I’m interested in the work of the team that is championing the ActivityPub protocol, which earned a W3C Recommendation in January of this year. I’m not part of that team or SocialCG or any team that makes decisions on those specifications, though I would like to be in the future.
What I do have is an interest in alternative social media networks. More specifically I have an interest in getting more people to share more of their content outside of the walled gardens of the largest social networks like Facebook that keep all user content segregated from the wider web.
I no longer have a Facebook account of my own, something that I’ll probably write about this week. That already means that some events, website logins, and communities have been closed to me. I’m willing to make that tradeoff in commitment to a more open and connected web, decentralized away from a few large companies maintaining all of the things that we see online.
Last year I stumbled upon a Twitter alternative that was gaining ground, Mastodon. If you have used Tweetdeck, the interface is fairly similar, and navigating around shouldn’t be that tricky. What is tricky is the concept of federation.
You are most likely familiary with one type of federation on the web: single sign-on. This is a form of federated identity, where you can use an authentication API of one web service to create and maintain an account on another service. The most popular of these in the US are of course Facebook, along with Twitter, Google, and a few other services that vary among industries or use cases.
In the case of a service like Mastodon, not only are identities federated, but the platform itself is. What this means, coupled with being decentralized, is that individuals can host their own servers with their own instance, or copy, of the software running. Unlike a P2P network where users are communicating directly between one another’s computers, a federated service still uses a centralized server.
Since individuals can host their own instances of Mastodon, they can set their own rules, and give them their own names, guidelines, and styles. The instance that I run is intended to be a gathering place for LGBTQIA+ folks with an interest in technology. You can find it at tech.lgbt
If you join my instance, you can still connect with, friend, follow, chat with, “retweet” (or in Mastodon terminology, “boost”) others, as well as share your own statuses of up to 500 characters in what they call “toots”. Your username will follow a naming convention based on the domain of the instance that you joined. My username is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don’t join a lot of other instances directly, as each involves creating a new account. What I can do however is interact with people on those instances, both by visiting them directly and seeing them in my personal feed. If I want to follow the statuses of and respond to the creator of Mastodon, I can go from my account on tech.lgbt and follow Gargron@mastodon.social directly. This means that I don’t need to create an account on mastodon.social to see what he’s up to.
Why does this matter?
This is a powerful concept, and one that I want to take time to delve into more deeply. I’m going to save my thoughts for future posts, but there’s a few things that we can keep in mind now:
- We can reduce the friction, fatigue, and security lapses that come from signing up for multiple platforms.
- We can maintain a unified identity that can follow us around. When we want this identity, this becomes useful for things like reputation.
- We can ensure that no one server or platform holds all of this information. We can move when we choose, and can survive the collapse of individual nodes.
I hope that the above concepts excite or intrigue you like they do for me. If you want to give Mastodon a try, sign up for my instance at tech.lgbt, or go to joinmastodon.org to see other ones that are available.