We have entered the chaos era of social media in America. Sociologists would call it a “legitimation crisis”: It’s what happens when people lose faith in social institutions during periods of rapid change, including, crucially, institutions devoted to communication. Consider the lightning-fast transformation of Twitter, where six months ago journalists from national newspapers were trading barbs with politicians and experts, and today CEO Elon Musk changes the site’s rules on a whim, often making it impossible to know who is a legitimate source and who is an impostor.
Twitter isn’t the only social-media platform undergoing a vertiginous shift. Meta has laid off thousands of workers in the aftermath of profit declines and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s obsession with creating a “metaverse” in virtual reality. Newer social-media apps such as Hive Social seem to wink out as quickly as they arrive, and the newsletter platform Substack recently launched a Twitter clone called Notes, which is already earning bad reviews for its moderation policies. Meanwhile, Congress has banned government employees from using TikTok on workplace devices, and is mulling a national ban for all other citizens too.
Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher who coined the term legitimation crisis, also had a framework for how such calamity might be averted. One way is to rebuild trust in institutions by creating a stable, democratic public sphere where open communication is possible. We’ve learned the hard way that this is no easy feat. The problem we face right now is that social-media companies can change the layout of our metaphorical town squares however and whenever they’d like, warping our public sphere in the process.
This tends to happen because companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Substack are centrally controlled, run by executive teams that set the rules for millions of users. Musk, for example, rebuilt Twitter’s algorithm to boost the circulation of his own tweets (a charge he initially denied, until Twitter itself revealed that it was true), while Facebook and TikTok have secret algorithms that manipulate what people see. On Instagram, which, like Facebook, is a property of Meta, users see video “reels” from people they don’t follow in their feeds, whereas posts from accounts they do follow can be delayed or hidden for days. “Social media is like mass media now—you can’t control what you’re seeing,” Dan Hon, a designer and an adviser for the government-technology nonprofit Code for America, told me.
Hon and many others have found a solution in Mastodon, a nonprofit microblogging platform that’s part of a decentralized social network known as the “Fediverse.” In the Fediverse, there is no single company setting the rules, no eccentric CEO, and no algorithmic controls on what users see. And the idea is catching on. Bluesky, a decentralized social platform announced in late 2021 by Jack Dorsey, finally launched in a limited beta version earlier this year and drastically expanded this month; it’s now a popular, if small, community among the social-media elite.
I am one of the millions of people who fled to Mastodon after Musk’s transformation of Twitter in late 2022, joining a crowd who pushed its active-user base from roughly 300,000 to 2.5 million over a period of weeks. After the dust settled, Mastodon retained roughly 1.5 million active members, which adds up to a pretty impressive leap for a free, experimental platform. No, it can’t compete with Twitter’s 2022 numbers (237.8 million active users before Musk acquired it), but Mastodon—and Bluesky, which I joined late last month—offers a rare glimpse of what life could be like after social media’s legitimation crisis: a stable public sphere, outside the control of a central authority.
For decades, a certain set of digital idealists has pushed to decentralize power on the internet, to reshape the web in a way that more closely aligns with the vision set by its early architects, before corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Meta controlled so many aspects of life online. That dream may never come to complete fruition. But in the midst of this crisis, when so much of what we’ve been conditioned to take as the natural social-media order is crumbling each day, we finally have a clear view of something new on the horizon.
People who are used to apps like Facebook and Twitter—and that’s most Americans—may struggle to see the value of Mastodon and Bluesky, which do indeed look a lot like those services at first glance. Critics complain about how technical the Fediverse is, and can’t figure out how to use a system where they aren’t locked into a centrally controlled timeline. The concept is weird. But in a way, this moment of chaos and opportunity harkens back to an earlier time when Americans were grasping to define a precarious balance of powers: the very dawn of U.S. federalism. Federalist government and decentralized social-media platforms are by no means the same thing. Instead, I would suggest, a platform such as Mastodon sits on the other end of the spectrum from Twitter: It’s a decentralized ideal versus a centralized one. Most of us would probably prefer to live somewhere in the middle, and so did many 18th-century Americans who were puzzling out the federalist system.
One of the origin myths about the United States is that our Founders agreed on what federalism meant in 1787, when the Convention presented their freshly drafted Constitution to the states for ratification. But it was as confusing to Americans then as the Fediverse is to many people now. Federalism, or the precarious balance between state and federal government powers, was such an alien concept that three of the Constitution’s biggest proponents spent the next several months explaining it in 85 lengthy essays for various New York newspapers and books. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay’s writings were collected under the title The Federalist, published under their collective nom de plume, Publius.
The ever-expanding debate over Mastodon versus Bluesky versus Twitter, and so on, feels like an echo of what happened after the Constitution was ratified. As the Stanford historian Jonathan Gienapp points out in his book The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era, the Constitution and federalism continued to be contested throughout the 1790s. Indeed, he writes, it’s almost impossible to get at the original meaning of the document, because even in the late 18th century, U.S. voters could not agree on how to maintain decentralized state powers while also supporting a centralized government.
It’s a disagreement that continues to this day, but the debate over centralization has spread beyond politics into a disagreement over the management of our public sphere. Should we stick with an easy system like the ones we know on Twitter and Facebook, where a few media kings rule us all? Or embrace the ambiguity of decentralization in the name of freedom? Or perhaps, in the tradition of Publius, there is a middle way, where a federalist public sphere develops centralized norms and standards, which support decentralized meeting halls on thousands of servers.
