Thoughs on Mastodon and Decentralisation
Or "In Defence of Counter.Social"
Recently psztrnk wrote an entry about Twitter Evancuation Day
(which I did not participate in, having never used Twitter in the
first place), part of which was a criticism of the Mastodon instance
Counter.Social. psztrnk claimed that Counter.Social was no better
than or different from Twitter, and that those who had left the
latter for the former had made a mistake. In this entry I intended
to (respectfully!) disagree. I will also respond to some extent to
Jandal's wonderings on Mastodon.
So, let's start with some background for the unfamiliar.
Counter.Social is a Mastodon instance based on the philosophy that
what's really wrong with social media is that people from "evil
countries" (like China, Russia and Iran) are exerting undue
influence over public discussion (I'm not sure if these are
supposed to be "ordinary people" from those countries or people
working in some kind of official capacity, as some kind
"intellectual agent provocateurs", PSYOPS or whatever). They are
proud to be the only social media service taking active counter
measures against this, which I take to mean that they do not allow
registrations from IP addresses which geolocate to one of the evil
countries, and do not exchange messages with other Mastodon servers
in those countries.
Psztrnk describes this as "basically destroy[ing] the most important
idea behind Mastodon by breaking the federation", describes the
administrators as "autocratic" and bemoans the principle of "my
money -- my server -- my rules", behind which that administrator
stands in defence of their geoblocking.
Now, let's get some things out of the way. Do I think influence
from non-Western nations is the biggest problem with modern social
media, or even amongst the 10 biggest problems? No, I very much
doubt it. I don't doubt that some of those country's governments
probably *do* engage in PSYOPS on Twitter etc. This is probably
quite likely, and I think it's just as likely that major Western
governments do the exact same thing in response. I DO doubt that
blocking certain countries based on IP address geolocation is an
effective countermeasure against this. Let's be serious, anybody
who has used the internet for more than a year knows that IP
geolocation is broken and stupid. It is very easy, very cheap and
perfectly legal to circumvent it by routing your traffic through
an intermediary. I do this every day, and you can get your bottom
dollar that official propaganda agents from Russia and China do it
to. So, I think Counter.Social are implementing naive and
ineffective countermeasures against a very small problem, and
that's silly. Folks who don't realise this and think they are
doing something that matters probably aren't very knowledgable and
probably have lots of silly political ideas about the inherent
superiority of the Western world and its "rightful ownership" of
the online world. I suspect plenty of the folk there aren't folk
I'd like to hang outwith regularly. So, Co.So is not my cup of
tea. But I also do not think they are engaging in any great evil,
nor are they actually remotely unusual in Mastodon space.
Anybody who has paid close attention to the sudden and rapid
integration of Mastodon into the Fediverse knows that the idea that
there is one integrated and harmonious Fediverse where every server
federates with every other one is not even close to correct. Heck,
Mastodon itself, by introducing non-standard and poorly-documented
extension to the de facto standard OStatus protocol, caused a lot
of problems with federation between Mastodon and non-Mastodon
servers. Holding Mastodon up as being all about universal
federation is a little bit of a joke. This is especially true
because the *flagship Mastodon instance*, mastodon.social, is
well-known in the Fediverse for its very extensive block-list.
Many of the earliest and largest Mastodon instances have nearly
perfectly insulated themselves from "the old Fediverse", i.e. any
nodes running GNUSocial, PostActive, Pleroma or other platforms.
This is usually because of the unwilligness or technical inability
(see below) of these servers to enforce conduct standards which
the admins of those Mastodon standards consider necessary.
Jandal asks, as a non-Mastodon user having a hard time getting a
feel for Mastodon from the outside (I strongly decry the fact that
Mastodon instances hide their local timelines from non-users, this
is ridiculous and makes it very difficult for people to "shop
around" for a commmunity which suits them, even though this is
supposed to be the point), whether or not the ideology of
federation and decentralisation is well understood and embraced on
Mastodon. He observes accurately that many people are piling onto
a very small number of "super instances", which is not very
My observations are that the ideology of decentralisation is very
little understood by many Mastodon users. Anybody who has paid
close attention can tell you that for most of the users
responsible for Mastodon's meteoric rise, the "killer feature" is
not, at all, decentralisation or federation. It is the fact that
Mastodon admins can impose stricter social norms of conduct than
are enforced by Twitter and thereby do more to create "safe spaces"
from trolls, bigots, "nazis", etc. Some instance admins will block
your instance not only if you don't have terms of service up to
their standard, but also if you do not yourself block other
instances who don't meet those standard!
