The ‘Fediverse’ — an old key to a new internet?

The ‘Fediverse’ — an old key to a new internet?
Опубликовано: Wednesday, 05 April 2023 11:06
The ecosystem of all these protocol-connected social networks is called the fediverse: a federated/decentralised, diverse universe. The closed domains of Twitter and Facebook are past history (Photo: Pexels)

Thank you Elon Musk. No, really. Thanks to your rash and toxic performance as (resigning?) CEO of Twitter, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people have started looking for alternative ways to be social on the internet without falling prey to your whims or tantrums.

Rehearsing once again your messy career in detail here makes little sense and would also lead us away from the essentials. But we need to talk about one decision.

  • The migration of Twitter users to Mastodon followed Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in 2022 (Photo: Wikimedia)

In mid-January, Twitter announced, via its own platform of course, that it would enforce its "long-standing API rules", as a result of which some apps would no longer work. That something was amiss with that API had already become clear in the previous days to people using Twitter via external apps such as Tweetbot and Tweetlogix.

These apps happened to stop working from one moment to the next. And then Twitter came up with a strange announcement about "long-standing API rules". It’s still not clear which rules the external parties had broken. What is more than clear is that Twitter had visibly had enough of those popular external apps. Anyone who still wanted to use Twitter via an app now had no choice but to install the Twitter app itself. A long time later, the cat really came out of the bag: from 13 February, unlimited free access to Twitter’s API was over. The fence around Twitter is getting even higher.

For those for whom the above seems gibberish, fear not. You’re not the only ones. We all know apps, but what the hell is an API? And why is this important? API stands for Application Programming Interface. In short, it ensures that one computer programme can communicate with another. Twitter’s (no longer) open API allows programmers, for example, to develop an app that allows people to send tweets, follow others, and so on. Or with which you can log in to another site with your Twitter account. Or with which scientists or journalists can collect data to conduct research into what’s happening on the platform.

In short: thanks to the API, Twitter is — or was — a slightly less private domain. Although the decision as to exactly what information Twitter shared via the API remained entirely with the company itself. The fact that Twitter makes its API less open and makes us pay for it, throws a spanner in the works. For example, to research the algorithms of social media platforms the European CrossOver-project also uses this API. "This dramatic restriction will disrupt critical projects from thousands of journalists, academics, and civil society actors worldwide," wrote the Coalition for Independent Technology Research in an open letter signed by hundreds of organisations and researchers.

"We call on Twitter to ensure that APIs for studying public content on the platform remain easily accessible for journalists, academics, and civil society. Data access is a fundamental building block of transparency and accountability. Twitter’s new barriers to data access will reduce the very transparency that both the platform and our societies desperately need."

A ‘fediverse’ internet

One of the applications that cannot function without access to Twitter’s API is Movetodon. And that’s highly symbolic. This free tool made it easy for people to find their Twitter friends on the Mastodon social network. Not coincidentally, developer Tibor Martini launched the tool at the end of November 2022, during one of the big waves of the #TwitterMigration.

That migration of Twitter users to Mastodon followed Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and was then propelled by the increasingly bold decisions of the new Chief Twit. The fact that those fleeing users could find each other more easily on Mastodon thanks to tools such as Movetodon was a thorn in Musk’s side. On his first day as CEO, Musk tweeted that "the bird is freed". Many fervent users took that literally: they flew out of the blue cage in search of new nesting grounds. The large influx of new users sometimes produced frustration among the people who have made Mastodon what it is today over the years. Their relative calm was disturbed by a horde of ill-behaved Twitterati, addicted to algorithm-driven outcry.

It seems unlikely that all those Twitter migrants knew that the key to the new internet lies with Mastodon. Mastodon proved a popular refuge mainly because people prefer to land where others are active. Although some of them will have discovered that key in the meantime. But what makes Mastodon so special? Even if the number of users has increased dramatically in recent months — from half a million before Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, to about 1.5 million active users in early February — Mastodon is not a new kid on the block.

Eugen Rochko launched his brainchild back in March 2016 and, until the major Twitter migration, it could grow and be improved calmly and quietly. Above all, what Mastodon is not — and that distinction is crucial to this argument — is a platform. It’s not a new Twitter or Facebook that allows users (and advertisers) to interact and squabble within one tightly-closed domain. And Mastodon doesn’t want to be that at all. For Rochko, one of the reasons for developing Mastodon was "a sense of distrust of the top-down control that Twitter exercised". A centralised platform with himself as Musk? He just didn’t have that in mind.

