Taming Mastodons for a better web

The surge of people joining Mastodon and the Fediverse the past few days has been inspiring. I’m optimistic about the potential for a better web, but experience keeps whispering in my ear.

Right now, people are fired up and ready to try new things. They’re happy to sign up, post a few “toots” to Mastodon, and think about a better web where things are decentralized and users have more control of their destiny. You know, the standard “DIY is better” package. Like when everybody started baking their own bread at the start of the pandemic in 2020.

More than two years later, there’s a lot less baking going on and I doubt that Fleischmann’s is having as much trouble keeping up with yeast demand.

It’s cliche at this point to mention “the year of the Linux desktop,” but there’s a lot of similarity between adoption of Linux and achieving any kind of critical mass on federated social media.

Give us convenience or give us death

The thing I keep hearing is some variation on “Mastodon/federation is too hard.” That or it’s not a Twitter clone and therefore not interesting.

It’s easy to dismiss these complaints but what if we didn’t, for a change?

There’s a lot of logical reasons why people should put in the effort and should accept (what they perceive as) rough edges vs. easy to adopt social networks. But history suggests rather strongly that they won’t and the world is worse for it.

In addition to user friction, there’s the added question of who’s going to foot the bill. One of the folks I follow on Mastodon notes that a large following on your own instance can hit the pocketbook significantly.

Folks in the DevRel space, for example, would probably be happy to foot a ~€50/month bill for a large following. (Or their companies would…)

But many users are joining instances like mastodon.social where someone else is paying the bills. For now.

How this could be different

By now I hope the value of Twitter (or what Twitter was a few weeks ago) and its potential ring clear to users, companies, and vendors.

It might be worthwhile for assorted companies to stand up free or paid instances of Mastodon or other ActivityPub software as a “free with subscription” type service or as an advertisement for other services.

For example, Google could take another run at its social media ambitions just by giving every Gmail user an @user@gmail.com Mastodon service. Might even be successful if Google could resist the urge to cancel the service or futz up proper federation.

See also: GitHub/GitLab, or any number of other companies that would like to make their services more “sticky” or have more space to interact with users. It’d be well worth hosting or sponsoring an instance (and Mastodon development) for larger companies rather than continuing to build marketing plans around social media sites controlled by others.

While this would fly against the grain for the folks who want to break free of data collection and such, many users are already engaged with these behemoths. At least a federated system means they can more easily pull data out and interact with users who do care about their data, etc.

ActivityPub / Mastodon could also be an opportunity for companies like Fastmail, Bandcamp, or publications like Ars, or an opportunity for services like Newsblur. (An integration with one of these services would be amazing. I already go to Newsblur and Fastmail several times a day — build in my social feed and a way to share things via my RSS feed, that’d be great.)

Mostly I’m just ruminating on ideas but seems to me there’s a lot of opportunity here for users and organizations if they’re willing to take some bets on federated services. We’ve seen, over and over again, what happens by turning over too much power over our public commons to single entities.

And we’ve seen, over and over again, that “open is good for you” isn’t (alone) a message that works for the majority of users. How can we build a bridge and meet in the middle to make the web a little better?

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