The fediverse is growing, but power imbalances might stay

Alternative social network Mastodon, which has no algorithmic timeline and a decentralized structure, is rapidly gaining steam. But the regulatory framework, which was built for billion-dollar companies, could dampen its growth.

Image: Mastodon gGmbH

Nicolas Kayser-Bril

Last week, a rich man with a history of erratic comments and far-right leanings finalized the acquisition of an online platform popular with journalists, academics and politicians. As a result, many users began transferring their activity to the “fediverse”, a loose network of social media platforms that let users communicate with each other across different services.

The fediverse is an umbrella term for services such as Peertube, a video-sharing platform, diaspora*, a Facebook-like social network, or Mastodon, a service similar to the one bought last week. Commercial social networks are run by a single organization that locks users in (you cannot move your content and followers from Instagram to YouTube). The fediverse is different: any person or organization can set up a service, and they interoperate with one another. Users can, indeed, move their contents and followers from one service to the next.

Steady growth

Mastodon claims to have 500,000 monthly active users, gaining 30,000 per day. This remains several orders of magnitude less than commercial social networks, but with the future of Twitter cloudier than ever, many savvy social media users are currently switching to the fediverse. Despite its small user base, the popularity of Mastodon with academics and journalists could give it an outsized influence, like it did Twitter.

Many of the most criticized features of social networks are absent from the fediverse. Users can change service providers without losing their contacts. Each service provider has its own moderation rules. While some could implement automated, strict censorship, others could be more lenient, or even abandon moderation altogether.

This makes the fediverse very homey for far-right extremists. Indeed, they make a large proportion of all users since, a social network for the far-right, began using Mastodon in 2019. But because each service provider can block another one, the Neo-Nazi fediverse is effectively cut off from the rest (there are many other grades of filtering interactions with other providers, blocking is the most extreme).

The regulatory burden

Neo-Nazis are far from the only group, frequently censored by large platforms, in search of an online home. Sex workers, who are targeted much more systematically than far-right extremists, also flocked to the fediverse to organize, communicate and market their services. Switter, a Mastodon service dedicated to sex work, had 420,000 users at its peak. Despite this success, the service closed down in early 2021. The service’s operator claimed that it could not abide by the restrictive terms of Australia’s Online Safety Act and similar legislation in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The Australian Act requires that social networks automatically find and filter content that is “very high in impact that falls outside the generally accepted community standards.” In effect, such a broad definition can be used to target any kind of content that falls outside of prude norms. The Act would also have forced Switter to disclose the personal information of users to the police.

Tellingly, upon shuttering the service, Switter did not advise their users to move to another Mastodon service outside of Australia. Instead, it encouraged them to move to Reddit or Twitter, two commercial platforms that allow adult content.

Digital Services Act

In the European Union, providers of Mastodon services will have to follow the rules of the Digital Services Act (DSA), which enters into force in early 2024. Mastodon administrators will have to set up reporting mechanisms, for instance. They will have to act “without undue delay” when presented with an order from law enforcement. Perhaps more frightening still, they will have to read the 102 pages of the DSA to understand what obligations they face.

The people who wrote the DSA clearly did not have the fediverse in mind. They spent no time discussing non-commercial social networks. But the legal risks facing service providers, as well as the precedent of Switter’s closure, are such that many services of the fediverse will probably limit who can join. Groups that have been silenced on larger platforms or that are harassed by European police forces are unlikely to find a safe heaven on the fediverse.

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