Fediverse is coming into focus
I'm used to thinking about social media in terms of the 'big social' brand names – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc. These platforms have achieved a size and weight that makes them feel inevitable. It's easy to forget that they're all very new, as is 'social media' itself, and that there are viable alternatives.
Before the rise of Facebook, we had a much more open web of sites and blogs that retained individuality and personality, with little or no centralised control or influence. However, the rise of social platforms, culminating in Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, means huge centralisation of power and control in the hands of very few. Cambridge Analytica, QAnon and the Elonisation of Twitter show how precarious this situation is.
#Fediverse is not a new solution, but it has newly become mainstream, as media attention and new users have flooded toward it looking for a Twitter replacement.
Anyone who is building a profile and accumulating followers on any of the big social platforms is working as a tenant farmer for a ruthless landlord, who can and inevitably will change the rules to maximise their benefit without any regard for yours. The current Twitter experience with Elon Musk's takeover shows how quickly a seemingly benevolent regime can change.
The recent Twitter experience since Elon Musk's takeover feels abrupt to many, but anyone who has been online for a while will know that social platforms come and go like the tide – MySpace, LiveJournal, Tumblr, Bebo, Google+ and so many more have risen and declined.
Of course it's a mistake to imagine that pre-Elon Twitter was somehow benevolent. Twitter abruptly mothballed Vine – the platform where viral short-form video content was pretty much invented – after it was overtaken by Instagram and Snapchat. Twitter also obliterated competing client apps by terminating access to its APIs.
It's also a mistake at the societal level to allow any such privately owned platform to become an important part of public dialogue and opinion-making. We're familiar with the idea that newspaper barons wield oversized power, and we've seen some appalling outcomes attributable to Murdoch news and media interests globally. We're less familiar with the idea that the controllers of social platforms can similarly wield such power – but Facebook + Cambridge Analytica have demonstrated how that can go wrong, and Elon Musk now seems intent on demonstrating how quickly he can turn Twitter to the right.
It's always fascinated me that the power in media comes from its willing consumers, not its producers. The collective receptiveness of the audience to ideas and influence, including advertising, is what makes media work.
In the old days of print publishing, there have always been very high costs of entry, which naturally led to small numbers of competitors, or as in the Australian news context, virtual monopolies.
Digital media is different in that the costs of setting up as a publisher are vanishingly low in comparison. But the evidence so far is that individual producers of content and insight have overwhelmingly opted to publish their work and build their audience on platforms controlled by others. The reason is obvious – those platforms offer to content producers distribution to an existing audience of users.
However, these social platforms have interests fundamentally misaligned with their users and content producers. Ultimately they will maximise their own interests at users' expense by making it as hard as possible for users to leave.
The only rational response for content creators is to own and publish your own content and innovate with distribution to find ways to grow an audience. There are lots ways to do this, including starting a fucking blog, and migrating to newer federated social media.
I'm an early adopter social tech dilettante – I've just received my 17-year trophy in Reddit, I joined Twitter back when it was twittr – and I signed up for my first Mastodon.social account back in 2017 when news of the service first crossed my radar.
Back then, the most interesting thing about Mastodon.social for me was watching a huge number of Japanese anime fans appearing in the federated timeline, and more or less swamping it with 'lolicon' ロリコン.
I didn't really use Mastodon again until the debates over Trump's use of Twitter rose to the surface, and I tried switching away from mastodon.social to aus.social to see if my Mastodon experience would be more engaging and interesting with a server in my own geography.
It turns out that things were more interesting with more locals in my local timeline.
After Elon took over Twitter and large spikes of users started joining Mastodon, I started reading a bit more about the network, and I think for the first time really grasped how the Fediverse works.
Ever the early adopter, and encouraged by some throw-away comments from Chris Trottier about how easy it can be to spin up a private instance, I decided more or less on a whim to launch my own personal instance.
Again influenced by Chris, I chose to install Pleroma rather than Mastodon on the promise that it was simpler, more lightweight, and ultimately cheaper to run than a Mastodon implementation.
Feeling pretty pleased about getting M-m-m-my Pleroma up and running, I immediately got my first glimpses into Fedi politics. The Pleroma project is led by @firstname.lastname@example.org">Lain a polarising character, and Pleroma is considered by some across the Fediverse to be associated with bad actors of various kinds.
Then I discovered the Soapbox front end which is very polished and for me is clearly better to use than the native Pleroma front end, or the Mastodon-equivalent front end that ships with Pleroma. However, I did not know that the founder of Soapbox @email@example.com">Alex Gleason is another polarising character who developed what is now Soapbox initially for Gab, one of the more notorious far-right social network instances, and has been targeted by trans activists for his anti-trans statements.
It's now more apparent to me that pretty much the entire Fediverse, from the protocols up to the apps, was built by communities of marginalised people – queer people, trans people, activists, furries – because they needed to build their networks and communities in safe spaces away from the walled gardens full of gatekeeping normies.
There's already a lot of friction and politics among the builders and early users of the Fediverse. As it grows, a key challenge for the Fediverse will be to resolve the inevitable tension between these founders and early participants, and the fast-growing tide of mainstream users who are now discovering it.
Federation itself will likely provide some solutions – people who want to engage with particular communities in particular ways can spin up their own instances or join instances aligned to their views, and block, mute or de-federate others as they and their administrators see fit.
We're already seeing some early debate on the merits of quote-toots (which are not supported in Mastodon and therefore currently are not really a feature across the Mastodon-dominated Fediverse) and content warnings (a common part of the social etiquette for old timers, which annoyingly for them is observed much less frequently by newcomers).
Politics aside, Chris was right. It's not that hard to spin up an instance, even for a tech-nerd-adjacent type like me who although interested in the tech is not actually skilled or trained in systems admin or programming. It will only get easier as third-party services emerge to provide hosting and management services for private instances.
I have not thrown away my Twitter account, but I find myself paying a lot less attention to it, and using my personal Fedi instance more and more.
The more I use the Fediverse, the more I recognise that far from being the global town square as Elon and other boosters claim, Twitter is just a closed network that can never truly achieve that goal. It feels more like an un-federated instance, albeit a massive one.
Under Elon's management, it's lurching to the right and may well end up feeling not that different to Gab, Truth Social, or the other overtly right 'free speech' instances.
An inflection point is now approaching where social media can outgrow the walled gardens, and a more open alternative can develop in Fediverse. We're seeing what could be a true mass exodus from Twitter to 'Mastodon' (ie to Fediverse) from some key communities including infosec, journalists, 'black twitter' and others.
Whatever form it takes, the genie is out of the bottle, and the centralised walled gardens are now looking vulnerable.