ROWS #3: decentralized social media part. 1, the Fediverse

And we’re back researching web3 social things!

  • In issue #1 of this series, I started mapping web3 social projects in a stack.

  • In issue #2, I attempted to explain the different builder mindsets when building infrastructure projects and consumer apps

  • This month, we will zoom into decentralized social media protocols. We’ll start with non-web3 protocols for context, then we’ll move to web3 native projects like Lens, Farcaster and others.

Big thanks to Julien, Wanshu, Limone, Hadrien for providing timely and helpful feedback.

Thanks to the Sismo team for making this series possible!!! I'm having fun.
Thanks to the Sismo team for making this series possible!!! I'm having fun.

The rise of decentralized social media - Part 1: The 2010s

TLDR of the different sections. Stick with me!

  1. The Birth of Federated Social Networks and the Fediverse - In this part I’ll introduce the federated social network model. It can be thought of as the open source communities’ answer to centralized social media platforms.

  2. The Fediverse Consolidates Around The ActivityPub Protocol - Here I’ll show how ActivityPub emerged out of the 2010s as the leading protocol around which softwares are being built.

  3. Mastodon - Pros And Cons Of The Fediverse Leader - Finally I’ll touch on Mastodon, the largest ActivityPub implementation out there, mentioning some of its advantages and drawbacks.

Non-web3 decentralized social media timeline 2008 to today - I have skipped intermediary protocols and a few softxwares. Main source:
Non-web3 decentralized social media timeline 2008 to today - I have skipped intermediary protocols and a few softxwares. Main source:

1. The Birth of Federated Social Networks and the Fediverse

TLDR: The late 2000s mark the end of blogging as the main social acitivity on the internet. Centralized social companies are gaining momentum, the OSS community responds with a federated social network, the Fediverse is born

Starting in 2008, the digital landscape began to witness the rise of decentralized social media platforms. This was a time when tech giants like Twitter and Facebook were starting to dominate the online social networking space, which had previously been ruled by blogging.

Yet, these centralized platforms, with their proprietary code and tendency to commodify user data for shareholder gains, didn't sit well with many in the open-source software (OSS) and hacker communities. OSS groups yearned for platforms that would give users control over their online presence, enabling them to own their data and their experience.

This call for decentralization led advocates like Evan Prodromou and his team to develop alternatives. Their contribution, GNU Social, aimed to stand as a beacon against centralized platforms. It "helps people in a community, company, or group exchange short status updates, conduct polls, announce events, and engage in other social activities." Conceptually, GNU Social functions like Twitter: users can post and read status updates. However, the difference lies in its decentralized nature. With GNU Social, individuals can run customized versions of the software on their servers and join a wider network.

This approach empowers users to choose and use diverse clients or web interfaces, and importantly, host their data independently, similar to the higher levels of decentralization seen in the email network. Technically inclined individuals can host their own mailboxes, while others might rely on major platforms like Gmail or Outlook. Such networks, characterized by distributed but interconnected nodes, are called "federated networks.”

“Federated networks let users pick a server to sign up with, which gives them access to the entire network spread out across many different servers. This gives users more choices for applications, policies, and community cultures. Email is an example of a federated protocol that everyone on the internet uses. Gmail is a popular email application, but if you use a different provider you can still communicate with anyone with an email address.”— Jay Graber, Decentralized Social Networks, Comparing federated and peer-to-peer protocols, 2020

Operating under the OStatus protocol, GNU Social allows disparate social networks to communicate, forming what is known as a "federation." This model contrasts sharply with centralized networks, such as Twitter, where one entity dictates platform rules and holds all user data. It's also distinct from a pure peer-to-peer system, where every user is a node in the network.

This federated network of social graphs made possible by protocol standards are starting to be called “Fediverse”, for federated universe.

First public record of mention of the name “fediverse”

2. The Fediverse Consolidates Around The ActivityPub Protocol

TLDR: new protocols emerge to form new federations, this leads to a fragmentation of the ecosystem which eventually converges back and consolidates around the ActivityPub protocol.

The 2010s were a period of experimentation for the federation model and the emerging 'Fediverse'. New federations like Diaspora, a Facebook alternative developed by a team of MIT students, were put out there and were subsequently handed off to their community for further development. We could also mention Zot protocol, which added encryption and private messaging to existing standards.

In this organized chaos, a branch of protocols began to outpace the others. It started with OStatus, evolved into the protocol, and eventually led to ActivityPub, which is arguably the most widely-used decentralized social protocol at the time of writing. Each iteration aimed to learn from its predecessors to eliminate inefficiencies and facilitate greater interoperability. - Excerpt of common protocols and platforms in the Fediverse (2023) - Excerpt of common protocols and platforms in the Fediverse (2023)

You might have heard of ActivityPub when Meta announced its interest in integrating with the protocol or if you have ever explored decentralized alternatives Twitter like Mastodon, the leading app in this space. Other projects, such as Tumblr, Flickr and Medium, have also recently expressed interest in ActivityPub. Let's quickly explore how it works, what contributed to its success, and what its limitations might be. I highly recommend this podcast with Evan Prodromou.

