Into the Fediverse

As many of you already know, for the last few weeks, we’ve been running a Mastodon instance at refactorcamp.org on a pilot basis, kicking the tires and figuring things out. The requisite technical wizardry is being volunteered by Zach Faddis.

For those who don’t keep up with such things, Mastodon is an open-source, federated variant of Twitter, with a few key differences that make it a something of a quieter, slower-paced, more personal kind of space, somewhere in the twilight zone between private and public, local and global.

We are doing an open enrollment period for the next two weeks (till Tuesday, July 24th). You can register on the home page for an account. After the 24th, you will need an invite link from an existing user to join. If you already have an account on another instance, you can of course follow people on this instance.

But before you do either, please read the rest of this post.  Even if you’re already familiar with Mastodon.

If you do register after reading this, please add some meaningful profile info/tags, follow at least a dozen people, post a quick self-introduction with the hashtag #introduction, and do some tooting.

You don’t need to use your real name, and we have no expectations of minimum activity levels. But Zach, myself, and the rest of the Refactor Camp ICE squad will be kicking out pure lurkers, people with indistinguishable generic profiles, and suspected bot accounts, with extreme prejudice. We intend to run a clean, inviting, and safe joint.

Now for more details.

WTF is Mastodon?

Mastodon actually takes a bit of explaining and wrapping-mind-around-genuinely-new-thing effort. If you think of it as open-source twitter (as I initially did), you’ll approach it with the wrong expectations, and end up getting confused and annoyed for a while. They’re as different as… well, an extinct type of elephant and a little bird.

I’m new to Mastodon myself, so more experienced people, please feel free to chime in, add useful links, etc. in the comments.

The federation aspect means the Refactor Camp instance is not a walled garden, but a fishbowl-like part of something called the fediverse, with quasi-open borders. This makes Mastodon very different, and almost unique among online community platforms.

Think of it as warren-like rather than plaza like microblogging: an open, online network of city-states as opposed to a single large public plaza. Hanseatic League rather than Roman Empire. With a Dark Age Underground aesthetic and ethos, rather than Brightly Lit Golden Age .

You join one or more instances based on your interests, but can follow people anywhere in the fediverse, which means there’s a nicely local/global feel to the experience. It allows you to be anywhere on the spectrum from cloud mouse to metro mouse. 

Here’s what the main web interface looks like (there is also a smorgasbord of apps). If you’ve used Tweetdeck, it should look familiar, but it’s not quite the same. From left to right, the columns show your Home feed (including your local and global follows), your Notifications (@ conversations and the like), and a context-sensitive column that shows local, global, or individual feeds, depending on what you’re doing.

The product induces an interesting conversational texture that is to Twitter what the back alleys of Florence are to 5th Avenue in New York.

The interface and baseline mechanics of the user experience are deceptively similar to Twitter. At first, the differences seem insignificant:

  1. Toots (the analog of tweets) can be up to 500 characters, can feature content warnings, and have controllable visibility so they can be global, local, or personal (like DMs).
  2. Like and boost (the equivalent of retweet) counts are not displayed, strongly dampening the popularity-contest/vanity metric aspect of Twitter and encouraging 1:1s and small group interactions over big fishmarket conversations and shouting contests.
  3. For @ reply conversations, you don’t see replies unless you are following all the people in it. This makes the notifications and local timeline feeds far less busy, and more leisurely. This will either feel relaxing or make you impatient.
  4. There is no quote-tweeting (a feature that prevents certain kinds of harassment). This took the most getting used to for me, since I use the feature a lot on Twitter. But I like the anti-trolling effect it has here.
  5. Because you can follow people anywhere in the fediverse, your experience can be as busy or quiet as you want to make it, and as strange or familiar as you like. The fediverse is poorly mapped and full of bizarre instances, so you’ll have to go exploring a bit to find what you like.

These small design differences add up to a big experience difference. Mastodon is neither a clone of Twitter, nor a meaningful substitute for it. It is a different sort of experience altogether. Some aspects of it remind me of the old USENET style online experience. Other aspects feel like Slack. Yet other aspects feel essentially new.

Perhaps the biggest overall difference is that on Mastodon, there is no sense of a forced pace, driven by a mix of addictive UX elements and sheer volume. You can sort of hang out on your own terms, and set your own tempo, which is refreshing.

The product is new enough that there are still rough edges, but established enough that it’s pretty usable, with a smooth UX.

Besides the one annoying thing that images don’t display properly on iPad, I personally have had no issues using it, other than the mental adjustments needed to unlearn Twitter habits that don’t quite work here.

