Theory of Change #070: Dan Gillmor and Darius Kazemi on Mastodon, the Fediverse, and decentralizing the internet
Open protocol social media needs to be the future
With each passing day, Elon Musk is making Twitter worse. He’s done everything from allowing neo-Nazis and trolls to come back after being banned to locking out developers and academics who want to use Twitter’s Application Programing Interface or API to make interesting and important projects.
A lot of people have had enough and they’re heading for the exits to places like Spoutible, Substack, and Post. The most popular destination by far, however, has been Mastodon. Just recently, Mastodon hit 10 million users, which is pretty incredible considering that while it has a lot of similarities to Twitter, the technology behind it is very different from centralized social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Anyone can run a Mastodon server or “instance,” which you can use just for yourself or a community.
But you can also use your Mastodon instance to connect or “federate” to the larger world through an open protocol called ActivityPub which is so flexible that people have used it to build alternatives— not only to Twitter, but also to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. These servers communicating together are called The Fediverse, as in the universe of federated servers—a network of social media networks.
If you’re not a tech person, that concept may seem kind of hard to understand, there is short video made by the YouTuber “Black Indigo” which explains it in a bit more detail.
While it may seem like just a thing for computer geeks, the reality is that the Fediverse is a really exciting technology innovation, one that can and already has helped to empower regular people, non-profit organizations, and governments to imagine and operate the internet in a way that isn’t just about putting money in the pockets of billionaires like Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg.
Joining me to discuss all of this in much greater detail are two different guests. Dan Gillmor is a veteran technology writer who is also a professor of journalism at Arizona State University. Darius Kazemi is programmer and internet artist who also maintains a version of the Mastodon software called Hometown.
MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, gentlemen.
DARIUS KAZEMI: Thanks for having me.
DAN GILLMOR: Good join you.
SHEFFIELD: All right. So before we get into the discussion, I did want to have the audience get a chance to know who each of you are. So, Dan, why don't you just give everybody a little bit of background on yourself and your connection to Mastodon and the Fediverse.
GILLMOR: Well, I was a journalist for about 25 years. Since then, I've been involved in a couple of startups as a co-founder. I've been teaching at Arizona State University's, Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications for the past 15 years or so and writing books and doing commentary for a lot of different publications over the years.
And I've become a Mastodon person because I could not abide the new regime at Twitter, which was clearly going to be a problem, long before he bought the company. And it was even worse than I had expected. And so moving to another platform at a time when decentralization mattered more than anything seemed like the right thing to do.
SHEFFIELD: Okay. And when did you sign up for Mastodon?
GILLMOR: Oh, recently, like November of last year.
SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. And Darius, give us your little background on the Fediverse and yourself, if you will.
KAZEMI: Yeah. Hi, I'm Darius Kazemi. I'm based in Portland, Oregon. I've been on the Fediverse since 2017, maybe late 2016. My move there was largely, it was largely spurred on by myself making lots of useful and/or fun Twitter bots that were starting to get banned in the wake of the 2016 election when bot became kind of a dirty word. So the platform became much more harsh on bots and started banning them.
And so I thought, oh, well, if I have these art projects that I do, I should probably figure out a way to host art projects on social media where I'm still in control of the infrastructure that they are deployed on and people can still see them. So I started looking into alternatives.
Mastodon was one of the options there. So I signed up on mastodon.social. Then for a bit I ran my own server. And then I did a Mozilla fellowship, an open web fellowship for a year, 2018 to 2019, where I was researching. Among other things, the Fediverse and similar technologies. The output of that was a guide called Run Your Own Social, which is available still at runyourown.social. And that was a guide for teaching people how to run a small social network site for your friends. That was published in 2019.
And I also created a bunch of Fediverse technology as well, including Hometown, which is a modification of Mastodon used in about 150 different servers across maybe five, 6,000 users. And it has special features that enable small, tight-knit communities. And so I'm really interested in the ability for entire communities to sort of come together off of other platforms and run their own infrastructure on the Fediverse, in a way that makes sense to them, and is governed in a way that makes sense for how they do things.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and I think it's one of the reasons that I wanted to have both of you two here. I think a lot of people who are younger and only knew the Web 2.0, quote unquote, they lost something in not seeing Web 1.0 emerge, I think.
And both of you guys were there, as I was. I was making websites in 1996. And so we've seen how the internet, it was a different place in the early days. Do you want to talk to that for a bit, Darius, and then Dan, we'll invite you to join in on that as well?
KAZEMI: Well, sure. There was a lot less corporate capture of what was happening on the internet. Even in the late nineties, you still had places, you had places like GeoCities and so forth that would act as hosts, but it was also fairly, it was still fairly diverse. Email hadn't kind of consolidated around two or three big providers. It was still very much like you would see someone's email address and you could tell what local internet service provider they were using, because it was their name at mylocalprovider.com type thing.
And also the barrier to entry for putting things online was a bit lower, because there was less technology to kind of wade through, even though it was newer at the time.
Social media existed in a very different way back then. We had things like Usenet and BBSs, which were similar to like forum sites, and there were mailing lists as well. So there was plenty of social software around in the mid to late nineties--
SHEFFIELD: And IRC, don't forget that!
KAZEMI: Yes. And IRC, yeah, for chat. But it was it was definitely a different place, and it was not captured by for-profit corporations, for the most part. It was, IRC is actually very similar to what the Fediverse is today, where it was a bunch of volunteer-run services that sort of formed a network.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Dan, what's your thought on that?
