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Exploring the fediverse: Lemmy’s surge and stagnation amidst growing interest in decentralized platforms

Written by Gideon Ng Published on   4 mins read

With improvements in usability and user experience, fediverse-based platforms like Lemmy may be able to compete with their centralized counterparts.

Earlier in April, community-based content aggregation platform Reddit stunned the online community with an announcement stating its decision to begin charging for access to its data through its application programming interface (API).

While the immediate effect on the average Reddit user was relatively small at the time of the announcement, this move had far-reaching consequences for third-party app developers, who face the prospect of shutting down if they cannot afford the new charges.

Moreover, this change had a ripple effect on certain communities among the Reddit user base. Moderators risked losing access to tools that they had been using to moderate subreddits, while assistive apps that visually impaired users had relied on to access Reddit content also risked being discontinued.

In reaction to the announcement, subreddit moderators staged a blackout as a form of protest, prompting some users to seek alternative platforms for viewing and discussing content online. Among the options frequently discussed was Lemmy, a decentralized, fediverse-based platform.

What is the fediverse?

  • The term fediverse is derived from the words “federated” and “universe”, and refers to a collection of protocols, servers, and users that connect to form networks enabling communication and content exchange. Through these networks, users can share various content types, including text, audio, videos, and more.
  • The content operates on a federated model within the fediverse, which means that it can be seamlessly shared and transferred between different networks.
  • Unlike platforms like Reddit, which are centralized and silo their content, fediverse-based platforms like Lemmy and Mastodon are interoperable and the cross-platform exchange of content is possible without requiring an account on each platform.
  • Users can create their own instances on a network and have the ability to set their own community guidelines and moderation policies.
  • Each fediverse-based platform can block instances or users in case of major issues. Users can also block other users or services to personalize their experience.
  • Apart from newer services like Lemmy and Kbin, established platforms such as Tumblr and Mozilla have expressed interest in adopting the concept. Meta has also announced its plan to integrate the newly launched Threads app with the fediverse.

The rise and stagnation of Lemmy

Lemmy surged in popularity following the announcement. According to Fediverse Observer, Lemmy had approximately 1,000 monthly active users in and prior to May 2023, before the announcement had gone viral. However, by June 2023, the number had skyrocketed to around 23,800 users.

But this impressive growth was short-lived. Despite Lemmy’s monthly active users continuing to increase and reaching an all-time high of around 72,600 users, growth has since stagnated. As of July 26, there are approximately 64,900 monthly active users of Lemmy, reflecting an 11% dip from the peak number.

One of the possible reasons behind this stagnation is the lack of intuitiveness in the functionality of fediverse-based platforms like Lemmy. As compared to established platforms like Reddit, Lemmy’s interface falls short in terms of user-friendliness.

Screenshot of Lemmy’s homepage.

For example, getting started on Lemmy alone is a complicated process. Prior to account creation, users must first select a server, also referred to in some cases as an instance. Some common examples of Lemmy instances include discuss.online, lemmy.one, and lemmy.world.

However, the concept of instances might be confusing for users who are more accustomed to Reddit’s structure. Reddit operates as a centralized entity with various subreddits acting as smaller communities.

Screenshot of a Reddit user’s comment on instances.

In contrast, each Lemmy instance functions like a mini version of Reddit, with its own set of guidelines and policies. Instances can connect and share content with each other, but they operate independently without centralized control.

This structure can lead to duplicate communities existing across various instances. For example, if you search for ‘politics’ on lemmy.ml, the search results will display three different political communities from different instances: lemmy.ml, beehaw.org, and lemmy.world, each having its own rules and guidelines.

Screenshot of search results for ‘politics’ on the lemmy.ml instance.

Although this approach is intended to promote interoperability among instances, it could overwhelm newcomers trying to navigate the platform.

Finding an instance that fits the needs of a user can be daunting for newcomers as they have to consider a variety of factors including community size, moderation policies, and activity levels of various instances. This complexity creates friction, which could discourage new users from exploring further.

The lack of a user-friendly mobile app may also be a factor that has limited user engagement. Several users have expressed interest in using Lemmy if a mobile app similar to Apollo is available. Apollo was a third-party Reddit app that offered a customizable and user-friendly browsing experience. An Apollo-like app compatible with Lemmy could significantly enhance its usability and accessibility, making it more attractive to new and potential users.

These issues are not exclusive to Lemmy, affecting other fediverse-based platforms including Mastodon, which has come to be known as a decentralized “clone” of X (formerly known as Twitter).

Future outlook

As tech companies continue to prioritize revenue generation, decentralized alternatives,  including fediverse-based platforms, have an opportunity to compete for a share of the market.

In an era where users are accustomed to the convenience and familiarity of traditional platforms such as X and Reddit, a stronger pull factor is needed to challenge for a share of the market. To entice users to switch over, keeping jargon to a minimum is essential, while providing seamless onboarding and engaging browsing experiences could go a long way in enhancing their appeal.

On a broader level, the potential integration of the Meta-owned Threads app into the fediverse could be pivotal in bridging the gap between centralized and decentralized networks, and exposing more users to decentralized alternatives.

By making the right improvements in terms of usability and user experience, decentralized platforms have the opportunity to establish themselves as viable alternatives, potentially reshaping how users interact online in the future.


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