FTO Update, May-June 2023

Important stuff first: FTO will be de-federating from universeodon no sooner than a week from now, and once Facebook/Meta announce more details about Threads/P92 we’ll be blocking them as well. As usual, here’s our financial situation:

Month Cost
November 2022 $26.06
December 2022 $8.73
January 2023 $4.75
February 2023 $0.19
March 2023 $0.00
April 2023 $0.00
May 2023 $0.00
June 2023 $0.00*

And here’s the requisite plug of FtB’s instance and instructions on how to join. I should also mention I added the phanpy UI to our instance. It comes with a lot of useful features, like a “boost carousel” and grouped notifications which make browsing a more pleasant experience. It also supports multiple accounts, none of which have to be on FTO. I’m a big fan. Phanpy has its downsides, but I want to save them for a future review of Mastodon clients.

In the meantime, let’s talk about some recent controversies on the Fediverse.

I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to find a blog post I just read, as it would have made an excellent entry point. It identified two broad archetypes of Fediverse users, which it dubbed “Twitter 2.0” and “Small Community” people. The former type hates what has happened to Twitter, and wants to replace it with something better. The platform generally worked fine for them, they just want to tweak it a bit. Usually these are the people arguing for quote-boosts and full-text search, with the negative consequences of each easily solved by better moderation. To be competitive with Twitter, Mastodon needs to grow. More users means better content and more developers, which means better features that run circles around Twitter’s. It’s rare to see this archetype mention other parts of the Fediverse or even third-party clients, some of which have offered quote-boosts for months if not years, because the official Mastodon slice of the Fediverse is the biggest and thus the one most likely to replace Twitter.

The “Small Community” people also hate what has happened to Twitter, and also want to replace it with something better. But they view Twitter and company as fundamentally broken, designed from the ground-up to exploit personal information and “engagement” to line their own pockets. Instead, they want to use cheap computing to create small communities of like-minded people. As a concrete example, I just read of someone announcing a CalcKey instance for minorities that won’t join the Fediverse. Will that change in future? Maybe, if their users ask for it, but they’re in no hurry. This archetype views federation as a privilege, and defederates at the drop of a hat. Instances are almost always invite-only, because they’d rather sacrifice growth for user experience. They do want a Twitter replacement, but only in a very local sense. They’re aware that what works for them may not work for others, and aren’t interested in competition.

Importantly, neither of these archetypes are correct. Each prioritizes different values, leading to different decisions which each have their pros and cons. They can all occupy the Fediverse, and in fact already do: the “Twitter 2.0”-leaning are attracted to big instances, while the “Small Community”-leaning migrate to or create smaller instances that cater to their needs. I’ve caught myself leaning towards one philosophy or the other, depending on the situation. The ethical field is awash with shades of gray.

But since they all occupy the Fediverse, sometimes these philosophies collide. A few weeks ago, the people who run mastodon.art announced they were defederating from universeodon.com. This made waves, as both are pretty large instances (36k and 74k users, respectively). The stated reasons relate directly to this clash of values.

While obviously any admin can run their instance as they see fit, the undercurrent of these messages and behaviour is at a direct odds with how .art runs our instance and how we’d like our corner of the fediverse to be; where the wellbeing of our community is proritised, in an ad- and corpo- free space. We’re defederating from Universeodon to maintain the integrity of the space we occupy in the fediverse; we don’t want to be federated with an instance that prefers growth over safety and equates making money, especially from the likes of Meta, with ‘legitimacy’.

My initial take was a blur of both archetypes. mastodon.art is free to make whatever sort of community they want, and can defederate from who they want to, for whatever reason. They have my full support. But conversely, merely having a “Twitter 2.0”-style admin isn’t enough for me to join them. I’ve got no beef with the moderators or community at universeodon. I still operate under a “federate by default” policy, even if my bar for defederation is unusually low, so I need more than a philosophical difference.

Implementing full-text search would have tripped my bar, but the devil is in the details. FTO offers it, but with severe limitations: all known usernames and hashtags are in the pool, but the only posts included are those you’ve favourited or boosted. The latter is just a small fraction of all those cached on the server. Want something more expansive? tootfinder.ch offers “global” full-text search across instances, but it’s opt-in by default. Instance admins have to voluntarily join the index, and have to make it obvious they’ve joined, plus any of their users can opt-out via a magic word. If universeodon’s implementation was in the same ballpark, I wouldn’t have hit the defederate threshold.

An image of @supernovae searching for "monday night football". The top result is from another instance, has not been interacted wtih, and does not contain those words in the username or hashtag.

