The bridge

Seven months ago, Mastodon was fretting about Meta’s newly-launched Threads. The issue: Threads, which was built on top of Instagram’s user database, had said it complied with the Activity Pub protocol, which allows Mastodon servers (“instances”) to federate with any other service that also uses that protocol. The potential threat that Threads would become interoperable and that potentially millions of Threads users would swamp Mastodon, ignoring its existing social norms and culture created an existential dilemma: to federate or not to federate?

Today, Threads’ integration is still just a plan.

Instead, it seems the first disruptive arrival looks set to be Bluesky, created by a team backed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and facilitated by a third party. Bluesky wrote a new open source protocol, AT, so the proposal isn’t federation with Mastodon but a bridge, as Amanda Silberling reports at TechCrunch. According to Silberling’s numbers, year-old Bluesky stands at 4.8 million users to Mastodon’s 8.7 million. Anyone familiar with the history of AOL’s gateway to Usenet will tell you that’s big enough to disrupt existing social norms. The AOL exercise was known as Eternal September (because every September Usenet had to ingest a new generation of incoming university freshmen).

There are two key differences, however. First, a third of those Blusky users are new to that system, only joining last week, when the service opened fully to the public. They will bring challenges to the culture Bluesky has so far developed. Second, AOL’s gateway was unidirectional: AOLers could read and post to Usenet newsgroups, but Usenet posters could not read anything on AOL without paying for access. The Bluesky-Mastodon bridge is planned to be bidirectional, so anything posted publicly on one service would be accessible to both – or to outsiders using BridgyFed to connect via website feeds.

I haven’t spent a lot of time on Bluesky, but it’s clear it and Mastodon have different cultures. Friends who spend more time there say Bluesky has a “weirdness” they like and is less “scoldy” than Mastodon, where long-time users tended to school incoming ex-Twitter users in 2022 on their mistakes. That makes sense, when you consider that Mastodon has had time since its 2016 founding to develop an existing culture that newcomers are joining, where Bluesky has been a closed beta group until last week, and its users to date were the ones defining its culture for the future. The newcomers of the past week may have a very different experience.

Even if they don’t, there’s a fundamental economic difference that no technology can bridge: Mastodon is a non-profit cooperative endeavor, while Bluesky is has venture capital funding, although the list of investors is not the usual suspects. Social media users have often been burned by corporate business decisions. It’s therefore easy to believe that the $8 million in seed funding will lead inevitably to user data exploitation, no matter what they say now about being determined to find a different and more sustainable business model based on selling ancillary servicesx. Even if that strategy works, later owners or the dictates of shareholders may demand higher profits via a pivot to advertising, just as the Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming services are doing now.

Designing any software involves making rules for how it will operate and setting defaults. Here’s where the project hit trouble: should it be opt-out, so that users who don’t want their posts to be visible outside their home system have to specifically turn it off, or opt-in, so that users who want their posts published far and wide have to turn it on? BridgyFed’s creator, Ryan Barrett chose opt-out. It was immediately divisive: privacy versus openness.

Silberman reports that Barrett has fashioned a solution, giving users warning pop-ups and a chance to decline if someone from another service tries to follow them, and is thinking more carefully about the risks to safety his bridge might bring.

That’s great, but the next guy may not be so willing to reconsider. As we’ve observed before, there is no way to restrict the use of open protocols without closing them and putting them under centralized control – which is the opposite of the federated, decentralized systems Mastodon and Bluesky were created to build.

In a federated system anything one person can open another can close. Individual admins will decide for their users how their instances will operate. Those who don’t like their choice will be told they can port their accounts to one whose policies they prefer. That’s true, but unsatisfying as an answer. As the “Fediverse” grows, it must accommodate millions of mainstream users for whom moving servers is too complicated.

The key point, however, is that the illusion of control Mastodon seemed to offer is being punctured. Usenet users could have warned them: from its creation in 1979, users believed their postings were readable for a few weeks before expiring and being expunged. Then, in 1995, Steve Madere created the Deja News archive from scattered collections. Overnight, those “ephemeral” postings became permanent and searchable – and even more so, after 2001, when Google bought the archive (see

The upshot: privacy in public networks is only ever illusory. Assume you have no control over anything you post, no matter how cozy and personal the network seems. As we’ve said before, the privacy-in-public afforded by the physical world has no online counterpart.

