State of the Fediverse 2022
Hi all! Trying to hone my writing skills and focusing on things I love: computer technology, the internet and content creation! For this purpose I decided to make an article, something a’la “Linux SUCKS” articles that outline certain issues and problems regarding distributed social platforms, or “the fediverse”. Posting this in “Development > web” as it seems the most fruitful place to discuss issues of social media platforms. Join me, why dontcha?
TL;DR: The fediverse lacks functions and features that most people would react positively too, therefore creating a barrier to entry for most people. These problems are not limited to technological problems, but also ideological problems that leads development to a UX stalemate (IMHO).
Now, on with the article in the form of YEE OL’ WALL OF TEXT…!
In 2008 Identi.ca was founded by Ohio resident Evan Prodromou. This was the inception of the OStatus protocol, a precursor to Pump.io, which has now been superseded by the W3C standardized ActivityPub protocol. The idea behind these protocols was simple: create a framework for intercommunication between separate service providers so that users on one platform could communicate and share with each other without having to register on a new platform and vice versa. Not only that, but in the case of GNU Social accounts could be nomadic, in that they could freely move from platform to platform.
Along with the founding of platforms, such as Mastodon, Pleroma, etc, certain principles were instilled which can only be referred to as being “anti-Facebook”. One such principle was to not implement “incentive systems” of any kind, or to make the systems to barebones as possible so not to try and squeeze the attention economy. What’s an “incentive system”? Notifications, gamifications, like-buttons, downvotes, single-emoticon-responses, all sorts of methods meant to keep you interested, keep you doomscrolling and keep you engaged. Avoding these tactics sounds good on paper, as we gleefully fantasize about a world where these predatory tactics to keep you engaged would be un-popularized.
But much like the high faluting ideals of FLOSS enthusiasts who worked on libre, free desktops and applications for the past decades, there is a certain apathetic attitudes towards usability and conventional social media features. These dismissive attitudes become barriers to entry that prevents development aimed at the average user to actually find interests in said platforms - mostly the aforementioned ideals that prevent any kind of incentive for users to make the switch. Though this has changed recently for certain FLOSS projects (btw, I use GNOME 41, going on GNOME 42) whereby the user experience is put front and center. I realise that this also comes across as the “developers need to do what I say” attitude, which in itself is toxic and subversive. Don’t demand things from people who sacrifice their private life to make FLOSS projects. That’s just wrong.
But still, to me the “little to no engagement” practice itself is kind of culturally ignorant, as it doesn’t take into account that average people (yes: average people) like to put flags of virtue over their avatars. They like to give hearts, frowniefaces and they also like to downvote (despite what YouTube may tell you). This is also compounded by the people in the fediverse I’ve talked to on various Mastodon servers and Matrix server, even those who try to organize ways to get average people into the fediverse. In many of these cases the problem is underlined: much like the FLOSS desktop developers traditionally approached problems, the fediverse is filled with specially interested, technically inclined geeks who care not for silly things like UX and oppose anything that might make the platforms more palpable to plebeian paupers. The people I’ve talked to are aware of the problem, going so far as to calling the attitude “elitist” and that it actively repels users from taking the plunge. There’s also the “benevolent dictator” problem in certain federated instances, something that wouldn’t be a problem in my opinion of the fediverse was more widespread.
In the case of these people who are pro-distributed social platforms, there is no clear agreement of what solutions are necessary for the fediverse to grow. To me it’s both a combination of technological discrepancies (i.e federated social platforms are pretty much bound to VPS services) and the user base of the federated social platforms. I like me some technical talk, but you also meet a lot of political zealots and people with extreme opinions across the spectrum, something the average user would not want to partake in - despite what Facebook managed to do by radicalizing users in their craven search for more engagement, something that speaks to the problem of a massive corporation having access to peoples private information, when said private information can lead them down deep, dark rabbit holes.
I know, I know. There’s a lot of here-say in this article, so let me try to list some problems or lacking features that could help to boost adoption even further:
- Mobility of platform infrastructure: there aren’t that many services that provide support for federated social platforms and not a single one I can find that hosts “managed fediverse” servers, let alone something like scalable cloud apps (with an honourable mention going to CommLab, which is an attempt at creating a cloud setup for Mastodon, PeerTube, Matrix Synapse, Keycloak SSO). The project is currently a manually setup kubernets cluster, but I’ve talked to the developer and it’s currently just a “glimmer in the postmans eye” as he considers various avenues of developing an easily setup cloud base for distributed social platforming.
- Usability and UX: Usability seems to be “optional” for some people, though you should realise SEO penalizes those who don’t provide visual explanations for images so that blind people can interpret them. At the same time, there are some finnicky user experinces to be found on Mastodon, a supposed clone of Twitter that also relies on some old-world “admin backend” like designs that the average user is supposed to be able to use. These barriers to entry are really what makes these platforms a bit “janky” to use, and also prevents adoption (though I’m fully aware you could reskin something like Mastodon, there are still issues with UX that require a change in the core of the Mastodon service).
- No money for you: monetization is actually a credible issue. Believe it or not, if you couldn’t monetize off a platform there would be much less content - for better or worse. How one can monetize one’s own platform relies on features like subscription features, payment methods, ad trackers for serving ads, even incentive systems like Twitch’s bits system. It shouldn’t be a requirement, but platforms should be able to monetize them selves - something which again has been contentious in the FLOSS world, a problem which I hope Flatpaks will help solve on the FLOSS desktop.
I’m wondering what you guys think. What are your problems regarding the “fediverse”, “federated social platforms” or “distributed social networks”? I’m personally very interested in finding out how to provide distributed social platforms as a service and how I could make the deployment of a service safe, private and cheap, despite being a managed service.
I’m also very keen on the idea of monetization, as it could help to bring a lot of people over to forming their own platforms rather than relying on the likes of Meta, Twitter and YouTube. This in turn I feel would lead content creators to the fediverse, when they can setup their own platforms and chose their own advertisers. A high faluting fantasy of my own.
Any other federators here? Got any instances to recommend or suggest so that my journey down the distributed social network rabbit hole becomes more enlightening? Please suggest platforms you’d recommend! Also: feel free to criticise this article, as I’m still trying to find my path within scribbling words about stuff… so fire off them criticisms They are welcome.
Thanks for reading!