With many users looking for alternatives to Twitter, Mastodon has grown in popularity, but for many people the decentralized social network can be confusing, lonely, and unattractive. This has led to a growing sense that Mastodon is only for Computer People™ or that these federated social networks have flaws which proponents refuse to acknowledge or fix. While Mastodon and other federated social networks like PeerTube and Pixelfed certainly have their issues, I argue that the underlying complaint is one of ideology and culture.
What seem like design flaws to outsiders are often deliberate design decisions made by communities after decades of experimentation. The point of this post is not to convince you to join a federated social network, and the point is not to explain how federated social networks operate. Instead, the goal of this post is to explain the cultural history of federated social networks since the late 1980s in order to explain why Mastodon (and others) is designed in ways that might seem alien to new users. The hope is that by providing greater cultural understanding, users can better decide whether federated social networks fit their beliefs and goals, or if they would prefer a more centralized system like Cohost or tumblr.
Prelude: The history of Free Software and Free Culture
Our archaeology of knowledge begins in the 1950s with the first electronic computers. At this point in time, software was distributed alongside hardware without cost and included the entire source code so that purchasers could examine, learn from, modify, and repair the machines they purchased. This custom was largely a necessity: these were largely experimental machines and users would need to tailor them for particular purposes. The knowledge was esoteric and restricted to a particular class who had the capital (economic, institutional, or social; Bourdieu 1986) to access them. This class of system operators developed its own culture commonly referred to as hacker culture. Novice initiations were possible, in part, because of the ability for them to freely access, study, modify, and distribute software to members of the community. Large-scale projects were accomplished because of the ease with which community members could collaborate without legal or financial restrictions. In order to facilitate the distribution of software, early hackers developed the Advance Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANet), the predecessor to the modern internet, which for the first time connected computer networks across continents.
While there was an economic undercurrent moving towards monetization of computer systems, prior to the 1980s computing machines were largely for scientific or hobbyist pursuits. The goal was development, monetization would come later, and come it did. These transcontinental software projects became large and complex, requiring greater financial investment to sustain the labor and hardware costs. Companies which focused exclusively on software began to take shape, and these competed with hardware companies like International Business Machines (IBM) who would bundle hardware and software. Companies began to charge money for software licenses. In 1974 the US Government declared that software was covered by copyright, all software was considered public domain prior to that point, allowing corporations to restrict licensees from sharing or modifying the software. In 1976 Bill Gates wrote an Open Letter to Hobbyists which criticized the sharing Microsoft’s BASIC interpreter despite the decades long history of that practice. In 1979 American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T), which to this point had freely distributed the UNIX system (a predecessor to Macintosh OSX and Linux), began enforcing its license rights in preparation for commercial exploitation. In 1983 IBM announced that it would no longer distribute source code with software purchases, restricting the ability for end users to learn from and modify code to fit their needs. These changes were part of a cultural narrative of restriction contrary to the prevailing discourse of sharing that thrived in the hacker culture.
In response, a counter-narrative emerged in the 1980s led by the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation (FSF). In 1986 the first definition of free software was published:
First, the freedom to copy a program and redistribute it to your neighbors, so that they can use it as well as you. Second, the freedom to change a program, so that you can control it instead of it controlling you; for this, the source code must be made available to you (Stallman 1986).
In 1996 these were expanded to three freedoms, and later a zero-th freedom was added resulting in the contemporary Four Essential Freedoms of Free Software:
- The freedom to run the program as you wish (freedom 0)
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this (Free Software Foundation 2022).
These freedoms, while more formalized than the original two freedoms, are clearly an artifact of the historical discourse which precipitated them. Freedom 1, for example, enshrines the existing cultural practice of peer learning and hacking which defined the early culture. The coda to freedoms 1 and 3 (analogous to the second freedom in Stallman 1986) states that it is impossible to exercise this freedom without access to the source code. This statement was also present in Stallman’s (1986) original two freedoms, and in that historical context, this is a clear rebuttal to IBMs announcement in 1983 that they would no longer distribute source code. Freedom 2 (the first freedom in Stallman 1986) rebuts Gates’ and AT&T’s exercise of their copyright in restricting the sharing of software. This rebuttal frames this in terms of community: hackers share software to “help [our] neighbor” and this sets up the practices of Microsoft and AT&T as harmful to the neighborhood (hacker culture). This framing is reiterated in the coda to freedom 3.
