The Problem with the Fediverse: Why it sucks and won’t stop sucking

One of the worst ideas I’ve seen shilled on the internet in a while is the concept of the Fediverse. The Fediverse is a decentralized social network with a unique gimmick: anyone can start up an instance of it that can interlink with other instances, similar to e-mail. Ten or twenty years ago this would have been a really cool idea. The problem is, its current year and both problems with the service and the userbase mean that most users are going to get driven off it and back into the walled gardens of Twitter or Facebook.

What is the Fediverse? A history lesson

Imagine there’s a social network but it’s unique, and its gimmick is that anyone can start their own instance of it. They can then all link up to each other, so instead of being solely linked on one instance they can talk to other instances. Now imagine old-school technology obsessed libertarians, Japanese porn artists drawing lolicon, hardline tankies who jerk off to killing landlords and Trump voters, and /pol/lacks who jerk off to killing minorities all gathered up in a room. They hate each other, they’re blocking each other’s instances, and don’t exactly get along. Welcome to the Fediverse, I hope you enjoy your stay in hell.

Now the fediverse didn’t intend to become this way, yet because of when it was created it did. See back in the early 2010s there was this thing called gnusocial and it was the first fediverse server (or instance as they call it) software. It was supposed to be the GNU crowd’s alternative to Twitter. To compensate for the issue of clone sites having no userbase it had the unique idea of federating instances with each other. The userbase at first was the old school libertarian or liberal into tech and FOSS software. It made sense, the old school technolibertarian mindset revolved around shifting control from the corporations to the user. So it ticked off all the boxes for this crowd naturally. It was free and open source, and each instance could link up with other instances in case one shut down or was forcibly closed.

As I said, 10 or 20 years ago this would have been a good idea. The internet wasn’t as toxic as it is today and there would be fewer incidents of direct harassment towards site owners or web hosts. That’s when “bits are not a bug” Aaron Swartz founded Reddit, which used to be a free speech oriented site that hosted content that at times was even more extreme than 4chan. Nowadays Aaron is dead and Reddit is so sanitized that half the posts on the site are replaced with [deleted] and [removed] for criticizing the wrong people and groups. This could have taken off so much easier back then, along with many good website ideas today that could never fly without online drama and different groups demanding different content to be banned.

Then in the mid 2010s Mastodon pops up which could interoperate with GNUsocial instances (at first). The two things that set Mastodon apart from GNUsocial were the “Twitter without the Nazis” branding and the idea of instance blocking. This mainly attracts the hardline tankies for a lot of reasons. Hardline tankies online absolutely love censorship and shutting out the opposition. While their opposition might try to convert people, tankies convert people with censorship, scare tactics/blackmail, and making examples out of their targets to scare other people into compliance. Some of these people take doxing or stalking their enemies to even greater extremes than trolls with clean criminal records ever did. As Twitter became swamped by blocklist usage at this time (thanks to GGAutoBlocker popularizing it followed by chain blocking addons) this made sense. Mastodon was to become their new utopia free from those Nazi bigots and instance blocking was the insurance. Over time Mastodon got more popular both from users seeking to escape Twitter’s unique brand of drama, and bans from shouting “KILL TERFS” and similar phrases.

But here’s the problem with the idea behind federated sites: wokeness and libertarianism are incompatible. Around this time as well, Twitter began to crack down on lolicon artists. This along with Japan’s interest in new tech led to the rise of Japanese Mastodon instances that were set apart by both being professionally run and harboring lolicon artists. As they operated under Japanese “its okay if it’s drawn and underage but censor the penis” law, this was completely legal. Early on these instances grew to be the biggest instances on the network for the same reason the tankies used Mastodon. These instances found themselves blocked or muted from western ones. This is because Mastodon caches images from remote servers on the local one so content illegal in many countries (but legal in Japan) would now be on the hard disk of any server that shared content. As the far-right was banned off mainstream social media sites, some of them who rejected their certified containment websites such as Gab also went to some smaller Mastodon instances. This mainly flew under the radar and these instances were also blocked quickly.

