Heterarchy: Decentralization and Federation in Social Networking

Despite its hifalutin title, this is not a theoretical or (primarily) political essay. It's rather meant as an idiosyncratic primer on the "fediverse" for friends and colleagues (particularly in academia) who have heard about or are looking for "something different/better than Twitter/Facebook/etc." Caveat: IANAE, but after a few weeks dipping my toes into the fediverse I find that I can answer some basic questions at least provisionally. Everything I offer here was gleaned from web searches (I use DuckDuckGo, at present), from trying things out, from watching other people do things, from talking to friends, and from reading especially these posts:

You may find reading them first to be more rewarding that continuing below the fold here immediately.


It's not hard to find legitimate complaints and concerns about the dominant services in social media today (see, for example, Zeynep Tufekci's column in the New York Times). Some people are reacting by seeking alternative social communication mechanisms that differ from Twitter, Facebook, and the like by being less centralized, providing more privacy options, and protecting personal information from exploitation. The ascendant alternatives are, for the moment, coalescing around an open standard for exchanging social networking information over the web called ActivityPub.


ActivityPub has recently been formalized as a W3C Recommendation. It specifies "a client/server API for creating, updating and deleting content" (Wikipedia). Here, "content" means data commonly used in social media or micro-blogging environments like status updates, image posts, direct messages, and hashtags. By "client" we mean a program running on your computer, phone, or table. ActivityPub also provides for server-to-server exchange of notifications and content. Using this protocol, multiple copies of software installed on different servers under separate administrative control could potentially federate to create a decentralized, distributed network that differs from the centralized, top-down-managed systems most social media users know today. ActivityPub would permit individuals to connect and communicate each other, via client connections through one of these servers and, thanks to the server-to-server federation, across other servers to their connected clients' users.

In fact, a social network fediverse based on ActivityPub has emerged. The best-known software tool used to set up a federated server is called Mastodon. Its creators, led by Eugen Rochko, describe it as follows:

Mastodon is a free, open-source social network server based on open web protocols like ActivityPub and OStatus. The social focus of the project is a viable decentralized alternative to commercial social media silos that returns the control of the content distribution channels to the people. The technical focus of the project is a good user interface, a clean REST API for 3rd party apps and robust anti-abuse tools.

Note that you will often see, even in Rochko's own writing, some slippage in terminology. "Mastodon" is often used to connote the entire federated network, rather than just the server software. But in fact, there are other software packages that make use of ActivityPub and can (or potentially can) federate with Mastodon servers (e.g., Hubzilla and Pleroma). More are likely to emerge.

Yes, I'm leaving aside GNU Social for now, since it hasn't yet added full ActivityPub support alongside OStatus.


The basic steps to get started microblogging in the fediverse are:

  • Find and join an "instance"
  • Connect to your new account on your host instance
  • Find and follow friends, colleagues, and other accounts of interest
  • Do that thing you do

Finding and joining an instance

The word instance is often used as a generic term for a copy of Mastodon running on a particular server. Each instance is separately established and administered, and they each have their own themes (or not), rules, moderation practices (or not), and so on. Rochko and the other core developers of Mastodon run one of the biggest instances, mastodon.social, but there are over 2,500 instances in the fediverse at the time of this writing. To find one you like and think you can trust, you can try the flagship join.mastodon.org site. There's also instances.social, which is operated by the maintainer of another big, general-purpose instance, mastodon.xyz.

Although I initially explored options with both of these tools, in the end I took a different approach to finding an instance to join. I sought out friends and colleagues who were already using Mastodon and looked into the instances they were using. In addition to the two listed above, I found out about three more that I'll mention here since they might be of interest to my intended audience.

Scholar.social: a Mastodon instance for academics is a small instance (less than 1,000 people), run by Benjamin Carlisle at McGill University. He describes its focus as follows:

scholar.social is meant for: researchers, grad students, librarians, archivists, undergrads, academically inclined high schoolers, educators of all levels, journal editors, research assistants, professors, administrators—anyone involved in academia who is willing to engage with others respectfully.

glammr.us is (at present) a very small instance, run by @joshuatj@glammr.us:

glammr.us is a space for folks interested in productive conversation about, well, galleries, libraries, archives, museums, memory work and records. It is pronounced “glamorous” as our work is often charmingly or fascinatingly attractive, especially in a mysterious or magical way. Sometimes it is also full of excitement, adventure, and unusual activity (oh, yes). It is also inspired by Toys’R’us to showcase the fun playful side of glammr.us tooters. But you don't necessarily have to only post about GLAMMR-related topics, bring your whole self. Talk about fun things you saw, your exciting day or even your struggles. Many of us are Twitter refugees looking for an inclusive and community-supported approach to social media. If any of these things sound good to you, consider joining us by contributing as little as a $1 a month on patreon to help keep our server online.

