Daniel Miller

Existential Crisis of the Fediverse

Note: I’m publishing this before I figure out if I agree with myself, and changing the body font of this site once again before I figure out if I really like it.

The Fediverse, which by its nature I cannot link to (however The Federation is a good hub for this collective project) is defined by Wikipedia as:

(a portmanteau of “federation” and “universe”)…the ensemble of federated servers that are used for web publishing (i.e. social networking, microblogging or websites) and file hosting.

(“A federation is a group of computing or network providers agreeing upon standards of operation in a collective fashion.”)

As a technical solution, I have no issue with federated data whatsoever. I’m certain it has important, viable applications. Plural. But I do not believe social networking is one of those.

Ironically, I use Mastodon as a Twitter alternative. But if mastodon.social went away tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t spend any effort standing up my own Mastodon server; I probably wouldn’t even spend any effort migrating to a different node.

It’s been about a month and a half since I joined started posting on Mastodon, and it’s like my first hour on Twitter in 2008 (or whenever that was). When I finally deleted my Twitter account 2.5 years ago I had 17,000 tweets. (I should do something with that data someday.) If I’m going to put content on any 3rd party site, I want it to be not a big deal if it were to disappear tomorrow. (I deleted my Facebook account at the same time as Twitter, but opted out of a data export.)

But to my point: Twitter and Facebook solved problems we didn’t have, and in fact created new, bigger problems that we now do have. The main problem of Twitter and Facebook and other centralized social networks isn’t that they’re centralized (although that is a problem). The main problem of social networks is their user experience patterns. Many of those patterns are mirrored in these federated services.

So what problem are these services trying to solve? They’re not going to improve the dialog amongst the citizenry of the world, in fact, the tools they create could become yet another in the toolbox of those set to divide us and set ourselves against one another.

It is my hypothesis that the fediverse is creating a technological solution for a practice that can only work outside of technology. A practice that, as soon as technology is laid across it, dissolves into the same problems of any other centralized network.

That said, a hub-based model is certainly better than a completely centralized one, and as long as the truly autonomous groups that make up this practice of which I speak use those hubs as a temporary conveinence and not as a true storefront for their ideas, those hubs are fine.

But said groups must be autonomous and any structures they create should be temporary. How that works from a technological standpoint has a lot more in common with secret URLs distributed on slips of paper or via clues snuck into Alternative Reality Games than it does with social media marketing.

And as far as machines being able to process this data we leave littered across the world wide web…we hardly need much protocol for that. Just the smallest about of structure and metadata can be plenty enough for a clever piece of code to create heaps of meaning (and multibillion-dollar companies) from. Just look at Google. In the service of this piece of the puzzle, I find microformats and its ilk a much more interesting piece of technology than federated protocols.

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