During the early days of the internet, it was clear at every moment what the internet was. You logged into it, you ‘went’ somewhere, ‘visited’ someone through a link, you messaged one another, and then you logged off. The internet was not his or hers or theirs, it just was. And we all had our slices of this space that others could come and share with us. They could make their own and shape it how they wanted to, or they could gather on common turf with their friends, in a temporary space they all inhabited. This website was born when the internet was like that. Nobody owned large enough chunks of the internet that they could dictate it.
Today, the internet is moving towards centralisation—one of the greatest threats to its nature. A company, for example, owns a social media platform and the company ends up dictating the narrative every time something comes up. Its members birth a culture that the company later dictates. Everything starts off at the grassroots level, with its members, which then ends up in control of the company, effectively putting a sizeable chunk of the internet in the company’s hands. Facebook and Twitter are two of the largest such companies.
The good old days of the internet
Now imagine returning to the old days, not out of nostalgia but to examine what we may gain by working to preserve the fundamental nature of the internet. Imagine a platform that nobody owned but existed as a plug-and-play cassette with some code. You could plug it into your computer, serve it over the internet like a community hall, and have your friends come over. You guys could control your hall, the rules, whether you can or cannot nail something to the wall or paste stickers all over the place or cuss or whatever else is important to you. Someone else somewhere else takes that same code and similarly plugs it into their computer and serves it up to their friends and spends time in their community hall which they control and you have no say over.
Mastodon is like that example. A number of people get together on servers of their choice (i.e. start their own community halls or go join one that will have them) but with an added advantage: people in one community hall can talk to people in another community hall. The whole world can socially network that way without limits while each individual only has to abide by the rules on their server which they chose to join. Servers could be open to all or limited by profession, hobbies, shared interests etc. And if you do not like any server, start your own for free and set your own rules. No central authority controls Mastodon. Mastodon is decentralised.
If you are now thinking of a number of Mastodon servers all interlinked to one another from where you can make one your home while browsing across others collectively, sort of like a web, you are thinking right. People on a football-focused server and people on a psychology-focused server can both still network and talk and share with one another while being bound by the rules of their individual servers. If you do not like your server over time or the direction it is taking, just up and leave. On Mastodon, your data is yours. You can choose to leave the hall anytime and get into another without losing your followers and posts and whatever else. This web-like model of a number of decentralised servers may sound familiar to you: it mirrors the structure of the World Wide Web itself. These are the words of its creator Mr Tim Berners–Lee:
Inventing the World Wide Web involved my growing realisation that there was a power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained, weblike way. And that awareness came to me through precisely that kind of process. The Web arose as the answer to an open challenge, through the swirling together of influences, ideas, and realisations from many sides.
Tim Berners–Lee, creator of the World Wide Web
No ads, no algorithms
The open nature of Mastodon brings with it its own challenges. Since anyone can look up and contribute to the Mastodon code base, fight bugs, add features, customise, internationalise etc., there are people using it for good (as in the case of nearly every mainstream server) and other using it for (and in) more questionable purposes. The right-wing sites ‘Gab’ and ‘Truth Social’ have both exploited Mastodon’s code to host their social networks1. These are not decentralised.
The term Mastodon uses for its decentralisation is ‘federation’. Federated servers make Mastodon what it is to a large extent. However, there are other ideological underpinnings as well. For instance, Mastodon does not have an algorithm to show people posts. You see it the old-school way (as Twitter was before as well), in chronological order. You also have no advertisements on Mastodon. This will stay as such for one simple reason: if you see ads on Twitter and Instagram, you have no choice but to ignore them or give in to them. If you see ads on a Mastodon server you can leave and go to another. Or you can start you own server.
The sudden influx of new users from Twitter following Musk’s dismantling of the platform—which had long been my favourite—exposed some of the rougher areas of Mastodon. There was no official app until recently. This was because nobody owns Mastodon and nobody was responsible for building it. However, nearly two-dozen apps existed which all offered various user experiences built around the common ideologies of the federated, open-source social network.