In 1989 the FSF established copyleft as a foil to copyright and published the first version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) which utilized the legal framework of software licenses to protect the Four Freedoms rather than restrict them. This strategy was not merely altruistic, but militant. The goal of the GNU Project was, in part, to write software so good and so indispensable that for-profit corporations would incorporate it into their products. When they do so, the terms of the GPL would require them to liberate their code, and if they refused, the legal mechanisms they used to restrict freedom would be used against them in order to force access to their source code. In the modern day, legal non-profits like the Software Freedom Law Center have brought suit on behalf of free software developers against corporations such as BestBuy, Verizon, JVC, and Samsung. These cases usually resulted in the companies releasing their code under the GPL, though in the case of BestBuy, a default judgment resulted in the award of monetary damages and the seizure of televisions.
In the 1990s, the free software movement influenced the development of a parallel discourse: free art and free culture. This is the real start of our Mastodon discussion, so I will speed through the details. In 1995 the first wiki, Ward’s Wiki, was developed which allowed anyone to edit content on the website. This grew into many offshoots, most notably Wikipedia, and as these projects grew the need to prevent legal problems grew as well. At first, projects utilized licenses like the GNU Free Documentation License which was made for documenting open source software, but these were not fit to purpose. The need for licenses tailored to cultural works resulted in the development of the Creative Commons and their family of licenses (only some of which are considered “free”). The English Wikipedia and its sister wikis adopted the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 in 2009 which was quite a big deal, requiring the FSF, Creative Commons, and Wikimedia Foundation to coordinate changes to legal license texts so that the license of existing works could be changed without needing to contact the thousands of (often unknown) editors. The adoption of Creative Commons by one of the largest websites in the world brought it serious prominence, and helped develop a commons of material that facilitated further free cultural works. Now, there exists an artistic community aligned with the free software community who mutually work towards creating a commons of material that not only facilitates sharing, but requires corporations to contribute back to the commons if they want to use it.
A history of social networks
The Old Net (1970 to 1993)
For hacker culture to exist, there needed to be some way for members to communicate, socialize, and coordinate. Unsurprisingly, hackers often made their own tools for this purpose, and they are among the first electronic social networks. In fact, the history of electronic social networks predates the internet itself by over a decade. The first electronic social network, Community Memory, was founded in 1973 and hosted in a record store in Berkeley California. Community Memory was a kind of electronic bulletin board system (BBS) accessible from computers (terminals) located around the San Francisco Bay. Users would log in to the Berkeley computer system from these terminals and post messages which would be stored on the computer, and others could log in and search through the posts for messages of interest. Imagine a Google Doc where people would just write stuff or go to find things; that’s quite literally what this was. It was a computer’s storage (Memory) accessible and writable by the whole Community. Community Memory became a cultural mainstay in the Bay Area, and was among the first time that computers were used solely for recreation rather than research. Users would post ads for band mates, share recipes, post poems, organize carpools or study groups, review restaurants, or find chess partners. The system becoming so popular that keyword systems and search functions were eventually added to facilitate discovery, and prior to that terminal locations would print out relevant entries to post near the terminal; at its peak Community Memory was accessed about 50 times per day from each location, with 10 additions per day per location (Colstad and Lipkin 1975). Community Memory was shut down in 1975.
Rossman (1975) explores the implications of Community Memory contemporaneously, and it is worth revisiting these early reflections on the first social network. As hinted at above, the name Community Memory is largely a reference to the technical aspect of computer memory, but Rossman suggests this name is misleading. Community Memory was not about the past, posts were in fact quite short lived due to the memory limitations of the machine hosting it. Instead, Rossman (1975) suggests the idea of community data, saying Community Memory is “an attempt to deal with the real-time complex of community data….perhaps ‘Community Data Connection’, or ‘Community Data Exchange’. ‘Community Information’ may be best.” The point Rossman emphasizes is that Community Memory emphasized connections between people by allowing the exchange of data. People had these needs before Community Memory, and often they were met by community bulletin boards in coffee shops with geographically limited readership. The true genius of Community Memory is how it facilitated and leveraged existing social skills and practices already familiar to the community (c.f. cultural idioms, Obeyesekere 1981). Rossman further highlights the political nature of Community Memory which is worth considering in light of the cultural transformations going on at this time (a year before Gates’ Open Letter for example). The structure of the system was, in part, a political act which highlighted the potential for success of decentralized systems: “the operational politics of the system are deeply democratic—rather than implicitly authoritarian/centralized, as most of our systems of information sharing are.” This quote is worth highlighting because it is not referring to online systems of information sharing; the internet won’t exist for another 14 years. These “authoritarian/centralized…systems of information sharing” were traditional mass media. The promise of social media, and popular computing in general, was the democratization of knowledge away from authoritarian models of control, a discursive thread we will follow through to the present day.
