Instagram, the popular photo blogging service owned by Meta (aka Facebook), is a closed platform that forces ads into its feed, tracks usage, and doesn’t function with other social platforms. Closed social networks like Instagram have led open web advocates to develop open-source alternatives that return privacy, choice, and control to the user. Those solutions are generally labeled as distributed or federated social networks, and most modern platforms use the ActivityPub protocol for interoperability between platforms.
The most promising Instagram-like federated platform is PixelFed. PixelFed brings the best features of Instagram to an open-source and decentralized app and, in some cases, improves upon them. PixelFed’s main features include:
- a familiar Instagram-like photo-blogging UX, including Stories and Collections
- direct messages
- links in post description (Instagram only allows a single link in the profile)
- no advertising
- account portability
- the ability to host a personal instance and use a custom domain
- following any account on any instance
- interoperability with disparate platforms that support ActivityPub, like Mastodon
While PixelFed has enticing features and functions well as a web app, it has struggled to gain wide adoption sans a native iOS app. To address that issue, the PixelFed team has spent the last several months working on a new iOS app for iPhone. They hope it will help them better compete against Instagram and grow their user base. The iOS app is available now for beta testing via Apple’s TestFlight.
PixelFed for iOS first look
The official PixelFed app for iOS, even as a public beta, is impressive.
Profiles and Collections
Arkadiusz Wieczorek, a Polish developer and privacy advocate, and hobbyist photographer, is an active user of PixelFed. Wieczorek’s PixelFed account offers one of the best examples of how to get the most out of the decentralized Instagram alternative.
Wieczorek uses PixelFed’s Collections feature, which Instagram users will find familiar.
Messaging is one of the most popular features of Instagram, and PixelFed fully supports it. Although, users should keep in mind that messages aren’t end-to-end encrypted, and they should consider using Signal if they want to have truly private conversations online.
The iOS app has a feature that makes it easy to discover images and people using PixelFed. Daniel Sup, Founder and Lead Developer for PixelFed, told Coywolf, “the Discover feature uses both local and remote posts known to that specific instance.” Sup said he is “working on a centralized Discover API and app feature to improve this for all instances.” PixelFed’s profile on Mastodon also posted that “no matter how active or small your instance is, access to a communal curated discover experience will benefit everyone.”
Preferences and reporting
PixelFed has familiar tools for managing unwanted profiles and posts in a feed. For example, muting and blocking options are a tap away.
Users can also report spam and abuse. Sup told Coywolf that “reports are sent to the local instance admin for them to handle.” That means reports will only be seen by the person(s) running the node where the reporting account exists. And if action is taken against a user, it will only apply to that federated server.
Since PixelFed is federated and supports the ActivityPub protocol, other social platforms that support ActivityPub, like Mastodon, can follow profiles and interact (Like, Reblog, and comment) with posts. For example, my Mastodon account at coywolf.social follows PixelFed accounts hosted on different instances, and their posts appear in my Mastodon feed.
Getting started with PixelFed
The easiest way to start using PixelFed is to create an account on an existing node. However, if you want complete control of your PixelFed account, you can install and run an instance yourself.
PixelFed supports importing Instagram accounts, so Instagram users that want an open web alternative can move their images over to PixelFed. PixelFed also supports exporting and importing accounts from one PixelFed instance to another.
If you enjoy using PixelFed, you can support its development via Patreon.