Around this time (around 2018 or so) two other big fediverse instance servers pop up: Pleroma and Misskey. Misskey is mostly used by the Japanese part of the fediverse as it was made by them, while Pleroma (developed by the gnusocial side of the fediverse mainly) was made to be lighter than Mastodon to the point where it could run on a Raspberry Pi or cheap DigitalOcean droplet. In 2019 Mastodon dropped the depreciated protocol gnusocial used, but by then most gnusocial instances had already migrated to Pleroma. Pleroma and Misskey are entirely different code and UI wise than Mastodon, but as they can interoperate with Mastodon instances these found use both by users who hated Mastodon’s userbase and by site owners who hated Mastodon’s bloated code.

Gab and Neutrality

What really kicks off drama within the fediverse is when Gab comes into the picture. Gab was a containment site for far-right edgelords and boomers that became infamous for having long-term hosting and app store issues. In one case Gab lost hosting after a mass shooter shot up a synagogue, famously declaring “Screw your optics, I’m going in” in response to the perceived inaction of those within the far-right. Another time Gab lost hosting after infamous prison-Nazi troll Weev made a post declaring that internet censorship won’t end unless someone blows up those responsible like the Oklahoma City bomber did (before being promptly banned for advocating terrorism).

What Gab did right was playing the “I got censored” card hard as Andrew Torba failed to set up his own permanent hosting solution he himself ran, relying on VPSes and web hosts who were happy to kick him off. Gab also kept having its app nuked from app stores and had to have it distributed as an apk file for manual installation (and only on Android). Andrew Torba was willing to go to extreme measures to make sure his website would have an app somehow. So Gab decided to throw another wrench into the system (literally all Andrew Torba can do right) by migrating to a modified version of Mastodon, trying to federate with other instances, and allowing anyone to use any old Mastodon client on an app store.

This starts a fediverse shitstorm in which some app developers hardcoded blocks of “problematic” instances into their software and where every instance owner vowed to block Gab. While FediLab lifted their Gab block after they realized Google wasn’t going to block them, Tusky and some others hardcoded a block of gab’s instance into it. The end result was F-Droid having to make a public statement about this and a debate on the fediverse over how neutral FOSS software is. But honestly this was a great debate because it also highlighted one of the problems with the people behind the fediverse. Imagine if Outlook Express blocked one of Hotmail’s rivals back in the day, maybe with some excuse about how it’s harboring radical Islamic terrorists. Can you really trust some app if the developers not only hate you, but are willing to cripple their app to own the boomers?

Problem #1: Instance Blocking

As a unique social network system, the fediverse has its own unique issues. For starters, there’s already the instance blocking issues. Many instances exist which serve to allow one to access the “entire fediverse” for this reason, but they will find themselves blocked from other instances all because one or two users went on a shitposting world tour and the admins didn’t ban them for this. This results in some instances blocking this behavior so the admin doesn’t have to deal with this issue. Some instances like Gab wind up blocked from every instance and even have hardcoded blocks in some Mastodon clients. This creates a usability problem; you can’t talk to your friends on Instance X because they blocked Instance Y (which you use) because of other users on there. So you need to make an account on Instance Z just to talk to them, and who knows how long it’ll be before they wind up blocked too? It’s just as bad as Twitter blocklists or “blockchains” except you’re at the mercy of the server owner instead.

This is made worse by the fact that fediverse users are very mentally sane people. Fediverse people won’t just yell at you, they will blow up with vitriol until you cave to their demands. Remember many of these people were deemed too politically radical for Twitter, a website where the CEO has been photographed hanging out with one of the original people behind Black Lives Matter after doing an interview with him a year prior, and following a wholesale doxer. If you’re too radical for a website where the CEO is literally on your own side, than holy shit. They’re just as bad as old-school Tumblr users in the golden years, the kind of people who’d bullycide artists for drawing characters wrong. This strikes fear into many instance owners to federate with the right people, or else…

