Open Indie

Writing about open & equitable product development

A companion-piece for our Kickstarter's first update.

At Spicy Lobster studio there are very few things we consider ourselves against. If forced to imagine a sworn enemy, what comes to mind is loneliness. I touched on the subject last year in a longform message on our team chat: Musings on death and loneliness.

my mother never really left. Her body is gone, but her embodiment of kindness is forever in the hearts and minds of anyone lucky enough to have been a recipient of her love. As one of her children I received it in abundance.

This community I am co-creating with all of you fine people is deeply informed by the practice of kindness passed down to me by my mother, which she imparted through actions more so than words. Simple acts of kindness speak volumes. The ceaseless current of kindness connects us together, making us less alone.

What we are battling against is the unnecessary kind of loneliness. Quiet solitude can be nourishing, but the deafening void of separateness is a killer. The poet David Whyte describes this duality beautifully.

LONELINESS is the doorway to unspecified desire. In the bodily pain of aloneness is the first step to understanding how far we are from a real friendship, from a proper work or a long sought love. Loneliness can be a prison, a place from which we look out at a world we cannot inhabit; loneliness can be a bodily ache and a penance, but loneliness fully inhabited also becomes the voice that asks and calls for that great, unknown someone or something else we want to call our own.

Loneliness is the very state that births the courage to continue calling, and when fully lived can undergo its own beautiful reversal, becoming in its consummation, the far horizon that answers back.

In the grand scale of things, loneliness is a privilege. Human beings may have the ability to feel aloneness as no other creature can; with a power magnified by intelligence and imagination. Animals may feel alone in an instinctual way, moving naturally and affectionately toward others of their kind, but human beings may be the only beings that can articulate, imagine or call for a specific life they feel they might be missing.

Loneliness is the substrate and foundation of belonging, the gravitational field that draws us home and in the beautiful essence of its isolation, the hand reaching out for togetherness. To allow ourselves to feel fully alone is to allow ourselves to understand the particular nature of our solitary incarnation, to make aloneness a friend is to apprentice ourselves to the foundation from which we make our invitation to others.

To feel alone is to face the truth of our irremediable and unutterable singularity, but a singularity that can kiss, create a conversation, make a vow or forge a shared life. In the world, or community, this essential singularity joins with others through vision, intellect and ideas to make a society.

Loneliness is not a concept, it is the body constellating, attempting to become proximate and even join with other bodies, through physical touch, through conversation or the mediation of the intellect and the imagination. Loneliness is the place from which we pay real attention to voices other than our own; being alone allows us to find the healing power in the other. The shortest line in the briefest e-mail can heal, embolden, welcome home and enliven the most isolated identity.

Lonely human beings are lonely exactly because they are made to belong. Loneliness is the single malt taste of the very essentiality that makes conscious belonging possible. The doorway is closer than we think.

I am alone; therefore I belong.

‘LONELINESS’ from CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. © David Whyte & Many Rivers Press

Everyone craves human connection, now more than ever. We may be alone in our minds, but there is belonging to be found in being alone together. To survive we need to find the others and become proximate with them. For that we need a common meeting ground founded in mutual good-faith.

The world of Fish Folk is being created to provide such a place. A place where we hold off on connecting with our words and just play together like the primal apes (or pre-primate fish) that we are.

Non-verbal play is an arguably safer starting point for social connection than literate conversation, at least given our current communication tools which are designed for outrage rather than understanding.

Our literal reality, shaped by words, has grown so complex and contested that the meanings of words can be interpreted very differently by two or more people, to such an extent that physical neighbors can seem to live on different planets.

Too many words only sow confusion when their meanings become fragmented. We need our words, but they do us no good once they diverge too far from a common, universal interpretation.

To attain a shared vocabulary as human beings the conversation must be started anew, from the first-principles of playful interbeing. In time we’ll exchange words in ever greater quantities. But first, let’s just play together.

Perhaps all the literacy we need to begin with are these five magic words:

👋 Hi, 😊 wanna play a game?

I've previously written about the multi-app platform of my dreams as a community professional: The Community OS stack.

While undeniably ambitious, it's a vision firmly grounded in practicality. Thanks to the compounding value of open source and standard web protocols, the path to digital discourse nirvana can be mapped out with a fair amount of detail.

The notion of a 'Community OS' grew out of an expanded vision of Commune-chat. The use of the term “operating system” for what I'm describing will undoubtedly be contested, but if we can define operating systems for computer hardware, I truly don't see why we shouldn't also have equivalent operating systems for digital communications.

I will even go so far as to argue that part of the reason why our comms tooling has failed us so drastically in the 21st century is because we never looked at digital communications through the holistic lens of a modular yet interoperable whole.

Instead of hardware as the common denominator, the conceptual Community OS is standardized by modern-day web protocols:

Identity – Conduit of flows

Your identity (ID) inhabits the places and behaviors which the Bonfire, Stream and Garden (see below) symbolize, simultaneously experiencing and expressing itself through those outlets.

Examples: Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Email, Phone numbers

Bonfires – Discursive, omnidirectional flow

Examples: Chat (Discord, Slack), forum (Discourse, StackOverFlow, Reddit), Mailing lists.

Streams – Declarative, linear flow

Microblogging (Twitter, Tumblr, Mastodon), Television (TikTok, YouTube), Everything-app (Facebook, WeChat).

Gardens – Contemplative, bottom-up flow

Wikis (Wikipedia, Fandom), Networked notes (Notion, Roam), Blogs (WordPress, Medium, Substack)

Overlapping boundaries

There are no strict boundaries in the Stream/Garden/Bonfire trio. A blog for instance can behave like a bonfire when it is more discursive through its comment sections, it can be consumed in stream-form via an RSS reader, and it takes the shape of a garden when it's deeply interlinked and less concerned with chronology.

Likewise, Reddit's individual threads are bonfires, its frontpage feed is a stream and its 'best of last week/month/year' is an organically structured garden. But these multi-faceted applications still tend to be grounded in one particular core function.

