As Elon Musk’s Category 5 tweets continue, the once-obscure social network Mastodon is gaining over 1,000 new refugees every hour, reaching nearly 8 million users.
Joining as a user is very easy. There are enough ex-Twitter users willing to find a Mastodon instance via Joinmastodon.org, get a list of Twitter friend handles via Movetodon, and continue as before.
But what new converts may not realize is that Mastodon is just the most important node in a broader movement to change the nature of the web.
With decentralization as the main goal, Mastodon and its kin are “federated”. That means you’re more than welcome to set up a server as a home base (“instance”) for a friend or colleague. Users on all instances can communicate with users above. your. The most common metaphor is email. yahoo.com, uchicago.edu, and condenast.com all host local collections of users, but anyone can send messages to others using standard messaging protocols. Due to space ambitions, a new coalition of freely communicating instances is called the “Fediverse”.
I started using Mastodon in mid-2017 when I heard the first glimmers of it. I’ve found people living in a world where the first big selling point is distributed network topologies to be geeky and countercultural. There was no #brand. The server was (and still is) run by academic institutions, journalists, enthusiasts, and activists in the LGBTQ+ community. One instance, the organizers of scholar.social, run an annual seminar series that I presented.
The decentralization aspect, which was a huge selling point for me, was also a core design goal of Mastodon and its predecessors, such as GNU Social, on which Mastodon was built.in an interview with timeLead developer Eugen Rochko says he started working on Mastodon in 2016. This is because Twitter has become too centralized and important to talk about. “Probably it shouldn’t be in the hands of a single company,” he said. His desire to build a new system was “generally associated with a distrust of the top-down controls exercised by Twitter.”
Like many web apps, Mastodon is a collection of components and standards. Hosting and working with Mastodon instances requires some familiarity with all of these things. At the heart of The Fediverse is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) ActivityPub standard. It specifies how actors on the network are defined and interact.
Mastodon and ActivityPub evolved almost simultaneously, with the first major release of Mastodon in early 2017 and ActivityPub being finalized as a standard by the W3C in January 2018. It can be used in many contexts beyond just reporting what a user had for lunch.
Like Mastodon, ActivityPub represents a rebellion against an increasingly centralized web. Christine Lemmer-Webber is lead author of her 2018 ActivityPub standard, which builds on previous work on another service called pump.io led by Evan Prodromou. Lemmer-Webber told Ars that when she developed the ActivityPub standard, she said, “We were kind of the only standards group at her W3C that didn’t involve companies… who the big companies are.” I didn’t want to do it either,” he says.
She felt ActivityPub was a successful decentralization idea even before it surged to millions of users in recent months. “Your assumption that only big players can play turned out to be false, and I think it should really inspire everyone,” she said. “It inspires me.”
The idea of an open web, where actors communicate using a common standard, is as old as the web. “The ’90s dream he lives in the Fediverse,” Lemmer-Webber told me.
In the late 2000s we love, hate, forget or want to forget Boxee, Flickr, Brightkite, Last.fm, Flux, Ma.gnolia, Windows Live, Foursquare, Facebook. Various independent efforts to standardize interoperability between silos were generally merged into the Activity Streams v1 standard.
Both the original Activity Streams standard and the current W3C Activity Streams 2.0 standard used by Mastodon and co. It provides a grammar for expressing possibilities. “Request to be friends with a specific user.” The vocabulary used in this grammar is divided into its own sub-standard activity vocabulary.
Now that we have a way to represent the flow of a person’s thoughts and actions in JSON blobs, where do all these flows go? ) is an actor-based model that specifies that each actor that provides a , should have a profile. An actor can send her a GET request to her inbox to see what actors she follows have posted, or she can GET another actor’s outbox to see if that particular actor has You can check what you posted. Her POST request to her friend’s inbox places the message there. Her POST request to the user’s own outbox will post all messages (with proper permissions). The standard specifies that these various inboxes and outboxes keep their activity in order, much like the well-known social media timeline.
(PS: If you want to see what your activity stream looks like, and if your browser renders the JSON properly, get a random sendbox and have a look.)
Here is the vision of Fediverse. It’s a set of ActivityPub nodes scattered around the world, all speaking a common language. Mastodon is one of many efforts to implement the ActivityPub standard inbox and outbox. There are many others, from other microblogging platforms (“Like Mastodon, but…”) to his ActivityPub server, which runs a chess club.
In theory they all communicate with each other. In reality, not so much. Incompatibilities range from imperfections in standards, to questions about how online communities should be formed, to efforts beyond the standard post/comment/follow format of typical social networks. , due to some problems.