The state of the federation

Edit 2017-04-09: Much of the below is now redundant. Eugen closed registrations for the main instance when it got to around 40,000 users. That forced people to join other instances and the network is beginning to look more healthy: there are currently some 120,000 users.

In the last couple of days there’s been a large1 influx of new users at Mastodon, a lot of them following well-meaning celebrities from Twitter. That’s good, growth of a social network should be encouraged. There’s a temptation, if you’ve been around a while, to get defensive about new people joining your secret club. I want to avoid that, but I do have a complaint.

A problem is that a lot of the new users don’t realise that the most important feature of Mastodon is federation. Yes the 500 character post limit and the granular post privacy controls are cool, but the aim is not to be just ‘2008 Twitter with better features’. I know it’s great that Mastodon is small, and everybody is interacting with each other like humans (for now). But guess what? if everybody joins the main instance and acts like it’s just the new Twitter, then all you end up with is Twitter: the same culture, the same people only retweeting celebrities,2 the same posting into the void.

Federation means that we can have small intimate networks that are also able to talk to each other. It also means that the server load and administration responsibilities are shared around evenly. It means no central control, no company selling your social media habits for advertising revenue. It means we can develop a culture where people can choose to engage with content they like and not see content they don’t like, and where administrators are free to set their own rules on what is acceptable content. Don’t like the rules? Join another instance.3

It’s not in Twitter’s interest to allow groups to set their own limits on how they interact with other users, but that’s exactly what Mastodon is aiming for. With federation you can interact with as much of the network as you trust. And choosing an instance doesn’t close off the rest of the network: within an instance you can have one timeline for people you follow, another for everybody on your particular instance4, and of course the raw untempered schism public timeline of all federated instances.

But none of this will happen if people just join because it’s the cool new Twitter and act like nothing else is different.

I’m aware that a lot of my frustration over this stems from the fact that I haven’t figured out how I can help yet. If I had the technical knowledge to start my own instance, I would have done it already. At the moment the best I can do is to keep donating to Eugen’s patreon and try to encourage the community I want to see. I’m playing around with some smaller instances at the moment. Depending on how things go on the main instance over the coming week, I may start posting mainly from one of those. I hope others start instances that attract users there first, not just after they’ve joined I will try to find a way to help. On the whole I’m optimistic about Mastodon and I hope people will use it as intended.

  1. How large? I joined around the end of November and got account # 16,772 (a lot of the early accounts were just people reserving usernames though). By a couple of days ago we were up to about 25,000 users; now we’re approaching 30,000. That’s a big speedup. ↩︎

  2. That’s not to begrudge the celebrities for joining; I hope they have a great experience too. But I think social networks should be about talking to people, not just following celebs and brands. (I should point out that I had two genuinely pleasant human interactions with celebrities this afternoon. But that only happened because masto is small now, and it’s not going to stay that way.) ↩︎

  3. And when you do join an instance, take care to follow the community’s norms. If the people who have worked hard to make a welcoming community tell you to put a content warning on certain posts, the right response is to either tag your posts or join a community with different rules. The wrong response is to moan on the public timeline about how the existing users should be grateful for new users. ↩︎

  4. Local instances could also be used for specific content: French language posts, political news, social justice spaces – the possibilities are endless. People speak of ‘media twitter’ or ‘communist twitter’: Mastodon instances can give these abstract communities definite form. ↩︎

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© Tom Harris 2015–2018.

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