How to choose an instance of a federated social media service
Right now as Facebook is being investigated for all manner of immoral activity, there are a range of underused alternatives (not only) in the form of federated social media services. People who are considering deactivating their Facebook accounts might paradoxically be hesitant because of the idea of the challenge of their transferring the very many aspects of their life they have outsourced to Facebook engineers and their algorithms. They typically do not realise that, though choosing an alternative provider is a difficult decision, it is one that gives them a great deal of autonomy in the way of all of the significant matters in life where we are empowered to choose one or another course.
Federated instances are as different as pubs, cafes, and music venues. Differently, they are as distinctive as good record labels and publishers. In the same way, only where the leaders of a given instance are competent and disciplined, are they able to express the differences of character of the people involved and maintain a coherent functional community of people over a sustained period of time. Now, as with good pubs and cafes, this may not matter and the life skills of communication, empathy, and joy you learn from one good pub or cafe may be brought to the next after its inevitable demise in the absence of a committed community or its owner's competence, or indeed in the presence of opposition from state power or the antipathy of neighbours (which might also be a sign of owner's incompetence). To date, most mainstream people are only aware of the kind of atmosphere and manner of communication which is delivered by a certain kind of person at the top of a single monolithic global organisation. Federated instances of social media services may look surprisingly similar, but the variety of their virtual communities will be extraordinarily diverse.
There are by now some very good descriptions of what the Federation is about. A good introduction should not merely describe some of the technical features of federated social media services, but must touch on the social ramifications of the choices that are being made by different solutions. One of the foremost of these is moderation. It is well known by now that Facebook and Twitter as well as other proprietorial social media services have had a lot of problems with abuse and ethically questionable content. Each have forms of moderation, but there have been times that these typically largely automated systems have either failed women, LGBTQ people, or ethnic, religious, and political minorities. This has meant not only that some people do not feel safe in these spaces, but that some people are not safe in these spaces. What this has also meant, in actual fact, is that the literally inhuman dysfunction of these spaces, which map over geographical spaces, have been causing the same kind of extremist real world damage as the propaganda for ISIS and other fundamentalist groups for some time, and the political dysfunction and failures of political leadership that led to ISIS have only been exacerbated by Facebook and other proprietorial social media services.
Good federal governance on-line as well as in other spaces, takes a great deal more than words and even intent, though the latter is a requisite. At the time of writing, Marginálie lead-developer / editor-in-chief, krozruch, runs an instance of Pleroma, a federated social media service which may at this time be open to registration. He would be the first to say, however, that it may not be the best choice for a typical conscientious objector to Facebook. Pleroma makes different choices than other federated solutions such as Mastodon, and krozruch is only now trying to figure what they are. His motivation in running a server is sincere enough, but he is open about the fact that he is learning as he goes and that he hopes, indeed, to learn something about the experience of trying to run a server in order to write about it and communicate the issues to others. If the community grows slowly, this may be enough for him to learn, but even then, it may be that he discovers the philosophy of Pleroma towards moderation does not deliver what he would like for the community he is trying to form, and even if that were not the case, it may be that running the server would only take over from writing which has to be his main focus, without helping him in any way to pay the bills, in which case he might hand it over to somebody if they were willing, or close the service down. It may be, that is, more punkily anarchic than even he might have intended. If you were to look at the stream, you may find this to be so. That krozruch is not committed to Pleroma may mean that in future there is a different instance from the same web address. Other instances have clear and coherent moderation and guidelines from the get go, these may be understood as being akin to the formal rules and conventions of a given institution. Mastodon instances are certainly very different in the kind of content that will likely be visible, and the form of posts, with some instances more typically putting content warnings on more or less everything so that you won't be triggered to references to contemporary politics, and others throwing around anarchist backchat and hentai anime porn.
Identity and community
But instances are not only formed by moderation, because they are a more or less restricted self-selected group. Somebody would sign up to Plural Polis, Prague because they identify with its aims. Somebody would sign up to an LGBT instance of Mastodon which was based in Budapest because they may have some connection to the city and to the community. These motivations make a great difference to the kind of community that will be established. (Krozruch once heard of a pub in London or somewhere which played gay porn every time a loud and aggressive group of young went in.) Typically from its outset, Mastodon communities would feel more niche than those in Twitter and on Facebook. A lot of them would like it to stay that way, and it may be that soon everybody will be talking abotu how the space has been ruined. Still, if the federation is still evolving, it does feel the case now that everybody could more or less find what they are looking for and, if that is not the case yet, then talking about it off-line could soon make it so, because the tech skills to set up an instance are not so high that most communities could not find somebody, and companies are being set up now to help this happen. It is already the case that for many more people and many more communities than might be aware of it, a federated solution is within reach.
The political and regulatory landscape
Europe certainly ought to be a good place for federated social media services to make a positive, constructive impact, but a conversation still needs to be had for the worst bureaucratic instincts of both The European Union and national governments not to repress such a blooming. It would be wonderful and progressive to see such community instances sprouting up also in the global south, and there is every possibility for this to happen. Such spaces might one day permit a constructive, respectful continuous, direct, distributed, and diverse international conversation that might permit us to move forward into a brighter future as both local, regional, and global citizens in a world of intersectional local, regional, and global threats.
Footnotes and references
- It would take a whole other page to begin to describe the non-federated technical alternatives Facebook and other proprietary social media services, but it would be remiss not to also direct the reader's imagination to the variety of non-technical and/or non-computer-based alternatives to what Facebook purports to offer.
- How to Mastodon is one solid explanation of the federation for those who may not feel safe on open corporate social media.
- The phrasing here needs a lot of work generally, with each of the terms being a little off, but 'minorities' especially may be a strange term to use for any platform with a global audience and reach.
- This is a clumsy construction because pre-internet communicative technologies have always been disruptive of geographic space, and revolutionary in their effects, and this is as much true of the printing press as the telegraph, the letter, the railways, the telephone, and the television.