Mon Jun 12 2023

The Centripetal Moment

by e(Liz)abeth (Mars)ton

Over the past five years, and, especially, over the past year, we've watched the pillars of social media crumble, collapsing inward under the weight of their own mass, changing from stars to black holes of misinformation, misconduct, and abuse.

As Yeats had it, the center did not hold. Communities with an interest in survival must now fling themselves outward, away from the danger, and toward the unknown. I call this the Centripetal Moment: we slingshot around the darkness, and out into who-knows-what.

First, let's review what happened.

In the beginning, there was no book but the Face-Book. It prospered and flourished beyond all expectation, becoming, in several countries, synonymous with the very idea of the Internet. Twitter, a sibling of Facebook, grew up similarly (albeit more modestly) blessed, becoming the Internet's public square, an essential space for discourse and togetherness.

In retrospect, the first sign of trouble, not recognized as such at the time, was the revolution which began in the literal public square of Cairo, facilitated and shared with the world by Twitter.

This was the first time that I at least noticed that the Internet, which had long been a sort of epiphenomenon of the real world, had, in some crucial way, supplanted or extended the real world, reminiscent of book or map in a short story by Borges.

The problem, of course, with supplanting the world is that you inherit all the problems of the world. This follows from the painful fact that the problems of the world are mostly origami-like folds of power and resistance, endlessly produced in novel shapes, but still at heart just mountain- and valley-folds of the human struggle for power.

Whatever Tahrir Square meant for Egypt, for Twitter it augured the end.

A mere decade later, in 2020: Facebook, chastened by the rise in fascism that it had helped produce in the USA, stood implicated in the destabilization of the world's premier democracy; Twitter was the mouthpiece of a tyrant; and the whole world shook from the moderation decisions of wildly-underpaid and heavily-traumatized anonymods, deep within the subcontracted bellies of Big Social.

And then, somehow, improbably, things got worse again. Twitter was purchased by a narcissistic billionaire with a vendetta against the ‘woke mind virus’; in its pursuit, he set on fire more money than most small countries make in a year to attempt to remake Twitter in his own image.

In response, Reddit, long the sensible third sister of the cohort, decided that it wanted in on the fun, hiking its API rates in a parody of Twitter's own recent fundraising maneuver. It is currently at war with what appears to be most of its most active userbase: the community of moderators and other volunteers whose work Reddit Inc. profits from.

Meanwhile, Stackoverflow, a vital but niche player in the social ecosystem of the Internet, managed to alienate the krill of its own corporate food chain by embracing low-quality AI-generated content, driving a rebellion of people so content-oriented they make Wikipedians look cavalier. Such people are intrinsically unlikely to revolt, but nevertheless are doing just that, in the face of what they correctly perceive as an existential threat.

From these platforms, there is taking place a flight to ‘Decentralized’ social media solutions (note the capital letter,) long the hobby products of a small minority of hackers. Interest in Mastodon exploded, as well as other, more esoteric protocols (Nostr, Secure Scuttlebutt, AT). Encrypted chat products also came to the fore: Telegram, Signal, and Matrix have all found their place, often in contexts of war and unrest.

(A future essay by yours truly will go into the important distinction between chat and social media; there is actually a mathematical difference in expectable load and thus the importance of scalability.)

The spirit of the moment is, somehow, improbably, at last, on the side of advocates of what I will call the Old Internet: the way things were before chokepoint capitalism learned to use network effects to capture us all. And while most of the advocates of these systems do not use the A-word (‘anarchism’) they are transparently and obviously just that.

However, this is also a fraught moment for this movement. It takes very little to lose the trust of userbase that has already been through so much traumatic change. Trust is necessarily logarithmic with time; you asymptotically approach a state of total trust, but never get there. Yet in the early days, when trust is still low, it is trivially easy to break the trust of millions, billions of people, simultaneously, losing their faith forever.

ActivityPub, the protocol behind Mastodon and the rest of the so-called Fediverse, is showing signs of serious strain. Back-of-the-napkin math shows that it likely cannot scale too far beyond its current configuration, as bandwidth between server instances increases dramatically (exponentially? geometrically?) with the number of server instances and the number of users on the instance. Meanwhile, the user experience of Mastodon is often optimized away from friendliness and even accessibility, as it suffers from too many nerds dog-fooding their own work as a substitute for user testing and product design.

Meanwhile, protocols like Secure Scuttlebutt seem surprised and frozen at the sudden spotlight, unsure of how to proceed with the development of a project that was driven as much by intellectual curiosity as a desire to make a functioning home for future generations.

Simpler and more pragmatic projects which nevertheless route around the scalability issues of ActivityPub, such as Nostr, seem to have developer mindshare, but few actual users.

BlueSky seems to stand to benefit the most from the current chaos, yet they have yet to produce anything that resembles a working federated product. Most of their momentum seems to have come from understanding user testing and product design. While the underlying AT Protocol has its own website and the beginnings of documentation, it, like Secure Scuttlebutt and Nostr, seems mostly hypothetical, absent a working, popular, published, MIT-licensed implementation that is actually used in the wild.

So, at present, what is real is not good, and what is good is not yet real. But customers—no, refugees—are streaming through the front door, hungry for a form of community that cannot be taken from them by the whims of billionaires.

Calligraphic embellishment of the name 'Liz'