I Can Code You the World: Join the Federation

Nima Boscarino // Columnist 

In the tech world, there’s this idea of the “walled garden”. This is a term given to platforms that have plenty of cool features, but severely restrict the ways in which a user can interact with the actual system. A classic example of this is the iPhone: a fantastic (and expensive) combination of software and hardware that could be used for a mind-boggling variety of tasks, but users are only allowed to install applications that have been vetted and admitted to the App Store. 

In some ways, the walled garden has the benefit of providing end-users with a high-quality, curated experience. When someone installs an app on their iPhone, they can rest assured that the app has been tested by the Apple team to ensure that no malicious software will be installed alongside it. However, this introduces the problem of censorship and control. If a company decides that some particular content does not belong on its platform, there is little that end-users can do about it. 

Walled gardens, and the baggage they carry, can be spotted on most of the social networking platforms that we typically frequent online. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, to name a few, are websites that offer useful services to a massive amount of users. The deeper you look at the functionality, however, the more it becomes apparent how little control we have when we use these services. Content creators on YouTube, for example, have had an ongoing struggle with demonetization  decided by an ever-changing black box algorithm which functions in a way totally unknown to them. Instagram and Tumblr both famously banned the posting of female-presenting nipples. It’s also interesting to note that it’s difficult to stop websites from using us. These platforms also harvest our data, which can be used for nefarious purposes without our informed consent. 

One of the issues with these platforms is that the ultimate control is in the hands of one large organization. This is called centralization. With all this power vested in a central entity, users are left with little to no say in how their communities are run. Even when features or changes are demanded by large numbers of users, it’s easy for companies like Facebook to ignore the calls. Point in case: it’s downright silly how slow Facebook was to add Reactions to their platform. And somehow, it’s still not possible to post on Twitter with spoiler tags or content warnings. It’s also worrying to think about what will happen when a social media shuts down for good. What will happen to our Instagram posts? 

One answer to the problems that centralized social networks pose is federation. Mastodon is a Twitter clone which operates as a so-called “federated” social network service. Being federated means that any community can start its own Mastodon server, and users on a particular server can communicate with users on any other public server. This is very similar to the way that email works: users with Gmail accounts can send emails to users with Outlook accounts, and tech-savvy users can even set up their own mail servers. 

By splitting the mass of Mastodon users into small, autonomous communities we encounter some interesting side effects. The first thing I noticed was that these small communities tend to be made up of folks with similar interests who now have the opportunity to engage in more “genuine” interactions with online peers. I’ve always felt like Twitter is geared towards more extroverted people, so it’s nice to have a venue which is less public. Mastodon servers (called instances) usually have their own codes of conduct and discussion themes. For example, the instance at tech.lgbt is for “tech workers, academics, students, and others interested in tech who are LGBTQIA+ or allies”.  

Mastodon is an open source project built by a community of developers. Anyone is able to suggest contributions to the codebase, or start their own version of Mastodon with whatever modifications they choose. Open source development allows for stakeholders to influence software to fit their needs, and Mastodon has seen plenty of new features included over time such as content warnings for posts and interoperability with other federated platforms like PeerTube, a federated YouTube clone. 

To learn more about Mastodon, I started running my own instance. I’ve called it YVR.Social, and it’s a place for techies in Vancouver to discuss coding, local events and ethical technology. While it’s not a bustling social hub just yet, my friends and students have gotten a kick out of it. I caught myself feeling very empowered in a cyberpunk way once I had my server up and running. There are no advertisements, my feed is chronological and no large company is harvesting my usage data! As an added bonus, since I’m paying a dollar or two for hosting every month, I feel a sense of pride and ownership for my little plot of internet land. 

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