In my last post, The new Social Media (or.. it should be), I talked about activitypub, and how de-centralized social media _should be_ the future. In this post I’d like to talk a little bit about my experiences since joining Mastodon, and a few other federated services I’ve tried out.
I looked at mastodon years ago, I thought it was a great idea. I’d already given Diaspora (another de-centralized social network, though not activitypub) a try, and never really saw the adoption. I was more than a little concerned that mastodon would do the same thing. At the time I didn’t know what activitypub was, or that it was a standard. Because Mastodon had chosen activitypub it meant that their network had a lot more possibilities. But again, I didn’t know that at the time. My point is that I’ve been interested in a de-centralized social network for quite some time. There was this talk by Eben Moglin way back In fact there were many, I cant find the one I remember, but this one gets the point across. In the talk I watched, Eben had suggested a de-centralized social platform, where users could host their own pod, and that pod would talk to all of the others. Diaspora strove to implement that exactly as Eben had described. Which I thought was a great goal. The problem is… Its not accessible to non-nerds. Its just too much for the average person to deal with. If I could sell you a device that just did it automatically, maybe. But seriously. expecting grandma to run a linux server in her basement so she can talk to you is ludicrous.
Activitypub takes a different approach. Instead of dictating a social network, it enables federation. Then all you need to do is write your idea of a social network to support the protocol, and you can participate. Personally, i think this is better approach. Because if I prefer a Twitter-like experience, all I need is a twitter-like activitipub application (like mastodon), and the same is true for other social media types. Though I haven’t yet seen TikTok on activitypub… But all of this is getting a little off-topic.
My experience in the fediverse
Where is everyone?
The fediverse can be an odd place if you’re coming from a central social network. See, there was a time when social media was just a way to communicate with your friends. Content shared with people you were friends with was shared with you in some sort of sorted fashion, and you could see it. So the day you signed up, it was a pretty empty place, until you started finding folks to follow or friend. Then it became sort of social-hub for you and the folks you chose to interact with.
Today’s social media is much different. You sign up, and until it leanrs something about you, it just inundates you with promoted content until you start interacting with things. I remember when I first started using Instagram, it seemed that 90% of the stuff shown to me was TnA. Probably because all it knew about me was that I was male, and men usually like that sort of thing. The same thing happened when I gave TikTok a try, and more recently, Threads. The point though, is that so far, the activitypub systems DO NOT do that. It’s very similar to the old model, where if you don’t have any friends, you’ve got this feeling of isolation. It looks like no one is there. Larger instances will usually have recommendations on folks to follow, but if you jumped all in like I did, and stood up your own instance… It’s really tough to find folks to follow. Mastodon seems to do something to help that process along, but I found that Pixelfed doesn’t seem to.
So, if you’ve just signed up on some instance, or started your own, and you feel like you cant find anyone to follow, my recommendation would be to see if you can find prominent folks that you followed on other networks. I wouldn’t go looking for celebrities, though there are a handful there. But especially folks in the technology space. Follow them, and start looking at their posts, and see who they’re interacting with, then follow those folks if you’re interested. Ther are also federation relays, that if your platform supports them could help you discover content.
If you’re on a larger instance, the local feed can also come in handy. On my instance its practically useless, as I’ve only got a few people on my instance, but on something like infosec.excahnge, i bet it’s booming with folks to interact with.
Content warnings, and etiquette
Look I’m going to be honest here, I don’t get this one. Most social networks have the ability to flag your content as possibly offensive. Activitypub platforms are no different. But the culture in the fediverse is to take this to 11 it seems. I’ve seen people add content warnings to things that at face value seem completely ridiculous. Things like political discussions, pictures of people being happy with their family, pictures of pets. If you think hard about these you can see why they could _possibly_ be offensive to folks. Politics is probably the most obvious, people who have perhaps lost their families, may have bad memories dredged up seeing you and your kiddos. I don’t use CW’s, mainly because I don’t generally post things that would be considered as offensive by a reasonable person. I personally do not take responsibility for other people’s happiness. If its nudity, offensive language, or imagery with gore or something, yea i’ll CW it, but mostly I just don’t post those things. Does this make me a bad fediverse citizen? Some folks would probably say so. It’s one of the reasons I am happily on my own instance. I live by my rules (and I think my rules are reasonable) and if you don’t like my rules, you can block me or my instance. Maybe that’s harsh? I dunno.
Now, all that being said. I do not go around picking on people, and making their lives miserable. That’ll get you or your instance banned, with good reason, in my opinion. Speaking of bans, if you’re an instance admin, there are a lot of instances that most admins like to block. There isn’t yet (that I know of) a central list of instances that should be banned but you can see the list of banned servers on other instances, at least of those instances are mastodon. Personally, i like this mechanic. If you don’t want to federate with that right-wing “freedom” platform, or that other one that’s primarily adult content, you have that choice.
Speaking of federation.. Let’s talk about commercial social media.
There has been a lot of consternation around commercial social networks federating over activitypub. A lot of people think this is a terrible thing, and that it shouldn’t be allowed. I think that stance is directly in opposition to what an open network stands for. Anyone should be allowed to federate, and if they behave badly, instance admins can block them. In my opinion, this is exactly how this sort of network was meant to work. Self-governing, and free. If Threads wants to federate, I welcome the effort. If it means other large social platforms may follow suit, I welcome that as well. But I welcome it with skepticism.
This is how things were meant to be.
The founders of the web, they had some principles that the thought would make a good global platform for the exchange of information. These things should be accessible, and they shouldn’t be kept behind gates. They shouldn’t be held by a commercial interest. Especially one who’s goal it is to mine our data and sell it. Social media today is not just a place to communicate, its a place where our opinions are being molded. Quite frankly its becoming a poison. I have seen friendships ended over political disagreements that were fuelled by misinformation and propaganda that was forced down our throats by the big social platforms. This is not how things should be. We have the power to change it, but only if we use that power. The power to choose. Choose Wisely.