Pluralistic: What the fediverse (does/n’t) solve (23 Dec 2022)
No matter how benevolent a dictatorship is, it’s still a dictatorship, and subject to the dictator’s whims. We must demand that the owners and leaders of tech platforms be fair and good – but we must also be prepared for them to fail at this, sometimes catastrophically.
That is, even if you trust Tim Cook to decide what apps you are and aren’t allowed to install – including whether you are allowed to install apps that block Apple’s own extensive, nonconsensual, continuous commercial surveillance of its customers – you should also be prepared for Cook to get hit by a bus and replaced by some alt-right dingleberry.
In case you think Cory sides with Elon Musk, a wealthy, selfish, often cruel, weirdo who has marketed himself as a man who is so smart that he can say or do whatever he wants, he doesn’t.
But, it takes Cory a long time to get to the fediverse:
The Fediverse’s foundation is a standard called ActivityPub, which was designed by weirdos who wanted to make a durably open, interoperable substrate that could support nearly any application. This was something that large corporations were both uninterested in building and which they arrogantly dismissed as a pipe dream. This means that Activitypub is actually as good as its architects could make it, free from boobytraps laid by scheming monopolists.
BTW, the use of terms like “weirdo” is, I think, meant in the best way – people outside of the accepted normal or willing to look outside of same.
The perils of running your own Mastodon server have also become a hot topic of debate. To hear the critics warn of it, anyone who runs a server that’s open to the public is painting a huge target on their back and will shortly be buried under civil litigation and angry phone-calls from the FBI.
This is: Just. Not. True. The US actually has pretty good laws limiting intermediary liability (that is, the responsibility you bear for what your users do). You know all that stuff about how CDA230 is “a giveaway to Big Tech?” That’s only true if the internet consists solely of Big Tech companies. However, if you decide to spend $5/month hosting a Mastodon instance for you and your community, that same law protects you.
Indeed, while running a server that’s open to the public does involve some risk, most of that risk can be contained by engaging in a relatively small, relatively easy set of legal compliance practices, which EFF’s Corynne McSherry lays out in this very easy-to-grasp explainer:
Finally, there’s the ongoing debate over whether Mastodon can (and should) replace Twitter. This week on the Canadaland Short Cuts podcast, Jesse Brown neatly summarized (and supported, alas) the incorrect idea that using Mastodon was no different from using Gab or Parler or Post.
This is very, very wrong. The thing is, even if you like and trust the people who run Gab or Parler or Post, you face exactly the same risk you face with Twitter or Facebook: that the leadership will change, or have a change of heart, and begin to enshittify your community there. When they do, your only remedy will be the one that Valente describes, to scatter to the winds and try and reform your community somewhere else.
But that’s not true of the Fediverse. On Mastodon, you can export all your followers, and all the people who follow you, with two clicks. Then you can create an account on another server and again, with just two clicks, you can import those follows and followers and be back up and running, your community intact, without being under the thumb of the server manager who decided to sell your community down the river (you can also export the posts you made).
For me, and I kind of thank Elon Musk, a wealthy, selfish, often cruel, weirdo who has marketed himself as a man who is so smart that he can say or do whatever he wants, for this realization, is:
They’re not that smart. By “they” I mean Space Karen and Thiel and Jobs and the Oracle guy and Gates and whomever. They and those like them did something, maybe, that made a difference. Some, like Space Karen, marketed themselves instead. They all ended up where they are because they convinced people that what they were selling was the best.
Remember: the audio player and smart phone existed before Jobs moved Apple there; Space Karen bought into and then took over Tesla and SpaceX, and so on.