Comms Analogues

As laid out in the stack post, I prefer to group the building blocks for online communications tooling into four distinct components:

  • Identity = Conduit of flows.
  • Bonfires = Discursive, omnidirectional flow.
  • Streams = Declarative, linear flow.
  • Garden = Contemplative, bottom-up flow.

digital-metaphors By Lise

To broaden our perspective, we can retrofit those four components for different time periods.

Comms protocols in pre-literate society

  • Voice: personal spoken-word expression
  • Conversation: communal discourse
  • Gossip: word-of-mouth broadcasting
  • Songs: transgenerational storytelling

With pre-literate protocols it's also a lot easier to see the similarities between ourselves and social animals such as wolves, whales or magpies.

Comms protocols in proto-literal society

  • Private diary: personal ideation
  • Sending letters: interpersonal ideation
  • Distributing pamphlets: broadcasted knowledge
  • Sharing Books: synthesized knowledge

In the proto-literal era we adopt technological aids external to our own bodies, already closely resembling their future digital counterparts.

The Predicament

You'll notice that the vast majority of the real world examples of applications listed above (Google, Discord, Twitter..) are part of a closed platform offering, which is a problem:

Identity prison

And therein lies my predicament: Ever since I first logged on to the internet, I've never had legitimate ownership of my own digital identity. My digital expression has always been mediated through some higher power. Sadly not of the paternal kind that intends to lift my spirit up until I can stand on my own.

No, for as long as I've lived my digital identity has been in the hands of an opaque and authoritarian power that intends to capitalize on my innate desire for expression by means of identity lock-in. The powers-that-be have been fairly benevolent, sure, but my independence is and never was their end-game.

But all hope is not lost. An open social web is possible, and it is in no way an understatement to say that our interpersonal relationships as well as democratic institutions will be far better off for it.

Digital autonomy begets individual freedom begets fairness & equality.

The hopeful possibility of this moment lies in the open-social web protocols which make up the foundations of a comms & coordination ecosystem owned and operated by the general public.

We have yet to bring these components together into one cohesive communications product, wherein messages and knowledge artifacts can move seamlessly from one flow-mode to the next and your identity remains the same throughout. Yet this ideal is closer to becoming reified than you might think.

Here's how I intend to do it, with a little lot of help from my friends.

Part 1: Weird Identity

Before I can interact with other netizens, I need an online identity to make my digital self presentable and increasingly trustworthy. That's what Weird is all about. Most basically it's an open source equivalent to linktree, supercharged by OIDC-based identity.

Weird will aggregate your fragmented online persona into a single unified view. Establish your little slice of home on the internet without getting stuck in the content-production imperative of a custom website or a blog.

Then, thanks to the commodification of OAuth2 tech, Weird can grow up to become a full-fledged identity provider by standing on the sturdy shoulders of rauthy. Meaning, you can 'Login with Weird' and use it as a kind of Gravatar on steroids. This will enable seamless login to all of the additional services we want to plug into our community stack.

Part 2: Communal Bonfires

Next, we need a place for people to congregate. Group chat is the best way to seed a grassroots community: Get two or more people with a shared interest together in a room and watch the magic of minimum-viable sociality bloom!

'Online community platforms' are assembly-kits for large, communal bonfires, designed to draw people towards the light and into the warm togetherness of community. I think the primary function of bonfire software is to create space for group-scale discourse.

Part 3: Gentle streams of Kitsune

With our safe spaces set up for baseline networking and greenfield content generation, we can move on to broadcasting.

Chat rooms are information silos. Forum threads can crack through the walls of the silo as linkable, search-friendly message exports. But for certain types of content, like an announcement, it's not enough to just be discoverable; you want reach. Rather than waiting to be found, broadcasted content calls out so it may be heard far and wide. That's where the viral properties of ActivityPub and its fedi-friends come into play, plugged into our stack with Kitsune.

Kitsune is protocol-centric, made explicitly to interoperate with Mastodon and other AP applications.

Superpowers:

Part 4: Noospheric Gardens

By now we've got:

  1. a home base.
  2. a shared place for nascent social activity to emerge and mix.
  3. a broadcasting antenna to distribute select messages past the confines of our local community.

This is already a healthy environment for social connection and information to thrive. Communities in which ephemeral togetherness is the goal will be well covered by these three components.

But if you're engaged in building a product of growing complexity you need a way to glue information fragments together into cohesive artifacts of knowledge, otherwise the abundance of information will increasingly turn into disorganized noise; a form of informational tech debt.

To help us continuously convert messy noise into an orderly signal (like a song), we need a protocol for thought: Noosphere.

Noosphere is a massively-multiplayer knowledge graph. The technical pillars that Noosphere builds upon are:

Above this substructure, Noosphere gives users:

  • Entry to a zero-trust, decentralized network of self-sovereign nodes
  • Human-readable names for peers and their public content
  • Local-first authoring and offline-available content with conflict-free synchronization
  • A complete, space-efficient revision history for any content
  • Coherence and compatibility with the hypertext web

You can think of it like a world-wide Wiki.

Basically GDocs/Notion meets Git: made for knowledge connectivity and cross-pollination as opposed to disparate content silos. It’s also the final and most complete form of what I call ‘socialized proof of work’.

Beyond the foundational building blocks mentioned here, countless sub-components can be added to our stack as 3rd party integrations or bundled add-ons.

Weird can be extended with lightweight blog and inline CMS functionality.

Streams & Gardens are greatly enhanced by read-it-later apps and RSS readers.

All of Identity, Bonfire and Stream can be deeply complemented by Stalwart Mail Server; with a slightly different framing the email protocol would have been listed as another top-level component.


An immense amount of work has already gone into the communications infrastructure of the world wide web. All the essential tech we need is already made. What’s missing is a coordinated effort to point our collective innovations in the same direction, towards digital emancipation as our final destination.

There’s no good reason for our global nation of netizens to remain beholden to the corporate conglomerates who co-opted our digital commons to sell it back to us.

When you’re able, if only for a moment, stop building for survival and begin building for liberty.

