In follow-up to the issues I outlined in the Mastodon versus Fediverse discussion, here I want to address an even broader, more urgent topic that I have been trying to put to attention for some time. What I find the most intriguing and challenging - and the general objective that SocialHub was created for - is not so much the individual choices of a FOSS project, but rather:
Whatever you think of Signal messenger’s choice to be a centralized platform, in the post "Reflections: The ecosystem is moving", Moxie has summed up this challenge quite well, imho:
Stuck in Time
In some circles, this [decision not to federate] has not been a popular opinion. When someone recently asked me about federating an unrelated communication platform into the Signal network, I told them that I thought we’d be unlikely to ever federate with clients and servers we don’t control. Their retort was “that’s dumb, how far would the internet have gotten without interoperable protocols defined by 3rd parties?”
I thought about it. We got to the first production version of IP, and have been trying for the past 20 years to switch to a second production version of IP with limited success. We got to HTTP version 1.1 in 1997, and have been stuck there until now. Likewise, SMTP, IRC, DNS, XMPP, are all similarly frozen in time circa the late 1990s. To answer his question, that’s how far the internet got. It got to the late 90s.
That has taken us pretty far, but it’s undeniable that once you federate your protocol, it becomes very difficult to make changes. And right now, at the application level, things that stand still don’t fare very well in a world where the ecosystem is moving .
In this comparison the ecosystem that Moxie is referring to in the above, is in our case the tech landscape outside of the Fediverse, where Big Tech surveillance capitalism is going rampant, steaming full force ahead at tremendous velocity.
Take the example of XMPP. A lot has happened in this technology realm. Tons of FEP’s were created, many projects launched. It still exists today and new developments still forthcoming. Some people truly love it… if they happen to know that it exists. But it has not come anywhere near to what those involved had envisioned. It hasn’t shifted the tech landscape and moved things in the positive direction to the extent that people had hoped. And though there is a recent uptick in popularity again (luckily), most devs don’t think of XMPP as an obvious choice for their new project.
XMPP may still get there eventually, who knows. It’s story looks very similar to where ActivityPub ecosystem is headed now. There’s enormous potential in the technology. But will we be able to tap into it, before something else becomes more relevant and the tech community takes a different interest? Will we and our federated AP projects end up among the many tombstones that scatter the decentralized web landscape?
As early adopter Mastodon has gained a dominant position. They benefit from it now, in that it eases their own development. Having the ‘user’ base, they can make functional decisions based on that. There’s no need to comply to any standards, or to contribute their insights back to a standards-body or community like SocialHub. It would be a win-win if they’d be more involved here, but on the short term it is not really in their interest when looking purely from the perspective of offering a popular federated microblogging platform. They have that already. If all other federated projects withered and died, Mastodon would still be around, and Eugen the last man standing.
SocialCG/SocialHub hasn’t managed to get much done in terms of standardization after the release of the initial W3C Recommendations. We mostly have open-ended discussions and things in an indetermined state. There is no common consensus on how to move ahead. All progress happens in an entirely ad-hoc manner, and between individual projects that happen to meet and agree on certain decisions. We go grindingly slow, at glacial pace.
Mastodon’s choices to move ahead in their own way, at their own speed, is perfectly understandable in this light. And each and every other federated project is doing exactly the same. The win-win of participating in this community is either not seen, or seen as too complex and a waste of time. But ultimately, imho, not doing so and build our Spiral Island together, means that individual devs will cut their own fingers eventually with that stance.
We must find a way to empower this community or in some years, sooner or later, the Fediverse as we know it now will be replaced with the next-shiny-thing, and the cycle starts all over again. There is a “Tragedy of the Commons” that applies to Fediverse just as well, that we must overcome.
Things are fragmenting already, falling apart. Research like Spritely and DREAM is happening elsewhere, out of sight, not AP-related in particular nor put into context, and there’s zero Scaling Up Cooperation going on. We are all just as siloed as walled gardens that way, even though developing open standards that we hope will be someday broadly adopted. A grassroots movement of individualists.
To me the discussion is not whether Fediverse will be for the masses as alternative to toxic social media molochs, or just for a niche group of people that is able to uphold its unique culture. To me this discussion is about whether Fediverse has a good chance to survive in the long run. It revolves about long-term feasibility of the things we are all passionately working on.
Note: In this post I have deliberately worded things more strongly and alarming than maybe they really are, but that is in hopes we don’t forego the discussion while happily absorbed in our own individual projects. CC’ing @staff because you ought to be aware, imho.
(image credit: FunkMonk on Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)