Since there’s a good chance that you -like me- are involved in web development and/or have a special interest in technology, I want you to play along and engage in a thought experiment for this post:
Imagine you’re a regular user.
Imagine you have never heard of git branches, postgres or a “webpack config” (lucky you). You really don’t care about all of that, but you do care about your friends and your connections online.
Ever since Elon took over (and actually even some time before that) Twitter has been feeling increasingly hostile. People start leaving, and you hear them talk about alternatives. You’re curious, so you type “mastodon” into Google and see what comes up.
You find the website and want to sign up. It tells you to choose a server:
Ok wait, you wanted to join mastodon, what’s all this now? Tildes? Furries? Some Belgian company? Why do you have to apply? Everyone else had that
mastodon.social handle - Can’t you just use that? The real one? What the hell is a fediverse?
Confused, you close the site. This seems like it’s made for someone else. Maybe you’ll stick around on Twitter for a while longer, while it slowly burns down.
You can be a developer again now.
You and I know the reasons for that experience. We know that a decentralized system has to look like this, and that the choice of instance doesn’t even matter all that much. But I’ve heard this exact story a couple of times now, all from people outside my IT filter bubble.
Why was it so easy to drive these people away?
The Web as a Commodity
Being on the web has been heavily commoditized.
In the days of IRC and message boards, or later in the 2000s blogging era, federation was very much the norm. It was the default mode of the web: people grouping together in small communities around shared interests, but scattered on many different sites and services. It was normal to explore, find new places and discover new things by venturing out.
Through the rise of social media though, people have gotten used to being in one place all the time. Now we expect a system that’s easy to set up, handles millions of users at once and makes every interaction frictionless. We expect it to know what we want, and give it to us instantly. Anything too weird or tech-y and you start to lose people.
Mastodon is not supposed to be a second Twitter. Many of its features were designed specifically to avoid becoming another content silo and repeating the same mistakes, yet the assumption seems to be that everything should stay the same as before.
It’s like everyone has spent the last few years in a giant all-inclusive resort, screaming at each other for attention at the buffet. Now we’re moving into nice little bed-and-breakfast places, but we’re complaining because it takes slightly more effort to book a room, and the free WIFI isn’t as fast.
Maybe its time to rethink some of these expectations. Maybe we need some of that early internet vibe back and be ok with smaller, closer communities. Maybe we can even get some of the fun back and start exploring again, instead of expecting everything to be automatically delivered to us in real time.
We can remind ourselves of what social media used to be: a way to connect around shared interests, talk to friends, and discover new content. No grifts, no viral fame, no drama.
Lowering the Barrier
Adjusting expectations is one part - but at the same time, we as developers have to try and make these systems as approachable as possible without compromising on their independence. A lot of alternative content publication methods are still very much geared towards the IT bubble.
You could loosely map some of them by how easy it is to get started if you have no technical knowledge:
Generally speaking: The more independence a technology gives you, the higher its barrier for adoption.
I love the IndieWeb and its tools, but it has always bothered me that at some point they basically require you to have a webdevelopment background.
How many of your non-tech friends publish RSS feeds? Have you ever seen webmentions used by someone who isn’t a developer? Hell, even for professional devs it’s hard to wire all the different parts together if you want to build a working alternative to social media.
If you want the independence and control that comes with some of these IndieWeb things, you just have to get your hands dirty. You can’t do it without code, APIs, servers and rolling your own solutions. It’s just harder.
My point is this: it shouldn’t be.
Owning your content on the web should not require extensive technical knowledge or special skills. It should be just as easy as signing up for a cellphone plan.
I know it’s no small feat to lower that barrier. Making things feel easy and straightforward while handling the technical complexity behind them is quite a challenge. Not to mention the work and financial cost involved in running systems that don’t generate millions of ad revenue.
I think we’re at a special moment right now. People have been fed up with social media and its various problems (surveillance capitalism, erosion of mental health, active destruction of democracy, bla bla bla) for quite a while now. But it needs a special bang to get a critical mass of users to actually pack up their stuff and move.
When that happens, we have the chance to build something better. We could enable people to connect and publish their content on the web independently – the technology for these services is already there. For that to succeed though, these services have to be useable by all people - not just those who understand the tech.
Just like with migration to another country, it takes two sides to make this work: Easing access at the border to let folks in, and the willingness to accept a shared culture - to make that new place a home.