Elk client

The “juicy client” is not just rich in flavor and thick in texture; it is fluid. It adapts to the presentation needs of the data it receives.

Its fluidity is enabled by a helpful constraint: The loose confines of ActivityPub (plus extensions) provides a cohesive specification to scope & guide different UI implementations co-existing as part of the greater whole of an omni-interface.

If I'm peeking into an ActivityPub instance, show me its preferred UI form. ..on mastodon.social, show me the Mastodon UI. ..on calckey.social, show me the Calckey UI. ..on bookwyrm.social, show me the Bookwyrm UI. ..on mitra.social, show me the Mitra UI. ..on pixelfed.social, show me the Pixelfed UI. (..on bluesky.social, show me the Bluesky UI.)

This is a continuation of 'Sense-making in federated discourse' and 'Feed Overload'


Elk as an omniclient https://writing.exchange/@erlend/110286022480202952

Elk is currently furthest along on the track to becoming a juicy client. It's being developed by developers from the core team of Vue/Nuxt, which is a reasonably well-resourced crew. Additional capacity was unlocked recently since Nuxt was accepted into GitHub Accelerator! 🎉

It also comes with a desktop & mobile(soon) app distribution, based on Tauri. Being cross-platform makes it a strong unifier since both desktop and mobile UI enthusiasts can participate in the product shaping without splitting up into platform-native specializations.

Mitra and Pixelfed are already using Vue for their frontend. In my humble opinion, they'd be better off doing like Takahe and deferring to Elk as a default/recommended frontend. There's bound to be several other standalone Vue frontends for AP/Mastodon out there that likewise ought to consider this line of reasoning.

In any case, the custom UI features of these ActivityPub distributions can be re-implemented by someone in Elk as part of a juicy client strategy. I hope this product design & development strategy will appeal to enough Elk/Vue/JS/UI devs out there that we can turn this into an increasingly concerted effort.


Another promising alternative in this space is Gobo. It has been explicitly designed as a juicy client, or as they put it, a loyal client.

At the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, we believe that a truly sustainable and resilient digital public sphere is possible and is actively being created. We envision a public sphere supported by these three legs:

  1. Consists of many different platforms with a wide variety of scales and purposes;
  2. Users can navigate with a loyal client that aggregates, cross-posts, and curates;
  3. Is all supported by cross-cutting services rooted in interoperable data.

It's made in Svelte, Cloudfront on the frontend. Python, Postgres, and Docker on the backend. A prototype is tentatively going public (and open source?) some time this May.

We believe Gobo needs to allow users to:

  1. Read and post to multiple social networks from one open source client.
  2. Pick and choose between algorithms for filtering and sorting the posts from all these networks.
  3. Design (and potentially share) different algorithms for filtering and sorting.
  4. Use third-party services to assist in filtering and sorting.
  5. Audit the performance of these different algorithms as well as the third party services.

If this work inspires you, I wholeheartedly urge you to reach out to the projects above and lend them a hand! 🙌

You can find me as erlend#1111 on the Elk discord.

Discuss/share this article via writing.exchange

In Feed Overload I made a brief case for some content gardening tools I'm missing in my fediverse experience.

Evergreen content gardens

99% of all microblog content is ephemeral by design, meant for a specific moment in time. But the 1% that should endure past the 24hr cycle doesn't have good ways to do so in the current paradigm.

Reddit has a simple Top sorting mechanism for viewing highly rated content in the past Day / Week / Month / Year / All Time. This is a great way to surface evergreen knowledge artifacts in places like r/AMA and r/todayilearned. It's also a very helpful way to get oriented in a new space.

The same could be done for hashtags on the fediverse. Treating hashtags as not just timelines of the present moment but also containers of institutional knowledge could lead to all sorts of innovations in knowledge management on the fediverse.

This been on my mind again whilst trying to follow the vibrant discussion on #bluesky. That hashtag receives close to a hundred posts per day. I'm also following opensource, fediverse and a few others, which is already enough to make my home feed highly impractical as an all-in-one aggregate.

For any of these topics, I'm sorely missing some basic tools for sense-making, and I think we're all worse off in their absence. This UX gap is made especially clear in the fedi-wide discourse regarding Bluesky. Of the 100 daily posts on the topic, only 20% are adding something to the conversation. The remaining 80% is a mix of:

  • redundant repetition
  • invite requests
  • bad-faith attacks and misinformation

We lack tools to meaningfully move critical conversations forward. I'm seeing fedizens talking past each other, repeating questions that have already been answered multiple times, and making statements that are outdated or simply false.

I know Jack is a co-founder, and it deeply worries me too. But did you know he's only one of three co-founders, and thus doesn't have veto powers? And what do you know about Jay, the CEO? (a title frequently misattributed to Jack)

I know it's only a single instance which means they may have some major federation challenges to come. That doesn't mean the platform is doomed to a permanent state of centralization. Let's wait and see what happens!

Yeah it's a bummer that they didn't federate with ActivityPub from the start, but they have clearly stated their reasons, and people from both the AP and ATproto communities are starting to explore interop. At this point, talking about what can be done is far more generative than rehashing what has been done.

“It doesn't even have Feature X!” – It does now. Also, it's in beta.

Some simple sorting mechanisms could make this conversation considerably more focused and civilized.

When browsing #bluesky I wanna be able to filter for:

  • Most popular (boosted/liked) posts in the last day/week/month.
  • Posts by people I follow
  • Most shared links
  • Editor's picks

The last two ideas require some explanation.

I love hyperlinking. It is the epistemological glue of the web; links are how we trace the evolution of our shared knowledge. Posts linking out to longform articles are of the highest priority to me, so a dedicated sub-feed of posts with links would be 💯

We actually have something like this already in the Mastodon (iOS) app's News sidebar:

Mastodon news feed in iOS sidebar

Frankly I've no idea how this feature works, but I'd love to find out, so please enlighten me! I don't use the News tab, but what I do want is basically that same sidebar tab scoped down to a specific hashtag and the Links posted within it. Clicking a link should show all the posts that have shared it. With that I can follow the longform thought pieces of the zeitgeist along with their accompanying commentary.