Why This, Why Now?

If you’ve followed ribbonfarm for a few years, you probably know that there is a sort of messy, ungoverned, slum-like sprawl of community activity adjacent to it that I call the RBU: The Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe. Or Refactoring Busybodies Underground. Or Rational But Useless. It’s all very favela chic.

The RBU emerged, mostly by accident, around the annual Refactor Camp event we’ve been doing since 2012, and several straggling tracks of meetups (primarily in the Bay Area and New York, with one-offs elsewhere). At this point, ironically, thanks to several years of conversational drift, ribbonfarm itself is a somewhat marginal sideshow without a strong thematic connection to the rest of the RBU. The overlap between dedicated ribbonfarm readership and the RBU has become increasingly tenuous over the years.

The RBU comprises a few secret Facebook groups, a Whatsapp group, a couple of Telegram groups, a couple of unincorporated corners of Twitter, a secret cabal of Deep State assassins, a slack, survivalist bunkers in the Himalayas, etc.

The RBU has catalyzed at least one marriage, one game, and one startup that I know of. I think a few collaborations, partnerships, gigs, and hirings have also emerged from it. Sometimes I try to get people to pay me money for catalyzing Significant Value Added but they never do.

So far we haven’t been able to destablize any governments or spark any secessionist movements, but I’m told several suspicious conversations have occurred at board-game nights.

Much of the RBU is a secretive, inaccessible space, guarded by unplottable spells, hexes, secret handshakes, mysterious code languages, and Shiba Inus trained to yap furiously at intruders.

Okay, actually, it is just a sort of lazy mess of an online social swamp where occasionally a few altruistic souls get up the energy to do a spot of organizing and administration before lapsing into free-ridership again. People generally find their way in via random meetups or one of our friendly neighborhood blogs.

Clearly, this is a disorganized, incoherent, under-theorized mess of Random Acts of Communitarianism (I recently learned a dignified new term for this: polyglot persistence). For years, people have been suggesting things like a community site, subreddit, or Discourse forum, but they’ve all seemed like too much effort and in the wrong direction. And too much like the Serious Communitarian Adulting of the sort candidates for President of the United States like to do.

Mastodon is the first platform that seemed like it could add interesting and fun new dynamics without requiring a whole lot of admin work or Serious Communitarian Adulting.

The reason for this experiment with Mastodon is to provide a relatively more open and visible space for RBU conversations and connecting that isn’t tied to a specific geography, event, or in-person meetups. If you happen to be in an region where there’s more going on (currently, Bay Area, New York, Chicago, Austin, London), you can connect with those people and go to in-person meetups and things. Finding those people/meetups can be your navigational challenge.

This Mastodon instance currently costs about $15-20/month to keep going, and the bill may go up if activity picks up, but it seems cheap enough for me to personally underwrite for the forseeable future.

I’m hoping it is the sort of platform that can thrive and evolve in interesting ways with the sort of low-effort half-assed laissz-faire sensibility we here in the RBU bring to everything community.

As for the name: I’ve owned the refactorcamp.org domain for several years, and at various times, it’s been pointed at good, bad, and ugly sites relating to the eponymous meatspace event.

I figured this would be a good persistent use for it. A sort of perma-conference online that has no talks or sessions, just sidebar conversations by the  stale coffee.

The Refactor Camp Event

A note on the Refactor Camp physical events and how it relates to this fediverse experiment.

We’ve now held the Refactor Camp event six times since 2012, and following a debrief discussion after the last one in Austin, there seems to be general support for a sort of Olympic-style model for the annual in-person event.

Basically, we’d like a volunteer team to host Refactor Camp in the summer every year somewhere in the lower 48 in the US, on some theme of broad interest to the community. Preferably a theme where you have connections to other communities, and can drum up participation from new sources. If we can’t find a volunteer team/city, we simply don’t hold Refactor Camp that year, or we do a lightweight online videoconference event instead (we skipped 2017 for instance, and did an online lazycon version in 2016).

Participants/organizers from previous years will be available to help think through the event, and ribbonfarm and various friendly neighborhood blogs will do PR etc.

In previous years, we have always had an interesting mix of returning attendees, new people attracted by a specific theme, and random drive-by types.

Our approach to the event has in fact been a sort of meatspace analog to the fediverse, which is why this is a nice platform fit.

