Most people come to Mastodon through the sign-up process on their app, or at joinmastodon.org. They might be asked to choose an instance, or they might have one assigned to them. Their account now lives on that instance, which will be their ‘home’ on Mastodon. They will abide by that instance’s code of conduct, and they will share a neighbourhood with the other members of that instance. But what if you don’t want to use somebody else’s service? What if you want to run your own self-hosted instance?
Before we continue, a quick note about the growth of Mastodon, and the Fediverse at large: At the time of writing, Mastodon is by far the dominant player in the Fediverse. That seems likely to soon change though. Many of Reddit’s users are looking for an alternative, and many /kbin and Lemmy instances are joining the network to meet that demand. Because the Fediverse is such a diverse and dynamic environment, some other product will probably overtake both in the near future. This article speaks specifically about self-hosted Mastodon instances, but it applies just as much to the rest of the Fediverse.
The Fediverse’s biggest strength is Federation. The network is split up into a web of independent, interconnected servers. This decentralized structure means that no single person or group controls the whole network. It also makes it hard for political or corporate interests to take it over, or influence the conversation with their own agenda. A decentralized federation is resilient, and resists outside control.
The other big strength is that it allows for diversity. Multiple communities can coexist, despite their differing values. Different communities can find homes on friendly instances, without having to constantly clash with those who disagree. These differences could be as minor as a pair or rival sports teams, or as significant as two countries at war. They are not isolated from each other, as any account on any instance can follow and communicate with any other, but there are boundaries. These boundaries can be enforced to protect members of a community, by the affected individuals themselves or by the instance administrators. In fact, the protection mechanisms were designed specifically to protect those individuals and communities who are most frequently harassed on legacy social media networks.
But these benefits fall away if the network starts centralizing in one or two places. The best way to keep that happening as the network grows is to build more servers instead of growing existing ones. A large number of small instances is far more resilient than a handful of big instances.
Small or self-hosted instances
So if you want to be a responsible, civic-minded citizen of the Fediverse, you should be supporting one of the many small instances rather than signing up for a titan. But choosing the right instance can be hard to do. There are so many to choose from, and their short descriptions often don’t tell you what you need to know. Here at Monoceros Digital Consulting, we’re fans of building your own self-hosted instance. That can be difficult to do on your own, though. Seasoned systems administrators can usually spin up their first instance in a few hours, if they find decent documentation. People without that same skill set will take a lot longer, and might need expert help to get a fully working instance (Call us! We can do that!).
One alternative to consider using is a managed hosting service. We offer this as a product, taking full responsibility for the technical side of building, maintaining, updating and protecting your instance, while you handle the higher level tasks of moderation, setting acceptable use policies, and building an audience. You get to own your own instance, set your own rules, and build a community, without needing the skills or staff to keep it running.
You don’t need high ideals to want to run your own instance, though. You may simply want to shape a social media service around your specific needs. Here are some possible examples we’ve discussed around the watercooler:
- Neighbourhood community. People living in the same area often form groups on social media platforms or instant messaging apps, to stay in contact and warn each other about dangers to the community. A neighbourhood Mastodon instance gives finer control over the rules of conduct, without having their personal details and habits harvested to show ads.
- Religious communities. Churches and other communities often publish a lot of news to their adherents. A private self-hosted Mastodon instance can combine the weekly bulletin, newsletters, special notices and personal messages in a single platform. You can set the moderation policy to suit your moral and religious beliefs. You can stay connected to the outside world, while still protecting yourself from groups that target your faith.
- Political groups. Whether you’re running for office or agitating for social reform, your political activity requires both private and public communication. A private instance allows you to create a closed community of staff and volunteers, while still leaving channels for public communication.
- Business. Many companies have homes on legacy social networks because they already know the benefits. It can be challenging to brand your presence, however, since you’re forced to comply with the network’s own styling and layout. If you host your own instance, however, it can be fully customized in your company colours, with your corporate logo on the landing page. It can even be integrated into your company website. We recommend only allowing staff members to create accounts, so that moderation becomes an HR responsibility, while using departmental accounts (@email@example.com, @firstname.lastname@example.org) to interact with your customers and follow up those leads.
- Schools, Clubs and Sports teams. As with religious and neighbourhood communities, a self-hosted Mastodon instance gives a safe and protected space for students or members to communicate and socialize. You can store event photographs, release public notices, and even promote your own events to the world at large.
There are of course many other cases where a private instance would be useful, beyond the few examples above. If you’re interested to know more, send us an email to email@example.com or click here to learn more.