If you make an ordinary phone call, your phone provider will connect to the phone provider of the person you’re calling. You don’t need to be on the same provider. This works worldwide and seamlessly, because all the hundreds of phone providers in the world talk to each other. From the user’s point of view, it’s as if all phones in the world are on the same network.
The Fediverse (or “Fedi”) is basically the same idea, but for social media. The Fediverse is a collection of thousands of independent social media servers that talk to each other seamlessly. This means that the millions of users on these servers can interact with each other as if they were on a single social network.
The most popular type of Fedi server is called Mastodon (or “Masto”) and works a bit like a calmer, more friendly version of Twitter. Click here for a cute animated video about Mastodon ⧉ that explains the basic principles of a federated social network, or click here for an even simpler explanation video ⧉. You might also want to watch this short video about the Fediverse ⧉ that emphasises the importance of common technical standards.
There are many kinds of Fediverse servers, often with a specific purpose such as photo sharing, video sharing, livestreaming, book clubs etc. Although the various types of servers work very differently, they talk to each other with a common technical standard called ActivityPub, which means even if you’re not on the same type of server, you can still interact as though you were.
How can totally different types of server communicate seamlessly?
This seamless interaction on the Fediverse works between servers of both the same type and different types. Each server type presents interactions as if they happened on that server, so from the user’s point of view they don’t see anything unusual about posts from other types of server.
For example, someone on a Mastodon server (which is Twitter-like) can follow an account on a PeerTube server (which is YouTube-like). When the account on a PeerTube server publishes a video, the person following that account from a Mastodon server will see the video appear in their timeline as if it was just a normal a Mastodon post with a video attached. If the person on the Mastodon server replies to the video post, the person on the PeerTube server will see that reply appear as a comment below their video, as if it was someone on their own PeerTube server commenting.
The process is so seamless, most people will probably never notice they are interacting with other servers and other types of server!