Adamas Nemesis is now on Mastodon! You can follow this website’s Mastodon posts at social.adamasnemesis.com/@adamasnemesis. You might be asking “What is Mastodon? What is the Fediverse?” In my previous post on the decentralized web, I pointed out that the Fediverse is a group of social networking websites, called “instances”, that all run on software designed for interoperability. Protocols enable users of one website to interact with users of other websites as easily as they can with users of their own website, so long as all websites run compatible software. The most prominent of these protocols is ActivityPub, which Mastodon uses. As is often pointed out to those unfamiliar with federated social media, email works on the same principle; users of different email services talk to each other seamlessly so long as each server keeps using the same protocol.
Putting the Network back into the Social Network
“Protocols, not platforms” is a rallying cry of the Fediverse for a good reason: protocols can be used by anyone, whereas platforms are controlled by a single entity. Using email as an example, email itself is a protocol while Gmail is a platform. If Gmail disappeared tomorrow it would be a great loss, yes, but the email network would remain fully operational, and the parts of the network not on Gmail would be undamaged. Former Gmail users would get new email addresses, reconnect to the other users, and the network would live on.
Contrast this to a network like Twitter, where the Twitter protocol is exclusive to the Twitter platform. If Twitter disappeared tomorrow the entire tweeting network disappears with it because there are no tweets that are not on Twitter. The network would have to be rebuilt from scratch. Centralization introduces a single point of failure, which necessarily makes the network less resilient. On a decentralized network losing a big node would still be a loss, but the task of migrating to a new website is much easier if all your contacts don’t have to migrate simultaneously as they would if the whole network vanished, like what would happen if Twitter disappeared.
Interestingly, none other than Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder and CEO, has recently launched an initiative, Bluesky, to develop an open-source standard for decentralized social media which Twitter itself will eventually conform to. This is the same line of thinking behind ActivityPub, which has caused some to wonder why Twitter wants to create a new standard in the first place when ActivityPub is already available, and backed by the W3C no less. Indeed, Gab, another competitor to Twitter, switched from their proprietary software to ActivityPub last year, thus joining the Fediverse. Given Gab’s actions, under a line of thought not too dissimilar from Dorsey’s, as well as Dorsey’s seeming commitment to an open and decentralized standard, I would not be shocked if Twitter adopted ActivityPub at some point.
Where Jack Dorsey ultimately wants to take this line of thought is still unclear, but in 2020 the winds of change are blowing through social media. The Fediverse itself is growing and while still small will likely have a very good 2020s and ultimately challenge what I call the big social websites for dominance of the sector. I find it particularly interesting that Twitter seems to be effectively preparing to surrender to the Fediverse, considering that the Fediverse owes most of its growth to Mastodon, the most popular Fediverse software, casting Twitter as its arch-nemesis. It is likely not a coincidence that what you might call Twitter’s “pivot to decentralization” is occurring around the same time as Facebook’s much more remarkable “pivot to privacy”. The winds of change are perhaps most obviously affecting Facebook, where Mark Zuckerberg’s transformation from “privacy is dead” to the “pivot to privacy” over the course of the 2010s encapsulates the evolution of the Internet zeitgeist in that era.
Decentralization and privacy would represent a fundamental change from the 2000s and early 2010s model of social media, and this may be driven at least in part by the fact that centralization creates a single point of not just failure but pressure. This particularly entices governments to coerce centralized social media websites into imposing the state’s will upon their users. Even leaving out the fact that it’s probably easier to control a big business than an individual webmaster, the incentive to try to control a platform with billions of users is far greater than it is for a platform with one or only a few users.
Notice that those who are for “regulating social media” focus on going after big businesses; targeting Facebook or Twitter to change its practices would, if the effort was successful, affect far more people than targeting even the largest Fediverse instance would. In order to have the a proportional network-wide effect on the Fediverse, a large number of instances would have to be targeted, a goal that seems much less achievable than going after a couple of big businesses. This principle may be illustrated by Internet piracy: Napster was targeted far more extensively than even the largest piracy torrent node is today.
Even without any threat of regulation, big businesses have their own interests that they will seek to have big platforms impose, as well as different groups of users. The issue is that the goals of many of these powerful groups are mutually incompatible; even if everyone with an axe to grind against social media were placated with the removal of all but the most inoffensive and bland content, that still conflicts with the very large group of users that wish to produce and see more interesting content. The goal of everyone being on a single platform that can satisfy their needs is impossible to achieve, and may be stimulating at least two different approaches to solve the problem.