Following the success of Community Memory, other Bulletin Board Systems were set up tailored to particular places and times, but these were ultimately superseded by Usenet in 1980. A major issue with early BBS was the lack of syndication. Some posts and events were hyper local, sure, but what about postings of wide interest? Put another way, if BBS are like bulletin boards in a coffee shop, what would be the local newspaper or national magazine equivalent? The solution was, essentially, to federate these BBS. Users would post to a local server, and that server would forward the post to servers it knew, and so on and so forth, until the post propagated to every server that wanted it. Inspired in part by ARPANET, Usenet was a network not for research consortia but user interactions. Where Community Memory and other BBS were essentially local networks, Usenet was the first community-oriented internetwork. Posts from ARPANET were syndicated to Usenet, allowing for readers to keep up with that network as well. Posts were organized by topic, and threaded conversations were invented and implemented. Jargon from this era still survives such as “spam” which Usenet popularized after importing it from BBS and Multi-User Dungeon culture (there’s a parallel history of MUDs that I’m largely ignoring here as its contributions are largely to forum, art, and gaming cultures). Usenet was an important place for disseminating information; it was where the internet was first announced. It served as an organizing space for technologists, researchers, artists, and activists, but following 1993’s Eternal September, precipitated by America On-Line, Usenet culture was unable to accommodate and socialize the influx of new users leading to its slow decline (see Brickhouse 2021).
The World Wide Web (1988 to 2015)
Many members of the Usenet culture found their way to new social media across the internet, an interconnection of local networks pioneered in 1989 at CERN. The major contributions of the World Wide Web to inter-networking were:
- uniform resource locators (URLs) which allowed any network to find a document on another network
- HyperText Markup Language (HTML) which allowed for the formatting of documents as hypermedia with content other than plain text
- HyperText Transfer Protocol which created a universal standard for document transfer replacing previous heterogeneous protocols
Around this same time, a new social medium was being developed: Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Released in 1988, IRC grew out of a revamp of a Finnish BBS. Jarkko Oikarinen wanted to modify the system to allow Usenet-like posting, but also enable real-time communication between users. IRC allowed for real-time communication in a manner similar to Usenet: users would connect to a server and a particular channel. A user would send a chat message to whatever server they’re connected to, and then that server would send the message along some network of servers so that it reached everyone in the channel; the message would be relayed across the internet until it reached its destination. Users had two identities: a nick name and a host name. The nickname (nick, for short) was user-defined and could be changed at any point as long as it didn’t conflict with someone already in the channel. The host name was the name of the computer you were using—the place where messages would be relayed. This could result in your IP address being publicly visible which is an obvious privacy issue, and different networks resolved this problem in different ways.
Freenode, an IRC network started in 1995, and LiberaChat (a fork of Freenode started in 2021) are the two main networks today, and they both use cloaks which users can choose to mask their IP address. These cloaks are stylized and identify a user’s affiliation and (to some degree) authenticity. For example, as a Wikipedia editor, I am entitled to a cloak identifying me as such, and so no matter what channel I’m chatting in, my affiliation with Wikipedia is part of my identity—it’s where I’m “from”. Other projects have cloaks as well. Debian Developers, people who write and maintain the Debian operating system, are entitled to cloaks which identify them as affiliated with that project. If you’re familiar with Academic regalia, think of a cloak like an academic robe; the colors on the robe represent your affiliation with your alma mater regardless of what institution you’re at, and your affiliation with that institution, along with the fact that you have those robes to wear, is a signal of your rank and status in that community. An IRC cloak is similar as it demonstrates some project views you as a member, conferring a level of prestige proportional to the prestige of your affiliated project. Another analogy might be a sticker on your laptop with the name of your home town: a cloak shows people that you’re from somewhere and gives them some information to start an interaction with you.
