I don’t have well-polished arguments for anything related to the fediverse, but I have some impulses and instincts. They might be wrong, of course. But I see fears and concerns popping up that seem to be borne from some common fallacies, so I suspect those fears and concerns are not well-founded.
One example I keep seeing is resistance to large mastodon instances, that they’re antithetical to federation, that it is just re-inventing centralized social media to use them. We’d all be better off, some claim, with single-user instances! In this case, I get the concern about concentration of control, truly. Google seems to have damaged email as they’ve grown to more than a quarter of email use. That said, the nature of federation is complex, and it is not clear that very large instances are going to cause more problems than the fediverse already has. Which is not saying they won’t cause problems, just that avoiding them hasn’t helped avoid problems.
Already some of the largest servers around are blocked by a large number of smaller servers. For example, mastodon.social is the largest server currently, and it’s widely blocked. There are even a couple of well-known mastodon servers out there that make no attempt to federate with others whatsoever, for which most people are grateful. As I’ve posted before, some server admins are very, very quick to block and very, very unwilling to ever consider the possibility that they’ve misjudged a server. That’s their right! It’s frustrating to people aware of the issue, but has no known effect on people unaware of the issue, so that’s the system working as designed.
Let’s consider two hypothetical futures. One is a future in which the fediverse grows to more than 100 million active users, but no server has more than 200,000 active users, a number I picked as slightly higher than mastodon.social’s current active users. In this potential future, most people are on very small servers, even individual servers. There are at least a half-million servers, maybe millions. Each of them federates with… well, only with servers used by people someone follows, right? Which would make timelines seem desolate, since that’s the weakness of smaller servers. In fact, very smaller servers often rely on relays to deliver the wider fediverse, instead of having to rely solely on the follow list of a few users, or one. Of course, that puts quite a bit of load on the relay servers, making them somewhat expensive to operate, so I suspect there would be only a few very large relay servers, operated by larger organizations, and… wait a minute! Doesn’t this just shift the problem of control and concentration to the operators of relay servers? I think it does. What they choose to relay or not becomes near-synonymous with “what is mastodon,” and the fact that some smaller servers use smaller relays, or eschew relays altogether, won’t matter. Once the majority of servers uses relays, relays are the norm, and once one of those reliable and well-moderated relays grows to, say, 25% of servers, that’s the same position Google is in with email now. Call that scenario 1A.
The alternative scenario 1B might be that even with most of us on smaller servers, we don’t use relays. Instead, every server relies solely on federation with other servers. Of course, since popular users are spread around many different servers, that means each smaller server federates with a long list of popular servers, which eventually results in articles written in breathless tones about how mastodon has finally eclipsed pirated and adult content in terms of bandwidth, because now there are thousands of copies of all popular posts and images and videos, tens of thousands! The scaling issue and administration work involved would be incredibly limiting, with an obvious solution at hand: relay servers. Now we’re back to scenario 1A again, and back to similar issues to what we face today, with some relay servers attempting to provide every possible post from every possible server, while others are essentially opt-in and very focused, with a variety of relay servers in between the two extremes.
There’s another future, though! The future that some are afraid of is that companies like Medium and Mozilla and worse come along and build up gigantic servers. That more than 100 million active users means not 5 million servers, but 50,000 at most, with more than 10 million users each at a few of the biggest servers. To support more than 10 million users takes a lot of resources, so only large companies can afford that, and now, in scenario 2, we have most users using one of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Medium, and Mozilla. Together they support more than half of the 100 million active fediverse users, giving them outsize control over the fediverse. What they say goes. It’s a disaster, right?
I think to answer that question, it might server to explain what’s wrong with Google’s outsized impact on email. It has definitely made some things easier! For example, a gmail address is so common that “@gmail.com” is an option on some kiosks. I don’t have to repeat or spell out anything after the at sign with a gmail address. People know what I mean. Google keeps most spam at bay, although the junk mail that sneaks through ebbs and flows, despite Google’s extensive efforts. They deliver a decent service that most people don’t have to think about, and they do it at no out-of-pocket cost to most users. Of course, there are downsides. If Google decides your mail server doesn’t take spam seriously in exactly they way they do, no more and no less, they may decide not to deliver your email to any gmail user. You’re a peer, but not really a peer, since Google is so much larger. If Google decides they don’t like you as a user, you’re hosed. You lose access to everything, not just your email, and there is basically no recourse or appeal. You do have alternatives, of course. You can start over with a yahoo.com or hotmail.com address, for example. Or you can upgrade to fastmail.com or take a step sideways with hey.com. But it’s not pretty, and the more services they bundle together, and the more users they have, the uglier it gets.
So if Google’s hypothetical future mastodon server decides your server doesn’t do something in exactly the way they want, no more and no less, they may silence or block your server, so your posts don’t reach any “@gmastodon.com” user. If Google decides they don’t like you as a user, on either this or any other service they offer, you are very thoroughly hosed. You lose access to everything, email and mastodon included, without recourse or appeal. It’s really ugly.
But you do still have alternatives. If your favorite mastodon server focused on artists blocks the Google mastodon server, and they definitely would, you can create an account directly with that favorite mastodon server focused on artists, or any other non-Google mastodon server they don’t block. You can switch every time they block a server you’re on, and they do love to block servers.
This is how the fediverse is unlike single companies such as twitter, or facebook, or even spoutible. Even large servers aren’t re-inventing centralized social media, not as long as federation still exists. If the owner of twitter decides you don’t belong on twitter, that’s it. The same is true of facebook or spoutible. Some might be more or less likely to kick you off, but once you’re kicked off, that’s it. In contrast, there is no owner of the fediverse, nor of mastodon. If the primary developer of mastodon decides you don’t belong on the server he controls, then you’re kicked off of mastodon.social. But you have currently tens of thousands of other options, and you can spin up a new one just for yourself at any of a number of hosting companies for around $6 or €5 per month. I could even install one on the NAS in my house, and might eventually. That will still be true even if the server you’re kicked off of serves more than 20% of the entire fediverse. That still leaves another nearly 80% for you, which is 80% more than you have with a centralized option.
I fear less a future in which big companies operate big fediverse servers, and more a future in which mastodon growth is limited by scaling issues with network bandwidth (in the case of too many servers trying to federate) or human bandwidth (because server moderation is a thankless job, and currently largely unpaid), or both.
Bring on the big players. I will probably stick with smaller servers that federate with the big players. The good news is that you have a choice! If you hate the very idea of the fediverse being for everyone, and want it to stop growing already, you can easily block any new servers that come online and start to grow. You can use your server-wide blocklist to maintain a tiny little bubble not much larger than those of gab or the server associated with the insurrectionist former POTUS. You can make your view of the fediverse as small as you want it to be, but you can’t stop others from making it ever-larger. It’s a great wide world out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
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