GILLMOR: Sure. I'm older than both of you, so, I go back further on this stuff. I was online starting in the late seventies, not counting communicating with a backend somewhere from a terminal even earlier.
But the BBS movement was something I was pretty deep into. And in the eighties, there was something called Usenet, which most of your listeners won't know about, but that was in many ways, it was the original big distributed bulletin board system that was very Fediverse-y, if that's a word I can use in its architecture and people weighing in on everything from routine stuff to really weird stuff from around the world.
And that evolved, as Darius said. When the graphical web shows up, that's when there's a changeover. I think of blogs as the modern internet, i.e. graphical internet, the first social media of that period, where people were responding to each other on the other person's blog. Sometimes in your own comments, but always linking at the comments. Blog comments were an amazing forum for people and, but there weren't that many bloggers.
So this is all a matter of things changing when scale arrives. And the early Twitter was amazing and terrible at the same time because it broke a lot. I joined it because one of the people who started it said, hey, and signed me up without my intervention.
And I started getting these texts on my phone in the middle of the night because I was traveling and I thought, well, I don't want this. And then came back to it. But I loved Twitter for what it was. Always worried about the centralization aspect. And I think that's really the problem here, is the problem of a small number of giant enterprises having effective control over what we can say and do. And benign dictatorships don't stay that way. It's a law. There probably ought to be a law if there isn't one now.
The enlightened dictator gives way to the unenlightened dictator, and if the structure is set up for a dictatorship, that's what you're stuck with.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that definitely is, I mean, we keep seeing that over and over with Twitter. When we first were setting this discussion up several weeks ago, I had wondered to myself, oh, well, is it possible that maybe things will have calmed down and Twitter will be out of the news and I'll have to sit on this episode until Twitter, Elon Musk does something stupid and offends a bunch of his users.
And I should have known that. No, he will continue doing that every single week.
GILLMOR: That's a minimum weekly status, but these days, daily, yeah.
SHEFFIELD: Well, and as far as that goes I think one of the things that has been a persistent sort of phenomenon in response to Musk is that while a lot of the users have begun, well at least some have been migrating to other platforms, whether it's in the Fediverse or elsewhere, like back to Instagram or Facebook or whatever.
We haven't seen up until just recently with NPR and the Canadian Broadcasting Company, a lot of the biggest media corporations in the world have just sat there and taken Musk's deliberately antagonistic misinformation and censorship. It's just been incredible and unfortunate to witness.
I mean, and it's something that you've talked about a lot about in your Mastodon posts, Dan.
GILLMOR: Yeah, I'm really disappointed that journalists in the face of a truly direct and consistent series of slaps across the face and in the face of the of an owner of a company who hates them with a passion and who believes in free speech only for, or mostly for his right wing friends, and who is lending support to people who want to tear down democracy.
I'm disappointed, and that's the mildest word I'm going to use here, that journalists don't see why it's a bad idea to keep supporting him. And that's what they're doing by pouring their work into a site. Not to mention the fact that some big journalism organizations are still advertising on Twitter, sending money--
SHEFFIELD: Including ones who had their journalists banned by Musk.
GILLMOR: Yeah. It,
SHEFFIELD: That, that was just incredible.
GILLMOR: It, the cravenness of that. Again I'm wildly disappointed and a lot of the people who were still there, friends of mine, and I'm going to respect their decision and I understand their decisions, but I just could not disagree more with their decisions. And there was a moment when things could have changed vastly for the better. And still could. This is not hopeless, but I think that we had a powerful moment when something huge could have happened, and did not at that point.
SHEFFIELD: What's your take on that Darius?
KAZEMI: Well, I mean, I certainly agree with Dan. I'm disappointed in especially the journalists who stay on there. I wish that I could wave a magic wand and make people understand that maybe some of the reasons why they're staying on there are actually based on lies.
For example, people who want to stay on Twitter maybe they want to stay there because that's where the traffic is, that's where the eyeballs are. That's where their audience is. And Twitter is incentivized to make you think there's an audience, no matter what, right? Like Twitter is the one giving you the stats that says oh, this post got 30,000 views on it, or whatever, right?
What I always tell people, and when I pitch this to organizations including news organizations, what I say is well, if you start your own server on your own domain, right? washingtonpost.com, social.washingtonpost.com or whatever, right? And maybe your journalists aren't hosted there because they're independent people, but your projects are, your verticals are hosted there.
People could follow firstname.lastname@example.org, what have you. You are controlling that infrastructure and figuring out whether there are actually eyeballs on your stuff or not. So you're not being, you're not beholden to some third party that is incentivized to give you juiced up numbers.
I think when people move from Twitter to Mastodon or the Fediverse in general, one of the things people say quite often is, wow the quality of engagement is a lot different and better here. While the numbers, the raw numbers are significantly lower. And I think that's in part because you can juice up raw numbers quite easily, and Twitter is very incentivized to do that.
So part of it is I think the reasons why people are staying, they're looking at the numbers and they're saying, well, it wouldn't make sense for me to leave. It's like, well, that's the trap they want you to be in, right? Like, that's exactly the conclusion that they would like you to draw, and so that they're going to feed you those numbers.
GILLMOR: Yeah. I would just add, I would add that even if that's true, they should still leave.
KAZEMI: Oh, absolutely.
GILLMOR: Even if the numbers are there, they should still leave. And I've written about this. I'm not suggesting that journalists one day disappear from Twitter and show up in the Fediverse.
