This piece was originally published in Tech Policy Press.
Poor performance at Meta and Twitter’s self-destruction remind us that the dustbin of online history is littered with once dominant platforms. Many see this as akin to the extinction of dinosaurs, to be replaced with smaller, more nimble mammals, like the Mastodon. Yet, as David Carroll and Alex Tarkowski each observe in Tech Policy Press, it is becoming apparent that neither highly centralized platforms nor the highly decentralized ‘fediverse’ can solve the problem of the scalable, participatory governance of digital town squares.
The sudden Musk-triggered rush of newbies from Twitter across the chasm to the “fediverse”of Mastodon is finding the decentralized alternative generally attractive, but perhaps not quite ready for prime time. The appeal of the fediverse is its distribution of control as a federation (or perhaps more accurately a confederation) of independently controlled server ‘instances.’ Improvements to this still-primitive federation seem likely to come quickly, but others involve more fundamental changes in mindset among its developers, and open questions about just how control should be distributed – for what aspects of functionality, to serve what objectives. The only thing clear is that an era of experimentation to find better structures for online discourse is badly needed.
The fediverse supports a live-and-let-live diversity of models. Mastodon instances generally use variations of the same open-source code, each having their own user base and moderation functions, much like a small social media platform, but with the interoperability to bridge posting globally to users on other instances. This is based on the open ActivityPub protocol, which functions much like an email transfer protocol. The great appeal of the fediverse is its openness and lack of central control, but that is also a source of weakness.