Illustrations: A mastodon by Heinrich Harder (public domain, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. She is a contributing editor for the Plutopia News Network podcast. Follow on Mastodon.

The horns of a dilemma

It has always been possible to conceive a future for Mastodon and the Fediverse that goes like this: incomers join the biggest servers (“instances”). The growth of those instances, if they can afford it, accelerates. When the sysadmins of smaller instances burn out and withdraw, their users also move to the largest instances. Eventually, the Fediverse landscape is dominated by a handful of very large instances (who enshittify in the traditional way) with a long tail of small and smaller ones. The very large ones begin setting rules – mostly for good reasons like combating abuse, improving security, and offering new features – that the very small ones struggle to keep up with. Eventually, it becomes too hard for most small instances to function.

This is the history of email. In 2003, when I set up my own email server at home, almost every techie had one. By this year, when I decommissioned it in favor of hosted email, almost everyone had long since moved to Gmail or Hotmail. It’s still possible to run an independent server, but the world is increasingly hostile to them.

Another possible Fediverse future: the cultural norms that Mastodon and other users have painstakingly developed over time become swamped by a sudden influx of huge numbers of newcomers when a very large instance joins the federation. The newcomers, who know nothing of the communities they’re joining, overwhelm their history and culture. The newcomers are despised and mocked – but meanwhile, much of the previous organically grown culture is lost, and people wanting intelligent conversation leave to find it elsewhere.

This is the history of Usenet, which in 1994 struggled to absorb 1 million AOLers arriving via a new gateway and software whose design reflected AOL’s internal design rather than Usenet’s history and culture. The result was to greatly exacerbate Usenet’s existing problems of abuse.

A third possible Fediverse future: someone figures out how to make money out of it. Large and small instances continue to exist, but many become commercial enterprises, and small instances increasingly rely on large instances to provide services the small instances need to stay functional. While both profit from that division of labor, the difficulty of discover means small servers stay small, and the large servers become increasingly monopolistic, exploitative, and unpleasant to use. This is the history of the web, with a few notable exceptions such as Wikipedia and the Internet Archive.

A fourth possible future: the Fediverse remains outside the mainstream, and admins continue to depend on donations to maintain their servers. Over time, the landscape of servers will shift as some burn out or run out of money and are replaced. This is roughly the history of IRC, which continues to serve its niche. Many current Mastodonians would be happy with this; as long as there’s no corporate owner no one can force anyone out of business for being insufficiently profitable.

These forking futures are suddenly topical as Mastodon administrators consider how to respond to this: Facebook will launch a new app that will interoperate with Mastodon and any other network that uses the ActivityPub protocol. Early screenshots suggest a clone of Twitter, Meta’s stated target, and reports say that Facebook is talking to celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama as potential users. The plan is reportedly that users will access the new service via their Instagram IDs and passwords. Top-down and celebrity-driven is the opposite of the Fediverse.

It should not be much comfort to anyone that the competitor the company wants to kill with this initiative is Twitter, not Mastodon, because either way Meta doesn’t care about Mastodon and its culture. Mastodon is rounding error even for just Instagram. Twitter is also comparatively small (and, like Reddit, too text-based to grow much further) but Meta sees in it the opportunity to capture its influencers and build profits around them.

The Fediverse is a democracy in the sense that email and Usenet were; admins get to decide their server’s policy, and users can only accept or reject by moving their account (which generally loses their history). For admins, how to handle Meta is not an easy choice. Meta has approached for discussions the admins of some of the larger Mastodon instances, who must sign an NDA or give up the chance to influence developments. That decision is for the largest few; but potentially every Mastodon instance operator will have to decide the bigger question: do they federate with Meta or not? Refusal means their users can’t access Meta’s wider world, which will inevitably include many of their friends; acceptance means change and loss of control. As I’ve said here before, something that is “open” only to your concept of “good people” isn’t open at all; it’s closed.

At Chronicles of the Instantly Curious, Carey Lening deplores calls to shun Meta as elitist; the AOL comparison draws itself. Even so, the more imminent bad future for Mastodon is this fork that could split the Fediverse into two factions. Of course the point of being decentralized is to allow more choice over who you socially network with. But until now, none of those choices took on the religious overtones associated with the most heated cyberworld disputes. Fasten your seatbelts…

Illustrations: A mastodon by Heinrich Harder (public domain, via Wikimedia).

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Follow on Mastodon.