It is Tuesday, November 8, 2022 at an undisclosed location in Illinois outside St. Louis Lambert International Airport.
I have not set foot outside this hotel room for about 120 hours, since I tested positive for COVID-19, the cause of which I’m reasonably sure is because some parents intentionally chose not to notify invitees that their child was sick, and went ahead and threw a halloween party. This, despite my son and I being masked, fully vaccinated, and inside for only about 30 minutes.
For the love of god, if you’re a parent throwing a party:
Hello newcomers! Here’s a brief explanation and introduction to the newsletter:
I’ve been writing online since the late 1990s. This newsletter has been running for nearly 9 years. It covers, roughly what it is to be a person who knows and users computers, which is to say I unabashedly talk about personal experience.
It is unedited, and stream of consciousness. Many people subscribe to it and get a lot out of it. If it is not for you, that is fine! I write it as much for myself as for an audience: it is like thinking out loud for me.
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(In which I demonstrate that I am more than capable of arguing myself out of something I have proposed)
Imagine Majel Barret saying: And now, the conclusion1.
I’m going to cover some related concepts here that are all smushed together as a function of “what Mastodon does” and “how Mastodon works”.
A Mastodon’s local timeline of everything on that server is best case something interest-specific/social norm specific. It can be like a village or town of like-minded individuals bound together. Like a bulletin board! Or an IRC server! Or a usenet newsgroup!
When a Mastodon instance gets really big, its timeline approaches City sized, which is to say Probably Never As Big As Twitter (say, 200-odd million daily active users), but then what people have in common is “they’re in that city”.
In a Big City, you then have more of a chance of bumping into new people/discovering things/being exposed to new things, but also there’s not really much of a defined shared identity other than right now for something like the giant mastodon.social, which might be described as an Eternal October of “Fuck That Space Karen Guy”.
How might you bump into other people, people whom you don’t know, whom you aren’t folloping? Well, in the Twitter Big City, the easy answer would be to say “it happens algorithmically”, but perhaps a more relatable example would be something like this:
That’s the big city, and to various extents, the big city is an example of a centralized social network. The one place where everyone goes, where there isn’t much choice. To the extent that there are big cities (i.e. places to meet other people, talk to other people, congregate around shared interests), your choices these days are mostly: Facebook (and through that, Facebook Groups), Twitter, Reddit, and, well. That’s it, if we’re talking about “community” and places that have more than, say, a hundred million daily active users. You’ll note I’m not including Tiktok or Instagram or even YouTube – I think in this instance, because those platforms aren’t text-based and aren’t quite so explicitly conversational.
Mastodon instances are on the internet, which means they have domain names. At this point in the lifespan of the internet, a whole bunch of conventions and institutional trust have developed around domain names. For example, we trust that washingtonpost.com is The Washington Post, that whitehouse.gov is The White House, and that Apple.com is that big fruit company that makes things that aren’t personal computers.
Domains are only part of that trust: you trust the institution that operates the domain. You need to trust that whomever runs the IT infrastructure of whichever institution is competent enough that whatever happens on/from their domain is sanctioned by them. Bad People are incentivized to do this and pretend to be other people, and domains are one way of doing this – either domains that look like the institutional domain and use tricks to achieve that goal, or just waltzing right in, compromising the domain and then doing a bunch of shit from the inside. If you have a corporate job, you might have been exposed to phishing exercises, and those might have led to domains that look like, but are not the same as, the ones you might trust, thanks to incredibly simple hacks like an upper-case “I” sometimes presenting as a lower-case “l” when displayed using certain fonts.
Twitter fucked up by conflating identity verification with notability. Many people have already written about this, it is not a new concept, I am standing on the shoulders of many giants in this recap:
I’ll try to make this one quick. Notability was always going to be a mess. It’s the same mess that Wikipedia found itself in that it’s trying to dig a hole out of – who’s to say what’s notable and what’s not?
On the other hand, identity verification didn’t have to be a mess. There are a whole bunch of third party identity providers, many of which are used by governments (and whose contracts and practices are now being called into practice, given the requirement for their use in applying for and receiving critical social safety net services). You might imagine a system where anyone could ask for and show verification of their identity in exchange for an appropriate fee (that fee potentially even recurring, were it something the market would bear).