That would be a mistake. This is a staging process. It's a project that you manage by doing it in stages and bring the people who follow you with you to the extent possible. But you don't try to cut over one day and you're done. That again, this is quite feasible. And I think that we're not, this isn't over. We're going to still work on it.
We may hold some time in the next month or so, a day-long live online conference for journalists who want to understand better how to make a move like this, as opposed to why. I think we've explained why pretty well.
So again, this is going to be a process and my disappointment is only that people who I rely on to see reality have chosen not to see it in this case.
KAZEMI: Yeah. So something else that I always like to add to people in general, but this is especially true for journalists, I think, is that when you do move your social media presence over to a Fediverse server of some kind, assuming you've chosen wisely and you've landed on a server with an administrator and moderators who you trust, you actually have people there who are incentivized to help you when things go sour.
Journalists often get brigaded and attacked on social media and that sort of thing, and there's only so much help that their employers can give them because their employers don't control Twitter and Twitter's not really going to help them very much either. Certainly not today. And so, moving on to these communities where you have people that you can go to when things go wrong, and who are able to do things-- I run a Mastodon -compatible server called Friend Camp, it runs Hometown. And when one of my users is being harassed, I can go above and beyond just giving them the standard 'well go block some people' advice, right? I can analyze logs for IP addresses and block IPs and things like that. Just stuff that that almost like a personal touch that you can't get from a service with 500 million users.
GILLMOR: Something to add to this is that we should not be preoccupied with journalists.
They are one of the many significant components of the Twitter user base, active user base, popular or high number follower user base that that we should be trying to help. I mean, there are lots of things we could say about how journalists might make the migration, but I'm also very concerned, and I think that this is a real advantage for Twitter at the moment. It is still the default place people turn for headlines on breaking news. And that breaking news often includes local emergencies, not just national emergencies.
If it's a national or international emergency, you're going to turn on the tv. You'll have plenty of information there. But one of my brothers who lives in a fire prone area in the Rocky Mountains says that-- and he's not a social media guy at all, he has a Facebook account, but never uses it. He's not into this, although he's a computer programmer, but he hates this stuff. But he said he turns Twitter because all of the local agencies have accounts there, and they also have websites that he goes to. And he's very savvy about this, but he says basically Twitter is the nervous system for the emergency responders and information providers like earthquake, fire, flood, that, that sort of thing. Hurricane. And it's vital that we collectively find a way to help those people get off Twitter.
GILLMOR: And in a way where people are going to know how to find them, again, a staging process whereby they say we're going to, especially now that he wants us to pay thousands of dollars a month for the privilege of posting essential information on his for-profit website, we're going to go to-- I think the best way would be to, for some major foundation to jumpstart this with a probably a cooperative model where they could join a number of different places, but that would be aimed at supporting the emergency responders of the world and another one for local governments and state governments agencies.
And then build, rebuild an infrastructure that would be distributed, yet connected through ActivityPub, through the protocols that are undergirding Mastodon and other Fediverse things. So if we could get that, we'd have a real way forward, but it's not expecting them to do it individually when they're already strapped for money and people.
I think that's hard. And they need help.
SHEFFIELD: It's a heavy lift. It's a real heavy lift. And the other thing about it is-- to go back to what you were saying about with some of the policies that Musk has put in about the Twitter API, and Darius, obviously you're directly affected and very knowledgeable about this, I definitely want to have you weigh in on it. But it's very notable that the specific changes that are the most impactful from a technology standpoint that Musk has made have been to lock people into Twitter. So, like, he's charging people for API access these drastically inflated fees. He's telling organizations, you’re going to have to pay a thousand dollars a month to be verified. And of course, a local government traffic agency is not going to be able to afford a thousand dollars a month, and neither is a city of 200,000. They can't pay for that.
GILLMOR: I don't think that's lock in. I think that's lockout and I don't understand it. It makes no sense to me that he's doing that. It genuinely makes no sense.
SHEFFIELD: Well, I mean, ultimately, I mean, basically, the reason why he's doing these API changes is he's trying to make it so that make it as hard as possible to simultaneously post to Mastodon and Twitter. Like he went and banned a bunch of these Mastodon follower migration tools and things like that. But let's let Darius weigh in, what's your thought on some of these changes? Would you agree with what I was saying? Or do you have another theory here?
KAZEMI: I do partly agree with what you're saying. I don't spend a ton of time pouring over the details of the changes at Twitter because I'm mostly working on the future, on the Fediverse now. But I did see some of the news of the newly costed API access stuff.
And in fact, I was at a meeting of academic sociologists who rely on Twitter to study various phenomena. And they were all very concerned, they were already speaking as though, well, I guess we're not studying Twitter anymore because we can't afford the new fees for all of this data.
Yeah, I do think that Musk is trying to prevent people from jumping ship or even from doing that transition piece easily, right? He's just trying to kind of add friction there. I do think it will backfire. So I'm sort of with Dan in that. I do think ultimately it doesn't make a lot of sense if what you want to run is a successful business long term. But I don't expect that kind of reasoning from Elon Musk either. So who's to say, right? The changes are extremely hostile to people who want to build applications and to people who want to have things like an earthquake bot, that sort of thing, it becomes instantly not so feasible anymore.
So I guess I don't have too much to add to that other than to provide that little extra perspective there maybe about the researchers too.
GILLMOR: It's, and it's so contrary to what he was saying, he wanted Twitter to be. I mean, I say that almost tongue in cheek because he operates so often contrary to what he says, that in so many parts of his expansive empire.
