Mastodon is a problem only if you want it to be a platform
I just found online what is, in my opinion, another proof that certain concerns about the “Twitter replacement” called Mastodon are solid… but the solutions that get the most attention right now may be dead ends.
John Henry writes on Medium that the Mastodon software and user interface are really cool but:
- “The foremost problem is that federation is a lie. Well, it’s partially a lie. The benefits described above do work; if you send a message to anyone at @firstname.lastname@example.org, it will be delivered to them. But if @custom.website is a domain that mastodon.social deems inappropriate, replies from that users on that domain don’t show up in your notifications or on your feed, unless you explicitly follow them.”
- “community leaders can and should have the tools to address moderation issues in a way that 1) grants administrators agency over the groups or types of content they allow, and 2) allows users to switch between well-tended gardens if they disagree with the moderation policy. (1) is implicit with any new platform you join. (2) is where things get interesting.”
On multiple instances and portable identities:
- Suppose you’re a semi-famous content publisher. You have 10,000 followers on Twitter, whom you converse with regularly and have a large history of communications with. If you decide to switch networks to something like Mastodon, you immediately come into contact with the Hardest Problem of Identity on the Internet, which is that your social graph is not portable between platforms. The only way to get your 10,000 followers on Twitter to “follow” you onto Mastodon is for every single one of them to sign up for Mastodon, find your account, follow you there, and then if you ever want to reference past conversations, link to a bunch of old Twitter threads. By 2021, Twitter will be dead, and you’ll have to use archive.org. Yuck. This is basically unworkable.”
Unworkable? Of course it is. Henry is right! But the reason of all the problems above may be that the very ideas of “platforms” and “communities” are the wrong ones to begin with.
Of course, “Free as in Freedom” software means that anybody who runs it can run it, and make the copy she runs, on her own hardware available to others, on whatever terms she prefer. Including exclusion of any groups, or topics. Their (software) home, their rules. I already explained this here.
Now, why do problems like the ones above, from domains blocked by your “community” administrator” to portability of social graphs and content, exist? My answer is that, in many cases, they only exist if we insist to think about online communities and platforms, instead of personal clouds.
In the rest of this post, I use the word “person” to mean one of the several identities that a physical or legal person (i.e. NGOs, businesses, or any other organization) may have online.
Now, if each single person had his or her very own online cloud as in this picture (*):
- one personal website (the blue boxes), with a unique, permanent domain name, which can be easily and transparently moved from any physical server (yellow box) to any other, any time
- and each of those website integrated single-user copies of software like Mastodon, Wordpress for blogging, NextCloud for online file sharing and so on…
- one system to discover which “personal website” belongs to the specific person (in the sense above) you want to connect with…
each “person” could:
- post every type of content they want (texts of whatever length, multimedia, everything), in their online cloud, sharing it any way they want, and being sure it will always be there, at the same online address.
- share with, and “follow”, every other person, and communicate with them and their other contacts, by connecting directly to their “feeds” for RSS, or Mastodon, or whatever will be trendy in 2020
- without worrying at all about moderation, portability, and social graphs. Not in the ways that concerns many people right now, at least.
Persons who can and want host their clouds on their own private hardware (in the picture: Sunil and Kurt) could do so. All the others could have their clouds hosted and/or managed by hosting providers they can trust. The providers themselves may be cooperatives of users. Each single user may move to any other “yellow box” without disruptions of services and connections.
In such a world, you would not “follow”, or communicate with me, as email@example.com, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You would all discover, once and for all, that my online home is mfioretti.com, and at that point you could:
- be informed by whatever I post via good old RSS feeds
- email me at email@example.com (but don’t try that, my active email is below)
- video-call me at firstname.lastname@example.org
- “find and follow me on Mastodon” (assuming it’s still needed, in such a landscape, which I doubt) as email@example.com.
- repeat the last point for any communication protocol that may appear in the future
See what I mean? We should not worry about firstname.lastname@example.org, but think email@example.com. We should turn the whole thing around. Start from individuals, and then add services to their online identities. More on the same topic is in my other recent posts about Mastodon. And here is my own proposal to make this happen: the percloud.
Of course, the “discovery system” mentioned above is no easy task to implement. I know that. But it would be way, way simpler than insisting with platforms, and portability as above, because it should not be reimplemented every time a new protocol comes around. Equally sure is the fact that, in an Internet like this, real community clouds and platforms will still be needed. But they could be special versions of the personal ones, each with their own owners and administrators, and many of the problems everybody is worrying about these days would disappear, or become much smaller issues. I can explain this in another post. If anybody is interested in reading such a post, or talking personal clouds in general, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(*) besides my own vision of personal clouds, that picture makes painfully clear that graphics are not my thing. If anybody feels like sharing a better one, thanks in advance for it!