We all recognize – well, most of us – that Twitter was a pretty rough place sometimes, and has gotten worse. We know that social media is training our brains to crave validation, and we know that the businesses who run these sites want us to stick around all day so they can show us ads.

People stick around, though. They want to talk about their lives. They want to see what their friends are doing. They'd like to gush about the movie they just saw, or describe their terrible experience. They want to call people to action when Something Needs Doing.

You can do all that on the Fediverse; it was made to connect people. And I'm going to try, as so many others have tried, to lay it all out for you – in a way that doesn't focus on the tech. If the words are with me, you might even get to the end and want to be a part of it.

So what is the Fediverse?

Remember the days before we were all trapped inside, when there were clubs?

Not spots for drinking and dancing, but groups of folks who regularly got together: to meet people, to share an interest. To make new friends who were going to be as excited by some new TV show, or craft idea, or computer upgrade, as you were to show it off.

In a nutshell, that's the Fediverse: folks who are good at internet software made a bunch of different ways to start online communities. A bunch of communities run on the Mastodon software, and that's not the important part, so we're moving on.

It's a bunch of clubs! There are TONS out there! They cover dang near every interest under the sun, including plenty of just general-purpose, friendly hang-outs. If you wanna join a knitting group, a music appreciation group, and a group that talks British TV/film – go for it! You wanna just join one regular, friendly discussion that talks a li'l bit of everything? Also A-OK!

You occasionally want to talk about your cat's health issues at knitting group? Are the pictures of your sister's new baby practically burning a hole in your phone, looking to get out? It's cool. Nobody's going to insist that your knitting circle is All Yarn, All the Time. You're not attempting to write a book together; you're people, enjoying being part of a group. Making friends.

Why are people so excited about it?

The people who enjoy being a part of the Fediverse tend to get pretty gung-ho about it for several reasons. The biggest?

They get to find their people: their tribe, or cohorts, or soul-mates, or whatever they choose to call it. Community can be an incredibly powerful thing, even when it looks like a bunch of folks who know way too much about The Muppet Show, or who spend half their days doodling in notebooks. Sharing things with other people feels good; having them appreciate the things you share feels better. That's how Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like roped us all in in the first damn place.

Okay, so how's it different?

Real talk?

As soon as any of those other places started caring about money, they stopped caring about you or anyone else in your little "club". The people who decide to start up a fresh community on the Fediverse, by and large, have one idea in mind: community. They're not looking to get rich through some quiet Internet secret; they're looking for people who might be as excited as they are about saying, "Yeah! I'm on this great site where everybody tells dad jokes! The name is even 'dadjoke.cafe'!"

There's not even a way to make any money across most of the Fediverse; at least, not the way other sites do it. You won't get a bunch of ads or sponsored posts; just you and all the other club members going "Hi, Tired; I'm Dad!" or saying "Poof! You're a grilled cheese!"

Plus, all these clubs? They can connect.

What's with this whole 'federation' thing?

One of the joys of the Fediverse is that all these groups, with their wildly different interests and focuses, all meet in the same space. (Imagine meeting rooms in a giant library, or a really active Student Center at a college.) Sometimes, someone from a car modding group will wander into your conversation about sourdough bread. Or you'll overhear someone from a cyber security group talking about an author you love. You'll think, "Wow. I might want to keep in touch with them."

You can! You're all in the same space! If you have a great chat with someone, or you love the pictures they always bring back from their nature walks, it's easy to stay connected. If you used to talk animé with one of your buddies, but now you're more interested in guitars, you can each enjoy your animé and your guitar communities while still keeping tabs on each other. Different clubs; same building.

Good communities & not so good communities

Sometimes, people start recognizing that one of the groups is just full of assholes. If someone starts stinkin' up the shared space, folks will go to the organizer of their group and complain, as you'd expect. If the group organizer ignores the complaints or, worse yet, starts stinkin' things up themselves, their whole club can get kicked out of the building.

The people who enjoy hanging out with trash bags tend to be "other trash bags"; everyone else tends to wish they'd go away. Thanks to the way those Good At Internet people made most of the Fediverse software, the people in charge of your community have a much easier time throwing the trash bags in the dumpster.1

Community guidelines

Different groups WILL have different rules – usually some pretty standard ones about how you talk to or about other folks, so a certain level of respect is maintained – but sometimes there are rules about HOW you bring things up.

If someone in your Doctor WHO fan group has an eating disorder or a persistent GI issue, they'd probably like a bit of a warning before you bring up the huge lunch you had. Your group organizer might've decided to go ahead and, out of respect and appreciation for what that person brings to the group, set a standing rule: warn everyone before you talk about food.

Maybe your photography club has several members that shoot artistic nudes, and several other members who would rather not see them. A simple guideline about how nude photos are presented or displayed can help keep everyone in the community happy.