The founder of Mastodon, the German programer Eugen Rochko, is as old as me. I like to think we know the internet similarly. He was, for instance, a fan of Twitter but foresaw the potential misuse of its centralised, company-led organisation. This is probably why Mastodon resembles Twitter so much in its implementation. But the similarities are skin-deep. The non-profit organisation Mr Rochko heads received EUR 55,000 in donations in support of Mastodon last year and managed to use only EUR 23,000. There is transparency and simplicity in Mastodon that the world—and the internet—can use. And Mr Rochko intends to keep it that way: ‘A lot of requests don’t make sense,’ he says in response to a question about feature requests flowing in from new users taking to Mastodon as a Twitter replacement, ‘because people have not yet learned about the platform. Like “Why isn’t Mastodon a single server?“ We’re not going to jump on the opportunity to undo all of the decentralization.’
He goes on to point out to another old-time internet tool as a case for Mastodon: the e-mail. We have come long since the early days of the internet but the simple e-mail has stayed with us. It is a protocol somewhat like Mastodon: you can have a gmail account or an iCloud account or you can have your own e-mail on your own server @yourwebsite.tld and you can still talk to everyone just fine. E-mail survived this long because it is decentralised. Nobody owns and dictates e-mail. You can create your e-mail anywhere and use it with anyone anywhere else. Mastodon is the same, except its an entire community that you join, separate the from entire other communities spread across the Web. And you can all talk to one another just fine without anyone monopolising the network.
Monopoly, racism and free speech
Yet, as with anything else, the threat of monopoly looms large. Could one server become ‘the Mastodon’ server? As many from Twitter are rushing to sign up to Mastodon thinking of it as exactly like Twitter, they are stumbling at the first question: you want to join Mastodon? Which instance?
To many this was a new idea. There is one Instagram, and one Twitter. You could not join a different Twitter from someone else. But with Mastodon and its decentralisation, you can. But this also meant, as it happened earlier this month, people flocked to the server
mastodon.social simply because it sounded like the ‘official server’ or like Mastodon itself. The same thing had happened back in 2019.
For any social network that comes up, the elephant in the room remains the one issue that has haunted both Twitter and Facebook: how do you deal with censorship, free speech, racism and the like? Because of the centralised nature of these platforms, the answer has always caused debates on some form of the idea that the persons controlling a platform are responsible for controlling things said on them or that no group of individuals should be given such power in favour of unrestricted free speech. While the (mis)interpretation of free speech deserves an essay by itself, what is of note here is that users complained about these platforms because they had nowhere else to go. What would you replace Twitter with?
Now you can replace Mastodon with… Mastodon. This is another great result of a decentralised web. If you do not like racial hate being spewed on your server, leave it and join another server. In doing this, with (about) one click, you will be taking your posts and followers to your new server and nobody will notice any difference except that the nastiness you experienced on your old server will vanish. Of course server administrators can always ban misbehaving folk but if server admins are themselves misusing their authority the people on that server can quit en masse and head elsewhere.
Then there is the problem of coagulation: what if all the racists2 get together on one server of their own? Can they not ruin everyone else’s experience with nobody to stop them? With Mastodon there is the ability for one instance to block another instance as its users deem fit. So all the other servers can take their independent decisions to swiftly block off the racist server, effectively quarantining it from Mastodon itself. Again, this depends on what the users on other servers feel like. Perhaps there is an academic server full of people studying racist behaviour who would like to access the racist server for academic purposes? They can stay open to it while everyone else quarantines them. Remember Gab that we talked about earlier? They were similarly quarantined from the ‘Fediverse’, a stellar example of what is possible with a decentralised social network.
Decentralisation is a thing of beauty. The internet was built with this core belief and after years of corporate monopolies, the ‘indie web’ looks to be returning. It is hard to say just yet whether this will last or fade away before rising again but one thing is sure: the more people realise that the web is as flexible as they make it, the less likely it becomes that they will want to place anything at all in the hands of corporations. Mastodon truly feels like a step away from a Black Mirror-like future and I am glad it is here.
The word is, Gab no longer uses a fork of Mastodon but the jury is still out on this. ↩
I use the term ‘racist’ here as an umbrella term for racists, fascists, self-proclaimed ‘pro-life’ anti-abortionists, white supremacists, nazis and other dregs of society. Is using such an umbrella term warranted? I cannot say, but it makes it simpler for me to type out what I want to say, so please bear with me. ↩