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A rough beginner's guide to fedi

By Evelyn
Category: misc

Due to certain events, a lot of people have decided to join the fediverse for the first time. Many of us who've been on fedi for a little while have been trying to share tips and advice to help new users, and to dispel some of the misconceptions and disinformation that's out there about fedi. I've written quite a few posts at this point, and thought it might be worthwhile putting them together in one place.

Please bear in mind that throughout this, I'm only talking about fedi as it relates to microblogging. Fedi is a lot wider than this, and not everything I describe here is relevant for other services on fedi.

What is the fediverse?

Fediverse is an umbrella term describing the loose federation of servers which communicate with each other using an open protocol (a specification for software-to-software communication) called ActivityPub.

Federation can seem a little confusing at first, but you're likely already familiar with an example of a federated open protocol - email. It doesn't usually matter which provider you use, or what software they're running, you can send an email to someone using another email provider. Just as alice@example.com can send an email to bob@website.net, @alice@example.com can follow @bob@website.net, see their posts, and interact.

What's an instance?

An instance (within the context of fedi) is any server running fediverse software. Two very well-known examples are mastodon.social and misskey.io. Some instances may be invite-only, others allow new users to join.

There's plenty of different lists to help you decide which instance to join. You can find other lists by searching, but here's some grouped by popular instance software:

Does it matter what instance I choose?

If you're picking an instance from one of the lists, it can seem overwhelming, as there's so many instances, and so many are oriented towards specific interests or subcultures. It's not essential to pick an instance that aligns with your interests, since you can speak to people across the fediverse, although it can help you early on in discovering people with common interests.

Make sure you review the moderation policy of an instance you're thinking of joining. Is it too permissive, or too restrictive for you? Do they require you to stay "on topic"?

What's Mastodon? or Pleroma?

These are different instance server software. They can all talk to each other thanks to their common language of ActivityPub, and they all have the basic core functionality you'd expect, but they have different web interfaces, and have some differences in secondary features, which might not always federate completely smoothly.

For example, Pleroma and Misskey have emoji reactions - which are displayed on Mastodon as simple likes, and Misskey has a federated cat ears mode, which is only displayed on other Misskey instances. Mastodon's "killer feature" is the ability to migrate followers who are using Mastodon from one Mastodon account to another.

If you're unsure which instance software and community are right for you, you can sign up for accounts on several instances, to find what you prefer.

Some new users call fedi "Mastodon", which isn't right, and can feel a bit alienating to those of us using other fedi software.

Toot? Boost? Note? Repeat? Reblog??? Why do people use different words?

Different instance software use different terms in their UIs for posts and for reposts. Mastodon is unusual in that it calls these "toot" and "boost", Pleroma opts for "post" and "repeat", and in Misskey these are "note" and "renote".

How does moderation work on fedi?

Most instance software has federated reporting - if you report a remote user, the report will go to your own moderators, and then, depending on the instance software, will either be automatically forwarded to the remote instance, will be optionally forwarded at the discretion of your moderators, or this decision will be left to you. A remotely-forwarded report may or may not identify you individually, but will definitely identify your instance, and will contain any text you include.

For more information on how reports work on your specific instance software, either consult the documentation, or ask. Instances may outline a policy for reports, but if they don't, you can likely ask a moderator for more information on how they handle moderation.

Even when you report a remote user, the report will be read by your local instance moderators, because this allows them to determine whether the remote instance is upholding compatible moderation policy. If instances don't agree on moderation policy, or aren't acting robustly in response to reports, then in the final resort, they can defederate, to prevent their users being exposed to objectionable content or behaviour.

Defederation means an instance blocking an entire instance from interacting with it. Users on the blocked instance won't be able to follow, reply, or interact in any other way with users on the instance which blocks it, and the same is also true in the reverse direction. Posts may still be available because of how federation works.

For users reported on their own instance, moderators can take action directly. Generally speaking, more minor issues, or misunderstandings, might be resolved with discussions or warnings, but serious issues may attract a ban. Good moderators will disregard obviously baseless or malicious reports.

Can administrators or moderators read my DMs? How about chat?

DMs are a post visibility setting, and admins can read any post which is accessible by their instance, because these are stored in a database which they control. The mechanics are a little different but the same also applies for private messages on software such as Pleroma or Misskey. Moderators only have powers within the instance software itself, and generally cannot read DMs or chat which hasn't been reported. This is not different from monolithic services such as Twitter. If you wish to send or receive sensitive information with privacy guarantees, you should always use something with end-to-end encryption.

How visible are my posts?

You can control the visibility level of each individual post you send. You can also lock your account, so people can only follow when you approve them. These features are related but not entirely coupled - it's possible, and sometimes desirable, to send followers-only posts when anyone can follow you, and global posts when your account is locked.

Depending on the visibility level, people may see your posts in their federated or local timelines. It's not considered rude or unusual to interact with people from these timelines, so don't be alarmed if people interact out of the blue.

How can I find people on fedi?

The fediverse can seem a little bit empty as a newcomer, there's no signposts telling you who to follow, or where to go. If you know people from elsewhere who are on fedi, following them is a good first step.

