Federations and Identity

Now that Communick is available for the public at large and I am looking for ways to spread the word about the benefits of decentralized services, something very curious is happening: people seem to understand the issue of centralized services, they understand how federation works and that they can follow people from anywhere, yet the most common question I am hearing is “What instance should I join if I am interested in X? Which ones are better for people talking about Y?”.

My response would be something along the lines of “Do you use a different phone number or email address depending on the topic of the conversation?”, but the blank stares quickly remind me that I am part of the last generation that actually talked on their phones and wrote emails to actual people.

Yes, I am becoming an old fart, but I don’t know if it is just a generational divide. My hunch is that companies were very successful in convincing people that they are what they consume. As well meaning their offering can be, every new social media startup that pops up wants to become a middleman in the conversation of an insular tribe. To have any kind of conversation, they need to have people joining in the network, and playing to people’s sense of identity is one of the oldest marketing tricks1 to help them grow their usage numbers. This is already bad in itself, and the fact that they target younger people - who are still in a process of self-discovery and understanding their relationships with society at large - only makes it worse. It is going to take some time to get people to unlearn this and to stop conflating their peer group values with their own.

Back to the idea of ActivityPub and Mastodon specifically, this conflation of instances with tribes maybe made sense in a initial point, where its participants did not have any way to find each other. Content discovery in the fediverse certainly still needs to improve in order to make it easier for newcomers and those that want to leave centralized networks, but keeping this focus on “topic-specific” instances is a recipe to keep a great idea forever tainted as something for fringe groups.

Outside of these cases where the identity of the individual is tied to membership of the group, people’s main focus when selecting an instance should have nothing to do with the group: is the service reliable? Is the moderation fair and consistent? Is user privacy being respected? Do they follow good security practices when running the service?

There certainly is a place for instances whose members have some shared identity: employees of a business that need to communicate on behalf of the company, journalists and reporters writing for a specific news group2, and even those that want to express some currently-taboo aspect of their personalities (Yes, Uncle John, keep your chiauauas-dressed-as-sailor-moon hentai collection private, please) will be better off using accounts from a group specific instance. Most of us will however be better served by joining a a neutral federation or - even better - by running the instance under your own domain.

  1. It is no wonder that the current populist wave is tied to social media, where is so easy to foment the us-vs-them mentality for pretty much any topic, is it? ↩︎

  2. Given all the talk about how media groups are at odds with big tech, how come not a single one of the mainstream news groups put together their own instance of federated service yet? It’s almost like they want to have all of their brand value thrown away and mixed with all the bots and shitposters of Twitter and Facebook. ↩︎