When there’s anything that you’re a member or citizen or user of, you should be concerned about who runs it and how it’s run. This is most obviously true of your nation, but also of your book club and your workplace. And, these days, the online place where you interact with your fellow humans: Social Media. This essay describes the Fediverse and its self-defence mechanisms, outlines a potential attack on it, which makes a nice case study on who runs things, and how.
Status quo · The governance of Social Media has historically been simple: The corporation that owns the service has the power. This has generally produced terrible results: Monopolization, enshittification, trolling, doxxing, swatting, wilful disinformation, and the list goes on. No privately-owned social-media platform has managed to provide a quality non-abusive experience for any significant fraction of a human lifetime.
The Fediverse could be better. If there are thousands of standalone service providers, federating with each other, it seems at least possible that they can avoid the corrosive forces of Late Capitalism. I personally believe this and find the idea hugely energizing.
However, this does not mean that you can stop worrying about the governance of your own personal social-media space. Just because it isn’t owned by Elon Musk doesn’t guarantee that it will be well-run or have a lifetime that is a significant fraction of yours.
Fediverse Backgrounder · Most people reading this probably know the following, but these basics are worth listing just to ensure we’re using the same language. Feel free to skip over this if you’re Fediverse-savvy.
The things that federate to make up the Fediverse are called “instances” (people sometimes say “servers”).
For instances to federate, they need to agree on a protocol, a set of rules to support people posting, reading, following, replying, blocking, and so on. ActivityPub is the most common protocol, mature enough that there are multiple different implementations that can talk to each other. Mastodon is the most popular. There are other protocols and other pieces of software, but today let’s stick to ActivityPub and say "Fediverse" to describe all the instances that use it.
When you set up a new instance, by default it federates with all the other instances.
Anybody on any instance can follow anybody on any other that’s federated.
Anybody can block anybody, then the blocker and blockee will never see each other’s posts.
Anybody can block a whole instance, with an effect identical to blocking everyone on that instance.
There are mechanisms to allow people to report bad behavior by other people or other whole instances.
Any instance can defederate from (or “block”, or “suspend”) any other instance, with an effect identical to everyone on the blocking instance having blocked everyone on the blocked instance.
For example, there are islands of awfulness such as Gab and Truth Social that use ActivityPub but are not in practice part of the Fediverse because everyone blocks them. Similarly, there are instances (mostly in Japan) that talk ActivityPub but are almost-universally blocked because they allow sexual content that is legal in Japan but almost nowhere else.
Lots of other instances are widely-defederated because they allow griefers and Nazis and homophobes and racists to run amok.
Defederation is the nuclear weapon that, many believe, keeps the Fediverse safe. If you’re a free-speech absolutist and want to let Anti-Semites or Klansmen or incels hold forth on your instance, that’s fine, the technology won’t get in your way. But pretty quickly, you’ll be defederated from everywhere and your users won’t be able to get in too many other faces, which kind of takes the fun out of being a shitty human being.
There is an emerging community of shared-blocklists to facilitate rapid defederation from various flavors of troll farm.
Most Fediverse instances are run by a single person who has essentially dictatorial control, usually a software professional who did the work to set the instance up and continues to co-ordinate its care and feeding. Most of these people are decent and competent. Some are neither.
Most Fediverse instances are funded by voluntary donations run through Patreon or equivalent.
Case study: #Faceblock · Recently in the Fediverse there has been much ado about the imminent arrival of Meta’s “Twitter Replacement”, apparently to be called “Threads”, and apparently to be ActivityPub-compatible. So your weird Aussie Aunt from Adelaide who lives on Facebook can follow your account on a queer geek instance, and vice versa.
Unsurprisingly, this prospect horrified a lot of people. There is close-to-universal consensus that Meta is a loathsome organization, entirely amoral, and the subject of litigation by law enforcers in multiple nations. They are the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party.
The question arises: Should the Fediverse give Meta a chance, or should we block them immediately and pre-emptively? Because otherwise, we might be the ones saying “I didn’t think the leopards would eat my face!”
Pretty quickly, fedipact.online arrived online (warning; its design is disturbing). As I write this, it has 444 entries, each claiming to be a Fediverse instance admin pledging to pre-emptively block Meta.
My own opinions on what to do here are not relevant to the issue I want to address. Which is: Now that the thousands of instances that make up the Fediblock are facing a common decision, how will each make it?
Data-ish · Here’s a random data point. Big Fediverse Name @firstname.lastname@example.org ran a poll on what people want to do about Meta’s arrival.
Getting this many voters on a Mastodon poll is pretty awesome, but @stux has 125K followers, which is big-time in the Fediverse.
Now as to the numbers… I’m surprised. Bear in mind that @stux’s followers may not be representative of anything and, who knows, someone might have figured out a way to game polls through the API. Having said all that, Facebook totally brought this on itself. No tears shed for ’em.
Anyhow, seeing this made me curious about whether those people with those opinions got to express them where it matters, as in to the people who will decide whether to block Meta or not.
So, I ran my own poll.
It’s frankly weird that I got so few participants; I recently got 3K on a poll on light vs dark mode. I think it’s also indicative; among the 15K or so people who follow me, it looks like most don’t care very much about this issue. And, they shouldn’t have to!
But, for the ones that cared enough to vote, the fact that only 35% of them were consulted by their local admins is disappointing. I sincerely hope that my numbers are misleading.
What CoSocial did · My Fediverse instance is called “CoSocial” and may be found at cosocial.ca. It is a registered member-owned co-operative for residents of Canada. Our constitution basically gives all the powers to the Board of Directors, who are elected annually by our members. So it’d be perfectly procedurally OK for the Directors (I’m not one) to go ahead and make up their minds and if it sufficiently irritated the members they might get dumped next Annual General Meeting. But, that seems kind of dumb.
When we talked this over, at least one Director said they were glad this issue had come up because it forced us to settle on a policy for dealing with this sort of thing. The decision was:
We posted an “Announcement” to all our users, asking them to participate in a discussion. I’m not sure whether the “announcement” feature is an ActivityPub thing or Mastodon-specific.
We asked them to tag their posts with
We promised that the Directors would look at the input before deciding what to do.
You can read the #CoSocialMeta discussion! Go ahead. [Narrator: Tl;dr: Eh… probably give ’em a chance but keep the finger on the trigger.]
I thought the discussion was smart and useful. I think the Directors are getting a pretty straightforward message.
Update: Board decision · I quote from here:
CoSocial.ca will not pre-emptively defederate from the Threads app fediverse instance by Meta. However, we authorise the Trust and Safety team to take all necessary steps to protect user safety on CoSocial.
Who wasn’t involved? · Venture capitalists. Entrepreneurs. Advertisers. Private-equity people. Billionaires.
Isn’t that nice?
Take-aways · I’m absolutely not suggesting that every Fediverse admin adopt the CoSocial approach. I do suggest they find a way to get input from the people using their instances though.
Because we really do want the Fediverse to be different from what’s come before.