IRC culture was quite important, though its impacts on modern culture are modest. It was quite influential on wiki culture, pioneering the “trout” method of social discipline still in use on the English Wikipedia for example. On a larger scale, it was the predecessor to chat rooms and instant messaging systems like AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). IRC allowed users to set away messages, for example, which was integrated in to AIM eventually becoming a mainstay of the latter culture in the late 90s and early 00s. During it’s peak, IRC proved to be an important method of Community Data Exchange (recall Community Memory and Rossman 1975). During the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt, Soviet media was blacked out with state media playing Swan Lake on loop to prevent dissemination of news about the coup. Meanwhile users across the globe, not subject to the blackout, were able to transmit news into the Soviet Bloc through IRC to circumvent the media blackout, a technique pioneered a year earlier during the Gulf War (it is worth remembering that these technologies and events are not divorced from wider geopolitical moments).
At the same time however, IRC also came to pioneer forking as a response to project-internal conflict. IRC, like other open protocols and free software, could be “forked” whereby a project splits in two. In the first decade of IRC, there were 5 network forks due to various technological, ideological, and cultural disagreements on the direction of networks. Forking is not always a response to conflict, of course. If you’ve ever used GitHub, for example, when you copy a project you “fork” it which derives from these earlier cultural conflicts. Forking is still a contemporary method of community self-governance, with LiberaChat forking from Freenode in 2021 due to disagreements with the companies new owner. The fork was successful, and within the year LiberaChat overtook its parent as the largest IRC network in operation. Even the mere possibility of a fork can be used as a means of social control (Tkacz 2014). A fork is, in essence, a strike whereby the developers, maintainers, and users withhold their labor and participation from the project. The threat of the strike is a tool to bring about negotiations and leverage grassroots power, but it can also be difficult to pull off. Forking as both a technical matter and a political tool was pioneered on IRC where it eventually made its way into software and wiki culture.
While IRC was growing, Usenet was dying, and at this confluence was the rise of wikis. The first wiki was established in 1995 by Ward Cunningham and was, quite simply, a website that anyone could edit. The goal of Wiki (variously known as WikiWiki, WikiWikiWeb, Ward’s Wiki, and C2) was to be a place for software developers to collaboratively document “patterns”: common ways of designing software. It eventually became home to proponents of “Extreme Programming”, a software development paradigm that was a major influence on contemporary startup culture. While Cunningham was the owner of the website and server, the community was largely self-governing. Anyone could delete a page, for example, and decisions about what kinds of pages were within scope were made through community discussion. This burgeoning community on what was essentially a much larger Community Memory, spawned a subculture interested in the meta aspects of Wiki and community organization. Alongside pages about how to write software, discussions about programming languages, and community lore, there began to be pages about Wiki as a culture: how conflicts developed and resolved, what structural aspects promoted or prevented conflict, philosophies on dealing with unhelpful edits or outright spam. This did not last long, however, and in 2000 the community decided that these meta posts were out-of-scope, and they were forked to a new wiki: MeatBall.
MeatBall was at first a documentation of Wiki culture, but soon after its establishment, the wikipedia emerged leading to the analysis of social patterns across multiple communities with various goals. Wiki, for example, was interested in software, while Wikipedia was interested in encyclopedic writing. How do these differing goals affect the way people interact in cyberspace? Eventually, Wikipedia would develop a new wiki software, MediaWiki, which replaced UseModWiki that ran Wiki and MeatBall (and other wikis), introducing a number of structural changes previously unseen on wikis but theorized by those interested in the relationship between software structure, project goals, and user behavior. MediaWiki, for example, implemented namespaces which separated user-facing content (encyclopedia articles) from project-internal discussions. Where previously, discussions took place right underneath the content, MediaWiki created a system that incentivized greater separation between discussion and product. Free linking was introduced, allowing for any phrase to be turned into a link using
]]—previously links were made by typing the phrase in CamelCase—and free linking allowed for more readable prose, increasing the accessibility of the product. Beyond the technical features, many community organizational philosophies were imported to Wikipedia such as beliefs in openness and non-violent communication.