More than 100 apps are talking with one another in the Fediverse, including the photo-sharing site Pixelfed and the music-sharing service Funkwhale. Still, Mastodon remains the biggest. That’s partly because anyone can set up a server there using freely available software created by Mastodon’s creator, Eugen Rochko, and his small team. Bigger players are joining up too. Publishers such as Medium and the Texas Observer have set up their own Mastodon servers. Late last year, Tumblr announced its intention to support ActivityPub, the protocol powering Mastodon, which could bring in more than 100 million new users and make it the first old-school social platform to join the Fediverse. Eventually, I’ll be able to see my teen nephew’s Tumblr memes from my Mastodon dashboard. Bluesky runs on its own open-source protocol, AT, but enterprising developers are already building a bridge between it and ActivityPub.
Now the question, as the U.S. Founders knew, is how to govern a community designed to be ungovernable by any central authority. Large platforms like Facebook and YouTube moderate their content by forcing users to adhere to their terms of service. This is partly for legal protection and partly to uphold nebulous “community standards.” It’s also their business. Nilay Patel, the editor in chief of The Verge, argued in a column last fall that the actual “product” offered by social-media companies is this moderation: It is the fundamental thing that defines how people use the platform. This becomes a challenge in a context where no central authority polices users.
Bluesky has some ideas about decentralized moderation—it offers users the ability to set their own personal moderation rules, for example—but many of them remain untested. Mastodon’s moderation system is more mature. Rochko maintains a list of curated servers open to all comers, whose moderators have pledged to uphold the “Mastodon server covenant.” That means “actively moderating against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia,” among other things. But moderation is an uneven system in practice.
The physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, author of The Disordered Cosmos, joined Mastodon in late 2022 and was immediately confronted with racist vitriol. When she spoke up about it, people on several servers complained that she was breaking moderation rules by talking about politics without hiding her comments behind a “content warning” box. Another Black Mastodon user, Mekka Okereke, a director of engineering at Google, dealt with the same moderation problems when he tried to raise awareness about racism on his server. In a thread about the topic, he wrote, “I experience racism almost every day, as do most Black US citizens. I’m not going to start every other sentence with [‘content warning’] just to make y’all feel better.”
No server on Mastodon is required to follow Rochko’s informal covenant. People have set up servers devoted to Nazism and violent misogyny. This is radical decentralization in a nutshell. There are some suggested rules for all servers to follow, but server rights reign supreme. Nobody can shut down a server whose policies they dislike. All they can do is “defederate,” or block incoming messages from that server.
In a sense, platforms such as Mastodon and Bluesky are taking us back to the late-20th-century days of the web, before Google ruled search and Facebook ruled social. Then, decentralization was the default—there was simply no central meeting place with enough gravity to pull in millions of people and billions of dollars. It felt like anything was possible. Maybe we would all become members of a global nation, united by high-speed networks and our obsession with the Hampster Dance meme. No one was sure what structures would take root, because the web simply hadn’t existed long enough to establish a pattern.
Soon, however, the freewheeling Fediverse may find itself caught in the same trap that ensnared the early web: money. Most Mastodon servers are run by volunteers. Some take donations from members or receive grants. But soon they will be joined by Tumbler, which is ad-supported, and many other such sites. Hon, the Code for America adviser, suggested that this could be an opportunity for shared-revenue models, in which servers offer micropayments to people whose posts are displayed next to ads. Right now, nobody is really sure how they’ll maintain social networks without getting paid to do it. Even Bluesky CEO Jay Graber has been coy about what her company’s business model might be. In any event, Hon said, questions about monetization will probably lead to conflict: “Some people might get annoyed about it and defederate.”
That’s the beauty and the agony of decentralization. No matter what you do, somebody is always going to take their ball and go home. Still, the lure of a decentralized network is strong. After a decade on Twitter, I’m enjoying the experience of a digital community with no algorithm shaping what I see. It’s just chronological. And I don’t have to worry that some angry billionaire will change all the rules on every server tomorrow.
That isn’t to say that someone couldn’t set up one server to rule them all. Perhaps an organization will attempt to re-create Twitter’s former power—only this time in the Fediverse. Already, people on Mastodon are discussing whether the platform’s original server, Mastodon.social, is too big and making it harder for smaller servers to assert their rights. Meanwhile, Bluesky is currently the only server available to people using the AT Protocol, which means it will grow without competition for the foreseeable future.
I asked the ActivityPub co-creator Evan Prodromou, effectively one of the framers of the Fediverse, how we can prevent a wealthy company from setting up the Mastodon equivalent of Gmail—a server so large that it would re-centralize the Fediverse. He thought for a while. “Decentralization is about choice,” he said. “So we need more … commercial organizations stepping into the space.” Healthy, balanced competition has always been the key to federalism, and Prodromou believes that it can work.
When Prodromou imagines the future of the Fediverse, he hopes “we see more experimentation around improving our social connections.” Instead of apps “pushing ads for toenail clippers,” he wants to see platforms that remind you to check in on friends you haven’t heard from recently, or that remind you to compliment your buddy’s new recipe. “In the political sense, that could mean showing you what’s going on in your city or province,” he added.
Hon said he dreams of using money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for Fediverse projects, because they are providing infrastructure for civic communication. “The government needs a platform to disseminate information,” he said. This could be it.
These are a lot of hopes and dreams to pile onto a social-networking system that’s still only a few million users strong. And yet every great community—even a nation—begins as an experiment, an idea that grows stronger the more we write and talk about it. Even if the Fediverse fails, it’s still worth doing. Annalee Flower Horne, a founder of the Wandering.shop Mastodon server, told me: “We look at communities and say that if they end, then they’ve failed. But a community doesn’t have to be permanent to succeed.”