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Unauditible algorithms are the enemy of social media users

Pattern

Writing about Elon Musk trying to buy Twitter, Dorian Taylor reflects that:

What Twitter does really well is put you on equal footing with people you would otherwise never think to reach out to, and in other contexts, probably wouldn’t give you the time of day. These people put themselves out there to be interacted with, so you have implicit permission to interact with them.

I would say Twitter perhaps used to do this, at least for me. I find these kinds of interaction these days on the Fediverse, where people aren’t trying to please algorithms.

Chris Trottier, someone I have recently started following, wrote a post explaining the difference between interacting in a centralised, algorithm-controlled space, and setting up shop in a decentralised one.

I have managed to attract 35 followers. This is for a fresh new instance barely two weeks old. The network effect is low. There’s no social algorithm pushing my posts because the Fediverse has no algorithms like that.

Likewise, I am nobody particularly notable – just a guy having fun on social media. All anyone sees is pictures of computer games, cassette tapes, food, and stuff from nature walks. In effect, just stuff a typical person would share.

People respond to incentives: if algorithms are set up to reward users who interact in a certain way, then this is what (most) users end up doing. Proof of this comes through behaviours such as like-farming declarative statements on centralised social media, designed to maximise ‘engagement’ with a post.

It’s not so radical to wonder whether, when users of a system are posting things with the intention of ‘going viral’, perhaps authenticity suffers? Are algorithms used by centralised social media serving the needs of the humans using it?

Algorithms that cannot be audited are a feature, not a bug, of centralised social media. They are what provide ‘shareholder value” by allowing advertising content to grab the attention of users, whether they like it or not. These systems are focused on behaviour modification and are not going to change.

Capital, which is what centralised social media serves, loves hierarchy and social stratification. People knowing their place. People having a different experience based on their ability to pay, and, of course, monetising the ‘follower’ dynamic.

The Fediverse is a messy, weird, human place. It reminds me of Twitter in the early days. Everyone on a truly equal footing, being themselves — whatever that happens to be today. The experience isn’t sanitised, or corporate, or algorithmic. And, for me that’s perfect.

Two years of spending more time in ‘dark forests’

Trees in a forest

Back in 2019, Yancey Strickler wrote:

Imagine a dark forest at night. It’s deathly quiet. Nothing moves. Nothing stirs. This could lead one to assume that the forest is devoid of life. But of course, it’s not. The dark forest is full of life. It’s quiet because night is when the predators come out. To survive, the animals stay silent.

Is our universe an empty forest or a dark one? If it’s a dark forest, then only Earth is foolish enough to ping the heavens and announce its presence. The rest of the universe already knows the real reason why the forest stays dark. It’s only a matter of time before the Earth learns as well.

This is also what the internet is becoming: a dark forest.

In response to the ads, the tracking, the trolling, the hype, and other predatory behaviors, we’re retreating to our dark forests of the internet, and away from the mainstream.

In doing so, he gave a name to something many of us had been feeling: that the fully-public spaces we previously inhabited in a carefree way are increasingly ideological battlegrounds. In response, we crave “depressurized conversation… possible because of… non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments”.

I’ve spent a lot less time on Twitter in the last couple of years. But it’s changed and I’ve changed, and I find more joy, fulfilment, and recognition elsewhere these days. Slack channels, corners of the Fediverse, and Signal chats have become a lot more important in my life.

As Strickler wrote in a follow-up post, however, we can’t just stay in the forests all of the time. To “expect anything to change for the better”, he says, “we have to actively engage”. For some people, that will look like the digital equivalent of punching nazis. But for others, it will look like building, maintaining, and evangelising spaces which are more conducive to the depressurised conversations we often seek.


In a bid to be ever-more-present for my family and my own mental health, I’ve been experimenting again with Pinafore, an alternative front-end for Mastodon. Devoid of commercial imperatives to ‘hook’ users, this webapp implements easy-to-use toggles based on guidelines from the Center for Humane Technology. (You may remember the latter from the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma.) For example, you can turn the interface to greyscale, hide boosts and unread notifications, and make it so you have to press a button to reload the timeline.

Small differences, to be sure. But I’ve noticed that it makes a noticeable difference in lessening the number of times that I may mindlessly pick up my phone to do the dreaded ‘stare and scroll’…


Image based on an original by Kilian Kremer

Skin in the game?

Simple tattoo looking like a hummingbird (or the Twitter logo)

Almost four years ago, I joined the Fediverse through Mastodon. I’d been researching, writing, and speaking on decentralised technologies for social good and had experimented with a whole range of things.

Since then, I’ve switched Mastodon instance a few times and, at the time of writing, you can find me on Fosstodon, a place dedicated to free and open source software. I was so enamoured by the potential of decentralisation that I led the MoodleNet project for a couple of years, taking it from zero to one.


Until earlier this year, I was an active user of Twitter, and had been for 13 years. While I still auto-post my published articles there, I only login a couple of times per month to check everything is working and look at my notifications. People still occasionally tag me in threads.

One thread I saw when logging in this week was about the ‘viability’ of, well, everything except mainstream social networks. Other platforms, according to the people posting in the thread, just don’t have the “traction”.

All I can say to this is that there are those that expect a thing to exist fully-formed before engaging with it, and there are those people who expect to help bring anything they engage with into being.

Either position is fine, but know where you stand. If you’re a builder of new software, networks, or communities, then get on and build. If you’re a user of those software, tools, and communities to further your professional career, then do that. But perhaps don’t wring your hands about ‘viability’ if you haven’t got your skin in the game of building something new.


This post is Day 70 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

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