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The Fediverse: A Beginner's Guide to Decentralized Social Networks

This article will introduce you to the fediverse, key decentralized platforms, and some reasons to get started.

Jun 18, 2024 7 min readSocial Media Marketing
Photo of Kirsti Lang
Kirsti Lang

Content Writer @ Buffer

If you’re anything like me, your Gen Z sister is posting on TikTok, your mom is a religious Facebooker, and you spent your (Millenial?) time context-switching between Instagram and LinkedIn. 

You probably miss things that they share if they don’t make it to the family WhatsApp group (if you have one of those, thoughts and prayers). 

But what if you could open your platform of choice and see it all there, in one place? Your mom’s Facebook photos and your sister’s TikToks, all while keeping up with your friends on Instagram and colleagues on LinkedIn.

This is exactly what the fediverse has the potential to be.

The fediverse, not to be confused with the multiverse (that’s Marvel) or the metaverse (let’s not go there), is a decentralized network of interconnected social platforms that promises greater privacy, customization, and community engagement. 

Sounds pretty great, right?

Of course, that reality is probably unlikely, since major social platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok aren’t part of the fediverse (and may never be).

But a growing number of new and interesting networks, like Bluesky and Mastodon, are also part of the network, and even Threads (owned by Facebook's parent company, Meta), is also plugging itself in. If nothing else, this is a sign that a version of the picture I’ve painted above will soon become a reality. 

Of course, said picture is a bit of an oversimplification, and there’s a whole lot of nuance involved in the somewhat nebulous concept of the fediverse. What is it, actually? What networks are part of it? Why should you need to join, as a marketer or creator?

If you’re looking for answers to those questions, you’ve come to the right place. This article will introduce you to the fediverse, key platforms, and some reasons to get started.

What is the fediverse?

The fediverse (“federation” + “universe”) is an ecosystem of connected social media platforms. It works a lot like a federation — the different platforms operate independently but can communicate with each other, allowing users from one platform to interact with users on another with ease.

This is all made possible because fediverse platforms are (mostly) built with the ActivityPub protocol. At the risk of oversimplifying things, I like to think of this as a common language. While all the platforms have their own native language, they can speak and understand ActivityPub and interact with each other. ActivityPub makes them interoperable. 

Other fediverse resources, like this handy guide by SimplyExplained, have compared the ActivityPub system to email: “There are many email providers out there like Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo Mail. I can sign up for Gmail while you can sign up for Outlook and yet we’re still able to send each other emails. That’s because email servers speak the same language: they all use a standard protocol to communicate.”

Another important feature of the fediverse is that it’s decentralized. This means there is no one organization that owns or controls the entire network. This decentralized structure gives users more control over their data and online experience. No controlling organization means no need to make money in the traditional ways social media networks do — adverts. 

What social networks are part of the fediverse?

There are a growing number of platforms plugging into the fediverse. Here’s an overview of some of the most popular ones:

Threads

Monthly active users (MAU): 150 million

A screenshot of thread's fediverse features
Source: engineering.fb.com

Instagram Threads is the first mainstream social media platform to join the fediverse, and Meta's entry is a strong signal that it’s here to stay. 

Threads is a new social media platform that acts like Twitter and looks like Instagram, with a touch of Reddit thrown in for good measure. It’s primarily for “sharing text updates and joining public conversations,” Meta says, though it does support photos, videos, and GIFs. 

Fediverse functionality is available in beta for U.S. Threads users now but will be rolled out more widely soon. 

Check out our beginner’s guide to Threads

Mastodon

Monthly active users: 800K (with a reported 7.2 million accounts created)

Source: fediverse.party

Mastodon has also emerged as a strong Twitter alternative, though the microblogging platform comes with a bit of a learning curve. Like the fediverse itself, Mastodon is also decentralized. 

What makes Mastodon unique is the fact that there’s no one global “feed” that all public posts exist in. Mastodon users set up Mastodon instances, or servers, which others can join to share and interact with each other. Mastodon servers all have their own set of rules and requirements.

There are hashtags and lists, and you have up to 500 words to express yourself — as well as the ability to add GIFs, videos, and images.

