Here are my thoughts on the current state of the “Fediverse.”
Probably my first introduction to federated/decentralized web platforms was diaspora*. I thought it sounded awesome and it seemed a lot of people were talking about it at the time. I was always a big fan of Google+ and it seemed like that's where they took some inspiration. Unfortunately, it was a little bit too much of a pain to run my own “pod” at the time. I think I probably did create an account on one, but probably never actually used it. The hype around diaspora died down and, honestly, I just forgot about it.
When I first heard about Mastodon (much later), I dismissed it entirely. I was sort of stuck in an “anti-sjw” echo chamber at the time and I understood Mastodon to essentially be “sjw” Twitter. I don't use Twitter and didn't want to use it and so it just sounded like two things I didn't really want anything to do with so I wrote it off as not worth my time to explore.
Fast-forward to relatively recently and I've been following the efforts to federate Forgejo and Gitea and looking forward to that eventually getting done. It's got me looking a lot into ActivityPub and all this federation stuff. I was very surprised to find that there were a host of diverse web platforms for different types of content that could interoperate to some extent.
So I finally made a Mastodon account and have been trying to get to grips with it for the two weeks.... and I'm loving it. I've found interesting people with interesting hobbies and viewpoints both on my local instance as well as across the Fediverse. I did pick a smaller instance which increases some of the issues I'll go into below, but it's pretty cozy and I'm a little sad that I dismissed it so readily years ago. The lack of an “algorithm” trying to force-feed content to me in the name of “engagement” is fantastic and a huge plus to me. A simple chronological view of the things I'm following is all I'd ever wanted.
There's still a decent amount of weirdness due to how federation works though that makes for a suboptimal user experience. Following anything that isn't already being followed on your instance means you don't get old/historical posts – only ones that were either pinned or ones generated after you started following. You can of course go view their profile on their instance, but then if you want to reply or favorite or interact with anything in any way, you need to copy over the link to your home instance to actually interact with it since that is where you are logged in.
I can follow things from some ActivityPub platforms like PixelFed and that seems to work perfectly, but I tried to follow a Lemmy community and the result was... not great. The federation works, but it looks a little funny in practice because both platforms are set up with different content models and display expectations. You can't look at a subreddit from within Twitter at all though so I guess it's still a point in the Fediverse's favor. The lack of historical post data though is particularly egregious when it comes to something like Lemmy, where a lot of value could be trapped in existing posts.
The only Fediverse platform that really seems somewhat mature and usable to me... is Mastodon. The other platforms seem a little immature or underwhelming. Even this blog software “federates,” but doesn't show any of those interactions or replies on the actual blog itself — you have to go to Mastodon or whatever other platform to see the comments essentially. (I am working on integrating Remark42 for onsite comments.)
Another weird thing is that there's essentially no monetization anywhere as far as I can tell outside of maybe a link to a Patreon or Ko-Fi page to support the server. That's fantastic because ads suck and selling my data sucks... but it means these platforms run on charity essentially. That makes me wary of the possibility an instance operator might end up deciding its not worth their time, money, and effort and a small instance might just suddenly vanish. It definitely makes me want to run my own Mastodon instance just for myself and maybe my partner... except I'm allergic to Ruby on Rails and PostgreSQL so don't really want to do that.
One interesting thing I did find looking into the Fediverse and ActivityPub was a separate “movement” — IndieWeb. This is an effort to run websites more like ye olde times where instead of having a big company run a website and everyone make pages/profiles hosted on there where said company controls everything, we'd each run our own little homepages where we're in control. You then could syndicate content from their canonical home on your domain to whatever big corporate sites you wanted so that the content would be discoverable and usable for your friends, family, etc. There isn't a big emphasis on these little homepages federating, but standards like WebMention allow for some level of communication between sites.
I feel like I've essentially already been doing much of the IndieWeb thing even without being aware any such movement or name — purely out of paranoia over my data being lost or made inaccessible. I may have to dig deeper into this IndieWeb thing and see if there's more I can do with it.
The internet is so much larger than it was when I first interacted with it. The first thing that comes to mind is part of the very memorable rant by Howard Beale in Network (1976):
We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'
The online world used to be likened to the Wild West. It was a land of opportunity. Anyone could carve their own little niche into it. The web was simple enough and barrier to entry low enough that anyone could make a website largely as capable as any corporate website. Looking for things online was like shopping at an exotic bazaar, street fair, or farmer's market — each stall reflecting its creator's passions and tastes. But that world has gotten smaller and smaller and smaller. Now we only trudge down to the figurative malls or local Walmart supercenters of the internet.
Objectively, the modern internet vastly dwarfs the internet of old. The amount of data that crosses the web in a minute today would probably be staggering to the originators of the internet. It feels so bleak and soulless though. It feels small and localized. We're complacent and convenience rules the day. If a platform starts behaving badly we moan and quail, but at the end of the day most people continue using it... because there isn't an alternative and we hate change.
The power of decentralized, federated sites to weave something powerful out of many smaller components gives me hope that maybe we'll be able to take back the reins from the megacorps. It's going to take time though and I don't think we're there yet.