Storytelling in the Fediverse

Storytelling in the Fediverse
Someone drumming and singing on a crowded street, drenched in colour

How do we get more people to join the Fediverse, keep them engaged once they join, and bring them back if they drift away? Right now, we're in Field of Dreams mode:

"If we build it, they will come."

That's a lovely sentiment, and great for a movie, but we're up against the hard reality of network effects. So far, it's not a great score card. Many of us, myself included, thought that the arrival of Elon Musk at Twitter was such a seismic event that you could build a decent alternative and people would flee to it. That hasn't been the case.

Small platforms have faltered and failed. The news is all around big platforms integrating with ActivityPub - Threads, FlipBoard, Ghost. That's great, but for the Fediverse to act as a hub for all these - and connect with Bluesky, Nostr and Farcaster, we need a core, growing base of engaged users. How to onboard people, engage and keep them? One word:


That's the real secret of Field of Dreams. It's not about a baseball pitch. It's about a story. Told incredibly well. Tugging on our heartstrings. How does Ryan Reynolds do so well with a lower league football team ? As he says:

"Storytelling is one of the most undervalued tools in scaling businesses."

We've seen the negative effects of a story that quickly emerged about Mastodon: complicated and hard to use. That was a big factor in the stalling of the Mastodon Migration. Over 2024 we've started to see some strong, positive stories emerging around the Fediverse: Molly White's world beyond walled gardens, PJ Vogt's secret paradise, John O'Nolan's campfire.

To reach the full potential of the Fediverse we need storytelling to become as important as technology.

That's not just one story: it's many. As we've shown in our Newsmast research, Mapping Fediverse Communities, the Fediverse isn't all about tech: there's a huge range of communities here. We need to get that openness of community across as much as the openness of technology. And yes, there are big issues to counter: the whiteness of Mastodon, how to create safe spaces. We can't just tell a story of openness and diversity: we need to live it.

That's the big picture. There are great stories emerging. So let's take a look at some practical things we can do at the intersection of storytelling and technology to bring more people to the Fediverse, and keep them engaged.

From starter packs to emails

Mastodon and Pixelfed have both worked hard to improve their onboarding flow, which is brilliant. There's more around this process - both before and after the sign up flow - where things like starter packs and onboarding emails could really make a difference.

Starter Packs. Bluesky just launched a new way to invite people to join the platform. It's the trigger for this blog post. Anyone can make a starter pack, aligned with their interests, with a name, description and up to three recommended Custom Feeds and fifty users to follow. Each starter pack has a link and QR code, so you can send it to your friends and contacts. This also means you can send out another starter pack - so it's possible to share the Blacksky Starter Pack - rather than having to make your own.

It's a great addition to onboarding, involving the community and offering a richer onboarding experience. Turning every user into a potential storyteller.

"Here's my community on Bluesky - I'd love you to join."

Pixelfed has been quick to adopt the idea, announcing Pixelfed Starter Kits for the next release of the app, built around shareable collections of follows, hashtags and blocks.

Can we do something similar in the wider Fediverse? To deliver a great onboarding experience like this we need channels and shared lists in place - two things we're working on with Patchwork.

One-to-one conversations. Rabble has put together an intensive onboarding programme for journalists and creators to join Nostr: the Journalism Accelerator. It's impressive work, and so far Wedistribute and The Conversation US have joined, along with many other creators.

Rabble is acting like a classic agitator, travelling village to village, engaging with people and bringing them on board.

He's found that dialogue is the best way to tell the Nostr story. It's a lot of work, but is getting some good results. We can apply the same approach to organisation onboarding in the Fediverse.

Messaging and imagery. There's recently been an upgrade to the Mastodon sponsor page, with strong language and imagery. We could do with more of this. It's one of the downsides of being decentralised - it's sometimes hard to get a clear marketing message across.

Fediverse advocacy was a hugely popular topic at the last FediForum, so hopefully there will be more on this at the next one.

Email. Before we even get to starter packs there's a simpler onboarding mechanism which everyone has access to. Anyone who signs up to the Fediverse uses an email - which we then put to one side. This is the classic way most organisations use to communicate with their users. Vivaldi Social has shown the way with their sequence of new user emails, spread out over a number of days. We do the same at Newsmast.

Emails are a great way to walk people through the journey of filling out their profile, following accounts and starting to engage and post.

Emails are good for continuing engagement too. Yes, we can do that with email notifications, which act as a good prompt to check out what's going on. Not everyone wants these, so it's good to do something in the background as well, which is a bit less intrusive. Farcaster sends a weekly email, listing the bookmarks you've made in the week, or the top casts. LinkedIn is a master of this craft, deftly mixing notifications with tutorials and updates.

Email is also the one way we can reach lapsed users. Right now there are around 10m Fediverse users, but only 1m of these are active in any month. Emails could enable servers to contact users as they drop off and stop posting or engaging. Or when there's a big event, like the US Election. Or simply to reach out to long lapsed users and let them know how much has changed since they were here last.

From stories to inboxes

It may seem like quite a stretch, from the poetry of storytelling to the mundanity and clutter of the email inbox. It's not.

Look at how the great storytellers and creators of the tech blogging world have built their subscriber bases, and carved out a successful path to independent publishing. Emails.

They're a touch point, a prompt, a reminder that there's something exciting just a click away. Let's make the Fediverse that exciting thing too.