Mad, Beautiful Ideas
The Fediverse Isn't Inevitable

With the rise of the Fediverse driven by Elon Musk's continued efforts to make Twitter unpleasant for the majority of people, it has been interesting and exciting to see increased interest in forms of Social Media outside the corporate hegemony dominated by Twitter and Facebook over the last decade.

Truthfully, for a lot of us who had been on Twitter pre-2012 or so, Mastadon, with it's user-curated stream of content, feels more like a return to something that was lost instead of something new. There is an excitement about Mastadon, it's underlying protocol ActivityPub, and the collection of inter-operable apps and servers that make up what we're now calling the Fediverse.

And I'm glad for it. The Fediverse has just generally felt better than Twitter had in a long time. Interactions are purer. There is no constant looking for any individual or topic that is simply going to dominate much of the Fediverse for any given day. It's richer for it. Rich enough, people are starting to already declare that the Fediverse marking the end of the Twitters and Metas of the world.

And maybe they're right, but it's going to take a lot of work to make it so. The original forms on the Web were all Federated. Blogs, Webrings, Email, Finger, Gopher, you name it. All federated by design. It took work for, as Cory Docotorow puts it, the Internet to become five websites full of links to the other four.

The thing is, Mastadon isn't the first attempt to make a Federated Twitter. In 2008, shortly after Twitter took off after SxSW 2007, the first Open Source Federated Twitter clone, Laconica, got decently big for a while (and astonishingly, is still around as GnuSocial). ActivityPub and Mastadon do have some pretty strong architectural benefits, but the challenges we face in making the Web federated again is, as it always has been, social, not technical.

One of the things that was a bit of a dirty secret outside of Silicon Valley for a long time was that the organic growth that various platforms touted, largely wasn't. Teams of people would pay media personalities and businesses to use their platforms in order to get it into the public eye. I saw this happen on several occasions with Hangouts On Air as a means to promote conversational livestreams (think video podcast liveshows) back in 2011. Twitter becoming a staple of 24 Hour News Networks, I'm confident there was a Business Development person behind the start of that.

There are, of course, more subtle ways that platforms grow. Facebook started out as Ivy League only, then anyone with a .edu email, well before opening up to the public. The sense of exclusivity driving early growth was really effective in establishing in the platform, but beyond early phase adopters, organic growth quickly slows. And commerical platforms need growth. Commercial platforms with a ridiculous wad of VC cash can spend a lot to help drive that growth. Even if they're bad businesses, like Twitter.

Which is one of the things that Mastadon and the Fediverse have going for them in this moment that the previous alternatives don't. The Fediverse is, by and large aggressively against VC. And technically, the structure supports it. I know many people who are running their own small Mastadon instances with which to interact with the rest of the Fediverse, and it's reasonably cost effective. I know of a multitude of medium sized instances who's users are, thus far, happy to throw in a bit to keep the lights on their servers.

The Fediverse's current desire to grow without VCs is probably it's greatest strength. Without the need for the hypergrowth investors need to get the cash exits they demand, the Fediverse has a chance, though potentially a slim one, to grow the way that we, the users desire, instead of chasing profitability. It's even possible people can build sustainable businesses on the Fediverse, though doing so while maintaining the trust of the people will be it's own challenge.

There are limits to the adoption though. I think a lot of the crop of Fediverse migrants that have moved over in the last few months tend to think that Mastadon can reach the scale that Twitter once had. While I am among those who left Twitter, I don't think that line of thinking is reasonable. I think the trend we've had the last decade or so toward monolithic social experiences has ultimately been short-sighted, that while there is value to these broadcast platforms, what would actually benefit us more in the long term are small, focused, communities. And I intend to explore those ideas more soon.