We like variety in themes, openness to interactions with neighbors in ideaspace (this year for example, a bunch of crypto people attended), good food, and an interesting venue with potential for interesting side activities. In previous years, we’ve held the event at a) a zoo b) a museum c) a factory d) online e) desert ranch.

I have no clear idea if or how running a Mastodon instance will help sustain the physical events this way, but if you’re interested in potentially hosting a Refactor Camp in the future, you should join, get some local buddies to join, maybe hold a meetup or something, post shoutout toots when you travel to cities with people, etc.

If you think you might be interested in bringing Refactor Camp to your city in 2019, get in touch with me. Ideally, at least one of the organizers should have attended one or more previous instances of the event. The event must be organized on a no-profit-no-loss basis, kept as affordable as possible (under $100) and capped at around 150 attendees at most. Smaller is fine.

Anyhow back to Mastodon.

Governance and Future Development

Zach and I are admins. Various trusted cronies from other corners of RBU have moderation privileges and authoritah. Our current basic form of governance is altruistic cronyism and random acts of arbitrary policing.

At the moment there are no strict rules about activity and what you can/cannot toot. We’ll make rules as/when we actually need them. Just please don’t do dumb shit like constant demented shilling for Your Thing, frenetic gladhanding, or obsessive LinkedIn style networking etc. This thing is running on very limited volunteer labor for admin/moderation and none of us have either the time or patience to keep that sort of thing in check, so if you get too annoying you’ll simply be booted.

The flip side of those with authoritah not doing too much Serious Communitarian Adulting is that individuals have to do more personal adulting.

We’ve got a few hacker types who’ve expressed interest in doing some customization and hacking, so we might in the future add stuff like an events page or a job board and pictures/pages containing stuff from past irl refactor camps and meetups and stuff. This will be entirely driven by whatever our friendly local hackers find interesting to do. There will be no systematic product management or prioritized backlog of stuff or sprints or task assignments. Just random acts of home improvement and customization.

Our official management philosophy is inspired by Megadodo Publications of Ursa Minor Beta, publishers of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Despite the work of dedicated field researchers such as Ford Prefect, many of the contributions to the Guide are made on a strictly ad-hoc basis. With the permanent staff more likely to be on a lunch break than working, “most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing.”[10] This has led to the Guide being patchy in its coverage, cobbled together (for example: the entry on “The Universe” was copied from the back of a packet of breakfast cereal)[11] and often riddled with errors.

On a serious note, we really don’t have any particular intentions with this thing, other to ensure that it is a safe and fun play zone, free of the sorts of harassment and toxicity that makes Twitter not always the best place for all kinds of conversations.

I should note that though many in the fediverse seem to view it as some sort of ideological refuge from Twitter (which they regard the way the Star Wars rebel alliance views the deathstar), I personally explicitly do NOT have this view.

I still enjoy Twitter and have continued to be active there since we got this going. As far as I’m concerned, they are fundamentally different media meant for different things. I don’t really know what either is for yet, but so long as I’m having fun on both, I don’t really mind.

Which is not to say we are against ideological Twitter refugees. Just don’t get all missionary about it please.

The Mechanics

Okay, if after that meandering and largely unhelpful preamble, if you still want to join the party, here’s the link again. Remember, open enrollment ends July 24th. After that, you’ll need to Know Somebody™️ to get in.

I recommend you scroll through the “Look Inside” column on the right of the home page to get a feel for the conversations that are starting to develop before deciding whether or not to register. If you already have an account elsewhere in the fediverse, you can of course just follow individual people from the Refactor Camp instance without signing up.

To close, I’ll repeat with what I said at the top:

If you do register after reading this, please add some meaningful profile info/tags, follow at least a dozen people, post a quick self-introduction with the hashtag #introduction, and do some tooting.

You don’t need to use your real name, and we have no expectations of minimum activity levels, but Zach, myself, and the rest of the Refactor Camp ICE squad will be kicking out pure lurkers, people with indistinguishable generic profiles, and suspected bot accounts, with extreme prejudice. We intend to run a clean, inviting, and safe joint.

Welcome to the fediverse!

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Hi,

    Have you compared what you are doing to gab.ai?

    jon

    • Gab is obviously an alt right ideological hub. Mastodon is pluralistic by design. Not sure where we’ll take our instance, but it won’t be along a political vector. Hopefully some sort of creative vector. We’ll see.

      • James Forrestal says:

        Nah, it’s just that, without heavy censorship, all social media spaces become right wing by default. Name one Communist who’s been banned from Gab (vs. the millions of conservative accounts that have been purged from Twatter).