A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

One Week of Mastodon

7 May 2017 3:46 PM (the center cannot hold and is not needed)

I have never used Twitter. Microblogging was not a thing that appealed to me. I follow some people's Twitter feeds as RSS feeds and I have occasionally been tempted to make an account so I can tell some people to stop being stupid, but I never did.

Enter Mastodon. A federated, decentralized social network and microblogging platform based on open standards: OStatus in particular. OStatus itself is based on preëxisting web standards like ATOM (you can stick a user's ATOM URL into a feed reader and follow them that way, if you wish). It had been developed by Identi.ca (whose developers later moved in to Pump.io) and is used by GNU Social. Mastodon interoperates (mostly) with GNU Social and seems to have gained currency by focusing on being easy to set up and deploy for instance administrators and having a slick web UI and mobile clients. It also got lucky and hit the popular press.

Mastodon servers are called instances. Each instance has some number of users. Users make posts that can have varying degrees of publicity (some are 'private' and are only available to the people they're addressed to). Users can address posts (called 'toots') to or follow users on other instances and those instances may federate. I say ‘may’ because instance administrators may blacklist other instances (or filter them in other ways) or block federation with all instances not on a whitelist.

The convention at present among most instances is widespread, promiscuous federation (with a few instances known to harbor abusive users commonly blacklisted) is the norm. This is a generally nice system since two users can communicate without them having to agree on enemies. Some people dislike this model. I have seen people argue that the network must be intentionally 'balkanized' and the defaults changed to make everything private by default and remove the ability for arbitrary users to message each other in order to prevent abuse. Thankfully, few people seem interested in doing this. There are some whitelist-only instances, but even they seem to be fairly widely connected.

After listening to a talk on re-decentralizing the web, I figured I might as well give it a shot and created an account with which to play around. One of the problems that federated services like XMPP had was that there were many servers under different domains offering similar but not identical service. Users both had no intuitively appealing way to pick between one service and another and would sometimes be bit by whether their service supported offline messaging or other extensions to the protocol.

Mastodon has found, perhaps by accident, an interesting way to get around this. Instances can differentiate themselves in target audience, visual theme, code of conduct, moderation and federation policy, and even “local flavor” (renaming ‘likes’, ‘toots’, or ‘boosts’ to something silly). A user who logs in is presented with both a ‘local’ timeline (containing all toots on that user's instance) and a ‘federated’ timeline, containing all toots by users on instances that someone on the user's instance follows. This creates a sense of place and community while making it easy to reach out into the wider Fediverse.

The flagship instance, mastodon.social, became overloaded and stopped accepting new registrations, and this was a boon for the community because it made people go look through the list of instances and find one they liked to join. This combined with the locality and community that Mastodon instances provide seem likely to lock federation in as something people value about the service. (This has been a problem, historically. The average user doesn't care about openness, decentralization, and federation. Even if federation could provide things users do say they care about, like allowing them to migrate to differing levels of moderation, it's difficult to explain and sell them on the idea.)

This is also why I'm less bothered by moderation on Mastodon than I am on other sites. I believe that Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and the like, should be legally forbidden from removing content no matter how hateful, offensive, obscene, or what have you it is claimed to be; they are large organizations with effective monopolies due to their network effect, and they are loyal to their advertisers and shareholders. Mastodon instances are, more or less, loyal to their users (several of them have Patreon accounts where you can kick in a dollar a month if you want to). They are small, and they are loosely coupled. If you don't like the moderation policy of one, you can leave and go to another more to your liking. Very few have ‘transitive’ federation requirements (they refuse to federate with anyone they won't federate with). Personally, I think instances with ‘transitive’ federation policies should be treated as bad actors and pressured to knock it off, since it breaks not having to agree with one's enemies.

So far, I found Mastodon to be rather pleasant. It's very well done from a software and organizational perspective. I don't know if microblogging is going to be something I really have much desire to keep up with (I expect it just depends on who I run into), but even if I don't keep using it, Mastodon has demonstrated that you can make an open, federated social service appealing to the mass market. At least temporarily.