But now, the blue check – which meant two things – is potentially now going the way of “someone has paid some money for this”, which is a very, very loose check of identity. In fact, it’s barely a check of “is there a human in the loop”, never mind “is there a specific human in the loop”.
There is a need, though, for some people to be able to prove, to a reasonable degree (the ex-lawyer in me talking here), that they are who they assert they are.
I think, for certain instances like proving organizational affiliation, having organization instances (like in my original proposal) still makes sense, at least with the current UI exposed by Mastodon on the web.
The common reply to my proposal is “you can do that already” by inserting a link back to your profile from a page that you control. Then, the link to that page is shown in green on your profile.
Sure, that works now, but I still think that a better, more robust and clear experience would be more like the https padlock. It also relies on a chain of trust a bit like this:
This whole excursion started with a proposal around improving trust and proving, to a better degree, but let me be clear: as with most things on the internet, it was to scratch my particular itch.
Here’s the use case: As a danhon, I want to know that the Mastodon profile I’m viewing is trustable.
Jumping straight to organization instances inheriting trust from their domain name is just one way to solve that problem. Here’s another way to solve it:
So what I could just do, and what I would probably just do, would be to discover and follow Petri’s Mastodon account from her institutional webpage. Which is fine.
It doesn’t solve for encountering an account claiming to be Petri’s on the timeline, or elsewhere, to be honest, and wanting to figure out whether I should trust it or not.
But here’s the thing. Most people might not even care. I am fully capable of accepting that wanting to know whether the people posting things are who they say they are is a niche interest, one which I subscribe to.
Institution: yes, this is all fair and good, but have you seen the environment we’re operating in? Apparently there is a recession and we’re undergoing extreme inflation. For over a decade now we’ve been pressured to do more with less and now you’re asking me to stand up a brand new IT service, integrate it with our existing IdAM infrastructure, and also make sure it doesn’t fall over? And provide support?
Me: Well when you put it like that, yes, it sounds like a lot of work.
Institution: And why should I be doing this?
Me: Well, because… trust?
Institution: Do you have a business case? Because this either lives in a cost center, or…
I can think of only two reasons to do this, one of them doesn’t make any money, and the other one does.
If mastodon – or, honestly, any sort of “federated social network” – actually takes off, this will be the price of doing business. You’ve got a couple of choices: you can get in now, which’ll be fairly expensive, or you can wait, and pay someone else to do it, much like you pay Google or Microsoft to look after your email for you. As an aside, I weirdly think it’s more likely for Microsoft to accidentally adopt the ActivityPub protocol and roll it into Teams/Outlook and so on than Google mainly because it’d be yet another messaging product at Google and god knows they enjoy fucking those up.
If you are a university or, say, The Washington Post or The New York Times, you may end up doing this because it’s like “not having an email address” at some point.
Now, this doesn’t work for The New York Times or The Washington Post because those two institutions, being the size they are, have absolutely no community identity or shared interest whatsoever.
Polygon, for example, might have a Mastodon instance, where people can go and talk about all the kinds of things Polygon readers love.
Wired, at a stretch, might have a Mastodon instance where People Who Read Wired (there are still people who do that? The magazine? I apologize to all of my journalist friends who write, or have written, for Wired) can talk to other people who read wired or identify as Wireders.
Kotaku, for instance (Hm. Maybe not the best example). Hell, Amazon-owned DPReview might even have one, and I think of that site because it has a robust and thriving community that has a lot to talk about.
Local newspapers might want one, if they were interested in clawing back the share of local discussion and information that was inadvertently ceded to Nextdoor.
Here’s some of what’s wrong with Mastodon right now, and some of how I think it can be fixed. If anyone wants to. Or cares. The interesting thing is that you don’t really need anyone’s permission to do any of this stuff.
Two common complaints:
The terminology is, if not just confusing, outright exclusionary (“toots”, “boosts” and so on), and in other user-positioning-tone considerations, in some cases perceived as outright juvenile/infantile.
