The architecture of a social network doesn’t just affect a bunch of invisible server-whirrings and documentation jargon. It’s directly responsible for how the network’s users interact — what they’re allowed to say, what they’re likely to see, and who controls these factors.
A good example to start my examination into centralized/decentralized social networks is Twitter.
The name “Twitter” and the platform’s relentless bird imagery isn’t an arbitrary choice — it actually makes a lot of sense with regard to how the network works.
Starlings, for example, flock in groups of 10,000 or more, unified and communicating as a network. Birds learn to sing by listening and imitating, which often means that groups of co-existing birds learn the same patterns, inflections, and memes. Avian social networks communicate repetitively, and messages ripple through the physical space the birds occupy, passed from creature to creature.
According to Science Daily’s coverage of an academic paper on parrot social complexity, Monk Parakeets are especially sophisticated socialites:
“parrots live in a complex social environment — not merely in a large population of cooperating creatures, such as bees or ants, but in a dynamic setting of alliances and competitors […] a sophisticated social structure with layers of relationships and complex interactions.”
This research is 8 years newer than Twitter, but as a description of the social network, it really hits the nail on the head. However, to break my non-stop habit of writing about Twitter, I want to mainly discuss Mastodon in this article.
Firstly, it’s open source. The platform is totally transparent, which means that algorithmic bias (seen as undesirable in Mastodon circles) cannot and will not be enforced.
(Excuse my diagrams, I’m not a neat sketcher.)
Second, it’s decentralized. There is no “master” Mastodon.
Instead, there are thousands of instances (3,456 at the time of writing) hosted by amateur system administrators around the world with populations ranging from 5 users to 100,000.
Groups of a just few hundred active users on one server is common. Imagine an active social network instance with just 200 users. Even with such a small amount of people to interact with, these instances are booming and have thousands of threads inside.
Mastodon is a loosely connected, hyperactive micro-Twitter.
With around 100,000 users on mastodon.social — the biggest instance — it is just 0.03% the size of Twitter, and only growing at a rate of 1,000 users per week.
To give you an idea of the scale compared to Twitter: mastodon.social is 13 months old, and at that same age, Twitter was around 10 times bigger. Every Mastodon instance combined is around the same size as Twitter was at that stage, which is a promising sign.
Usually when I’m writing about the parallels between new technology and the analog world, the parallels aren’t obvious or consequential to the everyday user. In the case of Mastodon — which isn’t really built on new technology — the parallels between an open source, decentralized social network and the network users’ drive to restructure sociopolitical systems both online and offline are real, and they’re recognized.
“[Considering] the overall danger of controlled networks, I think it is extremely important for a more decentralized, more democratic, more open, and more free solution to succeed in the interest of personal freedom on the internet.” — Terry Hancock, Free Software Magazine
Let’s say that Twitter — along with its users and governance — represents the world. The population live in one massive country, and each person has a single option for communication; it must be done through a central network, and that central network has the power to centrally log every shard of communication, and change the terms of acceptable use at any time.
In that hyperbolic alternate universe I’m hypothesizing, let’s imagine that a group of 100 users — oppressed by unresolved harassment, or simply worried about the future of their data — break off to form a separate network village. This is the first Mastodon instance. It could be a village where everyone loves old computer hardware, or an anarchist commune in the forest. Following this fragmentation, more groups follow suit and form fringe communities that are demonstratively disconnected from the centralized earth, yet connected to one another.
Each village controls its own means of communication, but keeps lines open to one another. Each village also controls the terms of communication. (No mentions of politics allowed in Village #1, but Village #2 welcomes healthy political debate from both sides.) The population are free to become members of either, neither, or both, but membership has nothing to do with whether the villages can communicate — they always can, but that doesn’t interfere with the individual or group freedoms of the population.
Now, back to my earlier aside about Mastodon not being a new concept. An interesting thought is that Mastodon is a mere 13 months old but the technology to enable it is quite a bit older. Identi.ca, a social network based on the decentralized pump.io, lived from 2008 to 2013. Mastodon’s predecessor, GNU Social, was built in 2014 using XMPP, an instant messaging client from 1999, and OStatus, a status update protocol from 2012 that, vitally, enables federated communication. Federated social networks work by allowing users from different instances to interact, despite being from disparate, decentralized, self-hosted servers.
None of this is new, but it’s becoming popular only now.
Politically, the technological enablement of federated social media allows users the power to break out of the online monopolies that are tightening their grip on our online lives, and focusing their lenses on our personal data. This is in line with the philosophical/societal belief that social media should be a public utility operated and maintained by the people rather than a business.
If you wanted to, you could get a dedicated computer, install the Mastodon software, and run your own instance with your own rules.
Steeped in this anti-corporate aura, it’ll come as no surprise that Mastodon has a disproportionate chunk of internet freedom activists, Linux experts, and anarchists when compared to other social networks.
Mastodon hosts instances for small groups that have left Twitter because of the lack of moderation, and perhaps the homogeneity of a frantic, collective pool of users. There are instances for Hebrew users, anarchists, occult enthusiasts, LGBT+, hackers, people who want to role play in the Dragon Age universe, scholars, and librarians.
Traditionally, the rules of network effect dictate that any service which connects us becomes exponentially more useful as more people join the network. Owning a telephone, for example, isn’t very useful if the only other telephone owners are people you wouldn’t want to ring up.
With Mastodon (and other developments indicative of the internet’s increasing fragmentation) the opposite seems true. Mastodon is a reaction to Twitter’s size; it’s as if network effect can hit a critical mass and, after a certain point, a network becomes less useful as more people join and dilute it. Facebook has avoided this issue by essentially building a personalized walled garden for every user, and defaulting to privacy. Privacy on a peer-to-peer level only, obviously.
Mastodon is just over one year old. It hasn’t grown spectacularly when measured against the biggest social networks of the past decade, but its adoption by tight-knit communities and users frustrated with mainstream social media shows that there is a problem with the prevalent platforms for online communication, and that problem is driving some of the network’s most active users to places with the right architecture and philosophy.
And, with the constant worries over the future safety of the internet, planet, and everything on it, software like Mastodon at least makes it possible for a lone administrator to host a public social network from their bedroom, if it comes to the worst.
We recently spoke to the founders of Archain about decentralization, and explored the idea of social media built on a blockchain-like network. If you enjoyed this article, click here to check out that interview.