A decentralized photo sharing platform

Picture This

Article from Issue 269/2023

Pixelfed offers an interesting alternative to centralized, algorithm-driven, commercial photo sharing services.

Sometimes, it's painful to watch people make the same mistake again and again. When Flickr's bright star started to fade, anyone remotely interested in photography moved to Instagram. With Instagram losing its luster faster than a mountain hare loses its winter coat, there is a rush to VERO, Glass, and other photo sharing services that promise to be different but are essentially the same. The features offered by the current batch of Instagram challengers may vary, but the overall premise is unchanged: a service run by a commercial entity that dictates the rules and to whose fortunes and whims you're beholden. So you'll be forgiven for sagely shaking your head and murmuring to yourself, "Will they ever learn?"

Fortunately, shutterbugs and serious photographers who are not willing to go down the same road again can choose an alternative path: Pixelfed [1]. If you haven't heard the name before, you're not alone. While Pixelfed has been around for a while, it has been following the same trajectory as Mastodon. Twitter going down in flames has sent people scrambling for alternatives, with Mastodon providing a perfect harbor for Twitter refugees. While none of the mainstream photo sharing services have suffered a misfortune of a similar magnitude, the seed of doubt has been planted: Perhaps sharing your photos and building a following using a centralized commercial service is not all it's cracked up to be after all. This is where Pixelfed (Figure 1) comes into the picture (no pun intended).

Figure 1: Pixelfed looks like a regular photo sharing platform.

A Federated Service

If you're thinking that Pixelfed is like Mastodon for photos, you're not far off the mark. Pixelfed has the same underpinnings: It's an open source, federated service based on the ActivityPub protocol. The "federated" part often causes confusion among those unfamiliar with the term. Ironically, most of us use an established and mature federated service every single day without perhaps even realizing it. Although it might be a stretch to call email a federated service, the underlying idea is basically the same: No matter which email service provider you choose, you can still exchange messages with anyone using any other provider thanks to common protocols like IMAP and SMTP. That's how a federated service operates, too. Pick a Pixelfed instance, create an account (which even looks like an email address, e.g., @me@pixelfed.social), and you can follow anyone on any other Pixelfed instance, and other users can follow you.

Federated services share another trait with email. An email address is unique, but the uniqueness of a specific username is limited to the service provider. The same is true for federated services. You can be Bobby Bushtail with the thelongtail username on the pixel.social instance, but nothing prevents someone from setting up the @thelongtail@pixelfed.de account and using the Bobby Bushtail name. If you want to reach the right Bobby, you have to know which Pixelfed instance your Bobby is on. This may be a problem if you're an influencer with a large following. However, it's worth keeping in mind that even though Pixelfed is often touted as an alternative to Instagram, it's not a drop-in replacement: Pixelfed is not suited for building a following and profiting from it. Whether this is an advantage or a drawback is up to you to decide.


The algorithmically managed timelines of mainstream social platforms are something nobody asked for and not many appreciate. If you prefer to see posts the way nature intended, you will definitely appreciate the fact that Pixelfed uses the chronological timeline for displaying your photos as well as posts from people you follow. No one can buy their way into your timeline, there are no ads, and no one is tracking you. You can interact with posts by liking them, commenting on them, and resharing them. You can also bookmark posts. But no amount of likes and reshares can push your post up a secret proprietary algorithm, because there is none. So while likes and reshares may give a tiny boost to your ego, that's pretty much all they do. Better still, if you don't care about likes and reshares at all, they can be disabled by Pixelfed instance administrators. Sadly, it's not something you can do as a regular user, but at least you can find a Pixelfed instance where this functionality is turned off by default.

Another aspect that sets Pixelfed apart from Instagram is its openness. Pixelfed doesn't lure you into a walled garden and force you to create an account just to be able to see photos. It also doesn't make life difficult for third-party apps and services by imposing arbitrary limits on its API. And, of course, Pixelfed makes it easy for you to move to a different instance or take your data out of service.


There are a few things you need to consider before you decide to make Pixelfed a home for your photos. Most Pixelfed instances are maintained by volunteers and not commercial entities with big bags of money (see the "Setting Up Your Own Instance" box). Consequently, volunteer efforts and donations often are the only things that keep an instance running. This makes a Pixelfed instance's existence somewhat precarious. Worst case scenario, an instance disappears with no warning, without giving you a chance to migrate to a different server or export your data.

Setting Up Your Own Instance

One of Pixelfed's appealing traits is that you can set up your own instance. But even if you have the technical skills required to set up and maintain a Pixelfed server, the question is whether it's really worth it. The well-meant desire to offer others a place to share photos can quickly run into the stumbling blocks of reality. For starters, there are costs associated with running a platform that requires a lot of traffic and storage (as is usually the case with anything that involves sharing photos). The burden of ensuring uptime, backup, and maintenance also lies entirely on your shoulders. As always, the trickiest part is related to moderating human behavior. Even before you define a set of rules you want your users to abide by, you are at risk of going down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out answers to a myriad of questions. Will you allow sensitive content? If not, what are the criteria for labelling something as being sensitive? What conflict resolution mechanisms do you want to put in place? You may be tempted to figure out answers to these and many other questions as you go, but it's hardly a recipe for success. In short, running your own Pixelfed instance makes sense only if you have the means and spare time and you're willing to put effort into making your community thrive.

In addition, most Pixelfed instances have rather stiff storage limits. Forget about unlimited storage or free plans offering up to 1TB of storage. On most Pixelfed instances, you'll be lucky to get more than 10GB. Worse yet, you might not even be able to upgrade storage for an additional fee.

Buy this article as PDF

Express-Checkout as PDF
Price $2.95
(incl. VAT)

Buy Linux Magazine

Get it on Google Play

US / Canada

Get it on Google Play

UK / Australia

Related content

  • Mastodon

    Get started with free microblogging, interact with others who share you interests, and even help expand the Fediverse with your own Mastodon instance.

  • Tutorial – Fediverse

    If you're looking for social media options where the user has more control, you'll find a range of options to explore in the Fediverse, including the popular Mastodon.

  • Fediverse Introduction

    Do you have to you give up your privacy to enjoy access to social media? The makers of the Fediverse say no.

  • A Federated Reddit Alternative

    With Reddit closing off access to its API, it is time to look to the Fediverse for an alternative.

  • Social Skills

    Creating a custom application that toots text to Mastodon (the Fediverse's version of Twitter) is simple and straightforward. But we can mix it up by adding images and video, scheduling posts, and changing privacy settings.

comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe to our Linux Newsletters
Find Linux and Open Source Jobs
Subscribe to our ADMIN Newsletters

Support Our Work

Linux Magazine content is made possible with support from readers like you. Please consider contributing when you’ve found an article to be beneficial.

Learn More