In this episode
People are flocking to alternative social media. But how revolutionary is this move? Can it change the future of the Internet?
Hello and welcome to Vulnerable By Design with me, Chris Onrust.
Birders flock to Mastodon
You may have heard that, a while ago, a mysterious billionaire memelord bought the social media platform Twitter.
You may also have noticed that since then, the whole lot has come crashing down. Twitter employees have left. Advertisers have left. Users have left.
Yeah. It’s fine.
One result of the entire debacle is that former birders have been flocking elsewhere. Some have moved to ad-fuelled, surveillance heavy platforms such as Tiktok, or Instagram. Others have been taking another leap.
Quite a number of former Twitter users have moved away from The Bird and have found their way towards a platform called Mastodon, whose mascot is a cute, extinct elephant-like creature with nipple-shaped teeth.
Now, Mastodon may sound like just another place for what, in the old days, we used to call ‘micro-blogging’. You can post things, follow other people’s posts, send replies, DMs and polls. So far, so familiar.
But Mastodon isn’t just another platform in the league of Tiktok, Snapchat or BeReal. There is something structurally different going on. Mastodon, along with a growing list of other platforms, is part of what is called the ‘fediverse’.
‘Fediverse’ is a wordplay on the terms ‘federation’ and ‘universe’. So Mastodon is part of what you could call a ‘federated universe’. Well, what does that mean?
‘Universe’ here is just a grandiose way of saying: all of it. Really big. Everything in spacetime. A world of its own.
How about federation? Well, federation is a slightly different story. To understand federation, we need to talk about a very serious topic: network structures.
A network, abstractly, is a group or system of interconnected people or things. For example, a railway network is a system of interconnected rail tracks and stations. A friendship network would just be you and your mates, and how you connect with one another. A book-crossing network is just a total of how books cross from person to person in a group.
Good. Now, whenever there’s a network, there is a couple of questions that you can always ask. You can ask: How large is it? Meaning: How many stations, friends, or books are part of it in total? You can ask: How dense is it? Meaning: Are there lots of criss-crossing interconnections or just a few? And you can ask: How centralised is it? Where ‘centralisation’ measures the extent to which connections and activity of a network pass through a single point person or authority.
So, a rail network is centralised, if all lines only go through and from one central station. Or a friendship group is centralised, if there’s one person that everyone is friends with, but they are not otherwise friends amongst one another.
Centralisation comes on a scale. On the one hand, there is the completely centralised network. But on the other, the exact opposite: a completely de-centralised network. For example, a railway network where there’s lots of stations that different lines go through, or a friendship network where there’s lots of people who are friends with lots of different other ones.
The further you move away from a centralised structure, the more decentralised a network gets.
Mo’ centralisation, mo’ problems
The major social media platforms that are around today—so TikTok, Twitter, all of that lot—they have one core thing in common. They are, by and large, all centralised. For each of these platforms, there is a single authority that controls how the platform works. Who gets to be on there, what everyone is allowed to do and not do. Plus, this single authority, moreover, controls all of the content and data that you generate when you’re being active on the platform.
Shall we name some names? For Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, this single authority is Meta, the company. For YouTube, it’s Google. For TikTok, it’s Bytedance. And for Twitter, it’s Twitter Inc., now in the hands of a notorious PayPal co-founder and electric vehicle company owner who shall remain unnamed.
Why does the degree of centralisation of a social media network matter, you may ask? Here’s why. Because placing or having all of that control—control of access, operations, or data—in the hands of a single entity, gives that entity a whole lot of control and power. And you know what they say about power, don’t you?
Remember, with great power, comes great responsibility.
No, sorry, I meant the other one.
Abuse of power comes as no surprise.
With all of that concentrated power in the hands of a single entity, that entity can decide, for example, to: not have an edit button, remove the chronological timeline, insert ads, monetize your eyeballs, drain your attention, and waste your life.
On the major social media platforms we have available right now, you are the product. Or rather, your attention is the product.
Today, a huge proportion of the social networking platform landscape is in the hands of just a handful of companies. Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, which respectively have over 2.9 and 1.4 billion global active users. Google owns YouTube, as we’ve heard, which has over 2.4 billion global active users. And the global active user count of Bytedance’s TikTok also surpassed 1 billion.
Platforms such as LinkedIn, TikTok and Twitter, they have customers. But those customers are not we, the users. The customers of these platforms are the paying advertisers.
Well, if you think about it, the platform users are basically workers. Workers who voluntarily supply what is nowadays called ‘content’—so your posts, your videos, your pictures—content around which the advertisers can place their ads.
