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 work 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. These solutions are generally referred to as distributed or federated social networks, and most modern platforms use the ActivityPub protocol for cross-platform interoperability.
The most promising Instagram-like federated platform is PixelFed. PixelFed brings the best features of Instagram to an open-source, decentralized application and, in some cases, improves them. Key features of PixelFed include:
- a familiar Instagram-like photo-blogging UX, including stories and collections
- direct messages
- links in post description (Instagram only allows one link in profile)
- no advertising
- account portability
- the ability to host a personal instance and use a custom domain
- follow any account on any instance
- interoperability with disparate platforms supporting ActivityPub, such as Mastodon
Although PixelFed has attractive features and functions as a web application, it has struggled to gain widespread adoption without a native iOS app. To solve this problem, the PixelFed team has spent the past few months working on a new iOS app for the iPhone. They hope this will help them better compete with Instagram and grow their user base. The iOS app is now available for beta testing through Apple’s TestFlight.
First look at PixelFed for iOS
The official PixelFed app for iOS, even in public beta, is impressive.
Profiles and Collections
Arkadiusz Wieczorek, a Polish developer, privacy advocate, and amateur photographer, is an active PixelFed user. 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 Instagram’s most popular features, and PixelFed fully supports it. However, users should keep in mind that messages are not end-to-end encrypted and should consider using Signal if they wish to have truly private conversations online.
The iOS app has a feature that makes it easier to discover images and people using PixelFed. Daniel Sup, founder and lead developer of PixelFed, told Coywolf, “The Discover feature uses both local and remote posts known to that specific instance.” Sup said it was “working on a centralized Discover API and app functionality to improve this for all instances.” PixelFed’s profile on Mastodon also posted that “no matter how busy or how small your instance, having access to a curated community discovery experience will benefit everyone.”
Preferences and Reports
PixelFed has familiar tools for dealing with unwanted profiles and posts in a feed. For example, mute and block options are at your fingertips.
Users can also report spam and abuse. Sup told Coywolf that “reports are sent to the local instance administrator for them to manage.” This means that reports will only be seen by the person(s) running the node where the report account exists. And if an action is taken against a user, it will apply only to that federated server.
Since PixelFed is federated and supports the ActivityPub protocol, other social platforms that support ActivityPub, such as Mastodon, can follow profiles and interact (Like, Reblog, and comment) with posts. For example, my Mastodon account at coywolf.social tracks PixelFed accounts hosted on different instances, and their posts appear in my Mastodon feed.
Get started with PixelFed
The easiest way to start using PixelFed is to create an account on an existing node. However, if you want full control of your PixelFed account, you can install and run an instance yourself or use a fully managed hosting company like Spacebear. Spacebear is the hosting provider that Coywolf uses for its PixelFed server at coywolf.photos.
PixelFed supports importing Instagram accounts, so Instagram users who want an open web alternative can move their images to PixelFed. PixelFed also supports exporting and importing accounts from one PixelFed instance to another.
If you like using PixelFed, you can support its development through Patreon.
Jon is the founder of Coywolf and the IEC and senior reporting writer for Coywolf News. He is an industry veteran with over 25 years of experience in digital marketing and internet technologies. Follow @henshaw