Editor's picks

This one's even weirder, which makes me like it even more. It requires several moving pieces coming together, but there's inspiring potential here.

Imagine if you could subscribe to a client-side editorial service that highlights a few hand-picked posts for you every day/week. It'd probably be run out of a specific account or instance, but anyone could subscribe to it from their client.

The @activitypubblueskybridge@venera.social group for example is an entity I'd trust as a #bluesky and #fediverse Curator (which might be a better word for what we're trying to imagineer here). That account already works like this to an extent, but paired with dedicated client UX it could really shine.

In short: Design UIs that elevate the voices of experts in their respective fields.

In other words, I believe the next paradigm shift in the fediverse is going to happen client-side even more so than server-side. Elk has a major opportunity to be a leader in this space, and I'm also beyond excited about the impending release of the backend-agnostic Gobo.


Low quality discourse makes us collectively sluggish and disorganized. Continuously improving the signal-to-noise ratio of our feeds is perfectly aligned with the creator-minded ethos of the fediverse. We're long past shitposting as our primary pastime around these parts: People I follow in this community are part of a rapidly growing network of shared purpose.

The purpose of our globally networked communications is to break down systems of oppression, such as surveillance-based social media. In reinventing that tired old game, only mechanics that function in service of our pro-social agenda should be carried over into the new. We've only just begun to imagine what the comms infrastructure of The Commons can look like when it's not downstream of an autocratic technocracy whose sole aim is to own your attention.

We can do a lot better than 'posts per month' as our metric of success. I'd like to see us optimize for an increasingly higher ratio of boosts/favorites per post, because that implies a culture of uplifting and listening, as opposed to incessant chatter. Going beyond that, how about we look for ways to measure 'collabs per month', 'mutual connections per month' or 'ideas per month'. Quality over quantity, dear fedizens.

Last week, the official Mastodon app rolled out a new change which presents mastodon.social as the default way to sign up for an account on the app.

This did not land well with many folks on the #fediverse.

From @Fedi.Tips, aka @FediThing:

https://mstdn.social/@feditips/110233282251253677

The official Mastodon app is doing something new which is potentially very dangerous to the existence of Mastodon and the Fediverse.

..continued with an issue on GitHub requesting this feature to be reverted.

From Aral Balkan:

https://mastodon.ar.al/@aral/110236405361940166

Dear @Gargron,

Please reevaluate your decision to incentivise centralisation on mastodon.social in the official app.

This is the sort of design a VC-funded startup would implement, not a non-profit acting in the interests of a healthy commons.

I’m sure you don’t want mastodon.social to become mini-Twitter and you don’t want to become mini-Musk.

That’s not how we win this.

More instances, not larger instances is the key.

Onboarding vs Resilience

I agree with the general sentiment here. Instance diversity is unequivocally a Good Thing. The friction comes from two opposing objectives:

Option 1: Improving the Mastodon/ActivityPub onboarding story

vs

Option 2: Improving the ActivityPub/Fediverse resilience story

(2) has clearly been the priority since Mastodon's founding in 2016, as (1) was always an obvious option and has never stopped being promoted by user experience advocates.

The UX impact of a no-questions-asked signup method cannot be understated. I've noted an abundance of anecdotes detailing fedizens failing to bring their peers on to the network due to the cognitive load of having to choose a server.

What's especially worrisome about this type of usability barrier is that every unsuccessful onboarding goes unrecorded, failing silently. We've surely lost hundreds of thousands of prospective newcomers to the multi-server signup paradigm, possibly millions.

Perhaps I'm being naive, but I believe the fediverse has grown resilient enough to handle a temporary centralization event within its richly decentralized ecosystem. WordPress started as completely centralized and has grown into a 600bn market with no single actor bigger than ~5% of the total pie.

Growing pains of this kind can be good problems to have, as they force the ecosystem to evolve to new levels of scale. You’re gonna run into bottlenecks with whichever growth strategy you go for, it’s just a matter of choosing whichever seems most tractable.

Weighing the options

Eugen laid out the tradeoffs pretty clearly in his very recent interview with The Verge:

Nilay Patel:

The Gmail comparison is really interesting here. I cannot believe I’m about to explain Gmail to the Decoder audience, but I’m going to do it just so I’ve said it out loud. Email is an open protocol that is run by standards organizations. Gmail runs on those protocols — SMTP, IMAP, and the rest — and so does Outlook or whatever. The reality for most people is that there’s a collapse between the protocol and the application on their phone. If you have Outlook, you are almost certainly not using the Gmail app. If you have Gmail, you are almost certainly not using the Outlook app. You’re going to the service and putting that app on your phone. The only real exception to this rule is the Apple Mail app on the iPhone. With everything else, there’s a collapse between the protocol and how it’s expressed to the user.

mastodon.social is the one you run. You download the official Mastodon app, and it’s going to default you into it because defaults are important. I mean, literally, the number one criticism I hear from people is, “Well, you have to pick a server and it’ll never work,” because no one wants to pick a server. You’re going to solve that problem, but aren’t you now getting closer to that collapse between the open protocol and the user experience, where people download the Mastodon app and end up on the Mastodon server?

Eugen Rochko:

Well, for reference right now, mastodon.social isn’t actually the default in our app. It’s just one of the top ones that shows up. However, I think that possibly going forward, we might rework the onboarding user experience into presenting a default option as well as an advanced option, where all that stuff with choosing a server would basically be hidden away from the people who get intimidated by choice.

Yes, you are correct in that it gets us closer to the Gmail situation. But it’s kind of unavoidable with the constraints of the problem I’ve described, where the choice is too complicated. You need to convince people that this is better and that this is something they should invest some time into. Then they’ll realize both how it works and what they can do with it.

That is the idea. The idea is the funnel. They get started on mastodon.social, but afterwards they can move to an account on their own server that they create or on a different server provided by a different company or person. Historically, that has been the case. A lot of people who are currently running their own servers had their first account on mastodon.social. So it is working, and I imagine it will make mastodon.social somewhat disproportionately large in the future, but that’s just part of making it work, I think.