Problem #2: Stability

A bigger problem is stability and longevity. Big social media sites have this on their side. Twitter might ban people or make the site hard to use, yet it’ll still be up for ages. Even MySpace is somewhat up to this day despite accidentally losing millions of songs that were formerly uploaded there. Soundcloud was going to go down, yet it was saved by investors. Fediverse sites on the other hand have the issue where the hosts decide to quit and shut the site down. Usually this is because of either drama with this instance or other instances. They decide one day they’re done dealing with this shit and decide to shut it all down. This is made worse by the fact that fediverse people can get very vitriolic if you’re talking with the wrong people or your site has the wrong people, and many of the owners of these sites don’t have much experience dealing with tough situations that isn’t a non-confrontational method. It’s a bit harder to deal with crazy people screaming at you to block this instance or to ban this user if you don’t have any experience telling people to just go away and get a real job or mental help.

Look what happened to snouts.online. Snouts.online was your typical leftist furry instance, until shit hit the fan. According to vague summaries I found of what went down, some users reported each other and drama blew up between instances as they accused each other of “alt-right dogwhistles” for saying “honk honk”. This led these leftists, trained on watching the Richard Spencer Nazi Punch video and tiki torch march footage daily, to accuse each other of secretly being Nazis and card-carrying alt-right members. The end result was instances flinging shit at members from each other and literally stalking people off of Mastodon.

In the aftermath of all of this, Snouts.online closed down. Yet another instance bit the dust. This is all too common; a friend of mine both was a member of niu.moe and nulled.red. Both of these sites shut down for different reasons. Niu.moe shut down due to fediverse drama and the owner not wanting to be a tard wrangler. Nulled.red shut down for a different reason. As the owner is a part of the most mentally stable group on the internet™, they had to deal with the usual problems. By that I mean “my ex is a bitch and my mom is a bitch“, mixed in with regret from impulse lifestyle choices with permanent effects. Put it this way, their former friend was 100% right when he said the fediverse absolutely wrecked this person to the point of having mental issues and doing regrettable things to themselves. I guess I’m problematic to some people for talking about people who ruin their lives all the time, yet I see it all the time and burying your head in the TV while watching NASCAR doesn’t make them go away.

Oh, and of course it was shut down because of drama.

Problem #3: Badmins/Jannies

Here’s the biggest issue with fediverse instances that explains why they have the users they do. These instances aren’t run by professionals being paid. They’re run out of some guy’s basement or his VPS, paid for with only donations and Patreon dollars. Many of them have no experience running anything larger than a Discord or Telegram group which they treated with heavy handed moderation. This leads to long rule lists that sound just like a Discord server with many “don’t do this and that” rules. Many of them also will ban you for having the incorrect political views. Due to this or the risk of trolling, many of them closed themselves to new registrations. If Gab leaned more towards the far-right moderation wise, Mastodon leans far-left on most instances as these rules from one instance show:

As the far-right sites brand themselves as “free speech” (with exceptions such as the other side’s political views), the far-left ones make no illusion. You’re on Twitter but run by some crazy dude living on fast food, weed, and cup noodles instead of by an algorithm and low wage moderators. They’ve got the mental stability of a third world government, and if they wake up in a bad mood and decide to ban you than tough shit. They’re also so paranoid that oftentimes their friends will be caught in their own friendly fire from paranoia over “alt-right dogwhistles”. It’s like talking to crazy woke types on Telegram or Discord, you always feel you’re on thin ice talking with them because you have no idea when they’ll make a callout post on Twitter and go after people you know because they’re more likely to cave. Even if they know a lot about some topic and you keep talking to them for this reason, it’ll catch up to you eventually. That’s sort of an unwritten rule with stupid behavior; it always catches up to you in the end.

With these rules you have to follow both this long list of vague rules and whatever rules the admins pull out of thin air. Here, let me make these rules simpler. Cut all the fat out and replace it with this:

This should be the only rule. “We’ll ban you for literally any reason” makes more sense than all these byzantine rules you have to follow and then can get hosed for in the end anyway. Hell I can do it better, “hello this is my server for all my leftist furry comrades, I can ban you for any reason including if I think you’re an alt-right bigot based on a meme”. At least laws in many foreign countries make sense. The laws are strict, you’ll get thrown into prisons that make US prisons look like a Motel 6 if you break them, and you have no illusion of laws existing for any other purpose.

