Why is the fediverse seen as complicated?

Some say they can’t get used to Mastodon - it’s usually Mastodon, even though other ActivityPub-compatible software exists out there - because it’s just too hard. Because it requires understanding jargon besides, say, accounts, posts, replies and DMs. Because it seems broken in some places. On the other hand, others say that’s just folks being stubborn and wanting the exact same experience from whatever other social media website or app they are used to. That plenty of folks who aren’t overly interested in tech were able to adapt to the software.

So, how is this happening?

I think something very important to take into account is how every social media software is different. Instagram has posts, which have to contain video or images, and stories. Instagram users are used to, for instance, not being able to directly post links. Twitter users had to learn what trends are, how mentions work, how threads work and how to work around problems such as harassment via full-text search or the existence of algorithms that can often hide useful/interesting posts.

Every social media experience will be limited or annoying in some ways, while also having their own advantages. That said, since the fediverse is a collection of websites instead of a centralized experience, it’s also a very separate concept from what folks who “just sign up wherever everyone is” are expecting.

I was always a fan of alternative social media experiences, such as Imzy, Skittlr or forums, so even though I didn’t really understand the technical side of what the fediverse or ActivityPub was when I first signed up at a Quitter instance, I didn’t care about not finding anyone specifically, because it’s not like I was expecting to find anyone I knew either. This means I experienced the website and found folks to interact with on my own pace, instead of trying to figure out how to adapt an already existing social media presence to a different platform.

The impression I get regarding the problems new folks have with the fediverse is that they are mainly the fault of:

  • The “come join Mastodon” branding: Media outlets and FOSS enthusiasts tend to advertise Mastodon as a single thing. And I guess that makes sense in some cases, especially when talking about the software itself, but since the fediverse contains many different kinds of communities that don’t necessarily connect and folks aren’t used to any non-email web decentralization, this confuses people, even if it’s actually the main draw for many users. New users tend to think it’s either like Reddit or like having multiple domains for the same thing, and this is if they can understand the communities may be connected. I’ve seen a new user at colorid.es complain they felt the need to “be segregated into a queer server”, for instance.
  • Wanting to follow existing accounts without knowing their proper @username@domain address: Most social media websites have a single database, so searching for an unique name or nickname tends to be easy. However, if no one at, say, colorid.es was already interested on an account that’s at mas.to, it won’t be searchable because it isn’t on the database. It needs to be fetched.
    • A similar issue is someone expecting to be able to follow celebrities, brands or influencers that don’t see the point on joining something that’s clearly some sort of alternative social media, instead of something backed by a corporation. This kind of user will likely not see the fediverse as a valuable experience, and possibly also as “doomed”/“a failure”, even though everything ends someday and most instances aren’t for-profit ventures.
    • Another connected issue is the possibility of the new user’s server not even federating with the server the person joined. I recommend joining the same server as whatever account is the most important to the new user to avoid this kind of issue. The second best thing here would be to pay attention to who defederates who, since most instances have that as public information, but then again, this might be a problem for new users who haven’t really grasped how instances work yet.
  • The official phone app: While many instances have rules that expect folks to be able to post Unlisted posts, understand what the public timelines are or use instance-specific features, the official Mastodon apps, for the sake of simplicity, have several missing, renamed or hidden functions, which can complicate relations between new users and their admins.
    • Furthermore, users download the app expecting it to be just like a centralized social media app, where the phone app is the default experience and the team responsible for content moderation has direct contact with the developers. This means a lot of “hey this app doesn’t have this thing, fix it” on instances that have no contact with the developers and where no staff members even use the official app.
  • Lack of experience with community-first environments: Modern corporate social media tends to center on the individual. Everyone has their own account and is mostly posting only to the individuals who follow that account, or, at most, a specific subject. Moderation is rather light, because if someone is being annoying the problem is expected to be solved with blocks and mutes. However, on most fediverse software, there are public timelines, and at least the Local(/“this server”) timeline is expected to be completely compliant with the instance’s rules, which are often tailored to the needs of each community.
    • A small instance might have rules against flooding the public timelines; an asexual-centered instance might have rules against any kind of sexual connotation or public display of affection being posted without a content warning; an art instance might have rules against not describing media; and so on. And while some members of marginalized communities and/or forum users might be used to these kinds of strict boundaries, folks who are used to barely having to read community guidelines don’t like this. It’s worth saying a lot of the bigger instances don’t really care about having strict rules, but even then, this attitude might hurt interactions with folks from smaller instances.

I think most of these problems can be mitigated if the approach is “come join [instance], an alternative community for [subject]” instead of trying to explain federation from the get-go, emphasizing the community has its own rules that should be read beforehand and isn’t meant to replace the same uses as corporate social media. And then, after a while, each user will see some of the accounts they come across have an extra @ after their username, and federation can then be explained after the user has some idea of how it works in practice.

Of course, this is mostly up to how instance admins advertise their instances, or others advertise instances they like… but, unfortunately, this means folks on the biggest instances are the ones who tend to dominate the conversation.

I don’t think the Mastodon app will stop pushing for it to be the default experience, and for mastodon.social and/or .online to then be the default experience on said apps. I don’t think journalists will try to find different instances they like and make a piece on how their local communities are like instead of trying (and failing) to talk about the network as a whole. I don’t think folks worried about their Twitter account disappearing before they and their friends move to another similar website will check the full version of the rules of the first open registration instance they find on joinmastodon.org.

So, basically: the answer to “is the fediverse complicated or not” is… complicated.

That said, I think new users joining with fewer expectations will probably fare better than those trying to replace their corporate social media experience because they saw/heard someone say “Mastodon is just like Twitter but without fascists”.