It's quite regrettable however that the Mastodon team didn't make more of an effort to restate their delicate position on this issue in a dedicated blog post and accompanying toot.

Escalations

In the absence of any official response from Eugen & co., we've arrived at a precarious impasse:

https://mstdn.social/@feditips/110260432218416976

I don't think people are realising the danger the Fediverse is in.

The only thing stopping corporations and VCs taking over this place is that the Fediverse is spread out on many different servers, which makes it very difficult to purchase.

If most of the Fediverse ends up on mastodon.social, which is now a strong possibility, there will be nothing to stop most of it being sold to Musk or Zuckerberg or whoever.

The bigger mastodon.social becomes, the more likely a buyout is to happen.

(...)

With all that in mind, here's a suggestion:

➡️ IF mastodon.social becomes more than 50% of the Fediverse, either by total users or monthly active users, the rest of us should defederate it.

Sticking with mastodon.social because “that's where the people are” is pointless. Centralised growth will simply cause the governance problems we've seen on Twitter and Facebook to be replicated on here.

Growth has to be decentralised in order to protect the independence of all Fedi servers.

I love everything else you've been doing as a community advocate @FediThing, but this latest line of thinking is not conducive to a healthy fediverse. In fact, it could very well be its downfall. Large scale separation is antithetical to the social fabric of the world wide web.

Can we take a breather here?

Consider for a second what a terrible business decision it would be for anyone to attempt another high profile social network buyout in this day and age. Add to that the massive risk of buying an AGPL codebase that cannot be relicensed but can be forked, and an un-locked-in userbase made up largely of people whose one commonality is that they heckin' love sticking it to the man.

Hostile VC takeovers are very far down the list of problems facing our nascent community of fedizens. Onboarding and retention on the other hand is easily in the top 3.

Mastodon ≠ Fediverse. I'm not interested in discussing what the Mastodon team should do with their app. That is ultimately their call to make, and it seems like they've made up their mind already.

So what should we do? Can we redirect all this energy in a manner that will be generative instead of divisive? I think so.

Nomadic Identity

This whole discussion would be a non-issue if Mastodon and other AP servers had more comprehensive support for:

  1. Account migrations (tenants can easily move all their essential data to a new instance)
  2. Account aliases (tenants may tie multiple separate accounts together)
  3. Account sovereignty (the user is the ultimate owner of their identity)

In a world where tenants can effortlessly move their account from one server to another, mastodon.social can innocently serve as a temporary staging ground for new entrants as they are encouraged to move elsewhere once they've found their footing.

Many thoughtful people have made this point, and I support it wholeheartedly. If I was the CEO of the fediverse (which will never be a thing), I'd make it my highest priority to see it through.

To get involved with the deeply complicated but ever more important subject of data portability on the fediverse, here are some good places to start:

This thing will never work if at the slightest sign of conflict the first solution we reach for is putting up walls between one another.

I'm going to bed. Please be nice. 💜

Perusing through the newfangled Substack Notes recently, I saw this post by Nadia:

Microblog communities

I was saddened to see such a simplistic take by a writer I greatly admire. As the author of outstanding literature on open source including 'Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure' and 'Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software', I expected more nuance from Nadia.

Mastodon = I saw someone describe this as “the types of people in the US who always threaten to move to Canada” and I’m not sure I could describe it more perfectly

While clearly said in jest, it's also a personal justification for Notes as the place to be (for people who self-identify as writers). The joke was funnier and perhaps marginally more true a year ago, but today it's just a bad-faith smear, attempting to paint Mastodon and the fediverse as a community of inconsequential armchair activists.

In actuality the fediverse folk stayed true to their word and are now happily residing in the digital equivalent of Canada, free from the oppression and vitriol of the place they used to call home. Right now it just feels like a fun vacation, but as the digital borders close down ever more at the behest of technocratic dictators the Canada of the internet will look increasingly like the safe-haven Canada represents in The Handmaid's Tale.

The fediverse is the home of modern internet counterculture. It's where people come to talk about the great entanglement of hypercapitalism, surveillance states, monopolization, unionization, mutualism and open source. It's where we go to talk about how to get ourselves out of this monumental mess we're in; no shortcuts or temporary workarounds allowed this time.

Who's living in Canada?

Mapping a federated network of instances – a pluriverse – is no easy task, but new tools like FediDB are looking promising. To get us started I'll just provide a small sampling from the vantage point of my own feed, which is buzzing with rebellious thinkers at the top of their game.

Techy-verse

Need a remedy for the incessant hype machine that's telling you everything is gonna be okay as long as you defer to the tech bros? Media literacy and critical thinking to the rescue!

AI-verse

Speaking of hype, the eminent voices of reason in AI have largely moved over to our side of town as well:

Webby-verse

Folks fighting for a more open and just internet.

Press-verse

The truly independent fourth estate, building their own distribution network free from enshittified platform interference.

Author-verse

Writers of the people ✊

Econ-verse

Economists with an anti-establishment bent? Yes please!

Okay, I might be a major Robert Reich fanboy who hasn't bothered to branch out yet as far as the fediverse goes. Feel free to make recommendations! I'm especially interested in the intersection of economics and ecology.

Blind-verse (bonus!)

Unknown to me until a few days ago, it's really cool to hear that the fediverse is already more accessible than Twitter ever was.

Fediverse for blind users


These people aren't making empty threats. They're actively partaking in a grand rebuilding of the social and technical underpinnings of our formerly open web. With your help Nadia, we could get there a little bit sooner.

I just wanna keep track of people I care for and find interesting. The type of feed(s) available for subscription (blog, micro-blog, chat, forum) is a secondary concern.