Check out our beginner’s guide to Mastodon

Bluesky

Monthly active users: 1.4 million (with a reported 5.9 million accounts created)

Source: bsky.app

Bluesky is a decentralized social network created by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. The microblogging platform is very similar to Twitter — you can share posts of up to 300 characters and include photos. Users can follow other users and reply, repost, and like posts.

Unsurprisingly, given its origin, Bluesky is the platform on this list that most closely resembles Twitter and is easy to get to grips with. Bluesky launched with an invite-only offering — users were only able to join if they had a single-use invite code shared by another user — but opened up to everyone in 2024. 

It’s worth noting that Bluesky doesn’t use ActivityPub protocols (it has its own open-source version, AT Protocol, but can connect with other platforms via third-party services). 

Check out our beginner’s guide to Bluesky

PeerTube 

Monthly active users: 21,797 (with a reported 350K accounts created)

Source: peer.tube

PeerTube is a video hosting platform designed to replace YouTube. Or, as PeerTube themselves put it, one that “allows you to create a video hosting website, or a ‘homemade YouTube.”

On PeerTube, developed by Framasoft, a French non-profit, videos aren’t uploaded to a single server as is the case with YouTube, Vimeo, and the like, but streamed peer-to-peer. Users can find content from different videos or channels via search, but there is no ranking algorithm that will surface content they may enjoy in a single place. 

Pixelfed 

Monthly active users: 20,769 (with a reported 245K accounts created)

Source: pixelfed.org

Pixelfed is a decentralized photo-sharing platform that strongly resembles Instagram. It has likes, comments, direct messages, and even stories. 

As is common for fediverse networks, users must join a server to start creating their own content on Pixelfed, all of which will have their own themes and rules. 

Other fediverse platforms to watch:

  • Lemmy: Link aggregator and forum, 45,112 MAU
  • Misskey: Open-source social network, popular in Japan, 12,127 MAU
  • Pleroma: A flexible, lightweight decentralized network, 12,171 MAU
  • Writefreely: Minimalist, self-hosted blogging platform, 4,965
  • BookWyrm: The fediverse’s answer to Goodreads, 2,593
  • Friendica: A bit like a simpler, decentralized Facebook, 1,751 MAU
🚀
Buffer makes it easy: Cross-post on mainstream and fediverse platforms with a few clicks. Buffer supports Mastodon, Threads, and Bluesky (coming soon!)

Why join the fediverse as a brand or creator?

You’re probably eyeing the data above with skepticism. Why should you join a platform like Mastodon with under a million monthly active users, when Facebook and the like can offer you billions?

While those numbers provide useful context, remember the nature of the fediverse itself — most of these apps are already connected or soon will be. So, it’s best not to consider a single fediverse platform in isolation. 

According to FediDB, a data hub managed by Pixelfed, ActivityPub platforms collectively boast over 11 million users — a number that grew by more than a million people from May to June 2024. This data doesn’t include Bluesky and Threads, as the former doesn’t use ActivityPub, and the latter is still rolling out connectivity. 

In other words, the total number of users dipping their toes into fediverse waters is a lot higher.  

I love how The Verge’s David Pierce framed this: “There’s no mainstream success story yet. Ultimately, it’s not important for there to be one fediverse app the size of Facebook because the fediverse can be the size of the internet. Every app just has to plug in, and it’s already humongous.”

More reasons to consider decentralized social networks:

Make forrays in niche communities: Servers, instances, tags — many of these fediverse platforms offer users the flexibility to carve out their own spaces for communities. If your target audience exists in one of these spaces, it makes sense to meet them where they are. 

Community engagement: These more tightly knit communities lend themselves to stronger connections, more focused niches, and more meaningful interactions.

Control over content and data: Thanks to the decentralized nature of most of these platforms, there’s no financial incentive for the platform to control your content or information. 

No more platform fatigue: This one is more of a benefit that may emerge as the fediverse matures. Imagine, as a creator or business, maintaining one or two platforms that disseminate your content everywhere. No need to be on every social network, if followers on other platforms can find your content on their network of choice. 

To join or not to join? 

Now, I’m not suggesting you pivot your entire social media strategy, but given the rate of adoption, it seems unlikely that the concept of the fediverse won’t take off.

And, as is often the case with new social media phenomena, the early bird catches the worm. 

The best time to join the fediverse is now. 

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