And so it has come to this. I finally quit Twitter… almost exactly a decade ago.
I could spin yarn and claim it was some major feat of clairvoyance, of course. That I foresaw all that happened lately with Twitter and decided to bail early. But it wasn’t that, really. I just felt strongly that centralized services are dangerous and unethical, and I decided to stop using them. Back then, Twitter was the last one on the chopping block for me.
Why did I feel so strongly about centralized services? Had you asked me ten years ago, it would have been difficult for me to explain. But even then I would have said it boils down to control and power dynamics. At the time I was a Free Software advocate, working for a Polish version of the FSFE. Software freedom was (and remains) important to me and it seemed obvious that one cannot have software freedom in a walled garden.
Hardly a strong, concrete argument, I know!
But it did turn out to be correct, didn’t it? It is about control and power dynamics. Anyone who migrated from Twitter to the Fediverse lately can attest to this. Anyone who read the Facebook Papers can understand this. Today, Twitter is run by an abuser, and Facebook is an abuser.
A bit of history¶
At the time I was using Diaspora and StatusNet (later renamed to GNU social), precursors to the Fediverse. Both were tiny, but I could see the value in the basic idea of decentralized social media: no single point of control, no single point of failure. I was also promoting that idea. Somewhat successfully, might I add, as I was able to convince the Polish Ministry of Administration and Digitization to create a StatusNet account. As far as I know this was the first official decentralized social media profile of a government institution — if that’s incorrect, I’d love to hear it!
One could claim that there is uninterrupted continuity between these older networks and the Fediverse. Friendica implements ActivityPub, the protocol that underpins the Fediverse today. It also implements Diaspora’s protocol, and the OStatus protocol that StatusNet used back in the day. Some Friendica instances had been running continuously for over a decade. They serve as a connection between the modern-day Fediverse and the decentralized social networks of years past.
This broader decentralized social network that morphed over the years into what we today call the Fediverse predated and outlived Google+. Diaspora was launched in November 2010. StatusNet is even older: it’s first and biggest public instance,
identi.ca went live in July 2008. Google+ was launched in June 2014 and shuttered in April 2019.
Let’s stop here and ponder this extraordinary fact for a moment. Google, one of the largest and most influential tech companies in the world, threw all its weight behind Google+ — even going as far as outright forcing all YouTube users to use it. Yet, within five years from its inception Google+ was no more. And with it, all communities established and connections made on that platform.
Meanwhile, an open, decentralized social network, having none of the resources nor clout that Google+ had behind it, with no business model and no monetization scheme, happily carries on into its 15th year.
A Pet Peeve¶
Over the years I blogged a few times about decentralization of social media. Had some ideas on how to bring people over, suggested building decentralized protocols into the blogosphere (something that is now a reality with the WordPress ActivityPub plugin, for example).
A year after I had quit Twitter, in December 2013, I gave a talk at 30C3, where I called Twitter and Facebook “monopolies”. Back then that was a tough sell. Today, things seem different: the idea that social media platforms operated by Twitter and Meta are at least “monopoly-shaped” is acceptable and often accepted. That was not the last time I presented about the problem of centralization of the Internet.
Two years later, at the FSFE assembly during 32C3, I gave another talk about the insanity of having over fifty(!) different, incompatible open decentralized social networking protocols. Some of these slides did not age well, but the core point remains valid — compatibility is important, otherwise open decentralized social networks compete against each other and never get the chance to reach a size where the Network effect really kicks in for them.
Thankfully, now ActivityPub provides that common layer of compatibility for a lot of different projects. It’s important to keep that in mind; Mastodon might be the poster child of the Fediverse today, but software projects come and go. A healthy ecosystem of different but compatible software makes the whole network more resilient.
I do recognize that my ability to quit Twitter cold turkey and still be able to find employment in my area of expertise, and to have a support network, is a form of privilege that not everyone has. But since I did have that privilege, even though I did not fully understand it at the time, I felt it was imperative I use it to do what I thought to be right: stop supporting centralized platforms like Twitter.
That’s the crux of it. By being on Twitter or Facebook, we support those platforms. And by not being anywhere else but on centralized platforms, we make it harder for other people to leave them — as we ourselves become one more person that those who do want to leave cannot find on the alternative networks, and thus one more reason to not stray outside the garden walls.
Not everyone has the privilege to quit Twitter. Not everyone has the spoons to set up an account on the Fediverse in addition to their Twitter presence. But many of us do, if we’re being honest with ourselves. The Twitter debacle shows why we should try to break out of the silos, if we do have that privilege and these spoons — in part for the sake of those who don’t.
Decentralized social networks in general, and the Fediverse in particular, are far from perfect. We should and will make them better.
By focusing our efforts on them, instead of on centrally controlled walled gardens, we can at least make sure that if we build something of value and import, if we create communities and connections there, if we invest the time and effort into setting up our presence, it will not all potentially disappear one day because a particular service got bought out or a megacorp got bored of running it.