It’s outta the park, sadly. The blog post showing off the feature has numerous examples of posts from other instances showing up in the search results, even though they haven’t been interacted with, do not contain the search terms in their user names, nor do they have any relevant hashtags. This is a huge deal. It’s common for people on Twitter to speak in code, for instance saying “Melon Husk” instead of “Elon Musk,” because Musk fanboys will use Twitter’s full-text search to find accounts to harass. Now the same thing can happen on Mastodon:

  1. Get an account on universeodon (submissions are currently open, and the admin is almost certain to keep it that way).
  2. Use their expansive search to find people to harass, noting the URLs of the offending posts.
  3. Switch to or sign up for an account on a loosely-moderated instance (or just set up your own, instances are cheap!).
  4. Harass away until you get blocked, in which case go back to step three.

While no one instance can survey the entire Fediverse, universeodon is the seventh-most popular instance according to our logs. Fediverse Observer ranks it 21st across the entire Fediverse, with more users than 99.9% of all other instances. Their size means that a lot of other instances federate with them, so their cache contains a significant chunk of the Fediverse. In the interest of making Mastodon more user-friendly, they’ve opened up a giant new avenue of harassment and done little to warn the rest of us.

Worse still, you opt-in to their expansive search by federating with them, and there is no opt-out mechanism. Well OK, there’s exactly one way out, and that’s to block universeodon. Outsourcing this blocking to users is a bad idea, because that makes univereseodon’s expansive search the default across the Fediverse. All those aforementioned shades of grey have been crushed into a binary choice: accept universeodon’s expansive search by federating with them, or cut off a vector of harassment by defederating.

The argument against defederation is painfully strong. I did track down that entry-point blog post, but a more expansive search would have made the job easier. Users have been demanding a better search for years, and only a small minority of them will use it to harass. Defederation breaks social connections, and by doing that FTO would cut itself off from a small but non-trivial chunk of the Fediverse. In specific, anyone signed into our instance would be unable to interact with Adam Lee, George Takei, Josiah Mannion, and our very own Abe Drayton. Twitter has become a hellscape, but so many people remain on the platform because their friends are still there. universeodon is nowhere near as bad, which makes the choice that much more painful.

Alas, the very first sentence of this blog post gave away the game’s final score: faced with the choice of making the Fediverse more attractive by provided much-desired features, or creating a safe little community on the Fediverse, I come down on the side of safety. universeodon is currently limited from our instance, and sometime after July 6th I’m switching to a full domain block.

If you’ve followed through on the above links, you’ve noticed a lot of them mention Meta or Facebook. There’s been a lot of chatter over various big networks joining the Fediverse, most notably Tumblr, but so far it’s amounted to little. That may be about to change.

The new standalone app will be based on Instagram and integrate with ActivityPub, the decentralized social media protocol. That will theoretically allow users of the new app to take their accounts and followers with them to other apps that support ActivityPub, including Mastodon.

The forthcoming app, which, in the meeting today, Meta chief product officer Chris Cox called “our response to Twitter,” will use Instagram’s account system to automatically populate a user’s information. The internal codename for the app is “Project 92,” and its public name could be Threads, based on internal documents also seen by The Verge.

There are a lot of reasons to hate on Meta, not least of which is how they’ve encouraged civil wars. Like Twitter, its entire business is based around exploiting personal information and “engagement.” Like universeodon, their sheer size would give them enormous reach and influence across the Fediverse, empowering them to embrace, extend, and extinguish. It didn’t help that rumours swirled about secret meetings with big Mastodon instance admins.

Nonetheless, a distinct pattern emerged in the responses about what to do.

Johannes Ernst raised an important question: will the fediverse grow faster organically, cut off from Threads, or faster with the chance to bring Meta users over to the larger fediverse? And I’d zoom out from that to the big picture: do we really want to be a community that discourages for-profit companies from adopting open APIs?

To succeed with mainstream users, the fediverse should encompass many types of platforms and business models. Not just open source. Not just volunteer-led instances.

Some are viewing this as a great opportunity to grow Mastodon, to make it more innovative and competitive. The openness implied by the Fediverse means it would be petty and insular to pre-emptively defederate from Threads. This is a rare chance to show off how awesome we are to a new and receptive crowd.

It’s deja vu, all over again! Those two archetypes are leading to two binary paths over what to do: allow federation from the start but defederate over bad behaviour, or defederate immediately to protect our communities.

the fediverse is good precisely because distributed moderation makes it possible to filter out bad shit easier. that all goes out the window the moment meta sets foot here and people refuse to block them because “that’s where everyone is”

they’ll set the standard from then on

try being trans and on facebook, having a list of common suicide methods sent to you by a bigot, and reporting it. they’ll do goddamn nothing. a real, personal, and depressingly common example

being okay with meta joining the fediverse is being okay with cosigning every goddamn trans person who chooses to remain on here to a future of constant harassment

Thankfully, unlike the universeodon situation there aren’t any existing ties to sever, so the decision is a lot less painful. To no-one’s surprise, I’m planning on joining the cool kids and defederating from Threads the moment I know their address. If you’re more in camp “Twitter 2.0”, don’t worry, the Fediverse is big enough for all of us and it won’t be hard to find another instance with a philosophy that’s more aligned with your own.

That just won’t be happening on FTO.