So what is Mastodon? Free and open-source software that people and organisations can use to set up their own social networks. Anyone who wants can run Mastodon’s software on a server to which users can log on. And apparently a lot of people want just that. Meanwhile, thousands of ‘Mastodons’ are active, interconnected and operating as a real social network.

Some of these Mastodon instances — as they are officially called — have tens of thousands of users, others limit the number of users, and still others have just one. Some instances target a general audience, others specifically scientists, climate activists, or Star Trek aficionados. The rules of conduct can also vary, as can the way in which the discussions are moderated. To each their own. But — again crucially — users of different instances can follow each other and communicate with each other if they want to. Or, if they are not satisfied, they can easily switch to another instance. And all this they owe to an internet old-timer: a protocol.

Mastodon is not a platform like Twitter or Facebook precisely because — and again this is crucial information for this argument — it uses the ActivityPub protocol. This is in fact a set of rules that define how users, but also the servers they use, can communicate with each other. And that in the broadest sense of the word: to exchange messages, but also photos, videos, music, etc.

The ActivityPub protocol has been recommended as a standard for social networks by the World Wide Web Consortium, which — with Tim Berners-Lee, father of the world wide web, as director — develops and approves the standards for the worldwide web. Since the ActivityPub protocol is open, anyone can use it to operate in the ecosystem. For example, alongside Mastodon, there are also Pixelfed, intended like Instagram for sharing photos, PeerTube, with which you can share and watch videos, or BookWyrm, with which you can discuss and give tips on books, as on the Amazon-owned Goodreads.

The protocol ensures decentralisation and connection, and does not make users dependent on a single service provider to get in touch with each other. Because all these services use the same protocol, someone with a Mastodon account can perfectly follow someone with an account on Pixelfed. As if you follow someone’s tweets on your Facebook timeline. Or view your friends’ Instagram stories via YouTube. If you want, of course. Because neo-Nazis or other rabble can also set up Mastodon instances.

To limit the spread of hate speech and other vitriol, a server’s administrator can perfectly well choose to block certain users or even entire servers. Which has already happened with several servers. It’s no coincidence that the protocol offers this protection. The developers — most of them queer — wanted to create places without the toxic excesses of Twitter and co. The ecosystem of all these protocol-connected social networks is called the fediverse: a federated/decentralised, diverse universe. The closed domains of Twitter and Facebook are past history.

An old dream

However, the fediverse needs not stop at social networks: using the protocol, you can also plug your own blog or website into this ecosystem. Ingenious, but not really ground-breaking. Because think for a moment about your mailbox. With a Gmail email account you can also send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., right? There, too, a protocol plays an essential role. But not only there: the entire internet runs on protocols. The world wide web was originally a protocol: HyperText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP.

Thanks to these standards it was possible to develop applications oneself, to create websites that could be used by everyone, that were connected. A web, as it were. "The strength of the early web lay in its interoperability" technology critic Cory Doctorow repeated at the end of 2022. "The early web was made up of thousands of small businesses, hobbyists and user groups all using the same standard protocols, allowing them to create their own corners of the internet, but also connecting communities along semi-permeable walls."

The idea that a protocol can provide a more open, less centralised internet is not new at all. But where did it all go wrong? "Instead of building new protocols, the internet has grown in recent decades around privately-owned platforms controlled by a single entity", wrote journalist and technology critic Mike Masnick in 2019 in his influential essay Protocols, Not Platforms. The reason? He who controls the platform can earn profit from it. Profit that was eagerly sought following the burst of the dotcom bubble in 2000. The owner of an ‘own’ platform can also make adjustments without consulting other parties. "Protocols were hard to turn into cash. This made it difficult to keep them up to date and to offer new features in an attractive way. Companies ‘took over’ and created more centralised platforms."

At the same time, the story of Twitter’s API makes it clear that large platforms permitted (and still do) a certain degree of interoperability or collaboration. It was and still is possible to develop applications grafted onto Twitter or Facebook. Although a developer then remains completely dependent on those platforms, as Twitter’s closed API again makes clear. In such cases, what we have is vertical interoperability: an external developer can graft applications onto the platform, but only according to the conditions of the platform itself. The platform remains in charge. The fediverse, on the other hand, is an example of horizontal interoperability: there is no final boss, you use the protocol or you don’t.

Digital rights organisations Commons Network and Open Future emphasised in a report last year that simply requiring a little more interoperability from platforms will not be enough to create a truly open ecosystem.

