It’s a grey morning in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, January 25, 2023 and my nearby peripheral sensors say it’s 71 degrees Fahrenheit and 40% humid at my desk.
So, we’re trying to buy a house. I will spare you all the usual house-buying moaning and nonsense and skip to the interesting part with just one little bit of moaning.
Floor plans and inspections, huh! Nobody knows where anything is in a house! Don’t hammer something into a wall because a) you might die / get electrocuted / release a horde of mice, b) the house might fall down, c) burst a pipe or whatever. Who knows how old any of the wiring is! Let’s have a look inside this wall oh wait it’s just full of rubbish and not actually insulation! What’s this foundation? Again, rubbish!
First, in wonderful, blithe style I shall wonder out loud “somebody should just develop a cheap terahertz consumer scanner you can just wave around and it’ll x-ray a building so you can see at least where there are things in the walls”. Easy. Sure, you wouldn’t know what those things were, but you might know not to hit a hole in something to release the horde of mice.
Second! Remind you of anything? I mean what other sort of large, heterogenous structures do you spend a lot of time with that have been built over decades where the documentation’s been lost or is only in the head of that one company or one person, and there’s been successive owners? Where there’s a bunch of old stuff and then, randomly, someone’s grafted something new and shiny on without, for some reason, fixing any of the underlying fundamental issues? Oh that’s right, it’s software.
I am going to stop you right there before you start imagining some sort of but what if Github for buildings, plans, and permitting?” because I just do not want to do that this morning and anyway, did you not hear the part of every single episode of this newsletter where it’s always about the people? Sure, tools help, but still! It’s the people!
Meanwhile, we have been looking at houses and I have been waving a LIDAR-equipped phone around like I’m Egon scanning for PKE readings (I should… get a 3d-printed case that includes the little wands that go up and down?). This means I’ve got some good-but-not-great, or rather, good-enough 3d models of the houses we’ve looked at. Which is cool! I am using Polycam1 and not Magicplan, because at the time of writing, Magicplan wants me to actually have to tap the screen to do things, rather than just wave my phone around and its LIDAR isn’t working? In any event, my kids think it’s fun that my phone is spitting out laser beams and making models of houses.
This is great, but I said not-so-great because Polycam doesn’t support rooms with different ceiling heights, nor does it support rooms or areas with walls/ceilings at angles other than 90 degrees. Which is another example of how good-enough is fine until you need something better and then you don’t have it.
But the point of this is that only about 20% – at best – of the houses we’re looking at have floor plans supplied by the agent. Or available at all without me having to create them. Which, come on, it’s 2023! Get with it America, this is practically as bad as your banking situation!
Anyway. Houses. They’re just as bad as software.
Caught my attention because: Kellan Elliott-McCrea has been writing about software in a blog post series and it is very good; the most recent post about software complexity3. Plus, every so often people keep re-inventing personal customer relationship management software, even when it’s as an expensive joke4, so we may as well invent house management software that would keep all this stuff together. Ha.
I cannot and have not stopped thinking about what feels like a cracked-open door for some sort of different era of internet thanks to waves hands everything that’s happened in the last few months. Here are some not entirely ordered, organized thoughts:
Automattic, the current owner of tumblr, one of the biggest meme mines in the world, has said they’re going to implement ActivityPub, which is the underlying protocol on which Mastodon operates. There are boring ways this could go, and then interesting ways this could go.
The boring ways include “oh no! Tumblr is going to flood the Mastodon network!” and this is in its own way the regular human story of outsiders coming in and some people being open to outsiders and other people not being open to outsiders and those are both certainly positions that can be valid given circumstances and experience. It will be interesting if this will shake out in a way in which there’s no winner.
The default position here is that anyone who doesn’t want to see Tumblr posts doesn’t have to, which is a new type of choice, not previously available on corporate platform-controlled networks.
The interesting thing that could happen is this:
First, Tumblr’s dashboard starts acting as an ActivityPub client, which means Tumblr users can start using their dashboard to follow e.g. BookWyrm (Goodreads-ish) and Mastodon posts.
There’s an aside here, which is that, like I said, Mastodon is an application that sits on top of the ActivityPub protocol. Mastodon itself has its own particular API, its own extensions. There’s a very readable blog post about this from Manton Reece about the Venn diagram intersections between Micro.blog, an ActivityPub-speaking blogging platform, Mastodon, and Ivory, a new iOS Mastodon client application.
Tumblr’s dashboard inserts ads between posts. It’s how Tumblr makes money. So far, those ads are inserted between, well, Tumblr posts. If Tumblr’s dashboard inserts ads after it becomes an ActivityPub reader too, then… it will be selling ads against ActivityPub posts – which includes Mastodon posts.
Here’s a few ideas about what could happen next:
One option: it’ll piss a bunch of people off who have already decided this is a bad idea. Those people will do things ranging from personally block the entire Tumblr network from reading their posts, lobby their Mastodon website instance owner/administrator to block the entire Tumblr network from their Mastodon website, and lobby as many people as possible to block the entire Tumblr network either personally or at the Mastodon website level.
Another: A bunch of people won’t care and won’t personally block the Tumblr instance, but it also doesn’t matter if they don’t care because Mastodon website owners have effective control over their website. If their website owner decides to block Tumblr, then nobody who uses Tumblr can read their posts/their posts won’t reach Tumblr dashboard users.
