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Tag: Fediverse

Defederation and governance processes

I’ve noticed this week some Mastodon instances ‘defederating’ not only from those that are generally thought of to be toxic, but also of large, general-purpose instances such as mastodon.social. This post is about governance processes and trying to steer a way between populism and oligarchy.

The first thing I should say in all of this, is that I’m a middle-aged, straight, white guy playing life on pretty much the easiest difficulty level. So I’m not commenting in this post about any specific situation but rather zooming out to think about this on a wider scale.

What I’ve seen, mainly via screenshots as I rarely visit Twitter now except to keep the @WeAreOpenCoop account up-to-date, is that Elon Musk has run some polls. As others have commented, this is how a Roman Emperor would make decisions: through easy-to-rig polls that suggest that an outcome is “the will of the people”.

Tweet from Elon Musk: "Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?"

Yes 72.4%
No 27.6%

This is obviously an extremely bad, childish, and dangerous way to run a platform that, until recently, was almost seen as infrastructure.

On the other side of the spectrum is the kind of decision making that I’m used to as a member of a co-op that is part of a wider co-operative network. These daily decisions around matters large and small requires not necessarily consensus, but rather processes that allow for alignment around a variety of issues. As I mentioned in my previous post, one good way to do this is through consent-based decision making.

Screenshot of the Loomio for social.coop with multiple discussion threads

Using Loomio, the social.coop instance that I currently call home on the Fediverse, makes decisions in a way that is open for everyone to view — and also for members of the instance to help decide. It’s not a bad process at all, but a difficult one to scale — especially when rather verbose people with time on their hands decide to have An Opinion. It also happens in a place (Loomio) other than that which the discussion concerns (Mastodon).

So when I had one of my regular discussions with Ivan, one of the Bonfire team, I was keen to bring it up. He, of course, had already been thinking about this and pointed me towards Ukuvota, an approach which uses score voting to help with decision making:

To “keep things the way they are” is always an option, never the default. Framing this option as a default position introduces a significant conservative bias — listing it as an option removes this bias and keeps a collective evolutionary.

To “look for other options” is always an option. If none of the other current options are good enough, people are able to choose to look for better ones — this ensures that there is always an acceptable option for everyone.

Every participant can express how much they support or oppose each option. Limiting people to choose their favorite or list their preference prevents them from fully expressing their opinions — scoring clarifies opinions and makes it much more likely to identify the best decision.

Acceptance (non-opposition) is the main determinant for the best decision. A decision with little opposition reduces the likelihood of conflict, monitoring or sanctioning — it is also important that some people actively support the decision to ensure it actually happens.

The examples given on the website are powerful but quite complicated, which is why I think there’s immense power in the default. To my mind, democratic decision making is the kind of thing that you need to practise, but which shouldn’t become a burden.

I’m hoping that after the v1.0 release of Bonfire, that one of the extensions that can emerge is a powerful way of democratic governance processes being available right there in the social networking tool. If this were the case, I can imagine decisions around instance-blocking to be able to be made in a positive, timely, and democratic manner.

Watch this space! If you’re reading this and are involved in thinking about these kinds of things for projects you’re involved with, I’d love to have a chat.

How to CW on the Fediverse

Preview of CW

This is just a short post that I can link to when people ask me a question about Content Warnings (CWs) on the Fediverse.

A good starting point is the 2018 Mastodon quick start guide:

My advice is simple: if you’re not sure whether a toot needs a CW or not, give it a CW. People really appreciate it and it doesn’t do any harm to be too cautious and too respectful of others.

You can also use a CW to summarise a long post. Some use it for joke punchlines. Maybe you’ll think of other uses for it. Have fun.

Things that I appreciate people putting a CW on:

  • Politics
  • War
  • Anything related to abuse
  • Strong eye contact
  • Spoilers

The way that I summarise it for people who say “why should I have to CW my posts?” is to say “so that people don’t unfollow you”.

What does this button do? The perils of being the other side of a screen to an algorithm

One of the things that has surprised me most about people migrating from Twitter to Fediverse platforms such as Mastodon has been people’s confusion over the ‘favourite’ button. It’s a star symbol and, as with in the earlier days of Twitter, it has no real function other than to the person pressing the button and the person who’s post is being favourited.

On Twitter, of course, the ‘like’ button (which morphed into a heart over time) had an algorithmic function; other people began to be shown posts that were liked, but not necessarily retweeted, by others in their network. Or by influential people. Or because its content was likely to provoke a reaction in you. Or maybe… something else? Who knows, the algorithms involved are proprietary.

In The Social Dilemma, there’s a powerful scene where a representation of a teenage boy is being created by the data he willingly hands to Big Tech companies. The algorithms are anthropomorphised in a way that helps less technical people understand what’s going on. While some of us may smile and comment on how it doesn’t really happen like that (algorithms don’t have intentions, as such) it’s nevertheless a good way of driving home the message that human flourishing is often at odds with shareholder value. Your ‘engagement’ with a platform might leave you angry for hours, days, or weeks just for a small increase in share price.

Meanwhile, on most Fediverse platforms, including Mastodon, there are essentially four ways of interacting with other people’s posts:

  • Reply
  • Boost
  • Favourite
  • Bookmark

There’s no ‘quote tweet’-like functionality on Mastodon, which is a purposeful attempt to stop sealioning. That’s why full-text search isn’t available, either.

These are all technical things, whereas what makes the Fediverse the Fediverse is the culture that’s been created over the last half-decade. As Clive Thompson writes:

Perhaps even more important than the design of Mastodon is the behavior established by its existing user base — i.e. the folks who’ve been using it for the last six years. Those people have established what is, in many ways, an antiviral culture. They push back at features and behaviors that are promoting virality, and they embrace things that add friction to the experience. They prefer slowness to speediness.

[…]

This is in part because Mastodon’s earliest communities included many subaltern groups who wanted to avoid the dogpiling harassment they’d received on major social networks — and understood that well-engineered friction would help.

What’s interesting to me is the culture clash between the way that the technology and culture works/worked on Twitter, and how it is in the Fediverse. It’s like the way that the former works is the ‘default’ in some way, and then that framing views how the Fediverse is seen.

I get it. I think I first wrote about being on Mastodon in… 2017? But you can’t look at something that is new to you and think about what it lacks compared to what you’ve grown accustomed. Not everything involves faster horses.

What I’m hoping that people are discovering is the peace of mind in not being encouraged by an opaque algorithm to make declarative statements in the hope for more engagement and virality. There’s something a lot more human, a lot more calming and convivial, about pressing a button and having a human on the other side.

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