Is the Fediverse Just Big Tech Subjugation in a Richard Stallman Wig?

Popzazzle | Tuesday, 26 July 2022 |

"On inspection, the Fediverse showed itself to have most of the same problems as mainstream social media, and its mistreatment of users was both widespread and historically-ingrained. Some elements of the Fediverse were in fact worse than mainstream social."

It's hailed as the hero's arrow that might one day slay the monster of mainstream social media. Could it? I'll leave that one for others to answer. What I want to ask is: if the Fediverse did destroy the now openly hostile gang of megasilos, would it really make the world a better place? Is it any better than its centralised rivals? Is it even decentralised? We shall see. But let me prime this article with a nugget of philosophy...

Us humans have a quaint psychological tendency, when surrounded by trash, to react not with "OMG! OMG! I'm surrounded by trash! Get me the heck outta here!", but with "Prepare my megaphone, so that I may orate a glowing tribute to the BEST piece of trash." Yes, when all we can find is crap, we would rather spend half our lives in denial, racked with cognitive dissonance, than admit that there's no such thing as good crap.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. The Fediverse...

HISTORICAL ROOTS

The Fediverse - an interconnected network of 'decentralised' social platforms - began life in the late 2000s with Laconica - an uber-geeky, free and open source software alternative to Twitter. Since, at that time, few people perceived any problem with using Twitter itself, the primary meaningful use for Laconica was as an intranet communication system. Laconica could be installed in workplaces and educational establishments, for fully private use - without the need for any external, Internet access.

"If some Mastodon instances grew big enough, they could be acquired and fully centralised by Big Tech. Their Privacy Policies are even claused for that exact eventuality."

Laconica, it should be stressed, was only the actual software required to set up a social or intranet messaging network. You couldn't randomly sign up to Laconica as a member of the public in the way you'd sign up to Twitter. If you wanted to join a public community without setting up the Laconica software on your own server, you went to identi.ca, which was a social website driven by the Laconica software.

But from the start there were violatory conditions built into what would ultimately become the Fediverse. identi.ca mandated Creative Commons licencing for everything published on the site, which meant that users did not own their content, and were stripped of their statutory intellectual property rights as a condition of use.

Worse, Creative Commons is a predatory, insidious scam, presenting itself not as the total concession of rights it really is, but as a form of copyright, with conditions that "hElP tHe CoNtEnT cReAtOr AcHiEvE bEtTeR rEcOgNiTiOn". In other words, it consciously dupes creators into conceding ALL their IP rights under a false impression that they still have copyright control.

"Stripping creators of their rights in this way is a violation to which not even Facebook has stooped."

The Fediverse began to take shape in 2010, with the arrival of diaspora* and the Facebook clone Friendica, and deeper consideration of the means by which the different software variants could best connect together. At this point, however, the network was colloquially referenced as the Identiverse, based on its inaugural node identi.ca. The term Fediverse - reflecting the federated system of transmission - went into common use around the beginning of 2013.

Today the Fediverse incorporates GNU Social (which directly traces back to Laconica and identi.ca), diaspora*, Friendica, Mastodon, Pleroma, Pixelfed, Misskey, etc.

IS THE FEDIVERSE REALLY DECENTRALISED?

Increasing public recognition of the Fediverse has made it a target in the identity race. The identity race being a now fever-pitched quest to establish the ultimate means of persistently identifying individual human beings online. To set the quest in context... To date, the better the Web has become at identifying people, the more it's censored them, bubbled them, and exploited them.

But is it possible to universally identify people across a decentralised network? Well, the Fediverse is not quite as decentralised as its typical advocate makes out. It's connected together by a protocol called ActivityPub, which serves as a centralised authentication hub.

At present, each Fediverse user is defined by ActivityPub as an "actor", and linked to the base URL where their account is established. By deleting an account and setting up a new one, each "actor" can change their base URL - essentially changing their identity. However, the base URL can easily be substituted within ActivityPub for a much more persistent type of user identifier, and for a while now, some thoughts have been heading in that direction.

This simple change makes the Fediverse as centralised as its hive mind. In other words, if all federated node admins decide they don't want a particular person in the community, or are incentivised by a single source to eliminate that person, the person is blocked, and effectively deplatformed. Which renders the Fediverse censorially indistinguishable from centralised platforms.

