Community is not enough

(This post is based on a discussion from Hacker News)

I will assume that the reader is already aware of the mass-exodus from Twitter users to Mastodon, I will also assume that the reader has some basic understanding of how Mastodon works - it is decentralized like email, different servers can talk with each other, etc, etc. What might be news to the reader is the story of how this affects me, given that for the past 3 years I am running a commercial provider for Mastodon.

One can imagine how life-changing it was to see all the news about people looking at the Mastodon as an alternative. With zero marketing, this service that has been used mostly by me/my friends/my family started getting actual signups from strangers from all around the world. The whole system had more activity in the past 3 weeks than in the past 3 years combined. It was incredibly exciting. Many “It’s happening!!!” gifs were sent to my friends on account of each new deposit from customers. It wasn’t only my fortune that seems to have changed: most of the well-known Mastodon providers simply closed to new registrations as they could not keep up with the demand.

I simply couldn’t let go of this opportunity. I gave notice at my job so that I could have time again to work on it. My reasoning was simple: with hundreds of thousands of people leaving Twitter, one would guess that a reasonable percentage of them people would be willing to pay a few dollars per year to get an ad-free, privacy-focused alternative to social media. I guessed that people would be more than willing to pay a few dollars per year to be free from bots, to have a service that felt more “local” and to support smaller, independent service providers instead of fueling the huge corporate machine of BigTech.

Well, it’s been about a month since the initial euphoria, and now it seems that those guesses are becoming second-guessing.

Yes, I have been getting inquiries and signups every day. I need more than two hands to count the number of paying customers, but where are the rest of the hundreds of thousands of people going?

Turns out, they are going to the handful of “free” instances that have sprung up to fill the demand. Some of them got popular enough to attract celebrities (oh, my!), others have grown so fast that they ended up facing issues and got a nice war story to tell.

My first reaction to these stories were admittedly filled with a bit of envy. “Wow, 30000 users! If that many people subscribed to my $0.50/user/month package, it would be enough to pay myself a full salary!”. But then I realized that they are only getting these many people because they are not driven by commercial interests: even with donations, I am sure they are not collecting enough to keep things afloat and they keep going because they don’t mind spending all this time, money and resources of their own on this project. They can treat it as a (relatively expensive) hobby, and they can keep it running as long as it satisfies them.

The problem I see here is that I think the approach is short-sighted and harmful in the long run. Yes, people now are finally starting to see the issue with ad-funded social media, and it is good that this first wave can find a home at a “free” instance. But If we want to provide an ethical alternative to Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp, we need to find a way to serve hundreds of millions to billions of users. How are these people going to be spread around the instances?

Are we going to create ~15000 Hachyderms to replace Twitter?

Are we going to create ~60000 pixelfeds to replace Instagram?

Are all these communities depend on volunteers to do the grunt work?

Are all these instances going to be operated by professionals from Silicon Valley who can take some time from their cushy jobs at unethical companies and are able to afford to sink a few hundred dollars every month?

I don’t think so. I think this approach is not sustainable in the long term. I think that eventually, all these “free” instances will find out that they need to start thinking like a business to keep the lights on. From there, what is going to happen? Are they going to go to appeal to “your donation is very important to us” and expect that a few generous souls make up for the free-riders? Or are they going to pull a bait-and-switch, and start charging for access from all users? Or even worse: are they going to copy the VC-style playbook, focusing on growing the user base first at all costs and figuring out monetization later?

Word of warning: this was what got us in this mess in the first place.

If we really want to get rid of the evils of Big Tech and if we want social media companies to serve the people and not the interests of the elites, we need to understand TANSTAAFL. We need to understand that not all commercial providers are evil capitalist pigs, and we need to under that we will be better off by paying a fair, small amount every month every month instead of relying on crazy schemes that try to hide reality: for this to become accessible to everyone, real money needs to be spent on the people working on this and on the servers that are running 24/7 to store and distribute the hot takes and stupid memes that we so bizarrely crave every day.

I worry that if we don’t change the mindset quickly, the whole Twitter drama would be a wasted opportunity and we will go back to the status quo, where surveillance capitalism is the norm and truly open systems like Mastodon are just a geeky curiosity.