Glammr.us has an online code of conduct (scroll down the page).

Social.coop: a co-op corner of the fediverse is owned, operated, and co-financed by a formal co-operative, with established bylaws that dictate open, democratic policy-making. I applied to join the coop because of that openness and because I hoped the bylaws and participatory governance model would serve as a bulwark against arbitrary administrative actions. Plus, they clearly had healthy administrative and technical bus numbers. Happily, I was accepted as a co-owner and member.

Once you've picked an instance and worked through whatever application/joinup/payment process that instance has in place, you'll want to establish some sort of profile and start following others and producing content. Mastodon instances provide a default web experience, subject to customization by the instance admins. There are also a growing number of mobile apps for connecting to your instance. On my OSX laptop, I connect to the social.coop instance's native web interface using Firefox Quantum. On my iphone, I use John Gabelmann's Amaroq for Mastodon.

Finding and following other people

Many of the people I know from my meatspace and/or birdsite social networks who were also already in the fediverse were either on mastodon.social or scholar.social, rather than my home instance social.coop. No matter their instance, following them (once logged into my social.coop account) was as easy as visiting the web page corresponding to their Mastodon profile.

So, for example, I typed the following into my search engine:

eric kansa mastodon

I clicked through the results to https://octodon.social/@ekansa. Once there, I clicked "remote follow":

You may also be able to find people you know by typing their names into your Mastodon instance's search box, but your results may depend on whether anyone else on your instance is already following someone from the other instance (or other techno-administrative factors that at present I only vaguely intuit). Search is also your friend for finding people with similar interests. Imagine a hashtag and search for it; see who uses it. Watch your "Local Timeline" (i.e., every post on your instance) for users and topics of interest. Dip into the firehose of the "Federated Timeline" to sample the fediverse Zeitgeist.

FWIW, the core developers of Mastodon also run https://bridge.joinmastodon.org/, which is supposed to help you "find your friends on Mastodon." I haven't used it either, because it requires authenticated access to your Twitter account.


Most instances I've seen suggest you offer a self-introduction (using the #introductions hashtag) in the interest of explaining yourself to other folks on your local timeline. Consider your privacy before you do this: Mastodon gives you the ability to limit the scope of your posts ("toots" are the domain-specific term) to "public" timelines, only non-public timelines (i.e., instance-internal), "followers only", or "direct" (i.e., only to individuals whose accounts you mention in the post itself).

Here's my initial introduction and a follow-up introduction I made after watching what other people were doing in that regard. I'm not sure whether either of them is all that great, so you might lurk for a few days and watch how others on your instance behave. You can look for more by searching for the hashtag #introductions. Don't be surprised if someone on your instance (admin or otherwise) initiates contact to welcome you and encourage an #introductions post.

Crossposting (updated 23 April 2018)

I've seen some people set up cross-posting from birdsite to their Mastodon instance (or vice versa), but Stefano Costa pointed out to me that witter-to-Mastodon autoposting is not necessarily well accepted in the fediverse. Benjamin Carlisle reinforced that point, saying:

You might need to check your instance's policies re: autoposting. For example, on Scholar Social, repeaters of RSS feeds or Twitter accounts are allowed, but they must be set to post as Unlisted, not Public

As to technology, I've seen people recommend the following tools:

Now What

Now, I'd suggest that if you haven't yet read the blog posts cited above from Ruth Tillman and from Seth Kenlon, now would be good time. Reading both of them will give you a broader introduction than I've tried to lay out here.

Updated 23 April 2018: it looks like there will be follow-on posts to this one. I just published one on criticisms of ActivityPub that also has some links to some more interesting writing on the fediverse, writ large. The best way to keep up with any subsequent posts to this one is probably through the fediverse tag.