The new European digital markets regulation obliges large platforms — the "gatekeepers" — to "enable third parties to cooperate with the gatekeeper’s services in certain situations". With such measures, the EU is pushing for more competition. In this way, interoperability is used as a fix for a market failure, to somewhat remedy the dominance of the platforms and also stimulate innovation.

A first step could be an… open API. But, according to the Commons Network and Open Future researchers, in this scenario, the service forced into greater interoperability retains its dominant role in the network. They fear that this will not bring back the old, much more open internet. "Instead, we end up with multiple spaces that are characterised by some interoperability, but still not interconnected. There would be an interoperable Facebook space, interoperable Twitter space, interoperable LinkedIn space — with no obligation to further interoperate."

Only when there is horizontal operability, as with fediverse, do you really break down the walls around Facebook and their ilk. Now they do everything they can to keep you on their platforms. Not only by entertaining or pissing you off for as long as possible, but also by making it next to impossible to switch to another social network without losing all your friends and connections.

On a truly open and social internet, it really doesn’t matter which service you use to communicate with friends, colleagues or other cycling enthusiasts. You can therefore also easily switch from one service provider to another, without having to rebuild your entire circle of friends and network. Because if Facebook decides to implement the ActivityPub protocol, what’s stopping you from moving your account to a server that doesn’t harvest your data to serve advertisers and has no algorithm that allows disinformation to thrive? Or you can also pledge eternal loyalty to Mark Zuckerberg, of course. The choice is yours.

A public service

Long live the protocol! Still, we have to apply the brakes before flying right out of the techno-optimistic curve. ‘Protocol’ and ‘interoperability’ are not magic words for curing all the ills of the platformised internet with a flick of the magic wand. The number of active users of the fediverse — not just Mastodon — clocked in at about 2.6 million at the beginning of February. Small beer compared to the hundreds of millions of Twitter users or billions of Facebook and Instagram users.

Unlike Meta, Alphabet and other tech giants, fediverse also has no ‘business model’. The various Mastodon instances are kept online and moderated by highly-motivated volunteers, who occasionally and very politely ask for donations. A somewhat shaky base for serving millions of people. Masnick, among others, nevertheless sees the return of standard protocols as the possible start of a new golden internet era, where small, innovative companies are no longer immediately swallowed up by the big boys, but can compete fairly on the much- acclaimed level playing field. But do we want that? In an earlier piece I already referred to Nick Srnicek who argues precisely that the initially sky-high competition pushed Google and Facebook into an ad-funded model, which then left them increasingly hungry for more data, more attention, and more "profit at all costs."

Is the emerging decentralised fediverse just a first phase in a new cycle towards a new centralisation, towards new platforms? It doesn’t have to be. In the aforementioned report, Commons Network and Open Future regard expanding the digital public space as a European mission. In addition to the decentralised infrastructure outlined earlier, this mission must also support the digital commons in order to collectively manage not only services, but also data.

And, perhaps more importantly, public institutions must be involved and strengthened in this project. And that too, but not only, in order to safeguard the open character of protocols against the purely commercial interests of, for example, platforms. The internet is much more than a marketplace. It is an essential and therefore public service. It is therefore crucial to put a halt to commercialisation.

Obvious public institutions that could play a pioneering role are the public broadcasting services. Especially in Europe, public broadcasters are still relatively strong, despite repeated neoliberal attacks. Commons Network and Open Future also point to public educational and cultural institutions as typical organisations that provide services that we don’t want to leave to the market. Although it would be wrong to reduce the role of these institutions in the development of a digital public space to ‘market adjustments’. A deliberate effort is needed by democratic societies to prioritise civic and public institutions in the governance of a crucial social structure. In their report they quote, among others, Boris van Hoytema of the Foundation for Public Code who states that we need not just standards, but "real, large-scale collaboration of public organisations on shared solutions."

This plan might may be asking too much from institutions that have been pared to the bone by cutbacks. Cooperatives could also play a role, as democratically managed companies with an explicit social purpose. As is now already showing, you can indeed run an instance as a cooperative. As a member, you then have a say over your own social network, at a democratic price.

And what if you could also open a profile on BookWyrm via your online library account to share book tips? The buzz around Mastodon has already made some public institutions consider changing tack. The European Union has its own instance, enabling all European institutions and agencies to share messages from their accounts. In this way they no longer have to pay Elon Musk for a blue check as a stamp of reliability. The municipality of Amsterdam also runs its own instance, but without (yet) giving access to other users. And again in the Netherlands, the weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, which has been experimenting for some time in the fediverse, has also started its own instance where its own journalists can open accounts. What are Europe’s other public broadcasters waiting for?

This article was previously published in Apache Magazine #10