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Decentralization isn't enough. It's about people.

I posted a link the other day to this sobering essay about how the promised migration to Mastodon didn’t go as hoped. It makes some assumptions about what people were hoping for in the first place, but if you were (as I was) hoping that this would be a moment that federated social media might become mainstream, I think its arguments are correct. I wish they weren’t.

So what does Mastodon bring to the table in addition to Twitter, that might justify someone deciding to take the plunge and move to it? There are a few unique things about the platform, but they generally fall into the broad category of “things users don’t care about”. Chief among these is decentralisation.

I’ve made this argument before: for most people, decentralization is not a selling point. For a significant number of people, not being Twitter as run by Elon Musk is a selling point. And while there are certainly arguments to be made about how decentralized networks are less likely to fall prey to the same fate, the fact of the matter is, most people don’t care. Most people don’t understand what decentralization even really is, and nor should they have to.

Decentralized protocols are infrastructure in the same way that servers are infrastructure. Nobody cares if a traditional social network is built on AWS or Google Cloud. What they care about is the community: can they follow people they’re interested in, can they engage in great conversations, potentially find an audience for the things they make, and do all of this safely and without abuse.

Mastodon has, so far, not done well on this front. People really do find it hard to use. And when they do make it on, the number of “reply guys” — people who respond in an unwanted and condescending way to peoples’ posts, particularly those written by women — is sometimes off the charts. Finally but by no means least, there’s a disturbing current of anti-Blackness that extends from the covert racism of asking people to hide their lived experiences behind a content warning to overt white supremacy. For many people, it is not a welcoming place.

Dr Johnathan Flowers, who studies the philosophy of technology, gave a great interview last year that covers this topic in detail. It’s very difficult for me to pull a representative quote out; instead, I recommend that you read or listen to the whole piece.

Indeed, when I posted the link, I got some interesting replies that expressed the sentiment: it’s good that not everyone can use Mastodon. Sometimes a higher barrier to entry leads to a better quality of community. We never wanted everyone to move over; we just wanted the right people to move over.

Not a good look when many of the people who are put off from using the community are people of color, women, the disabled, and people with few resources. I’m strongly opposed to this sentiment: I think for social media to truly be useful, it must be welcoming, inclusive, and accessible.

There’s another reason why I want user-aligned social media to be readily accessible. (I’m struggling for a good term for this, as you can tell: it’s not decentralized social media, because decentralization is just a functional means to an end. What do you call something that is inherently supportive of the people who use it and their underlying interests? Democratic? Progressive?) Social media is intrinsically involved in the very dark moment in democracy that we’re living through; it has empowered populism and the rise of a militant far right. We need the online spaces that most of us use to not be run by people who are active supporters of fascism at worst and agnostic to it at best.

Social media helped bring about Trump. Right now Elon Musk is using Twitter in the same way Rupert Murdoch uses his media empire. Facebook does not look like it is eager to avoid the mistakes of its past if it means forgoing profit. There has to be a strong, inclusive alternative to these platforms, and right now there simply isn’t one.

None of this is to say that the underlying protocols are bad. I love ActivityPub. I think they’re a fantastic way to build new platforms. And I think that’s exactly what we need: new platforms, in the human sense, built with the participation of the communities they support. It’s not nearly enough to build a functional Twitter clone. Technology is never enough.

We need to build communities in new, participative ways that ensure everyone’s voice is heard. We need to share equity. We need to ensure that people with few resources are able to onboard. We need to ensure that everyone can feel safe as they express their true selves. Otherwise, to be frank, I don’t see the point.

I think it absolutely can be done, but lately I’ve been feeling like Mastodon itself is not yet the answer. The big question, then, is: what do we do next?

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