Are the barbarians at the gate? If you trust the journalists from Vice and the Verge, there isn’t even a gate. One developer with the nickname ‘Gargron’ thought up a great idea:
“What if there was Twitter without Nazis?”
In that moment, Mastodon Social was born. A new social network made for the people, run as a tightly moderated safe space for everyone (except Nazis!) by the benevolent dictator.
As the cherry on top, Gargron also made the service federated: Just as you can write emails to everyone, no matter what server they are one, with mastodon you can follow users on every other mastodon server! A great system that makes it possible for users to take their data into their own hands, and build networks without the need for advertisers and data-miners!
As the articles will point out, mastodon is seriously taking off! Is this the beginning of something amazing, made possible by the ideas (and code!) of one man…?
What these articles fail to point out: This federated network based on the Ostatus standard isn’t new. Not only that, it has existed for about a decade, and has had active users for all this time. It’s also not the only one of its kind: Diaspora runs a similar, but distinct network, with a more Facebook-like experience. There has been a vibrant community on GNU Social (the most popular Ostatus implementation) for quite some time. Mastodon is one more addition to this sea of instances, and it’s very welcome. So, why am I typing these words? What’s there to counter?
Here’s the more personal side of my federation experience.
I’ve always been very interested in free software, nearly up to the point of being a free software fanatic. In 2015, I grew more and more disillusioned with the social media silos of Facebook and Twitter. I had quit Facebook already (leaving for Diaspora for a short while), but I was still using twitter. The short and informal interactions always seemed fun to me, and I liked the public-by-default nature of the conversations.
Around august that year, I found out about GNU Social: A federated twitter like network, with a few of the rather artificial restrictions lifted. It’s possible to write more than 140 characters and you can use the api as much as you want. Being a self-hoster for most of my data, I installed my own server at social.heldscal.la and used it for while. Back then, I didn’t really invest too much time, and my server was quickly forgotten.
One year later, I was browsing a cyberpunk imageboard and saw a thread about GS. It also mentioned a few instances with interesting names: shitposter.club, soykaf.com, gs.smuglo.li… That day, I made a new account on my own instance and followed a few interesting looking users on the new crop of instances… and quite a few on the older instances as well! Soon after, in November 2016, I posted my last tweet on Twitter and left the site for good.
Why did I do that? What’s special about the federation?
First, it’s very egalitarian by nature. If a server bans you, you can just go to another. While this sounds like it’s a haven for trolls, the users are actually very calm about this: They expect a troll from time to time and just ban when necessary. This leads to a very relaxed atmosphere. Combined with the high character limit, it enables real discussions about controversial topics that do not dissolve into shouting matches. There are nazis on GS, but so are communist, gays, transsexuals, anarcho-capitalists, furries and 2hu fans, and they all coexist and have meaningful discussions. Overall, people are much more communicative. This isn’t a service for celebrities and advertisers, it’s for people in the community. While Twitter often seems like a marketing instrument even for normal users, GS users tend to ‘be themselves’ and just have fun, without caring about the image they are projecting or the likes they are getting.
Second, it has an almost counter-culture vibe. Many users are disillusioned by the mass media and the social media silos. Even though many of them are from a tech background, they are very skeptical towards tech culture media outlets like hacker news and seem to be more part of the last remnants of jargon-file hacker culture, even though most of them were babies when the jargon file was written. This is a unique space on the web, one that I haven’t found anywhere since the death of Usenet. It was refreshing for me to see people share my thoughts on these kinds of topics, and made me feel less desperate about the state of the tech world.
Third, its users are incredible creative, without it becoming a popularity contest. The amount of work people put into their creations for gnu social or around gnu social are amazing, considering the audience they create them for. The most extreme quality/audience ratio must be all of robek.world, GS’s own marketing Wunderkind and unsung comedy genius. (Editor’s note: No way, it’s the developers.) But many interactions on GS are of a similar high quality – People will quote sarcastic Don Quixote quotes at you or roleplay as an android from the future consistently for months – with nobody calling them out. As Jean Piaget said: “Society is a communal play, with no script, but all-important characters.” Is there a better description of our interactions and the daily dance of memes, discussions, quips, information?
This is what the federation embodies for me: Interesting and fun people who do not seem to be stuck in the rut of action/reaction that most of the social media world is. I found friends here, and I spend most of my time with them these days. I would miss them very much if it all went away one day.
I have helped with a few software development efforts to help the federation, but they are not that important here. Federation enables the freedom to be in control of your own community and of your own conversations. I’ve never found a better place on the net than Gnu Social. Is there space for a ‘Twitter without Nazis” on the federation? Of course! Many of the Quitter instances have had this policy for years! But they are just one part of the wider federation, which will always stay wild, chaotic and creative. I hope Mastodon instances and mastodon.social itself will become a good citizen in this federation – Just one under many, but important for its users.
I hope the federation won’t be hurt by the current popularity contest among instances that the tech media seems to be pushing. But it has survived a decade. It can survive a few more.
P.S. The Piaget quote is made up.
lambadalambda is the first international rhodes scholarship recipient and project lead on Pleroma (another cool UI for gnusocial). Outside of that, I’m basically making the rest of this bio up, so that I can give him a longer bio, since he didn’t provide one. At the end of the day, who we are doesn’t really matter, outside of the merits of our ideas. Alright, see you soon.