The Proto Elephant in the Cloud

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My Mastodon call

A lot of people are looking for a Twitter replacement these days. Some have considered Mastodon, the decentralized platform that describes itself as "Social Networking that's not for sale." Many of those have rejected it because it's just not as user-friendly as other possible Twitter alternatives:

  • The fact that it's hosted on servers controlled by many different parties means that users have to choose a server to join, and their username is tied to that server. (Just as with email, where there are two parts to every address: the username and the server, as in my own email address I can't just be @authorFreeman in the Fediverse (the network of independent servers that all talk to each other to form one big social networking space), I have to be, which is not as easy to convey to people casually. ("Follow me! I'm @authorFreeman on Twitter.")
  • Decentralized hosting also means that under some circumstances, following other accounts or replying to some posts might not be the one-click action it is on all the centralized networks.
  • Having to choose a server to join means…having to choose a server to join, and for many, this is going to feel like a bug rather than a feature. Most potential new users will just want to get in and start following/posting. But there's no other way to do it in a decentralized way. Once you have a single database where everybody has to register — the only way to make sure I'm the only @authorFreeman in the world — you create the potential for Elon Musk to buy it and go all Thanos on the 'verse.
  • Switching servers while still retaining all your follows and followers is not as easy — or as guaranteed to be possible — as it should be.

Despite these issues, I want to make a case for joining Mastodon, and I'll sum up that case with these altered words of John F. Kennedy:

Ask not what social networking can do for you.
Ask what you can do for social networking.

Twitter was once the default online public square. Maybe it still is, despite Musk's impressive efforts to destroy it. Maybe some other commercial enterprise will replace it, sooner or later. (Maybe Post, which sounds very promising and which I've joined as well.) But no matter which commercial service becomes the next default online public square — and one of them will, as they're all bringing massive development and financial resources to bear on that goal — they will still suffer from these weaknesses of any for-profit venture:

  • Profit, not the common good, will be their ultimate goal. (And rightly so, as for any business.)
  • No matter how well they balance profit against the common good, they will always be subject to takeover by the next Elon Musk, who, like the next Donald Trump, could well turn out to be much less of a self-defeating blunderer.

Instead, at this moment in history, we have the opportunity to take control of the default online public square, to make it truly public.

Is Mastodon the perfect way to do this? Probably not. But it's the tool most ready to hand.

Therefore, I'm issuing my call. But just as becoming a Mastodon user is not as simple as becoming a user of well-oiled commercial machines like Twitter or Facebook, this call is going to be a little more complicated. It's going out to four distinct groups.

If you like, you can expand just the ones that apply to you:

• My call to organizations

If Mastodon is going to succeed in a big way, it will need massive infrastructure. For a decentralized platform, that infrastructure is going to have to come from many, many more independent parties than are currently doing such work. Many, many more groups will need to take on a share of the hosting costs and moderation duties.

One approach to this problem would be for existing organizations of all kinds to host their own Mastodon servers. Here's a list of possibilities. I hope readers will suggest others in the comments.

  • Public colleges and universities could host servers for their students.
  • Political advocacy groups like the Sierra Club or Common Cause could host servers for their supporters.
  • Political parties could host servers for their voters.
  • Churches for their members.
  • Businesses for their workers.
  • Magazines and journals for their subscribers.

It wouldn't be a case of entirely charitable work, either. Hosting a server can be a marketing opportunity. You can make an initial PR splash just by announcing that you're going to host a server. Then, every user you sign up will carry your domain name into the default online public square.

There's also an engagement opportunity.

The way Mastodon works is that every user can easily access three feeds: their own personal feed of the accounts they follow, the universal feed of everybody on all the servers their server is federated with (the Mastodon version of a default online public square), OR a local feed of everybody on that server.

That last option means that hosting a server can be a way to gather people with a common interest in your organization and let them all talk together and be more likely to see posts that you make.

• My call to Mastodon developers

I know nothing about the philosophies and current debates among the developers that work on Mastodon, but here are some principles I would urge on them, if they don't already hold them:

