Realities of the Fediverse: ActivityPub and Mastodon have room to improve

The fediverse is a grand improvement in many ways over walled gardens like Twitter, but there’s plenty of room to improve. For example, federation does little good for users on a site that unexpectedly shuts down without time for users to migrate. Today I was seeing concern that the admin in charge of and had gone silent. These instances have thousands of users. It looks like they’ve resurfaced but were radio silent for weeks. Consider this a drill, eventually some of the instances with thousands of users will almost certainly fail without notice.

In the rush to migrate from Twitter lots of folks wanted to pitch in and help by setting up instances for the Twitter exodus. Some went solo and stood everything up without redundancies. Many of the Mastodon instances set up are going to run just fine and when/if the admins decide to call it a day, they’ll give plenty of warning that it’s time to move. Or they’ll have transition plans for new admins to step in.

But with lots of servers having “single points of success” footing the bills and running the show, there will be people who just stop suddenly without warning – due to technical issues, disinterest, disease, money problems, or (even worse) death. It’s not at all hard to imagine a site admin fumbling an upgrade without appropriate backups, for instance. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

This exposes some of the problems with the Mastodon/ActivityPub fediverse as it stands today. Most people have flocked to centralized instances because the options for self-hosting are too few and too complicated.

  • Standing up a fully functional ActivityPub server is complicated and expensive, for certain values of “expensive.”
  • ActivityPub doesn’t lend itself to static hosting. As I understand it, you can publish in that format, but if you want a read/write experience where you actually follow and get updates from other accounts, it’s not doable.
  • Extremely limited options (right now) for “as-a-service (aaS)” hosting. I do see that Mastohost has started opened its doors again to new accounts, which I’m going to jump on right away.
  • ActivityPub can be too resource intensive if you have an account that gets a burst of (or sustained) attention.
  • It appears “migration” is somewhat imperfect and leaves your old posts behind in an uneditable state, and you have to recreate filters, profile, etc.
  • Moderation and privacy aren’t entirely sorted for all these instances, but they’re currently in the hands of a lot of folks who have little training, legal guidance, or oversight/peer review other than social pressure after the fact.

I hope as federated platforms become more mainstream, ActivityPub will either solve some of these issues or it’ll be replaced with a spec that does. Likewise, I hope to see more aaS options and more providers like Vivaldi offering professionally run fediverse instances.

None of this is to say that Twitter or its predecessors or proprietary alternatives are better. Or that the loss of a social media account is more than a major annoyance if it does happen to you. I have/had a lot of history with my Twitter account, but walking away from it hasn’t had a huge impact. Warts and all, I have a lot of hope for the fediverse and its potential. But it’ll only reach that potential if we’re honest about its flaws and work on them.

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