We already see this hive mind in action with certain sub-communities. There are various sub-communities in the Fediverse that most node admins entirely block. That is, the admins exclude entire domains on which the sub-community's accounts are hosted. If persistent personal IDs were normalised within the Fediverse and mandated by the majority of nodes, it would make individual people as easy to block as domains.

Whether or not you agree that this is a good way to moderate an environment, it tells us that supposed 'decentralisation' can still be made to function (and in particular exclude) in the same way as a centralised platform. So can we dismiss decentralisation as a 'selling point' for the Fediverse?

By Farcaster's definition of 'sufficient decentralization', the Fediverse, even as it stands now, would be classed as centralised. To quote the definition...

"A social network achieves sufficient decentralization if two users can find each other and communicate, even if the rest of the network wants to prevent it."

The Fediverse's main 'selling point' - its decentralisation - is thus skating on the thinnest of ice. So, what other selling points are there?

CURRENT ADVANTAGES

Moderation is currently the Fediverse's greatest advantage over the mainstream networks. Broadly, the Fediverse keeps commercial spam under control particularly well, and this is down to the low user to administrator ratio. For example, of 4165 current Mastodon nodes, only the top 9 have more than 10,000 active monthly users. Looking at the Local feed for a node outside those top nine, but inside the top forty, it was easy to detect spam with a quick visual scroll through the past 24 hours. There were fewer than 150 posts made in that period, and over half came from two rather over-enthusiastic accounts - both of which stood out like a couple of sore thumbs.

The almost total filtering of blatant commercial spam is even scalable - as long as the Fediverse can distribute its membership adequately and maintain the low user to admin ratio. It's arguably the environment's most attractive feature.

And the lack of choreographed advertising is pretty much universally welcome. Although in some areas of the Fediverse, the persistent donation-nagging is only marginally less annoying than a raft of Promoted Tweets.

Another major advantage is the connectable architecture, which gives users a choice of front end, allows them to host their own access point if they're able, and offers a level of interoperability. However, the open source nature of the software makes interoperability a severable component, and that takes us back to the realm of centralisation.

For example, if Doctor Evil runs a Mastodon node that explodes in popularity, he can basically centralise it. He can sell the node to Facebook, who can then fork the open software to block federation, export, and everything else that would allow users to escape the network effect. As long as Facebook acknowledge the original source and publish the code for their fork they're in compliance with the standard licence. In fact, if you read the boilerplate user terms in use with the average Mastodon instance, they grant the admin carte blanche to sell their userbase to a third party and pass on all data, with no acquisition types out of bounds. If a node citing this clause grew big enough, it could indeed feasibly be acquired and centralised by Big Tech.

It's here that we reach the doorstep of user mistreatment. Minor in comparison to the centralised behemoths, right? Unfortunately not. On inspection, the Fediverse showed itself to have most of the same problems as mainstream social media, and its mistreatment of users was both widespread and historically-ingrained. Some elements of the Fediverse were in fact worse than mainstream social.

MISTREATMENT OF USERS

As a starting point, we must recognise that the basic design of these alternative networking resources is exactly the same as that of the mainstream social platforms they aim to replace. Platforms that were devised and honed to abuse the user.

For example, the Fediverse is built around treadmill publishing, within which all content effectively drops into a trash can after a limited time, so the user must continue to post endlessly in order to exist. This not only enslaves the poster - it also subjects the reader to qualitative compromise and repetition, since the need to post to a regular schedule necessarily takes priority over the quality and/or originality of the content.

Equally akin to Big Social, the Fediverse forcibly brands the community with irremovable popularity scores such as Follower stats, designed to humiliate the user into referring friends, family or an existing audience. Popularity totals are widely known to cause groupspeak, homogeny and transactional behaviours. They can also exacerbate self-esteem issues in those who suffer from them.

Most of the technology in the Fediverse is JavaScript-dependent, allowing admins to run creepware from the server-side, without detection. Because the software forces us to drastically downgrade our privacy protections, we have no way of knowing if or when admins are lab-ratting us from the back end. The Free Software Foundation specifically campaigned for all websites to work without the need for JavaScript - highlighting that this is indeed a mistreatment of the user. But even within a network of communities that the FSF themselves spawned, that vital freedom is now virtually dead. gnusocial.net will run without JavaScript, but it abuses its contributors by violating their intellectual property rights with mandatory Creative Commons licencing. The user can't win.