Another "killer feature" is Mastodon's built in "content warning"
functionality, as well as the widely accepted norm (enforced by
admins) that these should be used very widely indeed. Now, most
Fediverse servers have a long-standing policy that if you post e.g.
sexually explicit or graphically violent content you should tag it
as #nsfw, and most software recognises this tag and hides/blurs
that post until you click a button afirming that you really want
to see it. Mastodon has extended this idea to a kind of "eggshell
society" where it is the moral obligation of every party to
carefully consider whether anything they say could, conceivably,
be upsetting for some minority segment of the online community and,
if so, tag it with an appropriate content warning. Anything to do
with politics, with health issues, with body image issues, with
gender/sexual identity issues, with drug or alcohol use, should,
in this school of thought, be flagged as such. For many people,
this is an ideal view of the world, and Mastodon is the only
software that caters to this idea (many Mastodon servers block
non-Mastodon OStatus servers, e.g. GNUSocial servers, simply
because their users do not use content warnings, regardless of the
fact that they literally *cannot* use CWs because these are a
non-standard OStatus extension invented by Mastodon and not yet
supported by most other servers). I belive many of these people
would *happily* join some kind of social media platform which was
centralised and non-federating so long as it had these and similar
features and anybody who did not use them correctly was warned and
eventually blocked for failure to do so.
As an indication of how little understood the nature of Mastodon
is, I have literally seen somebody ask, in all apparent
seriousness, "should corporations even be allowed on Mastodon?". I
am baffled by this. It's not that I love corporations and want to
see advertising on my timeline - I don't. It's that I don't
understand what it would even mean for them to be "allowed" or not
on Mastodon. This is as sensible as asking if corporations should
be "allowed on email", or "allowed on the web". It's
decentralised, people! It's literally impossible to stop
corporations joining the network, and *that's the point*! I don't
think this is widely understood or appreciated. I think a lot of
non-technical but ideologically inclined people who have grown up
on social media, used to having their activities controlled by
Silicon Valley megacorps, see Mastodon as some kind magical new
world where they are free to make up the rules that they want, and
have the power to ban those who do not follow them, a freedom that
they do not have at Twitter. And Mastodon does give them that
freedom, and that's great! But it gives that *same* freedom to
the folk who run Counter.Social (and it even gives that freedom to
All this is to say, Mastodon is *all about* "my server, my rules"!
This core principle of electronic self-ownership is *vitally
important* and should not be decried but embraced and defended at
all costs! The same power that lets Co.So block people based on IP
address lets others create, say, LGBT-only Mastodon instances. It
goes without saying that not everybody who wields this power
will do so in the same way. That's okay. One size does not fit
all. I do not think we should make a virtue of every Mastodon
instance federating with every other Mastodon instance
unconditionally (which is already not what we have). This will
only leave all communities unahppy.
I do not think it is accurate to call Co.So's policies autocratic.
They are very upfront and clear about their policies. Their users
know what they are signing up for, and have probably actively
sought it out. If anybody finds they were mistaken or changes
their mind, they can leave Co.So for some other Mastodon instance,
and unless their new instance is in an "evil country" they can
probably still talk to many of the same people they spoke to from
their Co.So account. Moving servers is a relatively low-cost
affair, so a server's policies are not really thrust upon the user.
I also do not think that people leaving Twitter for Co.So does not
represent progress. The real problem with Twitter is that if
you're on Twitter, you can't talk to people who aren't on it, and
if you aren't on it, you can't talk to people who are. This leads
to the well-known "network effect", whereby 90% of the planet ends
up on the one service, Twitter, and the flow on effects of this
are the real problems:
* Twitter becomes a single point of failure, both from the
perspective of oppresive regimes censoring the internet, and
from the point of view of technical failures.
* Twitter accumulates lots of private information on 90% of the
planet, which makes it very attractive from the perspective of
the marketing surveillance complex, and an attractive target
for data theft, and leads to the possibility of catastrophic
accidental data leakage.
* Twitter can make unpopular changes to their interface or terms
of service and users have no choice but to accept them because
if they leave they are cut off from 90% of the planet. This is
much closer to autocracy (although, still, at the end of the day,
Twitter cannot force you to join Twitter)
All of these problems go away if Twitter is replaced by 100,000
Mastodon instances, *even if* some of those instances have heavy
handed moderation policies based on nationalistic ideas, and *even
if* some instances do not federate with others (which is already
the case). It is *inevitable* that there will be differences of
opinion in the Fediverse, it is inevitable that some admins will
want their communities to have no contact with other communities.
As long as the Fediverse doesn't balkanise into hundreds of
completely disconnected subnetworks, which doesn't seem likely to
me, I think everything is just fine.
Finally, Jandal makes some amusing and glib remarks on the value
of microblogging, be it centralised or not. He concludes that
even if Mastodon were perfect, in the end "It's just another
microblogging platform. Perhaps a better, healthier one, but
still a vacuous one. It's like environmentally friendly farts".
I need to think on this. Although I found it funny, it also
"hurt", just a tiny bit, because I spend quite some time and
energy on Mastodon myself these days, but also because I find it
incredibly easy to imagine myself 12 months ago expressing
*exactly* the same sentiment. Have my beliefs changed or have
I lost my way? More on *that* very question in a future phlog.