 

Problem #4: Signups are restricted in many instances

So let’s say you’re a boomer who wants to sign up for that cool website the kids use, Mastodon. So you go to Mastodon.social and…

As Mastodon wants to be a cool kids club, it makes sense that many instances would restrict signups. Some of them are just for one person or a few friends. But this is on the flagship instance, I mean really? Other servers also require you to pass purity tests, where they vet you first to be sure you’re not one of those shitposters before you can get in. Nothing screams honeypot or bad news like “Hello please give us all of your social media accounts so we can dox you first”.

Problem #5: There’s no Hotmail of the Fediverse

Many of these problems could be solved if there was one massive, politically neutral instance for your mom and dad to use. With e-mail, there’s plenty of big e-mail providers you can use if you just want an e-mail account not linked to your website. There’s Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL Mail, Proton Mail, and more out there.

The fediverse only has two instances that are stable and professionally run to my knowledge. There’s Pawoo, which was formerly run by Pixiv and is now run by a doujin company. Pawoo is also blocked by most instances for harboring lolicon. Gab is blocked by even more instances yet it’s probably the only time I’ve seen any social media website migrate to the fediverse successfully. Calling Gab professionally run is somewhat of a stretch considering how Andrew Torba sat on Twitter more than he did Gab most of the time or how he’s handled hosting arrangements. Yet it’s probably the closest to professionally run you can find in the Anglosphere and that’s sad.

No big tech company is starting their own fediverse instance whatsoever. There’s no Microsoft Fediverse instance for your grandma to join and post about her life on. While Matrix (a federated chat platform) has some big name users and FOSS projects using it, the Fediverse only attracts the fringe vocal crowd from the top down. This means there’s also no normies to dilute the pool of crazy like most social media websites have. You’re not going to find some random person from your street using Mastodon, you’ll find a communist who alienated their family. On the other hand it’d likely be sanitized hardcore like Facebook and Twitter are nowadays. This leads us to the most critical problem with any of these sites:

Problem #6: You’ll get more interaction on Twitter anyway

The trick to Twitter and other social media sites is interactions. This is one of the reasons why TikTok is so huge. You can be a literal nobody, but the minute you start using TikTok you’ll get interactions fast. You can go from being noticed nowhere to being seen all the time on Twitter or TikTok. Hey look, your tweet got 5 thousand retweets, you’re getting noticed and your phone is blowing up in class. Every TikTok video is watermarked too so when it’s reposted to other websites people know where to look. While the algorithms are now known for promoting corporate content or political propaganda, they became famous for making random people e-famous.

The fediverse has both a lack of users and instance blocking to keep this down. You will not get big on a fediverse instance like you will on Twitter. Furthermore as the fringe controls the show, you’re at the whims of whatever pocket of the fediverse your instance federates to. This automatically makes the fediverse irrelevant to most normal people as since there are no big instances for normies to use, there’s no way to really get big online from the fediverse. Most people want to be seen and that’s why they’re addicts to mainstream social media. They also want to see the content mainstream social media has, like TikTok dances or pranks.

Conclusion

There’s no reason to use the fediverse unless you enjoy being tortured by a bunch of crazy people online or watched by nobody. It has a long way to go to gain relevance and part of what would solve these issues is another professionally run instance. Until that happens, it’s dead and it’ll forever remain a containment site federation.

Unfortunately if this happened it will never be just like the old social media sites for one simple reason. Modern day social media is too sanitized for a Wild West era platform. Even if you made a platform that recreated every single bit of old Twitter, it will never have the same community or moderation. Hell, Mozilla (makers of the dying, controlled opposition web browser Firefox) even funded a study about how Nazis are using those decentralized platforms and I wouldn’t be shocked if this ends up fracturing the community even harder as woke leftism and libertarianism do not mix. It’s the same delusion gamers have when they think that companies remaking their old online games will bring back the good old days when said remakes have word filters and trash talk bans.

In other words, this tweet sums up the modern internet:

Jake

Jake

I'm a purple cat :V

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