The ‘universal feed reader’ application of my dreams works as follows:

(1) Insert a website, e.g. https://pluralistic.net

(2) Ask me which of the following feeds (scraped from the site; optionally assisted by standardized meta-data) I’d like to subscribe to: – https://craphound.com/podcast/https://pluralistic.net/plura-list (mailing list) – https://pluralistic.net/feed/ (rss) – https://twitter.com/doctorowhttps://mamot.fr/@pluralistic (activitypub) – https://doctorow.medium.com/https://mostlysignssomeportents.tumblr.com/

(3) Give me a daily/weekly/monthly digest of this person’s posts, based on my frequency preference.

I've not seen a lot of examples of this kind of interface in practice. A few that come to mind are Google Inbox and LindyLearn. Neither perfectly match what I'm describing, but they both play with the concept of information bundling, rather than linear, chronological streams.

Further reading:

NPR has officially quit Twitter. PBS followed suit. (updated 14. April)

Dear journalists, this is the best opportunity you'll ever get to actively fight back against the attention-hoarding platforms that have been grossly undermining the power of the Fourth Estate for the past two decades.

A true revolution for independent media is available to you as a mere three-step process:

First: Leave Twitter

It should be clear to any journalistic institution of integrity by now that Twitter's leadership is only interested in your patronage insofar as it benefits Twitter-corp, full stop.

The platform is deeply compromised, and you have no control over how and to whom the words you publish there are disseminated. Stop feeding the beast; stop posting.

You don't have to delete your account, nor your tweets. You don't even have to completely stop tweeting. But I urge you to stop using Twitter as your default microblogging/networking application. Try it for a month at least.

Second: Join the fediverse

Facebook, Instagram, Post, Notes... none of these are legitimate alternatives for news syndication in the modern information age. If you take the lazy path of shifting your primary distribution channel from Twitter to yet another black-box platform, it's simply out of the frying pan and into the fiery clutches of yet other monopolist that owns your followship.

If you truly want to call yourselves independent journalists in this day and age, the federated network of instances built on top of the ActivityPub protocol is your only honest outlet as far as social media feeds go. “The medium is the message” is as true as ever, and any medium owned by a technocratic oligarch is in direct opposition to your civic duty as emissaries of truth and understanding. Every additional tweet goes into the record; history will remember your complicity.

The fediverse is collectively owned and operated by thousands of different stakeholders, making it the most independent social network in history.

Most importantly however: the fediverse is a movement, presently engaged in the woefully under-reported fight for an equitable and just internet, and it needs the champions of the fourth power in its corner to stand a chance of winning.

This is no time for editorials and opinion pieces. What we civilians need from you at this time is your attendance at the gathering space. Before you do anything else, show up where the movers are congregating. Then, and only then, should you exercise your voice anew.

Making the move

Migrating to the fediverse is fraught with choices that can lead to paralysis. Here's the one all-important thing you need to know: Once you've made the initial move to any fediverse instance (by default Mastodon), your followship is now and forever truly YOURS. You can take your followers with you elsewhere as you see fit.

It's not a one-click process, but unlike the closed platforms that make every effort to keep your voice and your data locked in, the fediverse and its many nodes is a completely open ecosystem, rapidly evolving in lockstep with its inhabitants.

It takes a while to fully appreciate a social media paradigm that doesn't actively antagonize its tenants; there's less drama and toxicity on the fediverse, but isn't it high time you gave your adrenal glands a rest?

This is the easiest way to get started: Mastodon: A Quick Start Guide for Journalists.

It recommends signing up for newsie.social, which is run by Jeff Brown of https://fourthestate.org/ and https://www.verifiedjournalist.org/ – get verified while you're at it!

There are some other options listed here, but if Newsie is still accepting registrations don't overthink it; Jeff will get you sorted.

Third: Co-create the fediverse

Grow the garden-like town square together with everyone else. You need something? Build it, together with all the other open source developers. You cannot operate as an island. The collective project of the fediverse only succeeds if we work together to grow our common ecosystem.

If you want better infrastructure, connectivity and reach for your craft & trade, it's in your power to realize those betterments. The fediverse is as much yours as anyone else's.

Media agency; see how that feels for a change.


And that's it. In summary:

  1. Resist the urge to tweet
  2. Take an hour to put up your fediverse persona
  3. Save democracy 🤝

Whether you think of web3 as the advent of peer-to-peer protocols, coin-operated blockchains or autocomplete-AI synthesizers, change is coming.

Yet I find myself unable to race along on the newest ride. Not because of some nostalgic attachment or fear of the unknown; I simply refuse to move on to the next thing until we've finished what we started. Before diving head-first into web3 and AI, I'm gonna take my sweet time settling into web1 and-a-half, i.e. what the nascent web could have been had it not been co-opted by careless tech bros and capital glut.

Digital Wastelands

We talk about inventions like digital social networks as if they're inherently bad designs. Actually the idea of a web-scale address book was and remains great, but the environment it originally grew up in was rotten to the core.

That environment was advertising-driven surveillance states, the subsequent attention economy, and monopolization as standard business practice. You can plant seeds in that ground and watch in amazement as saplings shoot up high in record time, but the resulting produce is an empty husk of a plant, devoid of nutrients.

What has come out of this deeply corrupt, monocultural environment as a foundation for digital flourishing is the enshittified platform; an extractive mono crop that from inception is kept on artificial life support through massive amounts of external energy, incessantly sucked out from its surroundings in parasitical fashion.

Platforms built within these environmental constraints are not designed to produce real value to their users, which to them are expendable units of energy input. Instead they aim to provide so-called free products of novelty and convenience that make users dependent on the platform to the point of chronic addiction, placing them under the platform’s control. And that control knob is slowly but surely turned up to be ever more oppressive as the lock-in dynamics of addiction and network effects compound.

It’s a game of antagonistic domination as opposed to mutualistic service:

Domination game = centrally manipulate users (mind-hack) into co-dependent servitude to the platform.

Mutualism game = collectively manipulate the platform (system-hack) to serve its interdependent tenants.

If you are not paying for the product, you are the product. 1, 2, 3.