We, users, are workers who, in a curious plot twist, are also doing second shifts by being subjected again to those ads. Because think about it: wouldn’t a platform get really boring, if all it showed was just one ad after another? The platform needs some non-ad filler to draw in users and keep them engaged. Which are exactly those fine posts and pics and videos that we as users are providing.
Now of course, I admit: it is not a given that, by some law of nature, centralised platforms must always exploit their users. But is it any surprise when they do?
In practice, on the major centralised platforms, you will find: invasive surveillance, user manipulation, and—all things considered—unfreedom.
As a user, all of your on-network data is owned and controlled by the platforms, who monetize it however they wish.
As a user, you’ll be manipulated to spend as much of your waking time on-platform to ‘engage’. Even if it ruins your sleep, even if it makes you feel bad about yourself, even if it helps facilitate genocide.
As a user, you get no control over, or insight into, how the platform runs. Plus, once you’re all settled in, you’re also pretty much locked in. Because even if you did want to leave, you can’t take along all of your data, your connections, your lists, your likes, to another platform. So your only options are either to stay and suck it all up, or to delete your account and lose all that you’ve built up.
Some people have said that centralised social media platforms aren’t working. But I disagree. These centralised platforms are working exactly as expected… if your aim is to squeeze out people’s waking lives for profit. It’s only when you’re concerned about such trifles such as the well-being of users or the flourishing of society that you think that there might be something off here.
At this point, you might wonder: okay, but is there any alternative? Surely, what could social networking platforms be, if not centralised? Surely, there has to be some final boss deciding who is in or out, and whether there will be an edit button?
But, of course, we actually already know the alternative! Because we know about network structures.
The alternative to problematic centralised platforms is a decentralised structure. And a specific type of decentralised network structure is a federated network.
A federation is an organisation type in which a number of groups or organisational units get together to form a larger overall unit or network. While within that larger network, each of them can, to some extent, operate autonomously.
Now if we translate this to computer networks—okay, now we’re getting closer—then a federated computer network is one in which multiple computing providers get together to form an overall larger unit or network, within which each of them can, to some extent, operate autonomously. And with that, we have arrived at the fediverse.
The fediverse is a network with a federated structure, where multiple people link up multiple servers, such that they can interact as part of a larger whole, within which each of them can operate more or less autonomously.
Take Mastodon as an example. So in Mastodon’s federated network architecture, there’s over 15,000 instances (or servers) working together.
But let’s not stop here, it actually even gets bigger. Mastodon is not the fediverse. Mastodon is just one space within the fediverse. One that happens to do microblogging and so happens to resemble Twitter. But there’s plenty of other platforms in the fediverse. There is, for example, Friendica, which allows you to post and build a friend network, as you might do on Facebook. There is PeerTube, a video sharing and broadcasting platform quite similar to YouTube. And there is Pixelfed for photo sharing, just like you might do on Instagram. And many, many more on a list that keeps on growing.
Now, here’s the magic. Because all these platforms—–including Mastodon, PeerTube, Pixelfed, Friendica, and lots more—because all these platforms have agreed to use the same communication protocol, which in this case, is a protocol called Activity pub. Because they all use the same protocol, you can interact with people not just across the servers of the same platform, but across any of the platforms that support that protocol.
So for example, you can use your Mastodon account to follow people on Peertube, interact with photos on Pixelfed, or comment on a Peertube video, or the other way around. No further registration necessary. It’s as though you’d be able to post to LinkedIn with your YouTube account.
So that’s the fediverse: a giant decentralised federated universe of interconnected accounts and servers, where each instance—each subsection of the universe—can operate pretty much autonomously, as it pleases.
How does decentralisation help?
Okay, good. But how would a different network structure help with the problems of centralisation? Because recall, on all today’s major social platforms, you are the product. You are continuously being surveilled, manipulated, kept locked-in, to squeeze as much value out of you for as long as possible.
By contrast, the fediverse, as we speak, has no built-in ads. Mastodon on keeps a chronological timeline. So you just get posts in the order in which they were posted. So as a user, you are not subject to the whims of some mysterious algorithm that optimises for ‘engagement’.
You are also not locked in to any one server or platform. Because the fediverse has this massive interoperability. So you can technically just hop from one server to another, or decide to ditch Pixelfed for a while and really focus on Peertube.
And, perhaps most crucially, the software with which you run an instance of Mastodon or Friendica and the like, is what they call free and open source, which is usually explained in terms of four freedoms as defined by the Free Software Foundation.
A program is free software if you, the user, have the four essential freedoms. Freedom zero is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Freedom one is the freedom to study the source code of the program and then change it so the program does what you wish. Freedom two is the freedom to help your neighbour. That’s the freedom to redistribute exact copies of the programme when you wish. And freedom three is the freedom to contribute to your community. That’s the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions when you wish.
