Watching the slow exodus of users bleed away from Twitter over the last several days has been interesting. Who would have thought that an eccentric billionaire hijacking one of the great tent-pole social internet platforms would cause such visceral reactions?
Perhaps the greatest positive to take away from the unfolding shenanigans as Elon Musk drives Twitter into the ground like a meteorite, and Mark Zuckerberg realises his bets on “Facebook at Work” and “Horizon Worlds” aren’t worth the paper they were written on, is the gradual realisation for many that there might be a better way.
The right place, at the right time
In recent days, old media has been filled with column after column attempting to educate their readership about a social network named after a woolly mammoth. Only it’s not a social network in the sense most people have come to know — it’s a federated nework.
The federated internet, or “fediverse” as journalists call it (the same journalists that call the internet “cyberspace”), is difficult to describe. I’ll have a go.
The Walled Gardens
When you visit Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, Blogger, or wherever else, you’re essentially visiting a walled garden — where everything you see or interact with is owned, operated, and controlled by the service you visit. They set the rules, build the gate, moderate, and control everything and everybody that visits.
If the likes of Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn and Tim Berners Lee hadn’t come up with TCP/IP and the web, we might not be using the “internet” now — we might still be using a collection of proprietary commercial networks that are intentionally incompatible with one-another.
The important thing that both the “inter-net” and “world wide web” introduced was not a product, or saleable service — it was a set of standards by which disparate services might operate such that they could transmit, receive, and interpret communications between each other.
When you send an email, request a webpage, or stream media over the internet, the data jumps back and forth through numerous networks as it spans the globe — with each network understanding the packages flying this way and that because they all adhere to the same methods of encoding, transmitting, receiving, and decoding data. They follow standards.
So what IS a federated network?
A federated network is essentially the opposite of a walled garden. Anybody can setup a garden, set rules for that garden, and users can set up home in a garden of their choosing. The gardens therefore naturally coalesce into groups of people with similar aims, outlooks, backgrounds, or beliefs — about anything and everything. You might find gardens predominantly filled with artists, scientists, writers, readers, and so on, and so forth. You might also find gardens filled with a wonderful cross-section of people from all walks of life, and from all over the world.
Here’s the trick — each person in each garden can communicate with, follow, subscribe to, and share content from and to anybody both in their own garden, and in the wider network of gardens. The inhabitants of each garden can then see both the stream of posts from people in their garden, AND the stream of posts from everybody followed by the people in their garden.
The most successful embodiment of these ideas so far is “Mastodon”. It looks a little like Twitter, and works a little like Twitter, but it’s really very different indeed.
Each server in the Mastodon network is self supporting — usually through donations. Nobody owns or controls any of it. Each server is connected to the wider network of servers — in much the same way that your computer or phone is connected to the internet.
Typically servers have no advertising, and no algorithmic timeline. You can control the audience for anything you post — limiting to those mentioned, those you follow, or the world and it’s dog. The gatekeepers of each server set their own rules, and moderate as they see fit. There’s nothing to stop you packing your bags and moving to a different server either.
What does this all mean?
Suddenly the loudest voices no longer win arguments, because they have no audience, and can find no audience. Marketers can no longer spray advertorial nonsense across swathes of the local population because they get filtered out of existence at speed. Keyboard warriors, trolls, and scammers find themselves excluded, blacklisted, and ignored.
It’s easier to complain
If Mastodon sounds a little like nirvanah, that’s because it is. There’s only one problem — people are lazy. In a fit of altruism, I posted the “what is Mastodon?” video to Facebook yesterday evening. I’ve posted it before, and said as much. This morning an ex colleague commented “why have I never seen this ?”
I replied — “because people will spend far more time and effort complaining about something than doing anything about it”.
Remembering the crazy ones
Perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves of the famous “crazy ones” poem written by Rob Siltanen, Lee Clow and others — often mis-attributed to Steve Jobs:
Here’s to the crazy ones.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them, disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They invent. They imagine. They heal.
They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written?
Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
We make tools for these kinds of people.
While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.