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.