For the fediverse, these freedoms mean that, if you want to, and are able to, you can check that the software that you’re using is not sneakily tracking or manipulating you in the background. Or you can set up your own independent instance for whatever community you fancy.
Is the fediverse a fad?
Okay, at this point, you may think, well, this fedi … decentralisation thing… Is it just some newish fad? Will it actually last? Or is it going to go the way of Vine and Google+ sometime soon?
But here’s the fun part. The whole principle of decentralisation on the Internet is nothing new. For one, email is decentralised and federated, and has been for over half a century.
If you have your email hosted on one provider—is it Gmail?—then you can send mail not just to other Gmail accounts, but to any other valid email address, regardless of where it’s hosted. Whether that is @protonmail, @hotmail, or @pinkfluffyunicorns.lol. And that is because all emails providers stick to the same standardised protocol, the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol or SMTP, for sending messages across.
And there’s more. The Internet itself at its core is decentralised and federated. There is no single entity that controls all pages and web apps that go online. I mean: thank heavens there isn’t!
At its roots, the internet is an interconnected network of machines. Some of which provide resources—such as websites, pictures, other data—and others request and get served those resources.
And just like with the fediverse, these machines can interoperate, because they all stick to the same protocol and standards. In this case, our good old friend the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP.
So sure, federated social networks have become a bit more prominent only recently. But decentralisation, as a principle of organising things online, goes way back to the roots of the internet.
Which brings us to a very curious situation. The situation that, in the giant scheme of things, it is actually these highly centralised networks that are new. The hoarding of users, the invasive surveillance, the attention manipulation, those centralised platforms, they are the invention. They are the novelty.
And once you realise that, then you can start to see: hey, maybe those centralised monocultures are not so inevitable after all? Once you see that decentralised novelty brings lots of negative consequences, then you can ask: hey, do I actually want this?
Downsides of the fediverse
Okay, sure. The fediverse is going to have its downsides, too.
As of yet, the fediverse is not as crowded as the big name centralised platforms. According to the latest stats, the fediverse has an overall population of over 7 million accounts. That is a tiny, tiny village, compared to the around 3 billion users that Facebook alone sports—which, depending on how you look at it, it could be a bad or a good thing.
Now further, unless you’re hosting your own instance, on the fediverse you would still be entrusting someone else with your data. So you got to be comfortable with that. Or set up your own server, of course.
And federation does not and cannot address issues related to FOMO, comparing yourself to others, feeling pressure to post, or internet addiction.
Plus, obviously, there will be plonkers on the fediverse too. Because as long as there are plonkers in society, there will be plonkers online.
But hey, just because federation doesn’t solve all of your woes, that doesn’t mean that stepping away from exploitative centralised surveillance platforms would not be a change for the better.
Will the fediverse be the future?
Now, will the fediverse be the future of the social web? Who knows? But let me tell you two things.
First: for-profit, centralised social media colossi will do whatever they can to keep you locked into their platform to make you think that you cannot leave, or that, if you do leave, your life will be miserable. Because remember, every person that leaves the platform is one fewer pair of eyeballs to sell ads for. So you can be very sure that Meta, Bytedance and Twitter and the lot will do all they can to make sure you don’t go.
Now second, when we ask: Will the fediverse be the future of the social web? Remember that that the future is not a given. You decide, by and large, what you’re going to do in the next five minutes. In the next hour. Or over the next day. And all of these tiny choices add up to the future. The future isn’t settled. Your choices your actions will actually shape it.
Many people have moved from Twitter to Mastodon on over the past weeks. Looked at in isolation, it may just seem like a simple jump from one platform to the other.
But if you look at the bigger picture. If you look at the colossal impact that a difference in network structure can have, then you realise: No, it is not just a shift in platform.
If you do this … If all of us can make this work … It can be a back-to-the-true-roots-of-the-Internet revolution.
Thank you for listening to Vulnerable By Design this week. If you’d like to hear more or get in touch, you’ll find all of our episodes and more information on vulnerablebydesign.net.
I am Chris Onrust. Thank you for listening and bye for now.
- A Quick Guide to The Free Network, by Sean Tilley. We Distribute, 24 September 2017.
- The Fediverse Could Be Awesome (If We Don’t Screw It Up), by Cindy Cohn and Rory Mir. Electronic Frontier Foundation, 16 November 2022.
- Global Social Media Statistics Research Summary 2022 (June 2022), by Dave Chaffey. Smart Insights, 22 August 2022.
- A Genocide Incited on Facebook, With Posts From Myanmar’s Military, by Paul Mozur. The New York Times, 15 October 2018.
- Richard Stallman at UBC - the Four Software Freedoms. University of British Columbia, 7 February 2009.