As Wikipedia grew throughout the early 00s, its peer wikis shrank, with Wiki and MeatBall shutting down editing around 2014. The major cause was an influx of spam, and an inability for the existing community to effectively handle the disruption. This was, in part, an indictment of the politics of “radical inclusion” they espoused, but it was also a result of external factors such as recruitment issues and the development of the modern information economy. By the mid 2010s, Wiki was approaching its 20th year, and many of its earliest community members had moved on to vastly different life stages. Even the contemporary English Wikipedia which celebrated its 20th year in 2022 has lost many of its earliest contributors. Wikipedia was not spared from the spam and vandalism issues plaguing other wikis in the 10s (see Brickhouse 2021), what differed was that it had sufficient human, financial, and technical resources to manage the disruption without failing. This points to a common cause: by the mid-2010s the information economy had incentivized (1) boosting website rankings by spamming links to them on open wikis leading to greater ad revenue, (2) a large number of internet users socialized into online authoritarian/centralized systems of data exchange, (3) and a cultural emphasis on individualism and monetization following the establishment of a global neoliberal hegemony following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
The information economy (2010 to present)
In the last decade-or-so we have seen the rise of an information economy notable for its inversion of the product-consumer relationship. Prior to this point, computing was a product. Consumers would buy hardware and software to serve their computing needs. With the advent of the Word Wide Web, a new kind of economic venture was pioneered: the DotCom company. Rather than hardware or software, these DotCom companies provided a service. You didn’t need to buy a contraption or install software; you opened a browser, went to a website, and received a service. These companies had a number of business models. There were companies which provided services free, but served advertisements which provided cashflow proportional to the number of customers. Others gained money by selling goods and services, a time-tested strategy. Often there was some combination of the two, but the point to be made here is that the clear “consumer pays money for product” relationship begins to fray. Following the DotCom bubble burst in the early 00s, the information economy completed this inversion: users were the product and corporations were the consumers.
This economic incentive led to various design decisions on the part of social media companies. The longer people stayed on the platform, the more ads you can serve. The more ads you can serve, the more money you make. The first real innovation was phone applications and the death of the mobile site. If a company can force you to use their app, it provides them with a level of system access not always possible from a web browser allowing them to gather more information about your phone and what’s on it. After this we see the development of in-app browsers. Even if you got users to use the app, when they click a link they leave the app. By building a browser into the app, users are more likely to engage with content because they never left in the first place, and all their browsing information can be made available because they are browsing from inside the app. Lastly we have the death of inter-operability. By making it difficult or impossible to switch services, it creates a barrier to leaving the ecosystem and increases user retention.
Beyond these macro-level design decisions, we also have micro-level structures which incentivize retention through social pressure. Conflict, for example, is often unpleasant and unhealthy, but it drives engagement. A flame war can keep two users on the site for hours or days, and is likely to draw in supporters of various factions. A friendly conversation, however, is unlikely to spiral or go on very long. By creating an algorithm (or user interface) which incentivizes conflict, companies can boost engagement and, by extension, revenue. This is why posting outrageous opinions on social media is effective. Opponents want to argue against the obviously bad point, but in doing so, spread the original message far beyond its original audience. This happens on many platforms, and an entire genre of content has arisen where creators simply look for and comment on outrageous things people do on the internet, paradoxically amplifying the message of an ideological opponent. On a large scale we have seen this cause serious social and political harm, but it’s good for engagement metrics which makes advertisers and shareholders happy.
In contemporary Discourse, we talk a lot about the harms of social media, but this discourse treats social media as something that arose out of nowhere in the mid-to-late 00s. My criticism is that the popular perspective on “social media” is myopic and ahistorical. My goal in this essay is to situate the modern concept of “social media” within a larger historical struggle between particular ideologies of how we ought to socialize in cyberspace, and to demonstrate that contemporary problems are the result of design decisions which can be mitigated through alternative design decisions.
Mastodon and the Fediverse as a counter-narrative
Earlier in this essay we considered the tension between corporate monetization efforts which restricted users and the hacker culture which sought freedom for users. This struggle did not end; it has been ongoing for 50 years. Old leaders have moved on, new members have joined, and the cultures and the geopolitics surrounding them have changed. The fundamental issue is still the same. In 1975, Rossman reflected on the implications of the first electronic social network, and it points to a critical problem of the social media era: how should community data be exchanged? In this section I present a counter-narrative to the information economy and demonstrate that social media technologies arising from particular discursive histories are not simply alternatives to mass social media, but political opponents.
