What is the Van Til instance?
Van Til is RefChat’s Pleroma instance, named after the WTS professor Cornelius Van Til. An instance is another name for a server, or website. Pleroma is a federated social media platform using the ActivityPub protocol. ActivityPub is a protocol that enables a variety of independent servers to communicate with each other, or federate, and create a network, whose users can all communicate with each other. This network is constructed much like email – and if you look closely, you’ll find that personal identifiers on a federated network are formatted in much the same way as email.
How does Pleroma work?
When you connect to Facebook or Twitter, you are a client connecting to a massive, centralized server. Everyone else you speak with on those services is likewise connected to that massive, centralized server.
Pleroma is one of many Fediverse platforms, which use the ActivityPub protocol. Using ActivityPub, anyone can talk to anyone else using ActivityPub. We run Pleroma, which is a platform known for running efficiently, and with a small resource footprint. A user on our Pleroma server can talk to anyone else on any other Pleroma server – but also to anyone on any other ActivityPub-using platform. Those platforms include Mastodon (by far the largest), Misskey, Friendi.ca, Hubzilla, PeerTube, Funkwhale, Pixelfed – and many others!
A user on VanTil looks like this: @email@example.com – in my case, @firstname.lastname@example.org
Anyone who knows my “address” can see my public profile. From there, they can follow me (from whatever server they happen to use), direct message me (if privacy settings allow), or mention (@)me. Additionally, each user generates an RSS feed that can be shared as you wish.
Registration for VanTil is by invitation-only. One of the advantages of federation is exclusivity. Centralized social media encourages anyone at all to be part of the service – and you’re all on the same service. Federated social media works differently. Your instance contains your users – members of your community. When you set it up that way, you can ensure that everyone on your instance follows the rules expected by the community. Other instances will have their own rules, expected by their own users – and that’s okay.
Since we’re invitation-only, you’ll have to use an invite code, which is found here: VanTil Invite! Once you follow that link, you have to register your user. Since each server is independent, you’ll have the opportunity to register with your unique handle.
On the registration page, you’ll be asked to fill out the requisite fields. Username is your unique handle. In my case, RazorsKiss. Display Name is what you’d like to be seen as, when people look at your profile. I kept RazorsKiss, but if my username was, for example, joshuawhipps – I might want to put “Joshua Whipps” here. Others might want to use more whimsical display names: such as “Destroyer of Whorls”. Maybe. Email is important – please use a real address. Only admins will see this, and your registration confirmation from the service will use this. The Password and Password Confirmation fields are for you to enter your password – and then repeat it. I suggest something strong here! Reason to Register: If you are a RefChat user (or former channel rat), put your channel nickname here, so I know it’s you. If you’re someone’s friend or family member – tell me whose. I’ll know who – we’re a small world here 🙂 Note: All registrations are manually approved – so if it takes a little while, don’t panic! Captcha is the usual rigamarole – enter the text. It keeps bots from registering and spamming. Invite token should be pre-populated, if you got there through the invite link above – and will not be editable.
Make sure you read the terms of service. They are a bit lengthy, I admit – but they are to make sure that we don’t fall into the same problems the big social media services fall into – and to make sure that we, as an instance full of Christians, don’t get a reputation that reflects badly on the cause of Christ.
The gear icon in the top menu is your Settings menu.
The official documentation for settings is here – but let’s highlight a few things that aren’t defaults.
- Enable automatic streaming of new posts when scrolled to the top
- Suggested: True
- Minimize post scope selection options
- Suggested: False
- Allow discovery of this account in search results and other services
- Suggested: True
- No specific suggestions, but I suggest checking “hide filtered statuses” if you’re going to enter a filter list. The only problem with these lists, however, will be the number of false positives.
This is where you can import/export your user information when transferring from/to other instances.
Mutes and Blocks
Your block/mute list. Works much like IRC and/or Twitter in this regard.
Profile Cards are UI elements which display a user’s profile. Profiles can include avatar, header, and background – and your profile is edited through the Settings menu > Profile.
You can set your display name, create a Bio, restrict your account to approved followers, control the display of followers and who you are following, define auto-follow of your followers who change instances, and allow/disallow discovery of your account.
You are also given up to 10 custom fields for metadata about you (per-instance setting). Clicking on your own profile image or account in the profile block in the top left will take you to your own full profile w/timeline of your posts. Additional tabs display Following, Followers, Media, and Favorited statuses.
At the top right of the screen are several icons which comprise another menu bar. The magnifying glass is for search, and is used to search for statuses, people and hashtags. It can also be used to import statuses from remote servers by pasting the url to the post in the search field. Finally, if you want to search for users that your instance doesn’t know about yet, you can search for them using the full email@example.com handle (with or without the leading @). You can also use the full url from their remote profile.
