Fediverse decentralisation problems

The Fediverse is decentralised. There are benefits to this (local moderation, resilience, distribution) – but there are also drawbacks.

Getting connected

One big drawback when starting a new instance is how to get connected to other people. If you’re all alone, it’s hard:

If you know accounts from elsewhere, you can search for the accounts and your instance will request their most recent public posts from the remote instance. This takes a few seconds.

One way to learn about accounts is to check the public timelines of other instances via their public web. Many instance have switched this off, however. If you check tabletop.social, for example, you won’t find anything. On an instance like Merveilles town, on the other hand, you can explore profiles and look at the public timeline (depending on the setup, you’ll see either the other instance’s local or federated timeline). Mastoview similarly allows a quick look at the public timeline of other instances.

Another way to find accounts to follow is to look at the profiles of administrators. By default, the first account is the administrator (allowing us to guess the account number), and by default all new users will follow the administrator. Both of these can be changed, of course. But taking this example, we can look at the followers of https://octodon.social/web/accounts/1, for example. @CobaltVelvet is the Octodon admin. It might not be very efficient for a big and general instance like Octodon, but it can work for thematic instances like functional.cafe: https://functional.cafe/web/accounts/1 leads you to @mdallastella; https://fosstodon.org/web/accounts/1 leads you to @kev; https://mastodon.art/web/accounts/1 leads you to @Curator, etc.

Once you have an account or two, the best way to find more is to see who they are replying to (visit their profile and click “toots and replies”), and who they are following (visit their profile and click “following”). The latest follows are on top, so chances are that those accounts are not abandoned. 😃

There are other ways using third party services, too.

You can join a relay, if you run your own instance: search for “activitypub relay at” (including quote marks). See pull request #7998 for some more information. You’ll get the posts in the public timelines of the servers that have joined the relay into your own instance, thus populating the instance with a firehose of public toots. 😆 One situation where relays make sense is if you’re running a new instance and want to provide a service for others. Those newcomers might not be as ready as you are to organically look for new people to follow. Clicking on the local and federated timelines is the easiest thing for them to do and a relay makes sure that there is something for them to find, there. Once your instance has grown and the local users are all active, you might no longer need the relay. And if you’re running a single-user instance, you might not need the relay at all since you might be willing to put in the extra leg work to find good accounts to follow elsewhere.

There are groups such as the ones hosted by gup.pe. If you know the name of a group, search for it. Your instance will pull the account from the remote instance into your instance and now you can follow it. Anything you post that mentions the group account gets boosted by the group account such that everybody else following the group account gets notified. The problem is that the archives aren’t public: if you just look at https://gup.pe/ or https://gup.pe/u/plants you won’t see the accounts via the web. If you follow them and click on the accounts, your instance will pull their latest posts into your instance (i.e. all the posts they boosted) and that now gives you access to all the accounts, which you can now explore. In a way, that’s not so bad: just follow a bunch of groups that make sense to you and see what happens. Mention them a few time and populate their timelines. It makes your account and your interests easier to find.

There are social search indexes such as Search Social that make their database searchable via the web. You can look for accounts using hashtags there, for example.

There are user directories such as Trunk. The problem with directories is, of course, that they’re always out of date. Plenty of people that don’t post what they said they’d post, people that stopped posting, people that moved instances and didn’t notify the directory, and so on. But it’s a start!

Fediverse fragility

Another problem (or feature) with the Fediverse is fragility.

If it’s made of a network of software services running on various people’s computers, there’s no consistency about “who is maintaining their servers,” and who is not. Who do you call, when an image on a remote service isn’t loading any longer, or threaded discussions on blog articles just suddenly disappear?

This is arguably both a feature, and a bug. It’s a bug because people’s computers go down, or are left unmaintained or unattended, and so random features of the social network of stuff just mysteriously disappears or bitrots. It’s a feature because a lot of people want is control over their own data, including the right to disappear.

Possible ways around this:


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