Let’s return to Rossman (1975) who argued that Community Memory, the first electronic social medium, was inherently political. Prior to the internet, dominant modes of information access were “authoritarian/centralized”. These modes were libraries, newspapers, book publishers, government reports, etc. Rossman, in 1975, chose to describe these alternatives to Community Memory as not just “centralized” but authoritarian. Why authoritarian? What value is there in framing Community Memory as anti-authoritarian, decentralized, or democratic? Community Memory was established in 1973, two years prior to the end of the Vietnam War. The system served Berkeley, California, and the surrounding area which had a series of protests in the decade prior opposing the Vietnam War, opposing the draft, supporting the Civil Rights Movement, and supporting freedom of speech. Rossman (1975) points to the political nature not merely because Community Memory was decentralized, rather, he points to the political value of Community Memory as a liberatory technology which could counter the social ills perceived by the community who utilized it. This ideology is fundamental to the counter-narrative: software can be designed to facilitate political and social liberation.
In 1974, the US Government declared software to be covered by copyright, and corporations began to restrict the liberal culture of “shareware” with government-enforced legal penalties. This corporate-led restriction of previously enjoyed freedoms was unacceptable to the culture which was symbiotic with these corporation. In response, the community organized, establishing the Free Software Foundation and declaring their Four Essential Freedoms which they sought to secure and protect. This was not an idle statement, but part of a political plan of action. The GNU Project created cutting-edge software which is still foundational to much of modern computing and devised a legal strategy to infiltrate and liberate corporate codebases. Through the copyleft protections of the GNU GPL, this cutting edge software could be used by corporations, but they must publish any and all source code that interacts with it to anyone on request. This put companies in a dilemma. Either waste R&D funds solving a problem that is already solved for free, release proprietary source code to everyone, or break the law. Many companies chose to break the law, developers sued them, and won the liberation of entire code bases. But others choose to comply, recognizing the symbiotic relationship they have with hobbyists.
This strategy, pioneered in free software, was eventually imported into early social networks which themselves relied on free software to run. Usenet was largely symbiotic with ARPANET and the researchers working on the forefront of technological development. They socialized with hobbyists who learned about hacker culture and ideology. The rise of IRC led to the development of new political tactics for handling internal disagreements, with project forking becoming a political tool both as a threat and as a practice. Because the software was free and association was voluntary, irreconcilable differences could be resolved through fracturing. Unlike geopolitics which are predicated on finite territorial resources, there is no limit to cyberspace. People can, do, and should create new spaces which conform to the community they want to foster, and free software facilitates that process of community splits. Throughout this time of fracturing on IRC, the Soviet Union was collapsing as various Soviets declared their independence. IRC and other distributed social networks were able to bypass media blackouts and report on live events censored by governments in traditional (centralized/authoritarian) media.
Wikis came to prominence soon after, and questioned the concept of authorship and ownership of culture outright. Websites could be edited by anyone, and in fact people were welcomed to edit pages. Additions were initially not logged, and the additions rarely signed; it was all community property. Each text was univocal, but the result of a multivocal collaboration of unknown authors. Wikis grew to cover not just software, but metasociology, encyclopedias, news, dictionaries, and fandoms in various languages. The Wikipedia eventually created the Wikimedia Foundation which supports a federation of wikis all of which are dedicated to the mission of ensuring everyone everywhere has access to the sum total of human knowledge. Leveraging the strategy of free software, Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation adopted copyleft licenses for what is the largest open assemblage of human knowledge in history, creating the same dilemma: waste funds writing the same content, allow your content to be reused, or break the law. The Wikimedia Foundations adoption of the Creative Commons licenses helped to popularize and normalize them leading to even wider adoption supporting an ecosystem of free cultural works. All the while, these wikis remain independent of each other: community-led and self-governing but aligned with each other in a common political purpose.
Since the 1970s social media have been organized around a coherent set of ideologies and often in contrast to dominant cultural notions of hierarchical organization. These social media are fiercely egalitarian and generally avoid hierarchies except where necessary to protect the community. They operate largely on systems of collaborative anarchy with few restrictions on users on the belief that most people will collaborate or simply not care enough to cause harm. They are communalist and often organized around a superordinate goal that gives a shared purpose. They are heterodox, at best allowing various ideological disagreements to exist in the community and at worst encouraging ideological minorities to establish and govern their own community. Lastly, these social media collectively constitute a fission-fusion society where membership is fluid and individual groups federate for common political goals. These principals are what underlie the counter-narrative which leads to the contemporary Fediverse.