The federated solution is to get rid of the single platform, letting everyone use the same protocol but enabling different platforms to have their own content standards in their own space, thus containing the impact of their moderation practices. The other solution is to have complete privacy, so the content that you don’t request or are sent is hidden from you by end-to-end encryption, thus having what you might call a virtual splitting of platforms. The latter is probably what Facebook has in mind with the “pivot to privacy”. It would also conveniently make any governmental or social lobbies’ demands for moderating content they don’t like technically infeasible, while still enabling the traffic to be kept under one roof.
For these reasons, social media in 2030 may be characterized by much more privacy and decentralization than what we have been accustomed to, a trend that is already underway in 2020 but was decidedly against the grain in 2010. In this scenario a much larger and more sophisticated Fediverse will have a major share of the social media sector, coexisting with a Twitter that is open-source and may have itself joined the Fediverse and a Facebook that has completed the pivot to privacy and resembles a giant end-to-end encrypted messaging service. There will of course be many other players, some small now but perhaps expanded in size in 2030, as well as some websites and protocols that have yet to be born.
Diving into the Fediverse
With regard to my own participation in the Fediverse’s growth in the 2020s, yes, that is my own instance (social.adamasnemesis.com) that I am using. While even Mastodon’s own creator, Eugen Rochko, advises against creating your own instance if you are new to Mastodon, I did not find any particular instance compelling enough to join to the exclusion of others, and joining multiple instances reintroduces the problem of migration and fragmentation the Fediverse was created to avoid. So I decided that if I were to join the Fediverse it would be as part of an instance under my complete control.
For me a large part of the appeal of federated social media is just that: complete control. Uniquely, the free, open source, and federated nature of the software means that you can be your own webmaster instead of relying on the likes of Facebook, Reddit, or an instance’s administrator to keep your account and its associated network up and running. No one can delete your social media presence because you ran afoul of some rule or policy, sell the website out from under you to someone else that proceeds to trash all the features that made it great, and no one can simply decide to close or delete the website and leave you stranded.
All these problems conventional social media has are soluble with federated social media. Admittedly, the vast majority of users do not run their own instance and use other people’s instances, thus reintroducing some of these problems; however, as mentioned earlier, the decentralized aspect of the network as a whole means that any damage is much more limited than it is in a centralized platform. Running your own instance eliminates even that risk. So why doesn’t everyone run their own instance?
One issue, of course, is cost: web hosting costs money, whereas joining someone else’s instance is free. Even if you host a server from home, you still have to purchase a domain name, which again is more expensive. At worst, though, you’re only talking about a few dollars a month for a simple installation. The biggest issue is that the Fediverse software is complicated to install, to the extent that I spent almost two full days this week working on installing Mastodon only to still be flustered by errors. I also tried installing Pleroma but had the same issues. At the end of the second day I decided to just use the one-click install option provided by the Mastodon developer team on Digital Ocean, and that was installed and working within a few minutes.
It is fortunate that there even is a one-click install option, seeing as it was only released in April 2019, which was less than a year ago. This is an excellent example of the leap in user-friendliness that is required for the hosting of Fediverse servers, and full decentralization, to achieve mass adoption. While I am grateful that the Mastodon one-click installation is available, far more work needs to be done to achieve the goal of a decentralized web. For one, if a one-click installation were made that could be used on any platform, rather than only Digital Ocean, that would be more convenient and resilient. Secondly, Mastodon is the only Fediverse software that has a one-click installation. If similarly user-friendly one-click installations could be created for Pleroma, Peertube, and PixelFed, among others, it would go a long way towards making the Fediverse a more diverse and colorful place.
Happily for me in my case, I’ve read that not only text but photos and video can be sent on toots (the equivalent to tweets) over Mastodon. Thus far I have only set up the server and set my header image to be the same as this blog: Ivan Aivazovsky’s 1850 painting The Ninth Wave. The display name has been changed to “Adamas Nemesis” (from adamasnemesis). My user name on my instance social.adamasnemesis.com is adamasnemesis, thus my address is @firstname.lastname@example.org. A bit long perhaps but easy enough to remember.
Thus far I have sent out no toots, followed no other accounts, or put in a server description, so I don’t have anything to say about those features, but so far I really like the software and my personal instance setup. One interesting thing I found is that a working email server is not necessarily required if it is a single-user instance; the user name you input during the installation process and the auto-generated password work fine right out of the box, so to speak. The only downside is that you have to be fine with using the auto-generated password as Mastodon appears to need to send out an email to change it. I will continue to play around with the software, and if it works out it will be very useful for promoting my blog posts across a much broader swath of the Internet and for shorter content that doesn’t rate a full blog post. However my journey as a babe in the woods of Mastodon turns out, I’m sure it will be very interesting.