Alternative social media and federation

At this point most people are pretty cynical about social media. The worst offender in that space is Facebook, recently rebranded into Meta. In a world constantly incentivized by profit it’s difficult to imagine Meta optimizing for anything else. The striking part was always how cunning and ruthless they are in pursuing profit. Nevertheless, despite many controversies around privacy, usage of personal data and Meta’s political involvement services like Facebook grow year after year.

While Meta is currently the biggest player in the social media space, there seems to be the lowest common denominator between everyone involved: leverage as many psychological hooks to addict the user and sell their attention to advertisers and everyone else who’s willing to pay.

Social media aren’t a bad idea. Like with most things, it’s about the execution. I believe that we can build a responsible social media services which are a net positive. One could argue that the internet itself was always a social media. Internet always provided ways to stay in touch with people close to you. Services like Facebook were a natural extension. Instead of having multiple, disconnected places where people connected (forums, IRCs, etc.) we got a single place were we could all meet.

Part of the Facebook’s success was timing. The technology was mature enough to provide a good user interface. Everyone was learning that internet is becoming a necessity, to a point at which we should have access to it from a device that’s with us all day long. It was exciting to be able to post photos from your vacation so your entire family and friends can see them. There was also Facebook Chat (Messenger nowadays) which rode a wave of another exciting novelty - instant messaging apps. It was a significant improvement over everything we already had. Suddenly everyone had a platform.

Years later we are get regular reminders that nothing is free. The quote (from the 1970s)

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

resonated more and more with our relation with the internet. Our only answer to this seems to be

ok, cool, don’t care

And while we can discuss problems with mainstream social media to no end, I’d like to remind you: social media isn’t anything new and it’s not, by default, evil.

Here are some social media projects that I find interesting (and reasons why they probably won’t ever be adopted by a wider public…).

In 2016, Mastodon, an open-source Twitter alternative popped up. That’s probably the first federated social media project I’ve heard about. Mastodon is a microblogging platform - blogging platform with a character limit of 500. The interesting part is that it’s open-source, you can self-host it and it’s federated. Self-hosting and federation often times go hand in hand. I was a bit confused when I first found out about Mastodon. I tried registering on one instance, and shortly thereafter on another one. There were quite a few of them and that’s because you can self-host your instance on your own server. I didn’t understand that back then so I didn’t understand why I have to register on each and every instance.

That’s where federation comes in. These self-hosted instances create a bigger network through a mechanism called federation. Mastodon application supports the ActivityPub protocol and thus can participate in federation. That means that the instance you’re registered on can pull and show information from other instances, thus creating a shared stream of information, but with users spread over many servers. Each server can curate the stream of information and enforce its own rules. Users can migrate their accounts between instances if they don’t agree with the rules of the particular instance they chose.

You can find many Mastodon instances. That unfortunately doesn’t solve its main issue. It’s still a niche platform, which normal people don’t understand. It failed to attract… anyone of importance. Sure, there is plenty of interesting, niche creators there but you won’t find big, mainstream names. Twitter has colonized this space and there is no incentive for people to move to a more confusing alternative.

I’ve tried Mastodon multiple times. There’s just nothing there. The federated timeline is a constant stream of trash. The local timeline (content generated on this instance) isn’t much better. I want to like Mastodon. I like Twitter, since I follow a lot of great artists and engineers (it can also be funny as hell), so an open-source alternative sounds great. In the heads of open-source enthusiasts.

I hope there are people who enjoy Mastodon. I’d love to be one of them, but I just don’t know how to get there.

Let’s talk Instagram alternative. That would be PixelFed. Looks great: open-source, self-hosted, federated. The UI looks way better than current Instagram. It works the same way Mastodon does - you can start a private instance or register on a public instance. Same problems persist. PixelFed also has a federated timeline (called Global Feed). Photos of some weird tweets in a foreign language, photos of cats, memes, etc. Same for Local Feed. The Discover option is nice and shows some nice photos. Nothing crazy but these aren’t digital garbage (I really don’t want to see your cat though).

Again, I would like this platform to be a thing. It’s just not. The content isn’t there and I don’t see a reason why would it come to PixelFed.

Onto something more original. Scuttlebutt - a slang for gossip or a protocol for a decentralized social media. I hope you won’t mind if I focus on the latter. Here, the decentralized nature takes on a different form. It’s not about federation. It’s about exchanging data in a peer to peer fashion.

The first thing a user needs to participate in Scuttlebutt is an identity. An identity is an Ed25519 key pair and typically represents a person, a device, a server or a bot. It’s normal for a person to have several Scuttlebutt identities.

My experience with Scuttlebutt started with Patchwork, which by now has been retired (you can find other client suggestions). As soon as you start Patchwork you have to create your profile. As soon as you do that you’ll realize that browsing other people accounts means pulling their account’s data on your machine. Their accounts now live on their computers and on yours. The network spreads between peers whenever you interact with each other. You can delete the data stored on your computer, but as long as you have your identity (key pair), you can retrieve your account, assuming that data lives on in the network of Scuttlebutt participants.

Discoverability was solved by server/bot accounts. These form a shared point of contact, which allow you to find other people.

Identity in the Scuttlebutt network doesn’t transfer between your devices. That means that you can’t use the same identity on your mobile and on your computer. Scuttlebutt people were working on safe transfer of the identities between devices but I’m not sure what’s the status of that effort.

Scuttlebutt isn’t bound to a protocol like TCP/IP. It can even work via Bluetooth. Almost feels like a virus spreading over any medium (yes, I recognize that comparing Scuttlebutt to a virus doesn’t do it any favours).

Since Scuttlebutt works like a blockchain - but without burning your processor’s cycles on generating incentive, in form of a crypto currency - previously created entries can’t be deleted or modified. If you post something dumb or share your personal information it’ll spread the same way when you post a cat pic. That’s not a good thing. We live in times where you can be ostracized for a tweet from 10 years ago. While I stand for taking responsibility for your bad and harmful opinions, we also have to nurture a space in which people feel safe to change their opinions. You have to be able to delete that stupid tweet from 10 years ago if it doesn’t represent your current views.

Scuttlebutt is be the most interesting of the 3 alternative social media plaforms. It might also be the hardest sell for anyone else than nerds like me. It’s just a complex idea and that complexity impacts the experience: identities don’t transfer between devices, propagating data might take a while, the client might store a lot of data on the user’s computer, possible security implications, etc. I like the idea a lot but once again, I don’t think Scuttlebutt will attract people who I want to follow on a daily basis.

I recognize that a big part of this article is complaining how all these projects are unable to attract mainstream attention. That’s absolutely fine. While I’d like these platforms to save the idea of social media, that might not be something that the creators of these projects want. I think these projects are great on their own and I’m grateful to their creators. It’s inspiring to see what’s possible.

Obviously, there are way more alternative social media plaforms. No matter how many responsible, social media platforms we create and support, content is king. Not everyone has something interesting to say or show (yes, I do see the irony of this statement). You can give everyone a microphone but you’ll quickly realize that many people just want to tell you all about their cats or their newborn. That shouldn’t stop us from exploring new platforms which could inspire people to create and express themselves, without becoming a revenue generating product.