It's important to check that sort of thing when you join. You could get really comfortable with your community, then one day find out that something you hadn't even considered is upsetting some of the people close to you – and worse, that you could've avoided it by following a simple guideline that you just didn't notice. Suddenly, your inattentive or forgetful moment gets you a talking-to from the organizer, maybe even asked to leave the club. It's never a fun feeling; sure, there are other clubs, and you can probably keep in touch with your buddies in this one. It's always a better feeling to not get kicked out in the first place, though.

"Well," you might think, "maybe I'll look for a community that doesn't have as many rules, or one whose organizers are more willing to let things slide. Maybe one with so many members, nobody will notice if I just don't bother with one or two of these things."

I meeeeeean, you certainly CAN; you prob'ly not gon' have a good time. A club president or group organizer that lets folks get away with whatever is going to attract a bunch of folks who love to get away with whatever. Worse, they won't have your back when one of those line-steppers gets in your face about something and Will. Not. Go. Away. Trust me: You want Someone In Charge who pays attention, sticks up for the people in their community, and has no problem kicking out the bad apples.

Big vs. Little

This one's simple. You know whether you thrive in a bigger crowd, networking with an ever-expanding circle of acquaintances, or whether you come alive in a small pub, surrounded by familiar regulars. Whichever makes you happiest, you can find it on the Fediverse; it should, in fact, be one of the first things you really consider. Eventually, you'll get accustomed to reaching across to any far-flung corner of Fedi your friends happen to call home, but at first, the folks on your "Local" timeline, in your chosen club, will be incredibly important.

I signed up! What do I do? How do I make friends?

Put on a name tag, introduce yourself, and (politely) talk to people. On Fedi, this equates to three things:

  • Making your profile unique with a profile picture, a display name that's more than just your bare user ID, and a short description of yourself
  • Writing a first post about yourself that includes the #introduction hashtag
  • looking for posts and conversations on your local timeline to which you can add something worthwhile

This is tough to explain without getting slightly technical, but the "local" timeline is full of the public posts of people in your club, on your server. If you're going to find your tribe, it's the best, easiest place to start looking. When you've chosen your server well, your local timeline will be loaded with folks either already talking about the things you love, or ready and happy to join a conversation about them.

For the most part, they'll be happy to have someone jump in with a polite reply, too. There are some misguided souls who come to the Fediverse with visions of advertising themselves and expanding their brands, sure, but most people? They're just there to talk. Be friendly. Say "good morning" to people. If you enjoy the things they post or have a fun conversation with them, ask if you can click through to their profile and follow them. Before long, your "Home" timeline – the people you follow, the people you choose to regularly see – will be full, too.

How do I find "my" club?

I saved this part for last because I feel it's more important to know what you're looking for first, and how to look second.

If you have a friend already on the Fediverse, it can be easy to simply go where they are. Sometimes, it's a great fit! Other times, it's an easy way to end up feeling bored and ignored. If you read the rest of this long-ass intro, you probably have some kind of idea of the server and community you hope to find; stick with it. Your buddy might be enjoying their experience in a wildly different club from the type you're looking for; you'll be happier following your own interests and connecting with your friend through the magic of federation.

I strongly suggest using a directory like the one at fediverse.to. A good directory will help you search for all the things we've discussed, like community topic/interest and community size, and some of the things we haven't mentioned, like primary posting language. (That's pretty important.)

When you start your search and get a few likely candidates, don't just sign up for the first one on the list. You need to click through to their page, then you need to slap an /about/more on that URL. That's where you'll find who runs the place, and how they'll expect you to behave if you sign up. Again, it's important to check that sort of thing when you join.

If using a directory search feels a little impersonal, ...I don't think you've really taken a lot of this to heart; aaaaaaand here's a very small list with some long-standing, well-respected communities you can check out. Each of these links goes to the community's "About" page, where you can get a feel for who they are and what they expect from their members.

"GLHF" is the nature of the Fediverse

Plain & simple. Good luck out there; have fun. Find your people.

Big thanks to Russ Sharek, my ever-thoughtful clown friend who enjoyed the first draft of this guide and was happy to offer ideas on how this draft could be better.

1 This can get pretty contentious. (Surprise!) On an individual level, hardly anyone ever thinks "Oh, I'm being a real asshole about this"; on a community level, faaaaaaar too many folks take the "It's my space, and I'll run it as I like" tack.

It's not their space, though. It's their community, which is in a shared space – one where, no matter how hilarious everyone in their club finds it, the rest of us really wish those bozos would stop smearing poop on the tables.

It gets ridiculous, because at heart, poop-smearing is only fun when there's an audience, and most communities decide they don't want to see it. The organizers cut the PS GANG loose & take away the audience; the Smear Boys cry to anyone still paying attention; ...as wrong-headed as it sounds, it is something you'll see eventually.