But it just seemed to me that if he had done what he had said he was going to do Twitter would be a lot harder to leave. And instead it's become much easier.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I, that's, I think that's true for a lot of people. And I will say one bright spot in terms of getting communities to make the migration has been with a lot of tech journalists.
So I have seen a number of tech journalists who may have initially kind of dragged their feet a bit, but then some of them have basically jumped whole hog, like Mike Masnick over at Tech Dirt. He's basically moved to Mastodon full-time and actually now has more followers on Mastodon than he does on Twitter. So he, he's a good success story with that, but he's not the only one. I would say that obviously that Mastodon right now and the Fediverse generally is early adopters. So of course that's people who are interested in technology journalism.
I But it shows that you can do it though. It shows that you're not throwing away your audience.
GILLMOR: Yeah, I'm a data point for this. I had not a large, but respectable following on Twitter-- something, somewhere I never checked, it was like 47,000, something like that. Not a lot, but decent. And I don't know what I have on Mastodon because I never even look. But it may be 15,000 or something, but I have at least an order of magnitude, 10 times the engagement on Mastodon that I ever had on Twitter. Except once in a while something would catch fire and get 15,000 shares on Twitter. But that was like twice a year. And on Mastodon these conversations are rich and deep and only rarely required the use of the mute or block button, which is just so opposite to the way it was over on Twitter.
KAZEMI: I think some of it is that people are getting content that they are actually wanting to see if they're seeing a post from Dan Gillmor. Because they either subscribe to you, or someone that they follow thought your post was interesting enough to share, right? There are not these mechanisms out there that purposefully put your content in front of people who may not care to see it or may be completely ideologically predisposed against to what you're saying, or what have you. I think some of it just has to do with how the network propagates this information and the level of control that people have over what they see.
GILLMOR: My one regret in the Fediverse is that I'm not getting enough pushback on things that I believe where I'm not positive that I'm right. I like it when people tell me I'm wrong in a civil way, and tell me why I'm wrong. I very much crave that feedback, because sometimes I'm wrong. I want to know.
KAZEMI: You should try posting technology opinions, you'll get plenty of pushback. I think in large part, it may have to do with the audience that it's reaching. Like because it's early adopters and the people who are active on Mastodon maybe skew more technical, they might just be more predisposed to listen to you and go, huh, that's interesting, versus having their own fully formed pushback for it.
GILLMOR: Well, yeah. My journalism for years was about tech. So I still have people in that world that I talk with a lot, and a lot of them have come over to Mastodon, which is interesting.
GILLMOR: I hope we'll talk a bit about other Fediverse things because it worries me that Mastodon is becoming synonymous with the Fediverse. I don't think that's healthy.
SHEFFIELD: Well, yeah, definitely. I definitely do want to get into that. If I may summarize though, and I feel like this is my own experience as well, is that when you look at the conversation in the Fediverse, it does have that quality, I think of the early Twitter, where people were there to actually discuss ideas and the blogosphere, the early blogosphere.
I mean, you and I crossed paths in those the early days as well, Dan, and I was on the opposite side of the aisle ideologically at that point. But there was a lot of cross-ideological discussion and people, they were willing to have it, and it was pretty routine to have people respond to each other across the partisan aisle. And that doesn't really exist now, I feel like.
GILLMOR: Well, that's partly because on at least one side’s ideology is more important than reality, so it's hard to have conversations with people who deny reality as a starting point. But yeah, I have Republican friends, but they're more traditional Republicans and if they told a regular Republican these days that they were on their side, that wouldn't be believed.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. To what you were saying earlier though, Dan and that was in the intro a little bit. So the Fediverse is not only Mastodon, it is not just about finding replacement for Twitter and Darius, your Hometown fork of Mastodon kind of is—and obviously you can speak to it better than me, but I think to some degree you're trying to, you're trying to change the experience a little bit for the users of on your side. Is that right? Yeah.
KAZEMI: And it's also meant to be a bit of a provocation too. Like, hey, we can change things. You don't just have to accept how Mastodon looks. You can run different software and that hews to sort of different ideological foundations if you want. But yeah, my Hometown software is--specifically it is 99.99% similar to Mastodon, except that it offers ways to chat only with people on your own server, which I like because you've all agreed to the same code of conduct and the same governance, and if it's a small server, you likely all know each other.
So basically, it's a way of talking in an inside voice versus an outside voice, which can be nice, but it's just an option, right? So if I want to post a picture of a private moment that I had. Maybe I'll only post it to my local community. And then if it's time to talk about a project I'm working on, I'll post it to the entire Fediverse.
Mastodon has its own levels of abstraction around who gets to see what. And essentially, I just disagreed and felt like there was value to putting emphasis on the actual infrastructure you're hosted on. And I don't just mean technical infrastructure, I mean like legal and social infrastructure as well. And drawing sort of drawing a line around your local communities saying, look, this is the boat you're on here, right? And like, there's something special about that. And so, let's make that even more useful. And also maybe encourage people to think a little bit harder about where they want to land on the Fediverse to sort of have that community.
But also, I'm always trying to promote other kinds of uses of the Fediverse. For example, I took a piece of open source event management software, like an open source invite program. And I took the code and I federated it. And what that means is that people can use this. I use it to host my birthday party every year and in addition, so when I fill out the little form that says, oh, here's where the party is and what time it is and what day, and here's what to bring, all that can happen through email, but there's also an option for that to happen through the Fediverse. You can follow the account, you get a poll back at you, you can RSVP yes or no, and do that all through Mastodon, and you can even subscribe to the conversations that are happening on there. And you can have conversations on Mastodon with people who are replying on the website or by email.
