Mastodon, Fediverse, connections and severings

This post is a short dialogue with myself. I am writing this in response to some recent events on the Fediverse. The reason I'm writing this is to help me record and work out some ideas connected to these events. And the reason for writing this in the form of a dialogue - following Paulo Freire and bell hooks' example - is that on this occasion, I'm more interested in retaining various perspectives / questions than in deciding on which side to pick.

There are two sides to the dialogue: the side which asks the questions, and poses puzzles (in italics below) is meant to trick, goad, and disrupt my usual groove (see also: Coyotes in a Triopticon workshop). The side which replies (in regular text) will try to stick close to my "usual" mode of thinking about stuff, and my reactions to the events.

So - what happened?

Yesterday, the BBC decided to join the Fediverse. The corporation set up its own server, with its own top-level domain, and introduced several Mastodon accounts. Some people got excited and welcomed them to the network. Others started calling the BBC out - especially for the way in which they shape their coverage of trans rights. Some instance admins decided to defederate from the BBC servers - which means that users of these instances won't have any contact with the BBC servers.

And why does any of this matter?

I guess it matters to me because I get to see the way in which Fediverse users and moderators react to events like these. You see the enthusiasm: plenty of folks see BBC's presence as the sign that the Fediverse project is getting some validation and attention. You see the anger and revulsion: there are lots of things to be angry about, when it comes to the way BBC shapes reality. And then you get the cycles of drama: the enthusiastic people trying to tell the angry people to calm down and come round; the angry people trying to tell the BBC enthusiasts to calm down and see who it is they're welcoming.

You're being awfully diplomatic about this. I'm noticing how quickly you switched from "I" to "you" in the above paragraph.

You're right: I just noticed it now. It's my tendency to try and deflect or disarm any aggro / drama situation, and I'm projecting this onto these events. Even now, instead of writing an emotional thread on my Mastodon account, I'm setting up this dialogue with myself, to dissect what is an intensely emotional scene!

So, go on then. Be you, let rip. Forget I'm here. How do you feel about this?

I selfishly want Mastodon to remain my happy, wholesome, and creative corner of the web. It brings me much joy, and excitement, on a daily basis. So every time there's drama, every time things splinter and crack and people start throwing f-bombs and fediblocks at each other, I want to start running around with sticking plasters, and make everything better and defuse all the situation, so I can go back to my wholesome enjoyment. I fear that each similar situation will f_ck Fediverse up for me.

How accurate do you think this is, as a description of what's going on?

This fear of failure, this "why can't we just get along?" sentiment - that's probably there, in many people's attitudes. This desire to smooth things over, to offer simple solutions, to "make Mastodon a success". Even if it manifests as something less than pleasant - for example, a comment saying, "Why don't you just ___ and everything's sorted."

Sounds reasonable. What's wrong with shortcuts and cheat codes? What's wrong with simple solutions? In a place where everyone improvises, what's wrong with sticking plasters?

Well, they just won't work for the diverse communities I've seen around the parts of Mastodon I interact with. Let me give you two examples. Saying, "why don't you just use (insert Linux flavour)?" is a non-starter for many blind users who find that their Windows/Mac machines are much better supported when it comes to accessibility features which let them do their work. And saying to moderators, "why don't you just let your instance users decide instead of defederating" is not good advice if you see your role as protecting a community from rapid, unpredictable pile-ons from bad actors. I've been on the receiving end of these, and I know that reacting to these after they've happened is never a good place to be.

This whole dialogue is, so far, a very long-winded way of saying, "PFFFT, tricky, innit." BBC shows up on the Fediverse - on their own server, not burdening existing instance moderators with their presence. Meta is rumoured to follow. More big names may well be considering this move. Isn't this what you all wanted?

Maybe it isn't, you know. Maybe some of us wanted to have our little corner of the web, and to exist there, amongst our tribe, without having to look out for the Corporation of the Day conundrum every other day.

But isn't that the logical consequence of a free, open-source movement - that everyone is allowed to take part in it? And once they do - isn't instant defederation sending the opposite signal?

Everyone can play their part. And sometimes, "playing your part" means making a call to cut ties with parts of it. There are Fediverse instances which are filled with problematic, or downright illegal behaviour. In its current form, the project allows anyone to spin off a server and attempt to federate. And when bad actors do, "playing your part" means identifying them and isolating them.

How soon before this becomes a sisyphean task? Let's say your own instance grows, and it gets harder for you to gauge its sentiment / pulse - to work out what they need. At the same time, let's say you need to make 10 BBC-sized calls per week, and many of them are much less clear-cut. Aren't you bound to get these things wrong?

Some would say we're already at that point. Judging by the emotions surrounding this one BBC event, I'd say this is already a "can't please everyone" moment.

And again, I'll need to point out the fact that your perspective all of this is extremely comfortable and privileged. Ivory-tower-adjacent, even.

I joined a relatively big Mastodon instance in 2020, and left for my own one-person instance in July 2023. The reason I did this was that I felt there was no way I was going to be comfortable with every call my instance makes in situations such as these - and my desire to limit the drama pushed me to fly solo.

Why doesn't everyone just do what you did?

See, that's the kind of bullsh_t shortcut-thinking I've told you about. I've got the money to spare on paying my hosting fees. I've got the time to learn about what it takes to fly a solo instance, and the skills to sort stuff out. Crucially, I've got the spoons to think about all of this, and to deal with the fallout. Saying to anyone, "why don't you just self-host your instance?" is the last thing I want to do.

I want to get you out of the "PFFT, tricky, innit" groove again. I want you out of your ivory tower. We've been at it for an hour now. Tell me something - anything - that could be seen as helpful.

If you're a user, please think of your instance as a means of transport. It gets you on a journey, and you'll get to interact with other vehicles along the way. Are you happy with how big your ride is? Are you happy to share the ride with anyone, or just with folks you can relate to? Crucially - as the road is about to get more crowded - are you happy with the way your ride is driven, and the direction it's going? If not, please know that other vehicles are available.

If you're still confused, I'm here. I'm not going anywhere, and I want to help if I can - and also to learn about how others see this Fediverse project. Feel free to chat to me about this.

How do you feel about it all, now that we've talked it over?

I think there's going to be plenty more drama on the Fediverse, and plenty more pain. I know that things will change and evolve and sometimes break. And I also know that it's messier, bigger, and more complicated than I, or anyone, can understand, and that folks' intentions or motivations are sometimes only clear to me after I've listened and thought about it.

You just told me what you think and what you know. I asked: how do you *feel** about it all?*

I feel excited to see what this project will become, and resigned because it will almost certainly not be all I want it to be.

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