Hollow AI

What keeps me up at night when looking at the impending AI revolution is that these tools are growing up in that same corrupt environment, riddled with malicious incentives and inhumane narratives. The supposed alignment problem of AI is in my view directly correlated with the misalignment of growth-obsessed industrialization in a planet that is increasingly inhospitable to dignified human life.

The technical challenges of AI alignment are real, but meaningless in the absence of a societal reckoning to mend the foundations on top of which this profoundly disruptive tech is being built.

Enshittified social networks came awfully close to upending civilized society as we know it. Enshittified AI will be game over.

Rewriting history

Sadly, we can’t travel back in time and stop the trickle-down shit storm of Reagonomics from ever picking up wind. However, we have one last chance to overwrite those dirty specters of the past, undoing the unimaginable damage done in the past half century by extractive robber barons.

This is where the ‘old web’ comes in. Our current moment feels like a unique opportunity to reclaim the foundational web applications of the 2000s that were captured and black-boxed into proprietary packaging before the open web even had a chance to breathe.

Complicit media institutions hailed the monopolists as genius saviors. We should have known better than to trust the hooded man speaking in riddles, however casual-presenting. It took us a while, but we finally see the feudal platform lords for the egotistical man-children they always were.

Feigning humility, the tech-barons would say they were ‘standing on the shoulders of [their fellow] giants’, when in reality their bloodied scaffolding was made entirely on the backs of nameless, uncredited workers. As we delight in calling bullshit on the creators of our rapidly degrading web platforms, it’s high time we call bullshit on their still-erect creations as well.

Every additional minute spent playing their deceitful games is keeping the attention-hoarding monster alive with yet another delicious morsel of your energy. And given just a little more time and sustenance, that ego-of-man meets heartless-machine monstrosity will successfully transform into a demonic creature of such overwhelming power that resistance will be futile.

This is our do-or-die moment; the last of many before it. The preceding big one in modern day memory was the fight to control the narrative of our planet-scale ecological collapse. The ecologists lost that fight to big oil, and millions of human beings have perished in relative silence as a result. The loss of animals and organic life at large is in the many billions.

Reclaim ownership

As the platforms we internet-natives grew up with are becoming boring legacy software and the profiteers avert their attention to the AI boom, now is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to recapture the control that was taken away from us.

In the right hands – the hands of the netizens – yesteryear's technologies of social coordination remain as revolutionary as ever. We just never got to experience these tools as magical extensions of humanity. In the current paradigm, the social media platforms strictly use and abuse your attention to amass centralized power and deepen their moats.

Bit by bit the tech was seized from us, and just so the tech shall be reclaimed anew.

Reclaim your mind. Reclaim your identity. Reclaim your contacts. Reclaim your spaces. Reclaim your community. Reclaim your agency.

How? By opening it all up: APIs, clients, protocols and algorithms.

Albert Wenger (author of World after Capital): https://continuations.com/post/172413445510/we-need-mandatory-enduser-apis-for-social-and

For years now I have been writing and speaking about the “Right to be represented by a bot.” We as endusers need to be able to run software on our behalf that interacts with systems such as Facebook. More recently I have phrased this as “Any system with 1 million+ users should by law be required to issue users with personal API keys.”

Why does that make a difference? Because with an API key I can have an intermediary software layer that operates on my behalf. And that layer can connect me with friends and family that are split up across multiple social networks. This would allow for real competition to Facebook to arise. And once there is competition there is a strong check on behavior as a future #DeleteFacebook campaign would be far more impactful.

Cory Doctorow (author of Chokepoint Capitalism): https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2019/10/adversarial-interoperability

For a really competitive, innovative, dynamic marketplace, you need adversarial interoperability: that’s when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them. Think of third-party printer ink, alternative app stores, or independent repair shops that use compatible parts from rival manufacturers to fix your car or your phone or your tractor.

Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure: The Three-Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet https://publicinfrastructure.org/2023/03/29/the-three-legged-stool/ https://publicinfrastructure.org/2022/11/09/gobo-2-0-all-your-social-media-in-one-place/

We believe Gobo [a service-agnostic social media client] needs to allow users to:

  • Read and post to multiple social networks from one open source client.
  • Pick and choose between algorithms for filtering and sorting the posts from all these networks.
  • Design (and potentially share) different algorithms for filtering and sorting.
  • Use third-party services to assist in filtering and sorting.
  • Audit the performance of these different algorithms as well as the third party services.

A lot of this interoperability is becoming enforceable by law in the EU: https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/policies/digital-services-act-package

Web platform openness is not some utopian dream: The entirety of the web’s infrastructure is open source. The proprietary apps that have come to control our autonomy are brittle layers of obfuscated code sprinkled on top. There’s no magic trick to those services as we’ve already got commercially viable alternatives for all of them, providing irrefutable proof that the hostile data-prison business practices of the market leaders are utterly unnecessary.

I’ve got my own rudimentary playbook for how I intend to regain control, but there are lots of different ways to play this game. Just don’t play theirs. The new game is a pluriverse of permacultures.

While the hype chasers busy themselves with the next big thing, skating feverishly towards where they think the puck is going, I'm gonna go have a chat with the stadium’s hot dog sellers about the merits of unionization.

The all too common firehose stream has never worked for me. It’s undoubtedly a big reason why I never got properly into Twitter.

I generally don’t go to noisy congregation spots like bars because I find them overwhelming. Too many people talking loudly at each other all at once gives me sensory overload.

(Back when I'd reluctantly go to these places to accommodate my friends' preferences for social arenas, I was well known for my irish exit)

Mastodon – the mainstream ActivityPub implementation – is the same way; algorithmic or chronological sorting makes no difference as long as everyone's speech is mashed together into one mega-aggregate stream of no structure.

I can handle an email inbox, a bulletin-board or an RSS reader, because these feeds usually serve up somewhere between 1-10 updates per day, instead of 100s.

During my few stints of trying to make Twitter work for me, I've encountered multiple people that I wanted to follow, but ultimately didn't because I could tell their feed was too noisy. 'Too noisy' usually meant one of two things: (1) too many posts per day, or (2) posting about a wide assortment of topics – I only wanna keep up with 20%.