It's an almost seamless experience for that. And this is possible because we have these open protocols like ActivityPub that let us do this sort of thing. And so I want weirder, more integration happening, kind of like how we had RSS as a glue between many different kinds of services back in the early 2000s. I see ActivityPub as operating in a similar space. I used to use Yahoo Pipes quite a bit back in the day, which let you take RSS feeds and mix them together and put in the filters and pull in all sorts of data. And you could basically take data streams and remix them and republish them and make dashboards to monitor whatever you needed to monitor.
It was lovely. It was a really formative piece of technology for me, and I think I'd like us to get there again.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and—
GILLMOR: Pipes, I got to—
SHEFFIELD: Oh yeah, go ahead.
GILLMOR: Forgive me, I've just got to throw in a word on Pipes. It was the best thing Yahoo ever did.
GILLMOR: By a long margin other than the original hierarchical directory, which was great.
GILLMOR: It was ahead of its time. But Oh God, Pipes.
KAZEMI: I know. I could go on. I could go on forever. We'll do a separate podcast reminiscing about Pipes, Dan. (laughter)
GILLMOR: You know when they killed that off, it was really a bad moment because it allowed people who had no idea what programming was to do things that were incredibly sophisticated and that could produce visual results that even now, you have to be pretty good at Python to replicate a lot of the stuff.
KAZEMI: Right. Just for listeners who may not be familiar with this, imagine a graphical interface where you could drag and drop a few things. And let's say you came in and you wanted a webpage that would show you a photo of every new baseball player from Japan that Wikipedia knows about.
KAZEMI: And then and then also with information about the city they were born in next to the photo.
KAZEMI: Like, you could set that up without knowing how to program and create a page that showed that sort of thing.
GILLMOR: It was kind of the ultimate scraper and sorter of information.
GILLMOR: And I'm still crushed at it. (laughter)
KAZEMI: Yeah, me too. So what I would like to do is make it so that ActivityPub can enable that sort of thing. I built an RSS to ActivityPub bridge service that's meant to be hosted by individual communities. So for example users on my server friend.camp have access to rss.friend.camp where they can drop in any RSS feed that they like, and then it creates a Mastodon-compatible, it's not actually using Mastodon, a compatible social media account that they can follow and then just get updates.
So I have a list called Blogs on my Mastodon that is following RSS feeds that I have converted. And then it just notifies me when the blogs that I like have updated. It's turned my Mastodon into also a feed reader à la Google reader or NewsBlur, or something like that.
I've also modified Hometown to accept a wider variety of incoming content than Mastodon does. So you can send whole articles via ActivityPub. Mastodon turns it into a little link stub, and you click through, and you go to it. But I've made Hometown render through full articles in line. If you click to expand it, and you can just read you can read the whole thing right there, if they choose to provide it.
There's blogging software that's ActivityPub compatible, there's a big one called Write.as that I use for all of my blog projects. And so when you make a blog on there, you can press a button and make your blog so that people can subscribe on the Fediverse. There's Pixelfed, which is meant to be an Instagram kind of replacement. There's Gath.io event management system that I federated that some people actually do find quite useful for federating events.
Like, I really think we need a replacement for Facebook events. And so that was kind of like my first attempt at that sort of thing since there was software out there that already existed like that. There's Bookworm, which is a replacement for GoodReads that is federated. And people can track their book reviews and follow other people's book reviews.
There's plenty more software out there too. And what I want to see is not just a more software on the user experience side, but I want to see new types of data flowing around on the Fediverse. And I want to see Mastodon and other pieces of software ingesting that data. Like one of the things that we were missing, one of the missing pieces for getting Mastodon to work with gath.io as an events thing, is that ActivityPub does support the ability to send calendar events around,But when Mastodon sees a calendar event, it just goes, oh, I don't know what to do with that. And it just kind of throws it away.
There's another piece of software called Friendica that looks like Facebook. And when you send it a calendar event, it actually populates a little calendar for you, just like Facebook does.
And what was quite magical was that by providing that calendar event I managed to get the event calendars just kind of working in Friendica without even having to do too much extra work. It was a really magical moment to see that just happen through the magic of interoperability.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And we also are seeing some bigger companies trying to actually do some ActivityPub stuff. So, like WordPress, for instance, just announced that they're doing integrations with ActivityPub to allow you to have comments inside of your WordPress blog that are Fediverse comments.
And then also Flipboard actually took a very big plunge into the Fediverse and has done some really fascinating integrations, so they not only, so basically originally, they had set this up with Twitter that if somebody had tweeted an article that somebody had made a “flip” of, you could see the tweets below it, right?
But then Elon Musk cut them off and then they decided to not only duplicate what they had done with Mastodon but go one step further. And then also allow users to integrate their own Flipboard account with a Mastodon account or they started their own Mastodon instance of Flipboard.
KAZEMI: So yeah, Flipboard is doing exciting work.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And it's going to be interesting to see what Medium comes up with as well.
KAZEMI: Yeah. And Tumblr too. Tumblr has announced intent.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, you want to talk about Medium?
KAZEMI: Yeah. So Tumblr is owned by Automattic, which also owns WordPress. So it's not, a huge surprise that WordPress is also doing this sort of thing. It's part of their strategy now. For me, when people always ask, oh, well what's it going to be like when Tumblr federates? And my answer is a big “it depends.”
