THE reign of the modern oligarchs who run the networked world has not been subtle by any means. The policies formulated by a handful of elite technocrats for their digital platforms have real and dire consequences on people’s lives. While some of these policies have had a transformative effect on the nature and scope of democratic praxis, several aspects of the conduct of these larger-than-life corporations—euphemistically cast as the masters of the “virtual world”—have traumatised individuals to the extreme in the name of connecting us “smartly”. The Big Four—Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter—jointly control the digital lives of the majority of humanity. The latter two are present in every dimension of our social media and, by imminent extension, our lives. This is thanks, in part, to the omnipresence of Facebook as Instagram and WhatsApp, and Twitter as Periscope. It is almost surreal if you recall that a decade ago the world was a completely different place.
The unelected leaders of these corporations are some of the most powerful people in the world. Consider Jack Dorsey, the chief executive officer of the microblogging tool Twitter, who was lauded in October for declining political advertisements on Twitter. This apparently virtuous act of self-denial was portrayed as evidence that Twitter was beyond engaging in manipulating users in order to target political advertisements. But perceptive observers of the networking czars knew where this doe-eyed adulation of Jack Dorsey came from. After all, the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been pilloried for having surrendered users’ privacy on a mass scale. Zuckerberg recently fumbled in front of the United States Congress while defending Facebook’s policy of allowing political advertisements and also pleaded helplessness about broadcasting advertisements that even Facebook knew to be factually incorrect. Zuckerberg explicitly disowned Facebook’s responsibility for fact-checking and instead pointed to third-party fact-checkers. This has come on top of a wave of user outrage over Facebook’s leak of user data to private and political interests on a massive scale. The recent backlash against Facebook has gathered momentum because it was accused of spreading hate speech and fake news, which resulted in violence against minorities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In India, WhatsApp, a Facebook acquisition and a popular social networking application, has been used to spread information on lynchings in the name of the cow or caste. It is not for nothing that WhatsApp has gained the reputation of being the rumour-monger’s application of choice.
This is the broad context in which social media platforms’ policies on content posting and the rules for interaction among users have come under scrutiny. The growing realisation that these monopolistic enterprises operating gigantic platforms have thwarted the promise of free exchange among people has gathered attention, criticism and accelerated a search for alternatives.
When Twitter recently suspended the account of the activist and Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde twice in quick succession—first for quoting a tweet with the lines of the poem “Usko phaansi do” (“Hang him”) by Gorakh Pandey, and a second time for posting a popular picture of a German national not performing the Nazi salute—it grabbed the attention of journalists and activists, some of whom have also accused Twitter of silencing their opinions that were apparently critical of the Narendra Modi government. This triggered outrage at Twitter’s perceived ideological leanings under the pretext of content moderation. Even after Twitter India clarified that it was not biased towards “any ideology or political viewpoint”, it did not prevent what appears to be an exodus of several prominent Indian Twitter users to a lesser known microblogging platform, Mastodon. Twitter’s unwillingness to restore Sanjay Hegde’s account has only convinced Twitter’s critics of its high-handed conduct of what was being misleadingly offered as a neutral platform.
Decentralising social networks
Mastodon is the latest addition to several independent projects attempting to rescue social networks from the clutches of monopolistic centralisation. Named after a large extinct elephant-like mammal of the Miocene and Pleistocene epochs, and also the name of an American heavy metal band formed in 2000, Mastodon is a microblogging platform modelled after Twitter but with a fundamental difference—it is decentralised and federated. Here, users “toot” 500-character posts and “boost” a toot instead of retweeting.
Fundamentally, the Internet is a bunch of information nodes interacting with each other. In principle and by design, it was supposed to be decentralised, in the sense that no single node was more important than the other; simply stated, there was to be no hierarchy in the network. Even today, there is no single switch to turn it all off. However, as the Web has sprawled worldwide, a handful of these nodes have grown humongous and hogged most of the Internet traffic as it shuttles among these nodes. The Big Four are four such key nodes. An alternative movement that has roots in the free and open source software (FOSS) community has been making efforts to decentralise the Internet and bring back its early distributed glory.
Attempts at formulating decentralised social networks have been on for almost a decade now. The earliest of these attempts was a FOSS-based distributed social network—Diaspora (https://diasporafoundation.org/)—presented as an alternative to Facebook. Decentralisation in social networks is primarily focussed on not having a single server entity where all user data is stored and processed but to have it distributed over smaller nodes that can then interact with each other. With Facebook, all its 2.3 billion active users engage on the same platform, making it conducive to large-scale analysis that enables targeted advertisement and other behavioural manipulations. Thus, the two competing models of network serve two very different purposes. Whereas the pure play distributed logic is based on freedom to communicate, the model adopted by Facebook and the others rests solidly on harnessing social networking for commercial gain.
