Decentralized social media. What is it and why you want it.

Whenever I try to explain this to people in person, there’s always this confused bewildered look on their faces. It’s that face you see when people think they know what you are talking about, but aren’t really sure they understand. It’s got a lot to do with the terminology, so let me give you a few definitions first. ( taken from a great article by the creator of Mastodon. )

decentralization, noun: The dispersion or distribution of functions and powers; The delegation of power from a central authority to regional and local authorities.

fediverse, noun: The decentralized social network formed by Mastodon, Pleroma, Misskey and others using the ActivityPub standard.

So imagine you have a Gmail account. You want to send email to your friend at Hotmail. So, you type in name@hotmail.com from your Gmail inbox, and it gets sent to that person. Pretty easy right? Now imagine, if you couldn’t do that. Imagine a world where people on Gmail can only send emails to people on Gmail. Hotmail to Hotmail. Yahoo Mail to Yahoo Mail. Every email service keeping to it’s own native protocols.

It would suck. You would hate it. No one would accept it.

Yet, we do when it comes to social media. You can’t follow someone on Facebook from Twitter. You can’t follow someone on Youtube from Instagram. You can’t follow someone on WordPress from Tumblr. You can only follow people on the platform that they are using.

Now, I know a lot of you reading this are scratching your head thinking that the reason they do this is obvious. To make money. They want people on their site so they can pump adds to as many people as they can and to gather their meta data to sell. That’s how they stay in business. And you would be absolutely correct. I agree. That’s why Facebook only wants you on Facebook. But what’s the implication of that fact though?

You are a product.

And for some of you, that may be fine. You think, like a ton of other people, that because you don’t pay anything for Facebook, that it’s okay if they take enough information on you to accurately predict who you are going to vote for, and sell it to… whomever. That’s fine. It’s your life. You do you.

But it doesn’t have to be like that.

In the last two years, (mostly the last year) there has been a swell of support for decentralized federated social networks. (scroll up real quick and read those definitions again) These are independent servers running the same standard ( called “ActivityPub” ) but on different platforms. (hang in there, this will all make sense soon.) Let’s start with one platform to help you understand…

Mastodon.
Mastodon on it’s surface, just seems like a Twitter clone, and it is. Below the surface though it is much, much different. You see “Mastodon” isn’t a company. It’s software that anyone can run if they have access to a server, or choose a hosting option with a service that runs and sets it up for them. Each server that runs Mastodon is referred to as an “instance”. Each instance of Mastodon is run according to it’s own rules and guidelines. A lot of them focus on things like art, tech, different interests. Each is supported in different ways, but mostly through contributions from users. Mastodon has no centralized power or authority. Hence, decentralized.

A Mastodon instance can choose to join a “Fediverse”. ( go ahead. Scroll up again.) This is a group of Mastodon ( or other platforms using the Activitypub standard) instances who choose to follow each other. They can share updates, direct messages, media, everything. So that means if you’re on mastodon.social, you can follow someone on mstdn.beer. Your instance can also block other instances that you don’t feel comfortable with. And the best thing is, you can export your data, and leave an Instance to join a different one and be able to import all of your friends and blocklists.

It get’s better.

There are other decentralized platforms. Pixelfed ( an Instagram like clone ) is one that’s been around a short while, and has many instances running the software, but as of this date, only two are federated using the ActivityPub standard. (expect more to become federated soon). Pixelfed.social is federated, and because it uses the same standard as Mastodon, this means they can follow each other! Two different platforms being able to share info because they use the same standard.

It’s the future, and if it isn’t, it should be. Putting social media back into the hands of the people can only benefit us in the long run. How social can media be if a corporation is controlling who see’s it and when? Take back control.

In the coming months I’ll be posting my thoughts on different decentralized social media platforms. The good and the bad. It’s not a perfect system yet. It’s new. It’s small. It’s growing. It will CERTAINLY have kinks to work out. I’m just excited to see where it’s all going to go.

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