That's a shame though, because if Twitter had accommodated better sorting controls, both from the writer's content-push (e.g. require hashtag categorization) and the reader's content-pull (follow a poster's hashtags), I'd follow a lot more people. Ditto for Mastodon et.al.

The existing microblog paradigm seems to work best for two types of people:

  • Information hoarders who can justify a large amount of time spent sifting through a massive feed because it translates into niche insights and competitive advantage.
  • One-to-many publishers who only use the microblog funnel for outgoing messaging, meaning they don't actually read their inbound feed at all.

For the ActivityPub protocol to become as widespread as email (protocol by specification) and chat (protocol by convention, for now), it needs to provide real utility to the average internet user.

Noisy dinner party

Mastodon is an incremental change, taking the microblog-app archetype from centralized to federated. It’s still the exact same UX paradigm, which is profoundly limited as a tool for sense-making. It’s gonna take a while for the techie community of 10 million to iterate and innovate further until we’ve arrived at the true paradigm shift of a brand new interface for the ActivityPub protocol that appeals to the majority of netizens.

In the blogging paradigm, I could (and did) feasibly follow 500 different blogs. Writing blog posts take time, so if each blogger put out a new post every three weeks that'd be about 20-25 new posts per day. Among those publications there'd still be an abundance of content that didn't always pique my interest, or just a skim-read would suffice to keep up. On average I'd read around 2-5 full articles per day.

The experience was remarkably similar to that of reading a newspaper: – Finite number of pages – Long-form by default, with mixed-media dispersed throughout – Only 5-10% of the paper's content is read in full.

Microblogging on the other hand is like a noisy dinner party that never stops. Its discursive content is non-linear, unstructured and extremely abundant. Following 500 microbloggers who are posting on average several times per day renders my feed completely untenable without the help of a sorting mechanism.

Twitter solves this problem with opaque algorithms. Mastodon opts for chronological sorting, which is earnestly transparent, but punishes curiosity; the more people I follow, the more overwhelming my inbound feed becomes.

Knowledge cultivation vs dissemination

The fediverse of microbloggers' primary objective isn't knowledge cultivation, but rather social bonding and sentiment aggregation.

What's new/trending? What are the most commonly held beliefs? Who shares the same opinions? Which opinions are controversial?

While enduring long-form mediums like blogs and forums excel at creating and refining knowledge, ephemeral short-form mediums like chat and microblogs can more effectively disseminate and reinforce established knowledge.

No strict lines can nor should be drawn between these different modes of communication however. It's not uncommon for a new piece of knowledge to go through the following stages of life, from soft to solid to distributed:

  1. New but unstructured knowledge is synthesized over the course of a chat conversation
  2. The key knowledge artifact is refined in the form of a blog post
  3. The new knowledge is disseminated through microblogs and links aggregators. 🌱🌻💨

With some work, we can make these stages far more seamless, and I believe step 3 in this particular example is currently the least developed.

Slow Feeds

For the likes of me (generally shy & quiet; loud & proud if asked to speak) to functionally participate in the digital conversation of the federated party, three key features are missing in today's microblogging & feed-aggregation clients:

  • Follow hashtags
  • Bundling content
  • Content gardening

Follow hashtags, not people

First and foremost, I'm interested in following topics, not specific people. I'm deeply curious about certain people's feed exactly because they write frequently about a topic that interests me.

If a person who's writing regularly about open source decided to start a farm and consequently began posting mostly about agriculture, I'd be far less interested in their feed as a whole. However, if that same person was still writing occasionally about open source, now with an added ecology-informed perspective, I'd be more excited than ever to keep up with that particular segment of their writings!

It can seem like we have a chicken and egg problem in the widespread adoption of hashtags to properly categorize content on the fediverse, but clients can in fact lead the way quite effectively. As long as there are popular clients that lean heavily into hashtags as a primary means of discovering and displaying content, posters are incentivized to utilize hashtags more (which can even be backfilled by edits), knowing there are clients that prioritize tagged content.

This would be further facilitated by solving the problem of federated search, so that my inbound feed for open source content wouldn't be limited to just the #opensource tag but would also include a variety of related search terms.

I can easily follow 500 people if I'm only following updates pertaining to my specific interests.

Side note: While it might be a controversial opinion, I'm not a fan of inline hashtags as a default way of tagging content. It's just a noisier version of the post-script tagging system we had for blogs. Meta-data should be kept out of the content body unless it's explicitly meant as an outgoing link to a specific feed-aggregate.

Bundles over timelines

Oh how I miss the good old days of digests, when information was expected to be consumed on a daily or even weekly basis, rather than hourly.

While I still want better hashtag-following, I wouldn't need it nearly as much if I could just tell my client to give me a daily/weekly/monthly digest of a person’s posts, based on my frequency preference. Smart clients could even suggest new frequency preferences based on my engagement (or lack thereof) with certain feeds.

I've not seen a lot of examples of this kind of interface in practice. Aside from the mailing list example above, a few others that come to mind are Google Inbox and LindyLearn. Neither perfectly match what I'm describing, but they both play with the concept of information bundling, rather than linear, strictly chronological streams.

Evergreen content gardens

99% of all microblog content is ephemeral by design, meant for a specific moment in time. But the 1% that should endure past the 24hr cycle doesn't have good ways to do so in the current paradigm.

Reddit has a simple Top sorting mechanism for viewing highly rated content in the past Day / Week / Month / Year / All Time. This is a great way to surface evergreen knowledge artifacts in places like r/AMA and r/todayilearned. It's also a very helpful way to get oriented in a new space.

The same could be done for hashtags on the fediverse. Treating hashtags as not just timelines of the present moment but also containers of institutional knowledge could lead to all sorts of innovations in knowledge management on the fediverse.


The vast majority of development effort in the ActivityPub-client space is currently going into various derivatives of the classic microblog paradigm popularized by Twitter. My intention for this post is to gently nudge developers' attention towards a new paradigm that aims to bridge the gap between gossip and sense-making. If you're working on this, let me know!

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.