I mean, for starters, Tumblr has something on the order of a hundred million users active, which is approximately 10 times the number of active users on all Fediverse services combined, right now.
And so of course there is anxiety about what happens if they federate, right?
Are they just going to take over the entire stream, as in every post you see on Mastodon now is going to be from a Tumblr user, that sort of thing.
There are anxieties there for me, it's also going to be very interesting to see to what level they integrate with the Fediverse, because it's not an on-off switch, it's not a binary, we're integrated or we're not, right? They could do an implementation perhaps where all they do is make it so that Tumblr accounts can now be subscribed to by Mastodon users.
And then and I mean, Mastodon not even Fediverse. And so maybe they just do that and it's a way for them to increase their audience a bit.
SHEFFIELD: For their users.
KAZEMI: Right. They could do anything, all the way up to turning the Tumblr Dash, which is the kind of like the main dashboard that Tumblr users use to interface with Tumblr. They could turn their Tumblr Dash into a full-fledged Fediverse client, rivaling the Mastodon client, for example.
And I don't know where they're going to land in that spectrum. I imagine it'll be somewhere in the middle there, and where they land is going to be very interesting and have a lot of implications. But there'll be very different implications depending on where they land.
GILLMOR: I think I agree with every word of that.
My guess is that the major turning point coming sometime before too long is going to be when google.social shows up and we discover whether Google can take over the Fediverse or not.
KAZEMI: As they did with email, right?
GILLMOR: Well, I don't use Gmail, but except on one account where I have to, but it's a, then again, everyone uses Gmail if you look at your—
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and that is actually is a serious problem now. So I host my own email server and if you, for whatever reason, get on Google's bad side, they'll put your email into spam and they'll never tell you. And you have no way of knowing whether you've been put on there or even appealing it.
KAZEMI: And I'm pretty sure one of your emails to me about this podcast, like the first one landed in spam, and I had to pull it out.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. There you go. That's an example of what I'm talking about. And that's the kind of centralized decentralization that we don't need in the Fediverse.
KAZEMI: Yeah. One of the nice things is that we are—by we, I mean implementers of Fediverse software and infrastructure and so forth—that is one of the main kinds of negative scenarios that we're keenly aware of and are doing our best to mitigate and plan around and so forth.
We don't have any answers that can completely prevent that, but I think we are at least approaching that as something that we need to be prepared for.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And there's another thing that's sort of related to this, is that the idea of having a Fediverse server for a community of, whether it's physical based or interest based. That is a tremendous opportunity.
Like if you're a university, you could have your own instance. If you're NPR, you could have your own instance. And you should. I think all of these organizations should do that.
KAZEMI: So there's a university in the Philippines that the student union has a Hometown server. And so they use the local talk channel to basically talk to each other about university stuff.
SHEFFIELD: That is actually really a fantastic application, because a lot of organizations that process customer data, or member data, or whatever, they have specific things they have to follow about allowing outside access to this data.
And this is where the Fediverse can really help you as an organization. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Like, I've seen as somebody who's consulted with various internet projects over the decades, I have seen so many people try to reinvent the wheel of Facebook, or reinvent the wheel of Twitter, or YouTube, all by themselves.
And it's never possible. Nobody has enough money, and nobody has enough server space to do this. You can't do it by yourself. But if you're integrating open-source projects into your work, you can keep up with it and you can do things that people really like.
KAZEMI: Yeah. And I like to, I've been advocating ever since my “Run Your Own Social” document that it's extremely important to bring over whole communities at a time.
They can be small communities, but it gets around what's referred to as the network effect of, well, I'm on Facebook because everyone's on Facebook, right? And if I go somewhere else, I'm going to be all alone.
Well, if you bring 30 of your friends, you're not all alone by definition. And then that gives you the base to work off of, to get comfortable and start following other accounts and making acquaintances and really getting a foothold.
And so that's one of the tactical things that I recommend to people is, if at all possible, try and try and bring over a whole, ideally a preexisting community like that university that has that has the server for itself. I have a thought experiment that I like to talk about a lot, which would require me to wave a magic wand and give a lot of money to the library system in the United States.
But I like to imagine what would happen if every local library system had a social media server. And if you were a library card holder, you could have an account on there, and then at that point, your administrator becomes someone who works at your library. So when you have problems with social media, you can go knock on the door at the central library and have a conversation with someone.
GILLMOR: Yeah. If they have the—you've mentioned university, and I have to, unfortunately I have a university meeting that I have to be at in about two minutes.
SHEFFIELD: Oh, okay.
GILLMOR: Yeah, I am I am really grateful that you invited me onto this, and I'd hope we can do it again.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. We'll we're going to be talking a lot more about Fediverse stuff, so again, really appreciate you being here, Dan.
GILLMOR: Okay. And I'll look forward to hearing the rest of what Darius is saying. I'm fascinated by his projects and Matthew, I'm really delighted with the work you're doing, so let's continue the conversations.
SHEFFIELD: Excellent. All right, well, we'll see you next time.
GILLMOR: Take care, guys.
SHEFFIELD: All right, let's see here. There we go.
Well, one of the other aspects that, I guess there are two things that I'm thinking about with regard to these larger projects in the community is that one of the other challenges of if a Tumblr decides to do a full integration because, I mean, the other thing about Google is that they actually did very briefly have an attempt to have an open social network with a protocol that was a predecessor of ActivityPub called GNU Social, and like so many Google projects that didn't go anywhere, but Facebook also Meta is, we don't know what they're going to do with ActivityPub, but they are talking about it and they've
KAZEMI: Announced intent for sure.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. They clearly probably are doing something. We don't know what it is behind the scenes. But let's say there is some player that does come in and try to provide a complete integration. I mean, there's going to be a lot of issues that could present themselves with that.
