Why can’t people from different social networks stay in touch with each other?
In two months’ time, Google Plus will be gone.
I first saw the message circulating sometime last October. “Save Our Home,” it said. And asked me to sign a petition, telling Google not to shut down this beautiful network.
The social network, Google’s attempted answer to Facebook, may not be missed by many. Of every ten visits people make there, nine stick round for less than 5 seconds — according to stats released by the company itself.
But those who do use it, use it a lot.
Google Plus is home to thousands of close-knit communities: online spaces where enthusiasts discuss topics ranging from Harry Potter to Python programming and Bullet Journaling. And with the impending shutdown, these communities are in danger of getting disrupted. Of breaking up, as their members migrate to their respective preferred social networks.
Why can’t people from different social-networks stay in touch with each other? That’s an issue some developers have decided to answer — and solve.
On the surface, Mastodon looks like just another Twitter clone. You can write short status-updates (called ‘toots’). You can follow people, to see what they post. You can like or comment or reshare, or simply scroll endlessly down your feed.
But something’s different here.
The first thing you notice is, some profile names are especially long. Instead of just a username, they have an ‘@’ and a website name tacked at the end. You try clicking on some of these users, and you find yourself in a different website — one that is also Mastodon, but not the Mastodon you signed up on.
I first heard about “federation” when I heard about Diaspora. Created by college students Max Salzberg, Daniel Grippi and two other friends in the summer of 2010, Diaspora was a new social-network with some special claims: you could own your data, anybody could run a local copy, and all the copies could communicate seamlessly with each other.
When I wanted to join, I couldn’t find any specific website to sign up on. Instead, I was directed to a whole list of websites — each running their own Diaspora, just as you and could run your own WordPress website or blog.
The difference? The different Diaspora instances actually talk to each other. The Indian Express doesn’t show you posts from TechCrunch or Vogue, even though (as of this writing) they all use WordPress. But write a post on Disroot’s Diaspora service, and it can potentially be seen by any other Diaspora user, anywhere else in the world.
What’s more, people on other Diaspora instances can still follow you, like your posts, and generally interact, as if you were all on the same website.
That, in a nutshell, is the concept of “federation”.
After hearing about federation, you won’t be so surprised at the different Mastodons. Like Diaspora, Mastodon is a federated network. So different people operate off different servers: some run by an organisation, some run by volunteers, and many who are just using a personal server they set up for themselves.
Mastodon instances are a bit like local communities, or neighbourhoods. They’re usually inhabited by people sharing similar interests, although some of them can be pretty diverse. The writing.exchange instance, for example, is used mainly by writers, while fosstodon.org is for free-software enthusiasts.
When you first signed up, you were a bit overwhelmed. You didn’t know which instance to choose. The ‘Join Mastodon’ website helped you decide, by asking you what your interests were, but you still have a nagging feeling that maybe you chose the wrong community.
Luckily, even the official Mastodon guide tells you not to worry. It’s normal, they say, for people to move their accounts after a while and switch to a different instance. Mastodon makes it easy to import your old data — and, because it’s federated, your old friends and contacts too!
How do people decide which social network to use? Partly because of the features it offers. Partly because of how stylish or pretty it looks. But the real deal-maker or -breaker is: how many of my friends are using it?
Mainstream social networks see this as an advantage. The ‘network effect’, it’s called.
Facebook has some pretty neat features, but the man reason everyone uses Facebook is that everyone uses Facebook. The Facebook network is so large that you probably have more friends on it than anywhere else, which means you’d choose it over other, nicer, networks that wasn’t so widely used.
It’s not about the features, you see, but about the friends. Or, as Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko put it: “People would use a social network based on smoke signals if everyone else was using it.”
But what if you find this great new social-network that’s awesome to use…but there’s nobody to use it with? Many have had that experience: trying to push a new service onto friends who aren’t really interested.
Many will be happy to learn that, in some cases, they won’t have to do it anymore.
You decide to explore Mastodon instances, to see what’s out there.
Mastodon instances have a ‘local’ feed, with only posts from your particular instance. The “neighbourhood buzz”, you might say. But it also has a “global” feed, made up of all posts from everywhere (or, more specifically, from people that anyone on your network follows).
It’s fun checking out these global users, and clicking through to their profile pages to discover which instances they’re from.
But what is this? To your surprise, you find that some of the users aren’t using Mastodon at all.
Instead, they’re using something called ‘Friendica’ that looks like Facebook, or ‘PixelFed’, which is more of a photo-sharing service. And yet, they’re all showing up as ordinary-looking posts, in your ordinary-looking Mastodon feed.
How does one instance of Mastodon know what people on the other instances are saying?
It’s not magic or intuition. Behind the scenes, all these Mastodons are talking to each other: exchanging updates in a fixed ‘protocol’ — which is computer-speak for “a language that computers can use to speak”
But does one instance have to be running Mastodon, to show up in the Mastodon network? No, it doesn’t. Any software will do, as long as it speaks the ActivityPub protocol, which is to say, the internal Mastodon-to-Mastodon language — or rather, instance-to-instance language, as it were.
PeerTube is a video-sharing site that speaks ActivityPub like Mastodon. That means you don’t have to join PeerTube to follow other PeerTube users. You can follow them and comment on their posts, right from Mastodon itself.
The same goes for Pleroma, another social site, and WriteFreely, a minimalist Medium clone. As indeed for any of the other services making up what is know known as the “Fediverse”.
The federated universe — the Fediverse — is rapidly expanding. Even WordPress has a plugin that lets you turn your blog into the social-media feed.
Like all new social networks, the ones on the Fediverse are still rough round the edges. You’ll find the odd bug here and there; the missing feature that won’t come round for months.
Some Fediverse projects don’t integrate quite so seamlessly with each other. There’ll be a difference in how it’s displayed, or a comment that looks like a separate post. And, unless you use a special connecting service like Friendica, you can’t connect with Twitter, Facebook, or other popular services that you probably have friends on right now.
But there are advantages. Because they use the same protocol, the same app works for multiple services. Creating an account on one, you can reach everyone else on every other service too. It’s like the ‘network effect’ in reverse, because any network gives you access to all. And when a new one comes, you won’t have to convince you friends to join.
They’ll be there already.
Artwork credits: The cover image for this article was inspired by artwork from the Mastodon project.
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