The Fediverse is renowned for having near-useless search facitities. It may sound at first as if this is merely poor tech, and not a mistreatment of the user. However, the search facilities are deliberately crippled - according to Mastodon, to prevent people who are vulnerable to harassment and other harmful behaviours from being found. This sounds like faux reasoning, since the majority of social media users obviously do want to be found, and those who don't could exclude themselves from general search via a personal selection in the user settings. To me, crippling the search looks more like a measure to shut down intelligent content-sourcing and enforce "scroll-zombification" (which equates to time-theft), whilst shoring up the content treadmill that forces users to keep posting in order to exist. Whatever the intention, it does do those things, and those things mistreat the user.

Mandatory Creative Commons licencing. On some social nodes and platforms in the Fediverse, posters do not own their work, and the spread of stolen content is exacerbated by the "free" licencing conditions, which persuade consumers that they can re-post everything they find. Stripping creators of their rights in this way is a violation to which not even Facebook has stooped.

OTHER PROBLEMS WITH THE FEDIVERSE INCLUDE...

  • It's way too difficult to join under suitable conditions and with a reliable outcome. The sign-up process is horrendously disjointed and convoluted. Because there's no single, unified usage policy, finding a suitable node requires manually visiting each one and checking their individual blurb. Nearly all conceal their user content at the point of sign-up. Some require an email application letter to join. Others periodically open and close to new sign-ups. Some charge for access.
  • There's high risk of email addresses and other information being sold to scammers, since node administrators are unvetted, most often have little at stake, and are under no media scrutiny. Fundamentally, the legitimate rewards available to the average Fediverse node admin are very low. You then have to ask yourself what the motivation is. I personally went onto an aggressive scam email list immediately after joining a Fediverse node. I can't prove that was the source of the data transfer, but it looked by far the most likely.
  • Very high incidence of nodes randomly closing down.
  • Some nodes delete accounts after modest periods of inactivity.
  • Various levels of deliberate access-gating, up to full-on walled-garden status.
  • Sign-up pages often omit access to privacy policies and/or terms.
  • In addition to the 'sale-of-userbase' clause previously mentioned, boilerplate privacy policies rubberstamp third-party web beacons.
  • Fediverse components can be fairly pushy, encouraging users to provide data they don't need to provide. There were also signs of self-serving behaviour at the expense of the user, such as Mastodon's "Verification" system - which is basically just a means for Mastodon to gain links from external web properties, and in true Big Tech style, does a lot more for the platform than for the user.

IN CLOSING

I'm not opposed to the raw concept of the Fediverse, and I think the incoming new wave of decentralised social concepts could be a lot worse. But I think there's an enormous amount of negative feedback the Fediverse should be hearing, and isn't, because people don't like to criticise an underdog that opposes the villainous mainstream.

The fact that the Fediverse is not run by surveillance capitalists should not place it above criticism - especially when it embraces so many of the features that were designed by surveillance capitalists specifically to subjugate the user.

So many of us consider the problem with mainstream social media to be its designers. What I'm saying, is that the problem is the design, and that simply distancing it from the entitled moguls who created it does not make it better. The Fediverse must evolve to become something other than a straightforward copy of those big guns, minus the ads.

And if it doesn't? Well, it may run into the same wave of 'social media nihilism' that now afflicts the big guns. It may be shoved into 'where-are-they-now?' territory by blockchain bros who have already managed to portray the Fediverse as "centralised" and attracted $tens of $millions in funding in the process.

I would much rather put my voice behind the best of Web 2.0 than a blockchain project. But as things stand I just can't. Time after time I have logged into a Fediverse node thinking: "I'll post something this time". And invariably, I look at the post dialogue and think: "Why do this?".

I spent years on Twitter building a respectable Follower total, and it was utter, needless, gruelling, timewasting Hell, purely to avoid looking like an absolute fucking loser. Why would I waste another year locked in that same battle against contrived humiliation, for the greater benefit of someone who not only thinks it's fine to irremovably badge me as an absolute fucking loser, but who also sees me as a free publicity machine for a site they own, and which they can sell to the preds, and who - on top of all that - wants me to line their pocket with a donation?

Tell me. Why would I do that? And if you're busy designing the next gen social media sensation, ask yourself how many other people have that exact, same, entirely rational feeling?

Bob Leggitt
Post author Bob Leggitt is a print-published writer and digital image creator, multi-instrumentalist, twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, web page designer and software developer.
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