The Fediverse, like Usenet and IRC, is decentralized, syndicated, and subject to local control. When a user posts to Usenet, the post is immediately available to everyone on their server as well as being forwarded to affiliated Usenet servers so that it is available to those users, and so on and so forth. Similar for IRC which grew out of it. Media which are part of the Fediverse operate similarly. Users belong to a local instance which manages posts for everyone within that community. When a user posts, it is immediately available to everyone on their instance, but instances are federated. Your post also gets sent to every instance that is federated with yours, allowing for propagation across instances. Federation is critically voluntary. Many groups have instances, and some groups are not aligned or outright hostile to each other. An instance, even an individual user, can refuse federation and prevent interactions with everything from another instance. This serves the dual role of giving material effect to a group’s ideology as well as providing a means to handle harassment.
The reliance on free software and open protocols encourages a fission-fusion society as a way of both marking affiliation and resolving internal disputes. Creating instances is not particularly hard or difficult; many people run their own instance on their website for just themselves. Moving between instances is also easy, allowing for migration as people or cultures change. The choice of instance is important primarily because it marks your affiliation. Users are identified by not only their username, but what instance they come from. This functions much like an IRC cloak. On IRC, the cloak demonstrates your affiliation with some project and confers some level of reputation proportional to the reputation of the project. Your instance likewise marks your affiliation, though not always with a project. Often it is with a topic or ideology. I am from fosstodon.org, marking me as aligned with the free software movement. Others are aligned with instances for artists, scholars, anarchists, etc. Some instances are large and well known, others are quite small; membership in some is restrictive, while others are open to membership from almost anyone. For those in-the-know, these features of your instance provide information on your trustworthiness. If you are from a well known instance with restrictive membership, that gives you a level of prestige distinct from someone who hosts their own instance or affiliates with a generic, open instance. An IRC cloak also conveys information about your interests and facilitates conversations; so too your instance. If someone is posting from an instance for linguists, I can bet we share an interest in linguistics and have something to talk about.
On the other hand, this ease of setting up an instance and migrating to it allow for internal disputes to be resolved by forking. If an instance is making decisions I disagree with, I can move to another or create my own. If some minority believes the instance should be run one way, they can create their own instance run as they wish while still federating with the original. If the dispute gets resolved, they can migrate back and abandon the fork. It allows for communities to self-govern without preventing collaboration or precluding reconciliation. This was a major problem with IRC forks: you cannot communicate across networks, so when a community forked they cut off communication with each other. The fediverse improves on this by allowing for continued interaction while still giving users and groups greater freedom and control over their policies and governance.
Additionally, members of the Fediverse have made particular design decisions in light of both past failures and contemporary problems with mass social media. Users new to Mastodon will notice that the software has a feature to “reblog” or “retweet” something, but there is no analogue to the “quote tweet”. This is by design. Quote tweets encourage conflict and harassment, and providing this as a built-in feature facilitates harmful interactions. If you have a comment to make about a post, then write a comment. Often quote tweets are used to display opinions the retweeter doesn’t like in order to criticize or harass the original poster, and worse, displays them to a sympathetic audience who may be motivated to directly harass the target. As we discussed, this kind of interaction benefits a corporation by increasing engagement and allowing them to serve more ads, but it is harmful to the users. Recall our earlier discussion on Rossman (1975) and the ideology that social software design is a political act. Mastodon instances are not monetized and there’s no incentive to keep users engaged by any means necessary. The design decision was made to not allow users to comment on posts they reblog as a way of creating a software that facilitates healthy interactions.
There are a lot of these design decisions, motivated in part by opposition to the tactics of the information economy but also motivated by ideological beliefs on software and socialization. These federated social media are organized around ideologies that are often opposed to dominant ideologies driving the use of mass social media, and many users participate, to some degree, as a way of participating in the political and ideological struggle between centralized and decentralized community data exchange. The Fediverse, its culture, software, and users, arise out of paradigms not in wide circulation and simply incompatible with the belief systems of some. That’s the point. My partner works for a tech startup, and sometimes he voices his frustration that a software library he wants to use for work is published under the GPL. His company has lots of proprietary code that they don’t want to release, but if they (even accidentally) use GPL code, they need to release their proprietary code. They don’t like that. That’s the point.
The space traveler
You’re sitting at home, and you write in your journal. You go outside and see your neighbor. You both say hi and start making small talk. Another neighbor sees you and comes outside to join. You have fun, but the interaction comes to a natural end and you keep walking. You go to the library and look through the fiction section. Another library patron is browsing the same shelf. She asks if you’ve read this one. You have. You both talk about it and similar books in the genre. She pulls a book of the shelf; she thinks you’ll like it. You check out the books and leave the library. It’s getting dark. You pass the gym where you kept getting body-shamed by patrons and staff—you’ll never go there again. You go the bar to meet up with your friends. You show them the books you got. You have some drinks and let loose. You buy a round for the bartender. Last call. Bar’s closing. Into the night. You’re home. Who were they?
