What is the Fediverse?

The Fediverse is a collection of social apps that are open to each other. This means that users on one app can communicate with users on a another app. When you post something in the Fediverse, that post is delivered to your followers, even if they are on a totally different app. They can use that app to make comments and those comment will then show up in your app. This communication between independent apps is possible because posts in the Fediverse are standardized.

A similar standardization is already in use on web pages. Firefox, Chrome and Opera are examples of different apps. It doesn’t matter which one you pick, as they can all be used to look at a page on the internet. This is because webpage code is standardized. There are no messages or followers in that example, but the principle is the same. It doesn’t matter which app you use for the task, any app can do the job. Your reason to choose one over the other might be additional features or bundled apps.

Most old school apps, like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, are centralized. There is no open communication between them, so you cannot be on Instagram and follow people on Twitter. The following example is exaggerated to clearly show the possibilities of the Fediverse. Let’s look at the situation if Twitter and Instagram were federated. This means that you could have only Instagram installed, but be able to follow people on Twitter to see their Tweets inside Instagram. There would be no need for you to have an account on Twitter at all. If some of your friends had Twitter, but not Instagram, they could still follow you and see your photos. Comments and retweets would also be possible from within Instagram. Of course almost no one would like to mix their feeds up like this, but it would be possible in the Fediverse.

A more realistic way of Federation would instead be for image apps to federate with image apps and text based apps to federate with other text based apps.

But why would you want to have a system like this? Federation reduces negative parts of the network effect, such as companies growing too big. There are several examples of apps with more than a billion users and that comes with risks. Political and commercial manipulation are two of the worst potential abuses.

If a billion users could be distributed over, for example, five companies. These companies would each control one app with 200 million users. The companies could be located in different countries and therefore the risk of both commercial and political manipulation is reduced. For you as a user it’s still one big network, only that it’s run by several independent companies. Even non commercial organizations can be part of the Fediverse. As it is now, most of the Fediverse is totally non-commercial.

There are potential downsides to the Fediverse. The apps are more difficult to make and conflicts arise when one company want to make features that another company doesn’t want. This of course means that a post might look different in different apps, as not all features are carried across between the apps.

If the Fediverse is the final solution for breaking the network effect is something that will need to be tested. Another way to reduce the power of the big companies would be to simply install more than one centralized app and use both. If you notice a big difference in the type of posts or ads you see, something strange might be going on.

From a European point of view we would benefit from having more local companies providing social apps, no matter if those apps are part of the Fediverse or following the more traditional centralized path.

For the more technically interested person the Fediverse are built up of applications each divided in independent instances. An instance is one or more server operated by an independent person or organization. The most notable communication protocol is ActivityPub and most software is open source.

Two examples of Twitter like apps are Mastodon and Albin.social. Mastodon is a non-commercial network without advertising. Sprung from the same software is Albin.social, a commercial app that allows verified business accounts as well as ethical advertising.

An early, but good looking, Instagram alternative is Pixelfed which is also an ad free platform. The equally good looking Albin.cc is the commercial alternative.

Commercial apps are more fun because real life is a mix of people and companies. Real life is a mix of non-commercial and commercial and online life should be a balanced mix of it too. Commercial apps are fun all the way to the point when they become horribly annoying. We will put a break on advertising long before that happens, and as an extra insurance you can choose to turn off ads at any point you wish.

As long as you can control the content you see, it’s better to also allow companies on the network. Who wouldn’t like to follow their favorite club to know what happens next weekend? Or the small shop where your friend work, or the micro brewery or a fashion brand.

The Fediverse needs a commercial part as a complement to the non commercial part. Companies are nice to follow, as long as you can control the content you see.

2018-11-05 Albin Apps


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