But one is that for small servers, the cost of running a Fediverse instance is going to massively skyrocket under that scenario, wouldn't it? Unless you decided not to affiliate it with it.
KAZEMI: Yeah, I suppose your choice. You could just not federate with that server. There's also the question of how noisy, like how much extra traffic that would actually cause if I had a server of a hundred million users pop up tomorrow, right?
Like, how much would that marginally increase my traffic? I don't know. It's going to be fun and harrowing to find out. There's a lot of discussion behind the scenes in groups of ActivityPub implementers to talk about ways to reduce that hosting burden to basically make the protocol less chatty, which would allow for less processing power to be required to process messages.
So there's discussion around this for sure. There's also you don't—I could imagine a world where servers could have some kind of the technical term is quality of service where you right now all messages are treated equally, but maybe if there's a giant Google server, we kind of put that in its own queue and maybe it's a slow queue, and we serve that a little more slowly because this is a near real-time protocol, ActivityPub, but it's not a true real-time protocol like the video and audio that we have going over the internet to each other right now.
So it might be acceptable for messages processed from a google.social to be on a two or three minute delay for people, or maybe not. We'll find out, right?
Or maybe it'll be good for, it'll be acceptable for some communities, but not others. Yeah, it's going to be wild. But these are, to me, these are interesting problems that I enjoy having as opposed to the problems of like, non-interoperable social media.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and storage is also going to be a problem as well under that.
KAZEMI: Yeah. There's some interesting work being done. There's a cooperative called Jortage that is basically a bunch of servers that all kind of looked at the traffic out there and said, well, look, 90% of what we're hosting is overlapped with each other, right?
So what if we all went in, it's the same video, the audio is the same, whatever, right? So what if we all went in together on one big Amazon bucket and we all shared that together and we signed an agreement saying that we're going to share and play nice with each other, et cetera.
And this massively, but by sharing the costs, it reduced the server, the storage costs for these for these operators significantly since there's so much duplication anyway.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, what, so, I guess stepping back from maybe the technical and server administrator side of things.
So, I've been on in the February since I think 2018. And I haven't, obviously I've ramped up my usage a lot recently, but one of the things that I always get from people when I'm on other platforms to ask them, well, so how come you're not on Mastodon, or any of the other ones, Friendica, et cetera?
And they always say, well, it's too difficult. I don't understand it. I don't understand the idea of having to sign up for an instance or know what an instance is.
SHEFFIELD: That apparently is, it's really fascinating because people understand the idea of federation in email. They understand that you are email@example.com, or whatever. They understand that. But when it comes to social media, because of the centralization that we've had, a lot of people they, maybe they don't even use email. A lot of people do not use email anymore.
Like they use WhatsApp or Signal or something like that, or Facebook Messenger. And so for them, if that's not your world, it's difficult. I mean, I'm sure you've heard that from people. What's your response when people say things like that?
KAZEMI: I mean, my response is, I mean, it really depends on the person.
The one thing is, it is perfectly okay to just sign up for mastodon.social. I don't love the idea of having one server that is bigger, significantly bigger than every single other server. But like, if there's one that's easy to sign up for, you'll get in the mix. And then either mastodon.social will be good enough for you, or you'll bounce off because it's not a good entry point after all, which would be a shame.
But it happens. Or you'll migrate somewhere else after a time. I also recommend that this is why I recommend communities come over together, because when you have someone who is dedicated to helping people migrate, then it's not such a big deal anymore.
My server is 60 active users. We add maybe one user every three or four months, and whenever we do add a new user, I spend at this point one to two hours on a video call with them, walking them through the interface, talking about what you can do, learning about their interests, and then giving them suggestions for how they might make themselves have a nicer time and so on.
So that's another solution to that issue. Also I'm very glad to see like the Tapbots folks making a new application for that's Mastodon compatible, making their apps and bringing their expertise in, making user friendly experiences to the Fediverse as third-party client providers.
That’s ultimately an excellent thing. So I think it is getting easier. I am still, I do consider it an unsolved problem though still. Especially the problem of like picking a server to, to go on.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, one thing that I had mentioned a few months ago on, on Mastodon was that when you go to, JoinMastodon.org, or you download an app, that it should choose from a list of servers that had agreed to be included just randomly for you, and then you don't have to worry about it.
SHEFFIELD: So choosing the server and obviously there is some centralizing under that scenario, but on the other hand if it's a list that administrators can opt in themselves, they control whether they're on it or not, then there's not really a centralization and it makes it easier.
And it looks like with the iOS version of Mastodon, it is now the case that by default it will put you into mastodon.social, but it does allow you to choose something else.
KAZEMI: Yeah. I know people have very strong opinions mostly against that idea, they see it as privileging one server over another to have it be a default there, kind of, kind of like Chrome making your default search Google, right?
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I, yeah, that's why I had wanted them to do the approach that I mentioned, but yeah.
KAZEMI: Yeah. There are other clients that will sort of spin the wheel and just pick something at random. I do like that they have the server covenant thing, which is like, okay, we're a list by agreeing to be on this list. You also have to meet these minimum moderation standards essentially. And minimum standards for a code of conduct.