You’re sitting at your computer, and you write in your text document. You open your browser and see a #introduction post on your instance. You say hi and make some small talk. Another user sees the conversation and joins in. You have fun, but the interaction comes to a natural end and you keep scrolling. You go to the federated feed and scroll through posts from other instances. Someone on a literature-themed instance is talking about fiction. She asks if anyone has read this one. You have. You both talk in the comments about it and similar books in the genre. She tags an author who is also on her instance; she thinks you’ll like their new book. You grab your phone and head to the bar. It’s getting dark. You pull out your phone and see someone post from an instance where the gym bros who called you fat hang out—you block the instance so you’ll never worry about seeing that again. You look at what your friends have been posting today. You reblog the comment about the book so your friends can see. You have some drinks and let loose. You give $5 to help pay for server costs. Last call. Bar’s closing. Into the night. You’re home. Who were they?
A social medium is a place that facilitates social interactions. As we move between social media, we will discover that different media facilitate different kinds of interaction. How these interactions turn out is partly the result of how the space is designed, and it is partly how you decide to engage with the space. We go to spaces that foster interactions we like, and we avoid spaces that foster interactions we dislike.
Our interactions are shaped by our relationship to people and to space. I may not know all my neighbors well, but we are invested in the success of our common space and should avoid antagonism. When we go to new spaces, the people there likely share interests because everyone came there for the same purpose.
Twitter and other mass social media facilitate the development and dissemination of a brand that content creators and the platform can exploit for income. They were built for this and are extremely successful at it. Likewise, there is a market for it, and many people desire the content or notoriety that these mass social media facilitate. I participate in society. For those who found success in the attention economy, the idea of a platform designed to prevent your success is obviously unattractive. If you’re playing Major League Baseball, you will probably not enjoy a sudden switch to coaching community little league. If you’ve built an audience on Twitter garnering triple-digit interactions on the regular, moving to a platform designed to prevent that doesn’t make much sense.
I have no such clout, and I doubt many people do. Most of us have small networks of friends we keep up with, and if we move to email, Discord, Mastodon, or IRC it won’t be catastrophic, just different. Not because of who we are, but because of the design of the space we all choose. The Fediverse aligns with my politics and the vision I have for the future of cyberspace. I believe that small, self-governing communities organized around shared interests can prosper—they have for all of human history and I believe they can online as well. On the Fediverse, I’m from somewhere. I have neighbors, and we work together to build a community through our labor, social network, and capital. Our monthly budget surplus is donated to other open source software projects so that we can support other communities who share our ideological alignment. It is, for me, political. I am not content to simply acknowledge the problems with mass social media and do nothing; I want to participate in creating its antagonist. Others who participate in the Fediverse may have no such motivation, but like Community Memory, the mere presence of this radical, alternative organizational system is a political act.
I encourage others to move to Mastodon because I think it’s cool. I like how it’s designed. I believe it is good for humanity and fosters healthy interactions. I want my friends on the platform I use. I want my friends to find and build communities that fit them. I want to see where my friends come from, where they move to, meet their neighbors. Not everyone will join me. Maybe they don’t like the platform, maybe they aspire to mass media, or maybe they disagree with the philosophy. That’s fine. We all have different goals. My hope in explaining this cultural history is that you will come to appreciate those who built these things and the culture you are moving into.
- Bourdieu, Pierre (1986), “The Forms of Capital” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. J. Richardson ed., Greenwood: New York.
- Brickhouse, Christian (2021), “WikiBreathing: how communities respond to changes in public engagement with wikis”. Talk presented at Wikimania 2021.
- Colstad, Ken and Efrem Lipkin (1975), “Community Memory: a public information network”. Computers and Society 6(4).
- Free Software Foundation (2022), “What is Free Software?”. Accessed November 6, 2022.
- Obeyesekere, Gananath (1981), Medusa’s Hair: an essay on personal symbols and religious experience. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
- Rossman, Michael (1975), “Implications of Community Memory”. Computers and Society 6(4).
- Stallman, Richard (1986), “What is the Free Software Foundation?”. GNU’s Bulletin 1(1).
- Tkacz, Nathaniel (2014), Wikipedia and the politics of openness. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.