Like I mentioned before, choice is a problem: the largest instance got overwhelmed and closed to new invitations. Using a Mastodon mobile phone app (arguably how most people will use it) presents the user with a baffling array of choices for their home instance. I mean, sometimes I find it hard just to decide what to eat for dinner.
Arguably one of Mastodon’s strengths is its ability through federation and “anyone, ish, can set up an instance” to represent the entire gamut of human interest and activity. You can imagine how this might be overwhelming. It also exposes this gamut in, well, words. And a lot of humans don’t word well for fast, clear comprehension. I mean, just ask Jason Calacanis!
People are being told to “sign up for Mastodon” and when doing so are confronted with “well, what niche interest are you into?” and again, the terror of getting it wrong. All they want to do is talk to people.
There are comparisons out there trying to explain (in predictably overenthusiastic, verging on cult-like language) that “federation” isn’t a big deal and actually you’ve been dealing with federation your whole life, especially if you’re an older person, through the telephone network.
Telephones, the explainer explains, are in a federated network because they are groups of telephones that talk to other telephones! That is okay! There are telephone networks!
Yes, but most people don’t remember needing to choose a telephone service provider. At least in the U.S. you’re spared that choice through, er, robust competition in local markets?
And it’s bad enough trying to figure out what cellphone service provider to choose. But again, the “it doesn’t matter what you choose, you can always switch” attitude too cavalierly discounts the fear of getting that choice wrong, or the fear of the switching cost. Switching instance is still something as opposed to having to do nothing.
And anyway, there are two distinct use cases here: the first, where you are looking for like-minded people, in which case you are looking for the appropriate community (and hoping that you can find one, with the associated fear). That’s fine.
The other use case is “I want to use Mastodon to talk to people because people are there now and I want to talk to them” and you know what? They don’t want to have to choose an instance. Because they want to talk to and follow people.
Here’s what I’d do, if I were interested in the business of online community on the internet.
I would set up an instance, explicitly designed to cater for the tens or even hundreds of thousands, and it would be paid subscription only. It could cost, I don’t know, $8.99/month. Or whatever it would cost to provide for sustainability with whatever growth curve.
If you’re old enough, you’ll recognize what I’m about to describe as something like early 90s era Compuserve or AOL or Prodigy, or in the UK, something like Prestel, or Demon Internet.
I don’t think I’d start with plain/vanilla Mastodon. It’s not ready. I’d have a roadmap to move from Mastodon, if I did use it, to a more efficient ActivityPub implementation, with web and native platform clients. I would rip out the existing Mastodon front-end and heavily, heavily customize it.
I would brand the shit out of it. I would make it friendly, and I would say that it was Mastodon-compatible, and I would take a whole bunch of shit from other, let’s say, more militant instances.
I would hire moderators.
I would set up, inside that brand, provision for special interest communities.
In other words, I would set up something like The Well, all over again.
There’s a choice here in whether you’d want it to get big (scale up) or shard (scale out), and by the latter, I mean “encourage others to set up accessible Mastodon-compatible, ActivityPub-speaking instances” that drift off the trustable, well-known, easy-to-get-onto-brand.
In other words, you’d want to be the place (or if not that, a) that’s well-known and can get you started on “the fediverse”.
(If it sounds like I’m proposing an effectively Centralized Everyone Instance and that There Can Be No Others, please note that I am not proposing that, what I’m proposing is that there needs to be at least one really, really good onboarding experience and, as ever, one way of doing that is vertical integration, and a variety of really, really good onboarding experiences would be preferred)
I would make it so that there’s at least this one option that comes to mind when people say “well, I heard about Mastodon and I don’t know where to start and it all sounds super confusing and off-putting”.
That’s what I’d do.
There’s a side-issue here in that I know there are definitely parts of the fediverse that do not want this to happen, because they are fine where they are thank you very much, and people wanting to come in and recreate Twitter are going to mess this entire thing up. I get it. There are also people who want to join and are bouncing off, and ActivityPub / Mastodon is as much a specification as it is opinions and community around software.
Now, excuse me while I go watch those episodes of Halt and Catch Fire again.
Well. That was about 3,100 words. I am going to go rest now.
How are you doing?
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