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Smoke alarm and snowfall

The smoke alarm is still blaring

Since my last post, events at Twitter have kept, well, happening. The overall engagement on the site is way up, since it's hard to tear ourselves away from this domino of car crashes. The new CEO decided to duck around, and now only lawyers and government institutions can make him find out the consequences. I can't say much about how losing 80-90% of the workforce plays out over time how (long) can they keep the platform running, and if a human or a code error will be the last straw, but Twitter is Going Great! (Opens in a new window) will tell us.

Have you also seen Web 3 is Going Great? (Opens in a new window)

The snowfall of new fediverse users

Berlin had a solid snowfall over the weekend, so I have freshly frozen tomatoes and rosemary on my balcony. Not my best gardening moment. I'm distracting myself from that by watching the repotting of social graphs to an open platform. Some roots will be inevitably lost–Twitter has 237.8 million daily active users, and so far on 19/11/22, Mastodon reached 2 million (Opens in a new window) monthly active users, which is still insane growth: on 07/11/22 (Opens in a new window), it was 1 million, and around 500K before October 27. There are also 1,124 new servers.

In the last post (Opens in a new window) I've explained how to migrate from Twitter to Mastodon on the fediverse, and the feedback I got was that while a how-to guide is nice, but a what-on-earth-is-this guide would be even better. So here it is!

Let's start with protocols. Since you're reading a newsletter (or a post), I'll assume you know what an email is, and you understand that in theory, any email address can receive an email from any other email address. They all use the same protocols (POP3, IMAP, SMTP). Gmail users can send emails to Protonmail and back, and dedicated people can run their own servers. 

What does Wikipedia (Opens in a new window) say about the fediverse and protocols?

"The fediverse (a portmanteau (Opens in a new window) of "federation" and "universe") is an ensemble of federated (Opens in a new window) (i.e. interconnected) servers that are used for web publishing (Opens in a new window) (i.e. social networking (Opens in a new window), microblogging (Opens in a new window), blogging (Opens in a new window), or websites (Opens in a new window)) and file hosting, but which, while independently hosted, can communicate with each other. On different servers (technically instances (Opens in a new window)), users can create so-called identities. These identities are able to communicate over the boundaries of the instances because the software running on the servers supports one or more communication protocols (Opens in a new window) that follow an open standard (Opens in a new window).[1] (Opens in a new window) "

The fediverse is for media and social networking, and runs common protocols, so that in theory anyone who registers an account can interact with anyone else with a fediverse account, no matter which server they are registered on. Anyone can start a server or build an app and join the party (Opens in a new window). This is all very recent–the first protocol is OStatus from 2008, and ActivityPub (the currently dominant one) was presented by the W3C in 2018.

Mastodon and many other apps are built on top of these protocols, like Gmail or Protonmail relies on email protocols; or if we were able to follow someone on Twitter through a Tumblr* or Facebook account, or chat on a Discord server with a Slack account. There's also Pixelfed for sharing photos and Peertube for sharing videos. Here are even more apps to browse. (Opens in a new window)

This was the easy technical bit to explain. Now comes the business part, which is where the never-ending headache starts.

The iceberg of finances

No ethical and truly sustainable business model emerged so far for personal social media networks. Twitter hasn't been profitable from its 2006 start until 2017, right after Trump was elected! The value and the valuation of other companies has been wild too: Yahoo bought Tumblr for $1.1 billion in 2013, and Automattic bought it in 2019 for $3 million. Oops.

Opaque tracking is pervasive on all the other platforms since advertisers are the real customers. That is not mentally sustainable for any of us–but I talk (Opens in a new window) enough (Opens in a new window) on stage (Opens in a new window) about that, and there's so much great critical writing about these companies that I don't need to pile on right now.

However, the fediverse doesn't include tracking by default, the business model doesn't require it. Also, there is no business model.

All the apps are open source, including Mastodon: anyone can fork it and create a variant for their own server, or for anyone else to use it. These softwares are developed and maintained by volunteers who collect regular or occasional payments through Patreon, Steady, KoFi, etc. The instances where people can register and where these apps run are also maintained and moderated by volunteers who collect regular or occasional payments through Patreon, Steady, KoFi, or even streaming the maintenance work on Twitch. I'm not a developer, and I definitely don't watch livestreams, and I was still mesmerized to see Kris Nova (Opens in a new window) making the necessary technical changes (Opens in a new window) to accommodate all the new arrivals on her instance.

So here we are: venture capitals and corporations placing bets on morally untenable business models for centralised and closed social networks that are not even going too well, and enthusiastic, mostly lovely tech people setting up servers in their garages (Opens in a new window). Which is not how I'd imagine setting up a critical communication infrastructure and social graph for the citizens of functioning democracies.

To close on a more optimistic note: when the large centralised corporate networks are removed from significant parts of the internet, we have an opportunity to reimagine digital consent and boundaries. Which is what I'll dig into in the next post - sign up below to receive that in your inbox!

*Whoa, did Tumblr just commit to joining the fediverse on Twitter (Opens in a new window)?! Mastodon has 2M monthly active users, and while Tumblr isn't sharing these numbers, it has around (checks notes) 500M blogs? Like a whale joining the pool party.