In my last article about Mastodon (and Twitter), I was very hopeful for the future, because I felt like we’ve been moving into the right direction. The fediverse felt (and still largely feels) like a very internet approach to social media. Decentralised, federated, very Email like and with a strong incentive to embrace that decentralised nature.
I am a little less hopeful today, but my thinking is still very much in flux.
So let’s talk Bluesky for a second. It seems like most of its promises of interoperability are largely unsubstantiated at this point. People have been mostly raving about its superiour (over Mastodon) onboarding process (which is much easier if you don’t have to take federation into account) and the cool vibes (which seems to be largely credited to a very deliberate slow onboarding and vetting process. Again, much easier if you’re in full control).
That Bluesky thing
For me, unless Bluesky truly becomes federated and it will be possible to run your own servers (which seems increasingly unlikely right now looking at the way the service is built and run), it is not interesting.
Sure, there’s a certain FOMO even for me and if my whole peer group would go there, that pressure would increase, but given that this thing has been founded by one Jack Dorsey who (I think) neither ever fully understood what Twitter was to people, nor particularly cared, I have doubts that Bluesky will not, in the end, end up with similar issues as Twitter. Given it’s current setup one wonders how this service is supposed to finance itself in the long term (Sure, that’s a problem many Mastodon instances face as well).
Currently, I think there are simply too many open questions and the viability of decentralisation is an unanswered question with some people being very sceptical about that aspect.
A few thoughts about onboarding
There’s an ongoing discussion in the Fediverse (particularly the Mastodon part) about the question if the added pressure by Bluesky should lead to changes that makes onboarding easier. At the same time, Eugen aka Gargon and his company are widely criticised for doing exactly that with their Mastodon mobile app, because it leads mainly to signups at mastodon.social, an instance that is probably already too big to fail and is defederated more and more because the moderation team is having issues battling spam (and also, it seems the moderation team has a rather lax approach to moderation as such at times).
This is all a bit of a pickle. And while I think that the onboarding could indeed be improved, I sometimes wonder if that is even the right approach. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to make the eternal point of the Linux-Nerds (“Linux is hard by design, it keeps out the noobs”) here - I want the Fediverse to be a place that can be enjoyed by the widest variety of people possible (Except for Nazis, of course). But I also think that we should expect, or rather foster a decent understanding of decentralised, federated technologies. We almost completely lost email to Google and Microsoft, and we should make sure people understand why that is a bad thing and what a better internet could look like and that does require some basic understanding of knowledge of how networks work, what domains are etc. etc. So to me it is as much a question of UX and design as it is a question of education.
Surely, these aren’t the only issues with onboarding on the fediverse. Finding an instance that suits you can be super hard and I think making moving between instances a more streamlined, more complete experience would be a change that would help a lot of people because it would release the pressure of having to find the right instance at first try.
And of course, there are other issues with the fediverse, too. There are two things that dampen my mood a bit right now:
The first thing is that we somehow managed to completely alienate large parts of Black Twitter (that seems to migrate to Bluesky now with large invite chains) - I must admit that even though I have read a lot of takes on why that is, I still don’t fully understand it, but a few things stand out: It is completely out of the question for black folx to mark descriptions of racist experiences with content warnings, which collides with a lot of written or unwritten rules about what to mark with content warnings on existing instances. At the same time, black people did have a ton of racist and otherwise negative experiences that have been improperly moderated, probably by instance moderators either not caring about or not being properly educated about antiracism and how to moderate specificially towards its goals.
The reflexive and rather unreflected response of “well, then create your own servers and run them as you like” is dismissed as being basically segregation. I can see that viewpoint but I feel conflicted about that. To me those kind of instances that have specific rules for specific discourse are more about creating a safe space than about creating a separation. Nevertheless, it is not me to judge on that. If black folx don’t feel that servers run by black folx are a solution, then they aren’t a solution. And lastly, something I am really curious about is that black twitter seems to heavily rely on quote tweets. Quote toots are probably coming but there was a reasoning why they weren’t part of the original Mastodon feature set.
There is a certain culture clash happening here in the fediverse and it looks to me as if one of the things that’s happening is that there are different groups of minorities and underprivileged folx that have developed very different strategies to cope with discrimination in social media that are very much at odds with each other. Intersectionality is hard, I guess. Says the privileged white dude.
The second thing that worries me is the increased use of defederation as a weapon to force other instances into certain behaviour, specifically explicitly stated as such.
Defederation is clearly the correct measure if an instance is willing to tolerate trolls, nazis or spammers and such. But in all other instances, defederation should be the last resort when trying to settle a conflict. Defederation because you disagree with a particular phrase in the TOS of an instance (unless that phrase is “we like Nazis”) or defederation even just because you disagree with a perfectly reasonable take of someone is a very slippery slope. As a left leaning german I have a very nuanced stance on “free speech”, but we should always default to federation and not defederation.
We can, should and must have discussions about how we run, moderate and govern our instances and there must be room to criticise other instance’s takes on things. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. But defederation is the end. It cannot be the beginning. It cannot be used as a weapon, as a threat.
Unfortunately, large parts of the current fediverse are run by left leaning groups and people and why should the fediverse then be any better than the political left as a whole. And one thing we do best is finding our differences long before we search for our commonalities. I hope we will be able to overcome this at some point, but right now, my hopes are weak.
As for my hopes for the fediverse as a whole, I am a little more positive. Maybe something like Bluesky will and must be more successful than the fediverse. But the fediverse exists and there aren’t many reasons why it should disappear again just because there are alternatives that draw in more people.
(Header image is the upper part of a very boring but also very calming picture of the baltic sea shot during a gorgeous sunny but cold day on board of a Finnlines ship on our way back to Travemünde last October)