I should start with a warning: I’m new to this and learning as I go. These are my feelings as I discover this new (to me) part of the Internet.
When I joined the Fediverse a few weeks ago, I took it as an opportunity to expand my social bubble. Instead of only looking for the people I previously followed on Twitter, I started following new people to learn new things.
This is changing as more and more people join, but the Fediverse is still a bubble, or a group of interlinked bubbles. This time however, it’s not just WordPress professionals for me. :) I started following people from different circles; folks talking about the IndieWeb, the Fediverse itself, and by extension Mastodon.
In theory, the Fediverse is a great idea. As a supporter of the open web, I love the idea of a web of small independent servers talking to each other.
In practice, it seems to present some unique challenges.
It isn’t easy
Even as the different tools continue to evolve, as new ones appear every week, the concept of the Fediverse remains more difficult to grasp than your standard centralized social network. It will turn some people away.
Picking a tool and picking an instance will get better with time. Specialized tools like Pixelfed will rise and become more and more user-friendly for the masses, for their niche use.
The underlying ActivityPub protocol, however, will remain. For better and for worse. The distribution method that brought us more security, more privacy, also comes with technical aspects that make the protocol more complex and less user-friendly. ActivityPub aims to please everyone: folks aiming for a true person-to-person more private connection (think Facebook) as well as public timelines (think Twitter). I don’t know if it manages to do both.
In the end, it will leave some folks asking why they can’t get a clear / exhaustive view of someone’s profile depending on the instance they’re on, for example. The technology itself excludes some people from even experiencing it.
Some of those technical issues, in time, may be mitigated. One problem will remain in my opinion.
It won’t be truly decentralized
While the Fediverse is built to be truly decentralized, in practice it won’t be.
I would love for everyone to run their own small instance, to control their own little home on the web. In practice, most don’t have the technical chops, the time, the money, the envy to deal with it.
It’s far easier to join an existing instance. Instead of having your own little country house, you’ll have an apartment. You may pick one of the big, “official” ones. You may pick a big instance managed by a company, like Medium. You may pick a fun one administrated by like-minded folks.
In any case, by choosing you put your trust into someone else’s hands.
- Trust that they’ll stick around and maintain that new apartment of yours.
- Trust that they will uphold the values that made you choose that instance in the first place. You would not want bad neighbors to move in right next door.
- Trust to moderate and filter what you see. Your landlord decides who gets to live next door. That can be a good and a bad thing.
None of this should be taken lightly.
Yes, you can move to a new home later. If you’re savvy enough. Depending on your technical skills, you’ll leave more or less things behind.
So you choose, carefully. You hope the instance admins won’t burn out with all the extra work that comes along with the influx of new users and content that comes with “the Great Twitter Migration”. You hope the tools will improve to help them cope. You hope they can afford the financial burden that comes with running an instance. You hope they make the right decisions, again and again, when new events come along that require (or not) action.
One of those decisions they will need to make is moderation. They will need to decide what content they don’t want any of their users to see. Some of those decisions are easy. Some are more difficult, especially as your instance gets bigger. In any case, this may be a big time, energy, morale sink.
One way to lighten the load is to help each other. That’s already happening with Fediblock: it’s a great way for instance admins to share recommendations. It’s also a somewhat centralized approach, on a decentralized social network. It gives significant powers to bigger instances, as outlined in this post about the recent Raspberry Pi controversy.
Overall, I think this is worrisome. I worry this quick growth is pushing the Fediverse towards centralized solutions that go against its core principles: centralized servers, centralized tools run by big companies like CloudFlare, centralized blocks and rules, centralized ethos.
That may go against a more diverse Fediverse. It may foster a single bubble where everyone must conform or run the risk of becoming invisible, because they’re not using the right tool or not on the right server.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope the Fediverse will mature fast enough to accommodate all the newcomers, all the while without forgetting its core principles.