Because you don't want someone to spin the wheel and land on a server that is totally ideologically opposed to what that individual wants, right? That would be a bad experience.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Alright. And then I guess one of the other things that’s ultimately, probably what's going to have to happen is that there's going to have to be legal requirements if we really want to open up social media that governments—so like a number of European governments have laws in place that they have to store their documents in open data formats.
SHEFFIELD: We're going to need to see things like this with social. Because one of the problems of centralization beyond the fact that you're letting individual people control things or corporations control things, is that let's say for whatever reason, your account gets banned and it might even be a bad reason.
Like, let's say, you tried to log into your account too many times and they decided, oh, this person's being hacked. Well, we're going to lock this account out. And never respond to any inquiries about getting back in. So this person is now banned from Facebook. That means their photos are locked up.
That means their messages are locked up. That means all of their friend list is locked up and they can't access it. And they can go and make a new account, but none of that's automated. They have no real control over what they can do with their data. And that's one of the great things about the Fediverse and open protocols is that if you do somehow get banned from a server for some reason or another, you can still be a part of the network.
You can still communicate. There's going to have to be some sort of governmental intervention and the politicians are going to have to get this that this open access internet, if we don't do something about this from a legal standpoint, the internet's going to be entirely walled off.
KAZEMI: Yeah. I mean, it gets to what Dan was saying about emergency response and that sort of thing earlier. I think it's a bit messed up that there are many places in, certainly in the United States where in order to get municipal news, you have to have a Facebook account, because that's where you can go to see what your city hall news is posting for their next town hall meeting or whatever.
I actually I do agree with the spirit of passing laws that say that basically, public institutions need to be hosted on public infrastructure, right?
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. And, and I'm hoping ideally that. We might, if there were in my fantasy, wave of the magic wand, as you were saying earlier, that have a have anti-monopoly laws that would force ActivityPub support among these larger vendors, because it is a serious problem, and not as much perhaps on social, but it is a serious problem with WhatsApp and other places like that, that people have no ability to, like, let's say they decide to pull out of a country, for whatever reason and that's happened.
Now all of your friends, you can't communicate to them. And I mean, we can look, you literally did nothing. This was nothing even about you personally being banned. You have been banned, your country's been banned.
KAZEMI: We can look at history in the late 1960s, I believe, I think it was maybe 67 or 68, Lyndon Johnson passed a law that said that all military organizations and all defense contractors that do business with the military, have to run computing software that uses this somewhat newish not widely adopted format called ASCII. And that law that was passed is the reason why ARPAnet used ASCII because they had to. And pretty quickly, ASCII became a lingua franca for interoperability, but that happened because of a governmental decree.
It did not happen because of market forces and people eventually settling on what the best protocol for that would be. It was literally just: “You got to do this because Lyndon Johnson said so.” And it worked. I mean, there's a lot of criticism that you can level towards ASCII, it doesn't support all sorts of languages that aren't Euro eccentric, et cetera, et cetera.
But that's one example from history of this happening through those government mechanisms. And probably I would wager had a pretty good impact on, setting the stage for something like the ARPAnet to come together and actually interoperate.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. And we see that salutary effect in a lot of things.
I mean, whether it's being able to plug your phone into the same charger as your laptop, right? Like that is because of the European Union. They said, if you're going to sell a mobile phone in the EU, you have to use USB-C.
KAZEMI: Right. Otherwise we'd be stuck where we were 15 years ago with 25 different kinds of cables for everything.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And sometimes it does seem like that some technology programmers or entrepreneurs they, some of them struggle with this idea that open standards sometimes have to be mandated. But that's the reality. Otherwise you cannot move forward. Because the market forces are such that companies want to make it so you have to buy their adapters all the time, that you have to stay with your friends in their network even if you hate it.
And so that's, there is a clear role here for governance. And people shouldn't be afraid to say that, I think.
SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. Are there any other projects or aspects of the Fediverse that you want to make sure people know about before we wrap up here?
KAZEMI: Oh my goodness. I think the main one I'll talk about is one that I'm excited about today, which I have not announced formally, and I'll still be a little cagey about it. But essentially, I've been working with some excellent legal experts on a legal guide for people running small Fediverse servers to talk about what your liabilities are and aren't.
There are a lot of articles out there that are a bit, in my mind kind of alarmist about your level of liability if you're running a social network site for a hundred people. And this guide is meant to say, well, look, here are the laws, at least in a US context. And here is specifically what, like a checklist of what we recommend, you do to make sure that you're, that you are more or less covered to the degree that you can expect to be covered on these things.
So, so I was very happy to team up with a crew of very bright legal scholars to put this thing together. And I would expect that to be out in maybe early summer.
SHEFFIELD: Okay, cool. Yeah, that definitely sounds like a great initiative. So, I'll be sure to promote it when it comes out.
All right, well I appreciate you being here, Darius, and it's been a great discussion. I'm going to be doing a lot more tech-focused podcast discussions. I haven't decided whether I'm going to launch a spinoff podcast or two. But in any of these scenarios we'll probably be chatting a lot more about this stuff.
KAZEMI: Sounds good to me. It was great to chat today.
SHEFFIELD: All right, so that's the program for today. I appreciate my guests for joining the show. And I did want to remind everybody that Theory of Change is part of the Flux.community media network. So go to Flux.community for more podcasts and articles about politics, technology, media, and religion, and how they all intersect with each other.
And we'd love to hear about what you're doing as well, so if you've got a podcast or you're a writer and you've got a project that you are working on, please do reach out and let us know. We're on Twitter and Mastodon. And love to hear from people with ideas to share. Thanks for being here, and I'll see you next time.