Subscriber OnlyTechnology

Is this the future of social networking?

The fediverse has been trumpeted as a way to break the dominance of the social networking giants. Can it succeed?

When Facebook parent Meta launched Twitter-rival network Threads last month, the most intriguing aspect to me – beyond wondering why Meta would self-inflict another platform-moderating headache – was the promise that Threads would join the fediverse.

Not to be confused with Meta’s struggling, virtual reality metaverse, the fediverse (short for federated universe) is a cluster of social network services united by common networking protocols that enable users of one service to communicate with those on other services.

Imagine a social media world where you could be on Twitter – oops, X – and view images on Instagram, make posts to Facebook and read a Substack newsletter. The fediverse could utterly transform what social networking means, and how services function. But until recently, the fediverse has been a small, non-commercial, open-source conglomeration linked together primarily by ActivityPub, a protocol supported by global standards body the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

Mastodon, the Twitter/X alternative, is the most prominent fediverse service. But there are others, such as YouTube alternative PeerTube, photo sharing alternative Pixelfed, and Facebook alternative Friendica. No central authority controls the fediverse, and the various services are decentralised, held on individually-run servers known as instances, each with its own moderation and user policies.


In the fediverse, a user’s data is not locked into a particular instance or even a network service, but can move between services. Imagine easily migrating from Twitter/X with all your data (contacts, posts, messages) to go to Threads, Mastodon or T2.

Rather than forcing users on to huge, monolithic platforms, the fediverse would enable people to opt for smaller, more varied services, catering to specific interests, and yet to still be part of a large multifaceted networking structure. People wouldn’t lose out by not being on one giant network.

Fediverse services aren’t structured on the surveillance capitalism model of commercial platforms – where user data is surveilled, gathered, exploited and sold. Thus, the fediverse poses a profound challenge to existing platforms, if enough people opt to move. Commercial platforms don’t want users to be able to up sticks with their data. They want them walled in, producing ever more data forever more precise, marketable profiles.

But the current fediverse has its own issues. Interlinking disparate networks remains a daunting, incomplete task. Many feel ActivityPub and its protocol alternatives are not fully up to the job. Decentralisation creates moderation and privacy compliance difficulties too.

So, whither the fediverse? I contacted an old friend from my early days on the internet, Bernie Goldbach, now lecturer in digital transformation at the Technological University of the Shannon. Bernie, a pioneering figure on the Irish web since the 1990s, is a technologist and a serious, creative thinker about the societal impacts of technologies. I wanted his take.

He pointed to his own experiential evidence that Twitter/X, and other social platforms, are fragmenting. His once-rewarding routine of gleaning key news, advice, recommendations and ideas from a morning coffee perusal of Twitter has been shattered as many people he followed have left the platform. New Twitter/X algorithms and policies make it harder to see items of interest or determine their authenticity. He describes his current Twitter/X timeline as “rubbish”, noting, “I’m more likely to get actionable stuff in the fediverse today, because some of the original [Twitter] tribe has moved to where I can still listen to them and follow them.”

But, he adds, the big platforms still hang on to millions, even billions of users, because they’re easy to use, and fediverse services, even just the very idea of a fediverse, can be confusing and harder to sign up for and, initially, to use. He’s unsure people will move.

I tell him that, separate to the need to address the technical and usability barriers of the fediverse, I think some outward push will be needed to make it the next global social network blueprint. The most likely driver would be a more muscular regulatory response to the data-gathering surveillance capitalism business model that creates or amplifies so many of social media’s most serious problems, from privacy violations to disinformation.

Then again, there’s Threads, which isn’t yet linked into the fediverse. The very thought of its hundreds of millions of users suddenly materialising in the fediverse repels many. But it is welcomed by others, who think the presence of a huge commercial service would energise the fediverse, enabling it to expand and evolve to offer a far better global social network ecosystem. Threads might become the fediverse on-ramp for the broader public, and a model for how a centralised commercial service can adjust to fit a decentralised fediverse.

Or not. Maybe Threads’s fediverse plan is simply an empty gesture to placate regulators. Maybe it’s a bid to soothe the EU, where the service isn’t yet offered; it isn’t clear how Threads would meet data protection standards here.

For now, the fediverse is a vexing, yet compelling blend of uncertainty and promise. I’m convinced that over time it could provide welcome resolutions to some of the most pressing issues plaguing today’s social platforms.