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Getting started with federated social networking

Over the last month or so, I’ve been diving into the world of federated social networking. It occurred to me, maybe a few readers here would be curious what federated social networking is, how it differs from centralized social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and how to get started using it.

The inspiration for this post is, as it often is, my beautiful wife Kathryn. She already has an account on a federated social networking server, but she has complained several times that she doesn’t know what to do with it. So far, all she has done is post a photo of herself eating ice cream in Massachusetts and like a bunch of my posts.

What is federated social networking, and how does it differ from centralized social networking?

I don’t want to wade too deeply into technical details, so I’ll describe it by contrast and comparison.

Most of us are familiar with e-mail. Imagine Alice has an e-mail account with Gmail called alice1234, and Bob has an e-mail account with Yahoo called bob2345. Even though Alice and Bob have accounts with different e-mail services, as long as they know each other’s account name and domain name — alice1234@gmail.com and bob2345@yahoo.com — they can exchange messages with each other. That’s because all e-mail servers talk with each other using a well-defined, open standard. That’s the essence of federation.

Now, imagine Alice has a Facebook account called alice3456, and Bob has a Twitter account called bob4567. Unless Alice also has a Twitter account or Bob also has a Facebook account, there’s no way for them to exchange social interactions with each other. Facebook only works with other Facebook users, and Twitter only works with other Twitter users. That’s the essence of centralization.

Finally, imagine there was a well-defined, open standard for exchanging social network interactions, like posts, reposts, likes, comments, and so on. Well, it turns out there are such standards, and there are thousands of servers running software compliant with these standards, and there are millions of users already on these networks. That’s what I’m talking about when I say federated social networking, which is sometimes referred to as the Fediverse.

How do I get started on this federated social network?

Much like with e-mail, you have to pick a server to have your account hosted on. Each server has its own rules for acceptable content. As odd as it sounds, some people choose a server by what they don’t want to see.

If you’re into free speech — and if you also understand it means you may frequently read some things you wish you could unread — the elephant in the room right now is Gab, which reports over a million users and is accepting signups. They began federating their network less than a month ago, and although it’s not without its flaws, most of the functionality appears to work. Unfortunately, since they are sort of the Wild West of the Fediverse, a lot of other server admins preemptively blocked them, much like an e-mail server admin might do with a known spammer.

Another option is to stand up your own federated server, much like a certain former U.S. secretary of state did with her e-mail. This is the option I chose, although mine isn’t hosted in a bathroom closet and doesn’t store classified documents. If you want, you can click here to see what’s going on at my server. The software it runs is called Mastodon.

(Note: If you’re a family member or a long-time, in-real-life friend of mine, and you’d like an account on my server, let me know. I’ll hook you up.)

Aside from Gab and setting up your own server, you can choose from among hundreds of public servers to create an account. An incomplete list of Mastodon servers can be found at joinmastodon.org, while a broader list of Fediverse servers of all types can be found at fediverse.network.

A few words of caution are appropriate here.

Because each federated server sets its own acceptable content policies, there are servers dedicated to sex work, pornography, and other things you or I might find objectionable. It’s wise to read a server’s policies before creating an account. If you don’t like them, simply move along to another server. That’s the beauty of a federated network. By contrast, if you don’t like, say, Facebook’s policies, you can’t just move to another Facebook server. You’re either on Facebook on Facebook’s terms, or you’re not on it at all.

Once I have an account in the Fediverse, what then?

Well, obviously, the first thing you’d want to do is follow Kathryn (@kathryn@goneaway.social) and me (@curt@goneaway.social)!

What you do next is really up to you and what you like to get out of social networking.

Once I stood up my server and created accounts for Kathryn and me, for a few days I just posted some random photos and status updates, knowing no one would likely see them right away, except maybe Kathryn.

After that, I ventured out to other known servers and searched for posts that interested me, liked them, and in some cases I followed the people who posted them. Some of those people followed me back. In a similar manner, some people found my posts and followed me, and in many cases I followed them back. Then I found more people to follow by watching the timelines of the people I followed. And so on.

I don’t follow a lot of people right now, but it has grown organically. It’s actually quite similar to my experiences on Twitter and Instagram.

Now that there’s been over a month of activity on my server, there are enough posts cached locally so that someone like, say, Kathryn may be able to find something interesting by using hashtag searches, much like Twitter or Instagram. Alternatively, she could browse the federated posts on the server and find interesting stuff that way.

Why would I want to use a federated social network instead of centralized one?

One thing worth noting is, on centralized social networks, you are the product. The customers — the ones paying for the product — are advertisers, who are targeted to you based on an analysis of your usage. By contrast, many federated social network servers are funded by donations from users or benevolent admins, and most have no advertising at all. In fact, many don’t even have any tracking code.

Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of personal preference.

If you want to use social networking to stalk celebrities, you’ll probably be happier on Instagram. If you want to use social networking to validate yourself in an echo chamber of groupthink, you’ll probably find Twitter more to your liking.

If you want to use social networking to engage in a free and lively exchange of diverse ideas and opinions at a more personal level, I can’t promise you’ll be better off in the Fediverse. Let’s be honest, though. Given the current state of the centralized options, it’s not likely to be a whole lot worse.