ActivityPub Protocol Standard At a High Level

The protocol capabilities include sharing profiles, posts, photos, videos, comments, replies, reactions, likes, and favorites—essentially all standard social media activities you can find on centralized web2 platforms.

Standards focus on two main areas:

  • Standards for data representation: these detail events in a JSON data structure, such as "Alice liked Bob's post."

  • Standards for data distribution: these outline the mechanisms for routing activities throughout the network.

The ActivityPub Network

The network consists of a federation of servers that comply with the ActivityPub standard and communicate with each other. A server running ActivityPub is referred to as an "instance."

These instances are most commonly run by hobbyists and can host anywhere from a handful to tens of thousands of users. They handle both usernames and their associated data while interacting with other instances.

Server admins can unilaterally enforce moderation policies and can block other instances from interacting with their users. For example,, a right-wing extremist website, has its own Mastodon instance but is generally blocked from most of the Fediverse.

A large majority of Fediverse instances comply with ActivityPub standards today.

User Identities And Data

In most cases, user identities and data are tied to the server, meaning that if the server shuts down or a user chooses to migrate to another instance, most of the data and content will be lost.

In some cases though, users can migrate their social graph under a new identity or on a new server. Content is usually not encrypted, and admins may have access to their users' messages.

How ActitivityPub Instances Make Money

Each instance is funded by its own administrator or the community often through donations.

For example Mastodon's development is supported by a Patreon, bringing in about $300k annually. This allows the founder, Eugen Rochko aka Gargron and small team to work on Mastodon mobile apps, instance hosting 700k people and main protocol development.

3. Mastodon - Pros And Cons Of The Fediverse Leader

Mastodon emerges as the leading Fediverse software and largest ActivityPub implementation, with its pros and cons

If ActivityPub has become the main standard towards which projects are converging, Mastodon, created in 2016, incorporated AcitivtyPub in 2017 and is emerging as its primary implementation and ambassador.

Eugen Rochko, the founder and lead developer, has modified Mastodon’s implementation of the standard to suit specific needs and user demand for features. Its appeal has led most software projects to seek compatibility with it. Today, Mastodon supports many clients and web interfaces, but its custom implementation of the protocol is increasingly serving as a core backend that others can build upon.

As shown on the graph above, Mastodon’s growth has accelerated when Elon Musk bought Twitter and introduced paid access to its third-party API in early 2023 besides other abrupt changes causing FUD. As a result, users and teams have flocked to Mastodon and started developing third-party apps compatible with it.

Among the companies that have explored Mastodon are Mozilla with, Medium with, and Flipboard with Flipboard Social. Users of these services can access instances using their existing logins.

Pros and Cons of Mastodon

Below is a table summing up the Pros and Cons of Mastodon according to Evan Prodromou as of 2023 (podcast link in resources).

It's worth noting that cultural wars, toxicity towards minorities, and moderation issues have sparked significant debates within the Fediverse, as pointed out in this 2023 article by Leonora Tindall. Moderation continues to be a sensitive topic, and concentrating too much power in the hands of server admins may not be the best solution.

Where are non web3 decentralized social media going next?

Over the past decade, the rise of decentralized social media has been a gradual, yet persistent phenomenon. It started as an alternative answer to platforms like Twitter, and over time, multiple experimental platforms took shape based on the federation model. Eventually ActivityPub protocol became the central piece.

Interestingly, many Web 2.0 entities are showing interest in joining the Fediverse. Their participation, however, won't be without challenges. Ensuring interoperability between existing Fediverse platforms and these major companies might be tricky. Furthermore, centralized entities, due to their inherent business models, often find their interests at odds with the principles of decentralization. This misalignment might limit their full adoption of the federated model.

The future trajectory of Mastodon remains uncertain, especially in relation to challenges such as user onboarding, scalability, and content moderation. Even centralized social media networks posessing vast resources grapple with these issues and may never solve them.

Currently, Mastodon a few million users millions, primarily made of tech-savvy individuals from open source and hacker communities, artists, and marginalized groups seeking a more inclusive online space. Yet, many questions remain: How will Mastodon cater to the next hundred million users? How can it monetize effectively at scale, increase its development and feature rollout pace, and compete with the next 'super app'?

In PART 2. - Web3 Native Decentralized Social Media Protocols

Thank you for reading Part 1. DM me here with any remarks.

In Part 2, I'll explore Web3 native social media protocols like Farcaster and Lens. We'll be able to compare the pros and cons of these protocols with their non-Web3 counterparts and hopefully draw some interesting conclusions from this.

BONUS: Comparison table - ActivityPub vs. Nostr vs. AT Protocol (feedback and edits welcome)

Subscribe to Albiverse
Receive the latest updates directly to your inbox.
Mint this entry as an NFT to add it to your collection.
This entry has been permanently stored onchain and signed by its creator.