25 March 2023 by Jennifer
The Fediverse, running on Mastodon software & other software, is like a sort of grass-roots, often-friendlier Twitter-alikey. It’s becoming increasingly popular as people leave Twitter. If you’re thinking of getting an account there, and wondering where to set it up, you might be interested in the things I thought about when I did the same.
Unlike Twitter, which is all one thing, the Fediverse is made up of lots of separate sites which send messages to each other.
I’ve heard it said that it doesn’t matter which instance (sometimes called a server) you pick to make your account on, because they all connect. There’s a grain of truth in that: it’s easy to follow people from other instances, and the software can in principle talk to all the other thousands of sites which use the same technical protocol (called ActivityPub).
But I basically disagree that it “doesn’t matter”. Instead, here are the things I would consider:
- Is this instance well-moderated?
- Is it likely to last? (only because moving is a bother – not that you can’t move to another one. Some people do hop on “any old where” to get started, then move instances after a month or two, once they’ve got the lay of the land.)
- Who will be your “local neighbours“? i.e. other people on that instance.
To elaborate on those factors, and add a couple more…
Is this instance well-moderated?
Moderation is handled locally, even if the trouble comes from afar. This means that trust in your admin team is a key variable.
If you’ve experienced prejudice around a particular aspect of your life, you probably want mods who understand that territory. You want them to be able to recognise subtle “dog-whistles”, or make the right judgement call about a borderline “to block, or not to block”.
You can get an initial sense of how they handle things by reading the instance rules or guidelines, usually shown on its About page. Make sure you like their rules :-)
You can also look at the main admin person’s own account, and on some servers, there’ll be a list of the other moderators too.
You might peek at the number of accounts on that instance, because a big instance with only a few mods isn’t necessarily going to be sustainable. All my accounts (I’ve now got three, for different things) are on instances of a few thousand people, and I’d be initially a bit wary of the ones with tens of thousands.
(For this very reason, some of the i.m.o.-best sites limit their size and are closed to newcomers – which can be frustrating for the newcomers. Some are closed “in general”, but have invite codes which can be given out by someone already there.)
If you pick an instance with bad moderation, it’s not just that you might encounter more dodgy posts. The overall Fediverse is “made of” connections between instances. If users on your instance are generating dodgy stuff and the admins aren’t squashing it, then eventually other instances can decide to disconnect from your whole instance – known as defederation.
This is a good thing overall! It’s part of the resilience of the Fediverse that it’s easy to disconnect from a dodgy subsection. This is a big part of why there’s less random abuse on there compared to Twitter. It’s just that you don’t wanna be in one of the places that’s eventually going to be cut off. In a sense, your connection with the rest of the Fediverse depends on your admins being trusted by other admins.
Is this instance likely to last?
Many admins have signed up to an agreement that if their instance ever needs to shut down, they’ll give three months’ notice, to give people time to move. And it’s built into the software that you can export your follower list & following list, and bring them to a different instance.
Still, even though you can move, it’s less bother if you don’t have to.
I don’t think you can ever be perfectly sure about this factor, because stuff happens. But you could give a little look at: do these admins seem generally well-organised? And do they have a wider team around them, or anything written already about succession planning for if they personally had to stop?
Who will be your “local neighbours”?
i.e. other people on that instance.
Those are the people you’ll most easily be able to discover, and who will find it easiest to discover you, because of the way posts get gradually passed around the Fediverse. (More on this another time.) There’s even a thing called the “Local timeline”, to help you to see who else is on your instance.
If there are people you already know you want to follow, what instance are they on?
This is relevant for two reasons.
The main reason is that if several of your friends are already on the same instance and they think it’s okay, it’s a pretty good clue that you’d find it okay yourself.
(At the time of writing, there’s a useful bit of software which you can run on your Twitter account, to see if any of your Twitter contacts have Fedi-style addresses shown in their Twitter profiles: Fedifinder. However, Twitter has already intentionally broken previous similar things by cutting off their access, so this one may not last long either.)
The other reason, less often relevant, is the defederation possibility, as mentioned above. Most of the time for most people, this won’t come up, but I’ll give an outline anyway.
Typically, the instances which get defederated by others are the ones not bothering (or not managing) to moderate bad behaviour from their users. It’s a way to protect the rest of the fediverse from having to see their nonsense.
But there can also be more nuanced political disputes, like for example “we’re seeing that this other instance is journalism-themed, and we don’t want journalists from the mainstream media following our users, therefore we’re going to defederate from their instance”. And this occasionally comes up as a practical reason why you can’t follow someone. For example, if you did want to follow one of the journalists in that example, you’d want to be on an instance which hasn’t blocked their instance.
Some instances show their entire lists of “we’ve blocked these other instances” on the About page, so you can see exactly what you’re getting. It can be reassuring: for example, if you see “this site was blocked for homophobia”, you know your admins aren’t gonna put up with that. Some don’t show these lists (I’m not sure why – maybe sometimes it’s caution about retaliation).
So, if you want to be absolutely sure you won’t be community-level disconnected from someone, be on the same instance as they are (if possible). And if you want to be pretty sure, then take into account the rules and general philosophy of the instance you’re considering signing up on, and think: do these mods seem likely to defederate from the instance your other person is on?
However, like I said, most of the time for most people this won’t be an issue… despite the jokes about it :-)
(“Choosing a Mastodon instance is easy once you understand each instance’s values, customs, belief systems, and inter-instance alliances and feuds dating back 1,000 years.” Ha :-) )
Does the instance have a theme?
Some instances have a particular theme or topic; some don’t, and are just “general”. And if they do have a theme, they vary as to whether members are supposed to have some specific connection with it, or whether you can join if you’re just interested in it.
For example, sunny.garden is “for indie creators who draw, write, design, program, play, sing or build, their friends and family, and anyone else who thinks that sounds like a nice place to be!” Meanwhile, musicians.today says “You don’t have to be a professional musician to join, but you should at least play an instrument or sing as a hobby.” And union.place says “The Union Place is union-oriented and intended for union members, organizations, friends, and allies. That doesn’t mean all of your content has to be about unions, of course.”
There are also a few instances already with a specific geographical focus. If anyone sets one up for Nottingham, let me know :-)
You can still follow people from other instances! The main difference you’d probably notice from picking a themed one is the kind of discussion that’s easy to discover in your “Local timeline”, and who can easily discover you in their “Local timeline”.
The theme can also be a clue to the kind of territory your mods will be good at dealing with, e.g. you’d expect the mods of an LGBT-themed instance to have a clue about LGBT issues.
If you haven’t already got a recommendation from people you know, or your friends are on sites which are currently “full up”, a great way to find possible contenders is via Fedi Garden.