Mastodon, like Diaspora, is a decentralised social network. The software is FOSS and can be self-hosted, that is, there can be several instances of the social network; in the limit, each user can run their own “instance”. These instances thus have independent infrastructure and, if necessary, their own content moderators. The most popular instance of Mastodon—Mastodon Social (https://mastodon.social/)—is run by its founder, Eugen Rochko, and his team of developers and moderators.
This instance has about 4,00,000 users, whereas the smallest instance that is listed after vetting for active moderation has a mere 10 users. While several Indian users have now hopped onto the Mastodon Social instance, there is at least one instance run for Indian users (https://inditoot.com/) which, at first glance, appears to have a distinctly Hindutva tinge to it. And this is where the elegance of distributed social networks such as Mastodon really shines. Users can join instances they identify themselves with or create one themselves. Once they are signed to a Mastodon instance, users can decide to subscribe to toots from any one of the other instances they would like to engage with of their own volition. Users can federate the content from several “instances” across the Mastodon universe according to their fancy. This, in decentralised networking jargon, is captured by the term “Fediverse”, a portmanteau of federation and universe.
This behaviour of user-controlled news feed customisation is in contrast with the stream of tweets or the Facebook news feed, which are curated by algorithms with a primary objective of increasing user engagement so that more relevant advertisements can be “promoted” to the users. These algorithms have figured out what is by now commonly referred to as “echo chambers”, wherein users are exposed to content that they like to see and/or engage with. The invisible curation of content has depleted the early joy of discovery on social networks. In contrast, federated social networks put users back in charge of exploring and discovering the Fediverse.
Rise of Mastodon
The current surge of interest in Mastodon is in retaliation for Twitter’s content moderation policies. Most users are migrating or considering migrating to Mastodon as an escape from Twitter. While this is great for creating initial interest, this alone might not be a sufficient reason for it to succeed on a large scale. Mastodon is not a corporation trying to steal users from Twitter but a non-profit project presenting itself as an alternative. The success of this federated platform relies on understanding and embracing the platform and not simply seeking a saner Twitter experience.
Owing to the federated nature of Mastodon, content moderation will vary from instance to instance. The Mastodon Social instance run by Eugen Rochko has already updated its code of conduct to include “casteism” as a prohibited form of content (https://mastodon.social/about/more). This was after a user suggested to Eugen Rochko that the older policy only included “racism, sexism, xenophobic and/or violent nationalism”.
Currently, Mastodon Social is also looking for content moderators in Indian languages to better groom this instance. While these are commendable gestures in the light of almost no options for grievance redress on platforms such as Twitter, this minute level of engagement with user grievance might not scale up if, for instance, Mastodon Social instance ends up with 300 million users like Twitter. The key feature of Mastodon is its federated structure. New users on Mastodon need to acknowledge this distinction in comparison with Twitter and work towards setting up “instances” that cater to their broader interests. This will improve content moderation as smaller instances can then have focussed content moderators who are conscious of the cultural and political climate when formulating the rules of conduct. The responsibility of content moderation should be owned up by the community of users. Simply seeking a saner Twitter on Mastodon Social does injustice to the grand vision of federated social networks pursued by the Mastodon project.
This is not to say Mastodon Social is not doing enough already. Beyond updating the code of conduct, users have engaged with its administrators to either block or inhibit federation with instances that do not comply with its code of conduct for hosting illegal content ranging from harassment to far-right propaganda and pornography. A list of such servers is constantly updated and users can suggest instances to be either added or removed from this list.
Mastodon, in the end, is fundamentally about championing the original dream of a social network, one that mirrors how people engage with social life in the world of real people. The success of any social network depends on how a platform enables people to engage in socialisation virtually as they would do in the real world, without fear, harassment or even the threat to life. Obviously, for any network to have an impact, it requires a critical mass of users, which platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have groomed over years. The most important thing for Mastodon users is to convince people they like to interact with to switch to Mastodon; there may even be an interim period in which Mastodon enthusiasts could exist on two or more platforms. But without acquiring a critical mass, Mastodon will be destined to be another experimental social network for a few. However, if this federated platform takes off, then tooting can be soothing instead of the frothing that many complain is rampant because of troll bullies on Twitter.
The initial promise of social media was that it would act just like social networks in real life. That innocent hope has been blasted away by a virtual logic that is fundamentally geared for profit. Thus the fetish for “likes” or “friends” is something that has been embedded in the very nature of these networks whose purpose is to circulate traffic, all in search of profits via advertisements. A perverse consequence of this is that offensive trolling is rampant on these networks.
The growing realisation of users that they are being used for commercial profit is what lies at the foundation of the search for alternatives. Mastodon is thus a child of these desperate times. It would be a mistake to believe that it is a saviour, just as much of humanity once expected Facebook to provide deliverance a decade ago. But it would be just as big a mistake to be cynical about Mastodon’s promise to make the virtual world a better place.
Raghavendra Selvan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Machine Learning group and Data Science Lab at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He toots from @[email protected].