I am John Conway, and I make art of very old things, and of new things I have made up. I have a podcast about animals with Darren Naish, and have written and illustated two books with Darren and C.M. Kosemen. My art is funded by people like you through Patreon.
My last post on The Fediverse came across as a little negative I think, so I'm going to use this on to argue why you – yes you – should join the Fediverse, as well as a some practical advice of what to expect and how to get started. I will be concentrating on the Mastodon platform, because it's what I've been using, and it's the biggest one, but expect a lot of this will apply many of the fediverse platforms. This is a beginners guide because I am a beginner, and maybe I can help you begin too.
Why would you bother with any of this?
Well, in case you've been living under a rock these last few years, you may have noticed quite a few problems in the large social networks. There's been a lot of shouting. A lot of shouting. But no matter which side of the shouting you are on, it boils down to asking Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg to do something that will probably cost them a lot of money. Is this how we see the future, forever shouting at two mega-wealthy dudes no one likes very much to do something they don't want to do? Really?
Fediverse software just skips all this. No one is in control of all of the Fediverse, but you can be totally in control of your part. Don't like a moderation policy on Twitter? Shout about it. Good luck! Don't like a moderation policy on the Fediverse? Join a server where you do, or make your own (more on that in a bit.)
Personally, I don't hate Twitter, my experience is generally pretty good. Lot of people I like are there, and I mostly avoid drama. But I've started to become more and more worried about my complete reliance on Twitter as an outlet. I left Facebook because they were just too scummy (this story broke the camel's back for me). Tumblr was bought by a corporation that decided to delete some of my artwork for nudity, which was just so ridiculous to me I left in a huff (along with most other people, so I understand). Given that Instagram is just a skin on Facebook's data-sucking machine, my entire social media presence had been whittled down to Twitter alone. I think that's a risky situation, for me, and maybe for you too if you're reading this.
So, I see it like this, we can keep shouting and whinging and hoping for the largesse of Mark Zuckerburg or Jack Dorsey, or we can do something.
Mastodon is Technically Ready
Signing up to Mastodon can be as easy as signing up to Twitter, email -> password -> go (at say, mastodon.online or mastodon.art), but that is, perhaps not really getting into the spirit of the thing. You can find a different or smaller community or even more excitingly, start your own. Yes you can run your own little Twitter, with just you, like I do here, or a community like I do at Sauropods.win. You can do this with very little technical skill, MastoHost has very reasonable prices and will take care of all the technical stuff for you, but leave you in control of all moderation and signup policies.
What to Expect
If you are coming from Twitter (or any corporate social network, really), you may find Mastodon a lonely place to start. Corporate social networks spend billions researching and implementing what they call "onboarding". They will ask you for all your contacts, which means they can hook you up with anyone you already know on the network (totally co-incidentally giving them a map of every relationship in the entire world; the ability to link emails, phone numbers, and the real addresses of people that haven't even signed up... and not doing anything bad with that I'm sure). They might also suggest you follow some celebrities/interests etc, and then keep suggesting new ones to you as they get to know your preferences, because they keep all that in their massive panopticon databases.
Mastodon cannot and will not do any of that. Each instance is its own little world until its users start follow, like, and reply to things on other instances. You must manually go out and find people to follow, Mastodon can't do this for you. Finding people on the fediverse can be hard. Many Mastodon instances have a directory and a what's happening link on their main pages, so that can help. There is also a voluntary manual directory at Trunk for The Fediverse. Which I would encourage you to list yourself on.
You follow people by either clicking "Follow" on their page (and following some instructions), or searching for their full fediverse handle (which looks like an email address) in the search box of your home instance. This can be clunkier than Twitter, but it is what it is because of the technology.
People might not follow you back if you haven't said anything, so you have to post a bit to give them something to make that judgment on. No one like posting into the void, receiving no likes or replies on their posts, but it kind has to be done.
If you're reading this you probably already know me from Twitter, so you have at least a start. Consider joining Sauropods.win, where I will follow you, so you can talk to me instead of the void. One nice thing about Mastodon is that you can move instances. You set up a new account, transfer the data over to the new one, and set up a flag to redirect on your old account. Maybe you're a complete fool and come to think that, actually, Theropods.win – well, you could set up a Mastodon instance and go there if you want, taking your horrid theropod-loving posts and followers with you. So you're not stuck where you first sign up.