And finally, the exciting can-of-worms option: some people will realize they have the opportunity to attempt to negotiate with Automattic, the owners of the Tumblr network and dashboard, for a share of ad revenue.
This is an excitingly delicious possibility, and it’s an inversion, I think, of what’s previously happened with reader-aggregator applications like Google Reader and what Google/Google Reader did with RSS.
You, an individual, couldn’t really negotiate with whether a “good” actor aggregator served ads against your content because you were tiny and they were giant. The power relationship there is ridiculous.
But maybe this time you’re on an instance like infosec.exchange, a Mastodon website for info/cyber security people that has 27,000 active users. It’s a pretty interesting instance! It’s run by Jerry Bell, and in principle, Jerry Bell could decide that sure he’s up for federating with the Tumblr dashboard – if they get a cut. So what happens next?
A bunch of people on the infosec.exchange instance could leave because it’s against their values to have someone sell ads against their content.
But what if most people stay? Jerry, the instance owner, is the sole person who gets to negotiate with Automattic. Jerry can decide where the money goes. Jerry may create some sort of legal structure that “owns” infosec.exchange, and the money goes there toward upkeep and maybe even interesting things like paying for external moderation help! Jerry might also decide to deliver some sort of formal dividend or pass on the rev share to infosec.exchange’s users! Jerry might go even further and distribute that rev share, if possible, to only a specific subset of infosec.exchange users in exchange for, I don’t know, goods or services rendered! Who knows!
The point is, I think it’s at least possible, or there’s a greater than absolutely zero probability, that these negotiations could be entered into. Hell, I may as well say it: Mastodon gGmbH, the operator of Mastodon.social, the default new user instance with 138,000 active users, is a non-profit, but it could enter into a rev share agreement with Automattic, still be a non-profit and still say that you won’t see any ads on the instance. And that revenue share goes back to helping run the instance and funding Mastodon development. Huh.
If Google, of all companies, decided to resurrect some sort of ActivityPub post reader, then for the first time, instances have more power to refuse to make their content available, and gate that content on, well, anything they like. There’s finally the chance for a negotiated agreement if Google really want that content.
Which leads me on to the next, bigger thing that’s caught my attention…
The whole point of the above is that instance owners – people like Jerry Bell running infosec.exchange (27k active users), people like Eugen Rochko running mastodon.social (138k) and seb running sfba.social (12k) just might have the ability to negotiate, individually and personally (if they’re acting like benevolent dicators for life or unix divine right monarchs), collectively, or maybe even in a representative fashion.
Which effectively means figuring out governance.
How does a community decide to work together? How does it allocate resources? Where do those resources come from? What responsibilities do those members have toward each other, toward non-members, and what rights do they have? What are the processes? How do they participate in making decisions that affect the whole community and indeed who or what body makes those decisions?
The delicious (again) thing here is that with Mastodon being the sort of network that’s decentralized, more people than before are getting a much more visceral sense that running and providing software services costs money and that administering a community takes time and effort. It doesn’t just happen. This is more visible than ever before because, well, there’s a person doing it and they’re right there and can (and are!) talking to you, and you can talk to them.
There’s an argument here that this doesn’t matter in groups smaller than, say, the Dunbar (take a shot) number of 150 people. Your instance is run by someone nice and personable and reasonable and good at communication, someone like say a Darius of friend.camp, and they know everyone, plus they have the emotional maturity to not only tell everyone not to be an asshole, but to actually tell you when you’re being an asshole and even mete out and enforce consequences for asshole behavior instead of avoiding it, all while involving the community but also taking responsibility. In those small groups, the implicit deal is that the administrator is eating the cost in time and money and that’s okay, or that people know they contribute either regularly or now and then.
But then you get bigger: to groups from 150 to a thousand, then more than a thousand, then more than ten thousand. What then? Are you, well, voting? Does everyone get a vote? These things are decisions. What do the votes mean? What do people get to vote on?
What’s interesting to me here is that finally we get the chance – if we choose to – to make new mistakes and try new things. Here are things that I think haven’t been explored very much, and that we have more incentive to explore now:
Notice that I managed to say all of this without invoking the blockchain or ethereum or smart contracts or DAOs at all. But they have always been the same problems to solve. I do not believe governance will be done in code because it deals with humans and we are always creating new contexts, new histories, new combinations of facts so we will always need new decisions and new wiggle room. Code doesn’t let us do that, at least not the way the smart contract “law is code, code is law” zealots think. Those zealots don’t want human nuance or interention: they want what they think would be a neutral, dispassionate third party. At the very least though their concerns about bias are in my opinion valid.
We haven’t needed to solve these problems in this way before. These big instances need funding: the resources needed to operate them well aren’t trivial, and if we don’t want to fund them via advertising (or even if we do!) then there are lots of models to follow. They can be clubs, they can be guilds, and we have patterns of running those. They can act like unions, they can be owned by existing unions, the gatherings may even birth new unions.
I think the emergence of groups that either have recognized these problems need solving or working on, or that there are even more groups that will start to face these problems, that new people are facing these problems, is so wonderfully exciting because we can try new things. I would be dearly disappointed if we didn’t.
I have been away for a week or so, so I am not sad that I wrote a lot. There’s been a lot that’s caught my attention!
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