  • Preference for the sensibilities of ordinary users.
    • Here's an example: when you approach most Mastodon servers, perhaps with an interest in signing up there, what you usually see is the dark mode UI. But this is a geek preference. It's not how most other websites look, especially the more popular ones. It's not how most ordinary users expect to see things. I know at least two non-technical friends who took one look at a Mastodon home page and immediately thought, "This is not my kind of place." So make the default theme upon installation light. Server admins who are targeting techies as their users will know how to change the default, and those users on a light mode server who prefer dark mode will have the wherewithal to find the settings. (Just as they'll find the advanced UI setting.)
    • Here's another example: the decentralized nature of Mastodon means that, in some circumstances, following accounts and replying to posts can be a two-stage, rather than one-click, process. Browser extensions are already popping up to make these situations more user-friendly, but these are tools that only the geeks are going to find. The official Mastodon open source project should make such extensions part of their scope, and links for installing them should be presented to all users through Mastodon itself. This extension could smooth over all the rough seams of the decentralized network, possibly including the migration experience I'll address next.
  • A better migration experience.
    • The biggest concern of any content creator about investing time, effort and expense into a Mastodon account must be that they'll lose their followers if the server that hosts their account goes defunct. I know there's a method for migrating an account to a new server, and I know there's a covenant that servers can sign on to that includes a promise not to leave people in the lurch like that, but there's no technical safeguard against a server that has agreed to the covenant simply dying one day anyway.
    • Here's my suggestion: somehow, there has to be a way for a user to download a file, a kind of account backup, that they can later upload to a new account and instantly regain their followers, even if the original server is dead. I know this opens up a host of possible exploits, but in this day and age of cryptographic sophistication, there must be a way to make it happen safely. (For the techies among you, here's one idea I have.)
  • Openness to supporting commerce.
    • I know this will be setting off alarm bells, but I am NOT suggesting that we monetize Mastodon. I'm suggesting that Mastodon should support commercial transactions between its users. It should NOT handle these transactions (or, obviously, be allowed to take a cut of them), but simply provide a way for an account to accept payments from users (which it would be responsible for processing entirely on its own) and then to set the visibility of posts based on those payments.
    • In other words, this is not a potential business model for those who run the servers, but for their users.
    • Such a feature would allow, for example, news services or literary journals to charge subscriptions for their content, so they don't have to rely on ads or selling user data to support their work. (This is the feature that has me so excited about Post, though in that case it would still be subject to the profit motive, shareholder demands, and billionaire takeover.)
    • This feature would also allow Mastodon to become a Patreon-like resource for content creators.
    • Even charities, non-profits, or political parties or candidates might use this mechanism for fundraising.
    • Admins could still specify what kinds of business are allowed on their servers, and they could kick out offenders in just the same way they can deal with users who violate the local terms.
• My call to the tech giants
I believe there can be a role for some existing tech giant to contribute to the success of Mastodon. There are services they can provide that no federation of smaller operators can do nearly as efficiently at scale. The key would always be that no user should be bound to any given tech giant's services. They should always be an optional enhancement to the ecosystem.

Here are some examples:

  • Existing cloud hosting services could provide "one click" Mastodon hosting plans. So if any non-technical individual or group wanted to host a server, they could do so by simply signing up for a given supported level of traffic and then paying the hosting fee and doing the moderation. I know that there are already such services out there, but I'm talking about the big boys — Amazon or Google or Cloudflare, for example — getting into the game, which would provide a level of brand security (which can be very important to ordinary users)  and possibly lower costs and better performance to potential new server operators who might not trust the stability of some hosting provider they never heard of.
  • Google in particular should consider this. They tried — twice! — to create social networks to blunt the advantage of certain competitors and failed both times. How about trying it indirectly this time by making it easier for ordinary people to create Mastodon servers?
  • There are certain operations, like parsing web pages for meta info, caching images, or disambiguating URLs, that might work better and more efficiently at larger scales. Some big cloud provider could offer a consolidated service to individual Mastodon servers. No server would be required to accept the service, and any server could always drop back to its default local handling at any time.
    • I know that there are Fediverse solutions to these problems, but as far as I know (as I write this in late 2022) none of them integrate seamlessly into Mastodon. Which means they are solutions for geeks, and not ordinary users.
  • Maybe some big service provider could address the problem of migration. Maybe a possible solution is for users to have the option of registering with some kind of centralized database that would facilitate later migrations. Again: this should be an option that no user would be forced to accept, and the default Mastodon method[s] of migration (and maybe the mechanism I suggested?) should always be available.
• My call to the rest of us
  • The obvious action is to create a Mastodon account, even if it doesn't seem ideal at the moment. (Here's a good place to join, and here's a good tutorial.) This could require extra effort on our part, especially if we're already feeling at home on some other network, or if we're currently trying out some other new commercial offering, but we can think of the extra effort as an expression of our identities as citizens as opposed to consumers. As consumers, we buy things and services to meet our own needs and desires, but as citizens, we also pay taxes to benefit society at large. As a writer, I'm always juggling multiple agendas: my own artistic fulfillment, my need for income, and the good my writing might do in the world. Maintaining a Mastodon account can be a way of exercising the citizen portion of our online lives.
  • We can also repeat my call to organizations to host more servers. If you think of a group that would be a good candidate for this, contact them and suggest it. If you work for such an organization, advocate for the idea internally. My New Year's resolution will be to suggest the idea directly to one new organization a week in 2023.
  • Some of us might even support a Mastodon server financially. Most of the servers out there right now are run by volunteers who accept donations to pay their hosting costs.

Here we are, at a possible inflection point in the history of social networking, with a chance to make a big and enduring change. Do we have sufficient will and the right tools to make this change at this time? I don't know, but I think we should give it a try.

My Mastodon accounts: PersonalHaiku DiemTrumpbert.