My personal experience is that 10 days in, I'm starting to feel that my Mastodon feed is getting as interesting as my Twitter feed. And some of the conversations are better. Yes, Mastodon is more work than Twitter, but the potential is there, and you should give it a go by actually trying to make connections. A proper go. Not "I came, I tooted, I left." I feel like we have to to get out of the mess we're in.
"The Fediverse" is name given to a collection of social networks that can talk a common language. Essentially it means you can follow, like and reply to people on different sites (which are called "instances" in fediverse lingo). You can join a large existing instance, run your own instance just for you (like I have), or anything in-between.
I joined the fediverse because I am increasingly worried about the nature of the big social networks (who isn't?), who owns them (who isn't?), and for me especially having all my professional eggs in their baskets. So, lets list some good things about the fediverse:
No ads at all on main part of the fediverse. Stop giving money and data to the surveillance capitalists!
You have much more control and power over who and how to block. Block individuals or whole sites of dickheads - it's up to you.
Conversely, you can't be banned or meaningfully censored. I mean people or whole sites can block you, but you can keep going in your own world.
You have a lot of choice of apps, servers, and communities.
Okay, so after spending WAY too long trying to write my own Fediverse server, I gave up and paid for a managed Mastodon server at Masto.host. It was up in a few minutes, I hooked it up to my domain name, and it all just worked. So far so good!
Using the Mastodon web interface for posting (called tooting... err), is very easy, much like Twitter. More difficult is filling up your timeline - you need to make your instance sufficiently aware of the rest of the fediverse to find stuff to read. Turns out this is quite a challenge, and one I have taken extraordinary steps to overcome.
Where is Everybody?
If you start your own instance like me, the search box in your instance will not help you find anything much, because it does not know of anything yet. It is also limited by design, and will not usually do full text search of posts or profiles.
So how do you find anyone? Well, I went to some of the big Mastodon instances that I already knew about, went to the (unsearchable) directory of (abridged) profiles, and just tried to find people by clicking though. After a couple of days doing this, I had found maybe 40-50 people. Slow going.
I got sick of this, and decided to write a robot to find every goshdarn profile it could so I could do a text search on profiles for things I am interested in. Mastodon doesn't have a feature like this because of privacy or something, but I'm an arsehole and I was sick of not being able to find anything. My robot has collected about 10,000 profiles, and has let me actually find some people into history and palaeontology.
You can add what are called relay servers to your instance, which spew to whole timeline of other instances into your "federated timeline". But much like the Twitter firehose, this is full of shit.
There are culture limitations on discovery as well. No quote re-posting (retweeting) because it can be used for abuse – so if you do re-post something, it must be without context. Some people don't like being re-posted, apparently, so maybe you should check that beforehand (I dunno!).
Mastodon lets you warn of content, which it will be folded in a custom content warning label you provide. Okay, fine I guess, except a lot of Mastodon instances have a culture of content warning for the most mundane stuff. Eye contact: that's a content warning. Pictures of food: that's a content warning. Making eye contact while making food: you better believe that a content warning.
So I turned all the content warnings off, because I was sick of having to click every image to find it was hidden because the cat was looking at the camera. This satisfied me until I clicked on the the federated timeli... oh dear god no!
You see, the fediverse is full sex fetishes, and some is of it unconscionable, such as anime pedophiles posting their manga "loli" (don't look that up).
So by default Mastodon puts you in a situation where you're trained to click to reveal media because usually it's a dog or a plate of food, but often enough it's pretty vile (and possibly illegal pornography). Nice! You can fix this with a lot of blocking, but finding a happy level between "I really don't mind cats looking at me", and "I don't want pedophilia all over my screen" takes work.
On the upside, people I've interacted with have been more likely to assume good faith, and the discussions, when they do happen, seem better and more thoughtful than Twitter.
Overall the culture reminds me of the internet in the early 2000s, which is good and bad. I'm getting a bit of a shouting-into-the-void feeling because I've only got 39 followers, and I'm used to having over a thousand (or more on Twitter), but I expect that will improve.
I hope more people join, because I feel the technical achievement of the people that have built the software that make this work is real, it actually works* and seem to me to be the only way out of a megacorp internet of the future.
*I do have some gripes, more of that in a different post.