Most fedi software include two useful discoverability features - the local and federated timelines. The local timeline shows you visible posts from people on your own instance, the federated timeline shows you visible posts from all instances your instance federates with.

If you're on an interest-specific instance, the local timeline will be great - it'll show you posts and reposts from like-minded people on your instance, as well as who they're talking to on other instances.

The federated timeline can be a bit more hit and miss, and remember that it's every post your instance knows about, it can contain nonsense, spam, and posts which aren't compatible with your instance's moderation policy.

Once you're following enough people, you'll find that you can simply follow your own timeline for mentions or reposts of interesting users, and follow back interesting people who follow you.

I have a link to a post on another instance - how can I see the post on mine to repost or reply?

Most instance software has a search box. Put the link in there, it should fetch and show the post to you.

What are content warnings? When should I use them?

Your instance software will have a feature called "CW", "topic", or "subject" which you can set when sending a post. For most users, this will be displayed as a collapsed post, with that message above it. You can use this to help people avoid things which are harmful, annoying, or that they simply don't want to engage with. Common examples are politics, conflict, traumatic events, and unusually long posts (on instances with long post length limits). Don't worry too much about this, if someone wants you to do this for something that isn't already very obvious, they'll likely let you know.

Something isn't working right, what should I do?

If you see something that doesn't seem right on your instance, speak to a member of instance staff. If it's a software issue with something you're running yourself, such as a mobile client, a frontend, or instance software itself, make sure to ask for help, and if it's a bug, or there's a feature that's missing, submit it to the project issue tracker - this way, the software can be improved for everyone!

People have said I shouldn't use the "official" Mastodon apps - why?

The official Mastodon apps omit the local and federated timelines, two key features for discoverability. If you're using Mastodon, there's a wide range of solid alternatives which don't have arbitrary limitations such as these.

People have said I shouldn't join mastodon.social or another large instance - why?

Large instances often have reliability issues when large numbers of new users join, and a common complaint is that their moderation is also often overloaded, since the rate of new users exceeds their ability to control and appoint trustworthy moderators. Some instances defederate from mastodon.social for moderation reasons, and many more mute it in the federated timeline to keep fedi usable for their users.

One of the main freedoms on the fediverse is freedom of association - since instances group people together by interests and behaviour, an instance admin gets to pick who comes to their party by defederating from people who'll really ruin it for everyone. A large instance undermines this, since if you want to invite all the cool people there, now you also have to invite all of the people there who aren't so cool, never mind all the companies that made their corporate accounts there.

By using a large instance, you put people in a difficult position - is it more important to be able to talk to you as a newcomer, or to be able to protect their users?

In the end, the federation is an important feature of the fediverse, and it'll work best for you when you take full advantage of it.

Crossposting - what's the etiquette?

You can use a crossposter to take everything you post on Twitter, and to post it on Fedi too. The reverse can also be done - your posts on fedi would be reposted on your twitter account. Some people find that this can be a good way to ease themselves into the fediverse, but there are a few things you should know.

If you use a crossposter, turn off repeats or retweets (depending on direction). This feature means you will be reposting other people's posts on another platform in a way they may not be comfortable with (particularly if it results in people's fedi posts being reposted on Twitter).

If you use a twitter-to-fedi crossposter, keep tabs on your notifications. People will see your posts and will think that you're a person who's as present as they are, and that they can have a conversation with you about mutual interests. If you just want a backup account and don't want to do this, then don't run a crossposter - you'd be baiting people into wasting time sending useless replies, and that's not a nice thing to do.

Why do some people have checkmarks?

As the fediverse is decentralised, there's no central authority to decide who is or isn't important or disposable. A lot of the popular instance software allows admins to add custom emoji, and some people find it funny to use a twitter checkmark in their display name. Don't worry, they're mere mortals just like you!

Is there anyone who doesn't belong on fedi?

I'd like to discourage unpleasant people from joining, but I'll note that there are absolutely instances which have no problem with this sort of thing. For most people, there is an instance which is for you, no matter who you are or what you think about anything.

One group of people who will find that there's no home for them anywhere on fedi are influencers, checkmarks, celebrities, and so on. Monolithic platforms do a lot to keep these people happy, for the sake of maintaining exclusivity and attracting users, but we have no inclination nor incentive to do so, in fact quite the opposite. An influencer on fedi is not exempt from moderation, won't be able to get ordinary users banned for criticism, can't be verified, and has no way to ignore everyone except other celebrities.

Similarly, many across fedi are hostile to the presence of companies in the fediverse, since for us, this isn't a replacement for commercial social media, but something entirely different, a place to have real conversations with actual people, not legal entities.

What else should I know?

Please try to be kind to others on fedi. Misunderstandings happen, and they're often not malicious. Just as fedi reconsiders the technical implementation of social networking, you should reconsider the social aspects.

I found that fedi is a kinder and friendlier place than Twitter, I hope that you feel the same way, and I hope that you can help to preserve and improve everything that sets us apart.