The gear icon next to the magnifying glass brings you to the settings menu, which is covered in detail above. The final icon is for logging out of your session, should you so desire.
The top REFCHAT graphic can be used to bring you back to the default Timeline at any time (as can the “Timelines” link in the left menu).
Why should I use RefChat's services?
Centralized social media services are run by big companies, who have millions of users – with all the moderation and content issues that scale brings with it. The Fediverse won’t have that issue – because each server (and there are thousands!) handles its own moderation, and its own content. Instance admins can set their own rules, federate only with who they choose to federate with, and deal with their users personally. The fediverse is a community of communities. There is no central controlling authority, no “changes from on high” to deal with, and no way to deplatform anyone from the fediverse. An individual server can moderate a user, and even ban a user – but they are free to pick another server more suitable – or run their own, for that matter!
As we have done on our chat network, we have instituted rules to ensure that content on our instance is in accordance with Christian ethics. Content coming into our instance from elsewhere is moderated heavily to ensure a family-friendly experience.
How to Use VanTil
Here is a link to the official Pleroma User Guide – but I’ll go ahead and highlight what I believe to be important as well.
The first thing you’ll notice is that there’s two columns, using the default theme, and a small menu up on the top right of the interface. We will discuss this further below, under Top Menu. The left column has your usercard (if logged in), posting, navigation, a small info block, and notifications – reading from top to bottom. The right column displays the various timelines, selectable using the Timeline title, which is followed by a down caret symbol (∨).
Clicking that title will allow you to select the various timeline types.
- Direct Messages
- Public Timeline
- Known Network
You can read more about the various timelines below, under Timelines.
The posting block is at the top left, below your own profile card (if logged in). If not logged in, the login box replaces both it and the posting block.
Clicking on your profile card image (or username) will take you to your profile. When you test your usercard block, you’ll see the “hotspots” where your pointer changes. (The same is true for the profile images/usernames of any user, on every timeline.) This is how you access the user profile of any user, including your own. We’ll discuss this more later, under Profile Cards.
Below this block is:
Posting a status works much like it does on other platforms. You write what you want to say, then click submit. Done. It can be as simple as that, and for most content, that’s fine.
There are quite a few options for posting, however – options which other platforms don’t have, as well as options which are intentionally not present in Pleroma that are present in other platforms.
- The Content Warning
- Content Type Selection
When you start creating a post/status, you have several fields and menus surrounding the status box. The first is Preview. Clicking this dropdown will show you how your status would look if posted, as sort of a wysiwyg feature. The second is “Subject”, which is optional. This is the “content warning” field, and the convention amongst many, if not most Fediverse users is that posts with a CW are “collapsed” by default – as with spoiler tags. This gives users the ability to “opt-in” to posts by telling them (in general) what it is going to be about.
The next field is the status field itself. It is modified by all of the menus/options below. The character limit on VanTil is 5,000 characters/status – not all instances can display this many characters, so it may be truncated when viewed by other, especially non-Pleroma, instances.
Underneath the status box to the left is the “scope” selection radio bar. Currently, we have Direct (private, or direct messaging), Followers-only, Unlisted, or Public.
A Direct status will be sent only to the first username contained in the status. It will not notify successive usernames as a mention if this scope is selected.
A Followers-only status will be seen only by your followers. Note: if someone follows you, they will be able to see your followers-only messages retroactively.
An Unlisted status will not show up in public timelines – only in your personal timeline.
A Public status will show up everywhere your user/instance federates with.
To the bottom right of the status box is a menu which allows you to select how you would like to format your status. The choices are as follows:
- Plain Text
Below this GUI segment are further radio buttons.
- Upload (image or video)
- Insert Emoji
- Insert Poll (which opens further options for the poll)
- Submit (which posts your status)
Timelines are one area where the Fediverse differs significantly from Facebook and Twitter’s UI. In our default frontend, we have Timelines nested within a careted ∨ dropdown menu.
The Timeline selection is your personally curated timeline, displaying only content from accounts you follow.
Bookmarks is a list of statuses that you have saved for reference or later reference.
Direct Messages is a timeline of private conversations you’ve had with other users.
The Public Timeline is a timeline of all public posts made by users of your own instance. (In our case, vantil.refchat.net)
The Known Network timeline is the firehose, comparatively. Not only does it include everything from Public, but from everyone followed by everyone on your instance, and everyone they interact with. This is the Federated part of “Federated social media”. This has advantages and disadvantages to it. As a heavily moderated instance, who we follow as individuals has big (even massive) implications for the entire instance. This timeline is where we spend all of our moderation time on. We only federate as far as we follow – in that sense, our federation is organic – it grows over time. On the other hand, weeding this particular garden is a non-trivial exercise! Thus, we ask all of our users to be selective about who they follow, and to carefully weigh the content that their potential follows share on a regular basis.