyone can create and host a server, anywhere - but very few do. Should the Matrix official servers go down, 95+% of the network would go dark. Likewise, while Mastodon has achieved a limited but decent amount of decentralization, not all Fediverse protocols are that lucky.
No aggregated identity
Remember when I mentioned how you could subscribe to a Peertube feed using your Mastodon login? Don't confuse this for single sign-on. Think more in terms of how two users leveraging two different email providers can communicate - sure, you can email a Tutanota address from your Google account - but you can't use your Google account to sign in to Tutanota's servers.
The Fediverse means less censorship and more choice because anyone can create an instance of, say, a Twitter-like service. And just under 4,000 individuals and organizations chose to do just that. There are instances where users only speak Bosnian, 'conservative' servers and 'liberal' ones. Just like on the blockchain, conflicting worldviews can exist simultaneously on the same protocol, and most instances opt to link with all others. However, nothing 'forces' them to.
We've mentioned the more ostentatious examples of corporations forking a GitHub repository and releasing it as a single-server, monolithic commercial entity. It feels unfair, but at least these websites are upfront about their views. Far more insidious are Fediverse instances that, under the guise of protecting their users from content they deem 'toxic', selectively block federation and, therefore, what their users can connect to or not. The counterargument to this is that anyone, including yourself, can and should run their own instance and be the master of their destiny. But this echoes the 'build your own bank' logical fallacy. Not great.
A surface-level approach to the issue of centralization
There's a reason why the Ethereum Foundation initially wanted to release a decentralized app store, a decentralized messaging layer called Whisper and even a decentralized peer-to-peer transport layer, Devp2p. Federating the web is a good starting point but not a panacea. The following article will address why no one has solved this urgent problem despite access to both countless resources and tremendous goodwill from fantastic developers.
Under representation in search results
During the research for this article, that I struggled to find relevant search results about the Fediverse ...on the Fediverse using centralized sites such as Google. Some will scream 'conspiracy', and perhaps there are reasons to be concerned.
Others will point out that Wikipedia hosts a reasonably comprehensive list of distributed social networking projects, and it's difficult to ignore that the list of "Dead or stalled projects" exceeds the length of 'Active' ones. And it stands to reason that if your social graph is spread across 4,000 or more different TLDs, any given search engine will struggle to crawl the entirety of the set in a meaningful way.
There's no "catch" to the Fediverse. The web was always meant to be that way. Self-host Mastodon, Diaspora and Pixelfed, and you've just replaced Twitter, Meta and Instagram from your life with free & open implementations that do not treat you like a statistic to sell to and manipulate.
The Fediverse is growing fast. In recent years it's been common for its protocols to triple or even quadruple server numbers, adding to the network's decentralization. When provided with the opportunity and the education, people will make the switch, or at least run both models in parallel.
Best of all, the Fediverse doesn't have a monopoly on free and open source applications. Once you get used to the concept, there's no going back. From backups to scheduling appointments, from document editing to chat, from project management or organizing your code, we should be thrilled it's possible self-host just about everything these days. I'll touch on this in the next post, but head to Cloudron to get a preview.
The Fediverse is not perfect. Ultimately, it's not solving, nor does it intend to solve issues around transport or messaging layers or prevent Sybil attacks, among some of its limitations. And the smart, hard-working developers behind these projects aren't hosting Lamborghini giveaways during yacht parties (yes, it's a thing) the way their blockchain counterparts do.
I will explore this infuriating dichotomy in the next post, reflect on my 12+ years in this space, and analyze why we still do not have a truly decentralized web in 2022.
About the Author
I'm Stephan Tual and my passion is communicating the impossible while building lasting communities. I was the architect behind the marketing & partner strategy for Ethereum.
I'm helping companies like yours navigate buzzword-rich, complex yet promising next-generation technologies: AI, ML, Deep Learning, Crypto through my unique boutique consultancy: Ursium.AI.
I regularly speak at both small and large conferences or community events.
Full bio: https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephantual/