PixelFed

PixelFed is a photo-sharing service similar to Instagram. But if Instagram exists and is widely used, why do we need PixelFed? I would answer that by pointing out that Instagram is owned by Facebook, and so is part of the Surveillance Capitalist realm of social media. PixelFed, by contrast, is part of the decentralized Fediverse, where no one is trying to monetize your data. And speaking of data, in a federated platform there is no incentive to hack the system for your data since the data of all users is distributed over many independent servers. That is part of the definition of federated, after all. And PixelFed uses the ActivityPub protocol for sharing, which is a big plus in my book. I have already shared a lot about why I think ActivityPub, a World-Wide Web Consortium recommendation, is the best way for federated social media to allow for messages to passed from server to server. When given a choice between platforms, I will always lean to the one that uses ActivityPub.

What is PixelFed?

PixelFed is a photo-sharing platform that lets you share photos one at a time (or in small groups called “albums”). It is:

  • Ad-free: No ads in timelines, or anywhere
  • Chronological: Your photos are shared in the order they are posted. There no algorithms getting in the way. After all, with no ads, what would be the point for algorithms. You are in charge of your posts and your timeline, not a money-grubbing service.
  • Privacy focused: No one is tracking you on PixelFed. No third-party analytics are packaging your data for the non-existent advertising. It is just you and your friends, as it should be.

What does PixelFed do?

Some basic capabilities that you would expect in a platform like this:

  • Discover new content and creators
  • Share your photos one post at a time. You can create albums, but these are usually limited. For instance, pixelfed.social limits albums to 10 photos, and pixfed.com limits albums to 4 photos. See the section below for what PixelFed is not, as in it is not a photo management solution.
  • Add optional filters to your posts if you wish. This is something very popular on Instagram, so having similar capabilities on PixelFed makes sense.

What is it not?

PixelFed is not meant to be a collection management system for photos. Personally, I am not a serious photographer, but I do have a lot of photos going back over 40 years, mostly family pictures, holiday snaps, and so on. They are my memories and mean a lot to me and my friends and family, but none of them are ever going to show up on a site of great photos. I have all of my photos stored on my Network Attached Storage device (a Drobo 5N), and also uploaded to both Google Photos and to a paid Flickr account. That is enough duplication to make them safe. Right now I have about 5000 photos occupying about 15GB of disk space, but I also have a bunch of slides still to digitize, not to mention plans to travel and take more photos, so those numbers will all go up. PixelFed is not going to help me manage all of that, which is fine, I have other tools like digikam for managing the collection and GIMP for fixing the photos. I think you should use the right tool for the job.

How do I get on?

Install it yourself

Well, two ways basically. First, you can set up your own server. The PixelFed software is all open source, so installing it yourself is perfectly fine. What you need to have as a prerequisite is a web server with the following:

  • Apache (with mod_rewrite enabled) or Nginx
  • MySQL 5.6+, PostgreSQL 10+ or MariaDB 10.2.7+
  • PHP 7.2+ with the following extensions: bcmath, ctype, curl, exif, iconv, intl, json, mbstring, openssl, tokenizer, xml and zip
  • Redis for in-memory caching and background task queueing
  • ImageMagick for image processing

If you are an experienced Web administrator these should look pretty standard. Then you install the software using gitclone, do some configuration, and you’re done. All of this is covered on the PixelFed web site.

Join an existing server

For most people who don’t create and admin servers for a living, though, the alternative is to join an existing server. There is a most useful site for federated media called, appropriately enough, The Federation, which brings together information for a variety of federated media platforms. Click on “Projects” on the left, then select PixelFed, and you get a page that gives you some useful information. First, there are 138 nodes for PixelFed as I write this on August 3, 2020. Nodes are servers, basically, so that means there are 138 places you can investigate for an account. Since being listed here is entirely voluntary, there are probably more nodes than this, but it is a start. Also on this date I can see that there are 22,993 users, 183,468 posts, and 36 comments. Getting back to the nodes, some are open for signups, and some are not. So you should look for ones that are open. There are plenty of them, but as you scan the list you will see many nodes that have only 1 or 2 users, and these tend to be closed. They represent people who have set up their own server for their own use but don’t want to open it to anyone else. Because of the costs and resources involved this is entirely reasonable.

When looking at the different nodes you want to investigate before you join. As I mentioned above, albums are limited in size. Is that something that matters to you? And when you get to the home page of the site, go to the bottom and click on the Privacy link to read the privacy policy. In the sites I have checked it seems pretty boilerplate. They tell you what data they collect, how long they keep it, and what they do with it. You might be surprised that they collect any data at all, but if you sign up for an account you have to give them a name and e-mail address, and anyone running a server is going to have logs, which is after all the only to help guard against abuse. Also you might want to make sure the site is running an up-to-date version of the software since that will have all of the latest security patches. At the time I am writing this (August 3, 2020) most of the sites are running PixelFed 0.10.9, which is the latest, but I saw one node running 0.7.10. Finally, the country the node is located in may be a factor in your decision.

Once you have evaluated the choices, you need to create an account. I decided to register an account at pixelfed.social, which has the most users. On this server the password has to be a minimum of 12 characters, which is longer than I am used to, but I use a password manager anyway so I don’t mind. After filling out the registration, I needed to respond to an e-mail to validate my address. Once I did that, I was in. My address is @ahuka@pixelfed.social for this platform. Very similar to what I am on Mastodon, and that is no coincidence since they use the same ActivityPub protocol.

The next step is get your network together. There are three ways to do this:

  • Start asking people if they have a PixelFed account, and what their address is.
  • Search using the search field. Most people will use the same user name on all federated platforms, so if you follow someone on Mastodon try using the same name when you search. I went through my Mastodon feed and picked up a bunch a names. Remember to use the @ sign at the beginning. When you get a result, click on Profile, then on the profile you can click to follow. This may be a PixelFed account, or you may be connecting to their Mastodon instance, because the whole idea of ActivityPub is that it lets you connect different platforms. For instance, I have seen PixelFed-posted pictures in my Mastodon account, and Mastodon-posted pictures in my PixelFed account because I cross-followed other accounts.
  • You can look for new people to follow in the PixelFed app. Look in Photography, Art, or Nature, find some pictures you like, then go follow that person. Just start with the Discover link on top.

Using PixelFed

This is pretty straightforward. But one thing you should know is that the smartphone app is is not done yet. They announced work on it in November of 2019, but since the world has gone to hell since then, who knows when it will arrive? So for now you need to use it by logging in to the Web site. To make a post, click on the User Menu icon on the upper right, select New Post, and upload a picture. You can add a short caption, and you can crop the picture. Since storage may be limited (my account appears to give me 5GB of storage), a little judicious cropping might be a good idea here. On the bottom are the filters available (use the arrow keys to scroll), and you can tag people if they are also on your server. That last makes tagging a little less useful, but that is part of the tradeoff of using federated media.

Another useful feature, as we discussed above, is that you can have all of your PixelFed posts (your own and anyone you follow) appear in your Mastodon feed. Just search for a user name in Mastodon, and you will see for some people two entries, one of which would be a PixelFed entry. Just click the follow button, and that person’s posts will now be in your Mastodon feed. And searching for your own user name will let you add your own PixelFed account the same way. The vision behind ActivityPub is that you should not need to have multiple tabs open all the time just to follow your social media.

Supporting PixelFed

As I have said many times, you should support free software, and as my friend Door-to-Door Geek often says, support the people who support you. I support the principle ActivityPub developer through Patreon, and I also support the person who provides my Mastodon account through Patreon. Providing these services takes both time and money, and while I cannot give someone time, I can provide money. I added the primary developer of PixelFed to my Patreon as well. And it doesn’t have to be a lot. Most of the people I support on Patreon I give $1 per month, which adds up to $12 per year. That is a price I don’t mind paying for good software and services.

Listen to the audio version of this post on Hacker Public Radio!