2 responses

  1. nyan says:

    Interesting: somewhere else I heard the opposite, that mastodon has too many instances blocking each other, making it difficult to use.
    I myself am watching it with curiosity, but I think I'll just some day learn atom/rss and just let my handwritten blog be subscribed to with that.
    Reminds me, I should make another post tonight.

    >re-decentralizing the web
    There is only one way to do that: have every web user also own a webserver in his house.
    Also, XMPP isn't hard. I have a very easy time using it.
    >hould be legally forbidden from removing content no matter how hateful, offensive, obscene, or what have you it is claimed to be
    I agree removing things is bad, but having an authority capable of making laws is also bad.
    >Patreon
    Patreon is known for making many many products worse, or crash, or take longer to come to completion as the person developing has more incentive to drag out development instead of develop quickly. I will never ever ever pay for something.
    Anonymous donations/gifts straight to a person (never to a project, but to a person) are okay. Kickstarter and Patreon, for different reasons, are absolutely not okay and should never be supported.

  2. Digital says:

    I signed up for Identi.ca long ago, back when Ubuntu debuted the Messaging Menu (posting to social networks right from your status bar!) and bundled the open-source Gwibber client. I quickly lost interest, but that mostly derived from not personally knowing anyone on the network. Recently, with the flutter of folks I know moving to Twitter or setting up a secondary there, I wondered what had happened to Identity.ca.

    In short, it's nice to know that free/libre micro-blogging still exists, and that it's moving towards this hybrid decentralized model. Thank you for the reminder!

    Azure

    I believe that Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and the like, should be legally forbidden from removing content no matter how hateful, offensive, obscene, or what have you it is claimed to be; they are large organizations with effective monopolies due to their network effect, and they are loyal to their advertisers and shareholders.

    Referring purely to the actions taken by the employees, the community at large (e.g. the button for flagging something as spam, abusive, etc), or arguing that even groups (for platforms where those exist) and individuals should not be allowed to exclude/remove content?

    I'm guessing the first two, but given past remarks over "the right to be forgotten" I'm not sure.

    To clarify, I think the concept of blacklisting things on search engines is silly - I only do robots.txt for the sake of attempting to manage separate identities - but it seems odd to me to not allow deleting content when decentralized systems allow that by design, i.e. control of your own stuff.

    nyan

    I myself am watching it with curiosity, but I think I'll just some day learn atom/rss and just let my handwritten blog be subscribed to with that.

    Please do set up an RSS/Atom feed. I'd humbly argue there's still a place for them and feed formats generally have more widespread support for archival and processing. I like having local copies of everything I can, this blog included - it comes in handy sometimes :)

    I personally intend to set up a blog, just waffling between a static publishing system (e.g. Nikola) with self-hosted Discourse comments, or an integrated platform in some active web language.

    I was going to remark on having trouble determining how to pipe Mastodon into TinyTiny-RSS, when, upon rereading Azure's post, it seems you just add a user's URL directly. I'm surprised this isn't briefly mentioned where I had looked. One could blame Firefox for no longer advertising when a website has a feed available.. ah well.

    nyan

    There is only one way to do that: have every web user also own a webserver in his house.
    Also, XMPP isn't hard. I have a very easy time using it.

    I agree, XMPP seems easy, but do consider the folks who don't have their own server nor want to deal with administrating one.. if they even have a public IP address. I'm rather thankful a close friend offers hosting; my university's network is (CG?)NAT with no IPv6. And some major ISPs will soon stop offering public IPv4 addresses.

    Note that, like you, I don't consider Virtual Private Servers as the same thing - you're handing over your server to a centralized location and it's an (understandable) extra fee. It is much better than the norm of having nothing, though.

    nyan

    Anonymous donations/gifts straight to a person (never to a project, but to a person) are okay. Kickstarter and Patreon, for different reasons, are absolutely not okay and should never be supported.

    I agree that in many cases people misuse these services - not even delving into platforms like IndieGoGo that have less strict rules.

    However, I disagree with a blanket never - there's different approaches and people, such as with some content creators who do a pay per video released, not time, and only for videos they deem of quality worth payment. Projects such as LineageOS (formerly CyanogenMod) accept monetary and compute donations for e.g. higher performance build servers or more; that won't slow down development.

    Patreon/Kickstarter/etc could further change to further encourage good behavior and make bad behavior unprofitable.

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