Mastodon's Eugen Rochko Talks Decentralization, Blockchain, And Grifters
"I've kind of been having an 'I told you so' moment for the past couple years."
Welcome to Extra Garbage Day! Every other week, I’ll be dropping a bonus Thursday issue just for paying subscribers. These are usually Q&As with interesting people I’ve been dying to interview.
OK, before we begin, I want you imagine a group chat you’re in. But instead of just just text messages, imagine that group chat had all of the functionality of Twitter. It had a trending topics, follower counts, retweets, links, and DMs. Then imagine if it could connect with another group chat. Let’s say your college friends group chat linked to your family group chat and then when you didn’t want it to anymore, you could sever that link.
That’s a very simple way of thinking about Mastodon. The four-year-old social platform is open source, decentralized, and federated. My Mastodon node can connect with your Mastodon node and our users can intermingle and just as easily defederate. It has a character count of 500 characters, supports pictures and videos, and has extremely sophisticated moderation tools.
The whole thing runs on a decentralized social media protocol called ActivityPub. Once again, to simply things, imagine if the underlying guts of Twitter were as open as email.
I’ve become fascinated with Mastodon because I increasingly believe that companies like Facebook and Twitter are thinking about ways to evolve beyond a public global feed being the center of their platforms. Facebook’s cryptocurrency is expected to finally launch this year. And the company just linked together the inboxes of Facebook Messenger and Instagram DMs and has refocused much of their attention on building out Facebook Groups.
Meanwhile, Jack Dorsey has become a Bitcoin evangelist. His company Square invested $170 million in Bitcoin just this week. And earlier this month he donated $1 million to Coin Center, one of the biggest crypto think tanks in America. Twitter purchased the email publishing platform Revue last month and is spearheading a project called Blue Sky which, well, just sort of sounds like their own version of Mastodon. It also announced a full arsenal of direct revenue tools and community-building features just today.
Times are changing and, I’ll be honest, I don’t know exactly what’s coming, that’s why this week I interviewed Eugen Rochko. He’s the developer of Mastodon and he not only saw our current social media hell years before the rest of us, he did something about it. The following has been edited slightly for pacing and clarity.
Thanks for talking with me. I've been dying to interview you. The more and more I read about what's next for social platforms the more I realize that Mastodon did it first. When you see all these companies talking about decentralization, where do you think *waves around* all of this is going?
I'm hoping to see more interoperability between platforms. But when talking about the talk of decentralization, I also see a lot of grift from the sides of blockchain enthusiasm and cryptocurrencies and stuff like that. I don't think there's any future there. There's only environmental catastrophe.
That's interesting. I see folks like Jack Dorsey talking a lot about decentralization and cryptocurrency being tied together. Can you say more about why you think a decentralized internet wouldn't involve cryptocurrency?
Multiple reasons. So far, cryptocurrencies have basically not been used as currencies, but have been specifically used for their volatility. Everything involving cryptocurrency involves making quick money.
The main reason, though, is the computational cost of doing proof of work and the amount of electricity it consumes and the damage it does to the environment. I, also, just don't think that it's necessary. Most cases where people bring up blockchains, you don't need a blockchain to solve that problem. Blockchain is more like a solution looking for a problem. If you think about social media, you don't necessarily want a global distributed ledger because, in a way, it’s not actually decentralized. It's kind of this weird, yeah, it's kind of a decentralized thing because you have all these nodes working together to maintain this blockchain, but at the same time it's just a single source of truth. And in a way that is more centralized than an approach like what Mastodon takes with federation, where essentially every node is sort of independent and they have interoperability between them which creates this sort of sparsely connected network where some nodes have shared history, but not all. And you can start from scratch and then connect and then disappear.
In a way, I think that's a little more flexible and a little more practical because, well, let's say you want to start participating in the Bitcoin blockchain. First, you have to download multiple gigabytes of data to be able to start. And that's only going to get worse. You need a lot of electricity and GPUs to mine the blocks on the blockchain. And if there's any information written into the blockchain that needs to be removed, you can't remove it, which is kind of a problem. Social media is the kind of place where there is often a lot of stuff that needs to be removed. Think about private information, doxxing, illegal pornography, etc.
You brought up grift and I think that's a really interesting point because I feel very nervous when I see large social platforms talking about decentralization because to me it feels like there's a future where we're all just digital share croppers or something. There's no moderation. They're not just selling our data, they're now making us do their jobs for free.
So one question that arises when a platform like Facebook tries to invent their cryptocurrency like Libra or when Twitter explores decentralization is what is their actual interest in that? Because from an intuitive standpoint they only gain to lose from decentralization because they're the dominant player in the market. So why would they be doing this? And I'm not an oracle, I can't tell you exactly what they're thinking, but from my perspective, it's just potential for an embrace-extinguish tactic where they enter the market first or use their dominant position in the market to first adopt a standard or a technology and then ensure that they're in control of it and that other players are not successful.
This sort of thing happened before with the protocol XMPP, or Jabber. Which powered Facebook chat and WhatsApp chat and GTalk on Google. And at some point in my lifetime, I remember talking to Facebook friends from my GTalk account. That was all eventually disabled. Every one of those platforms closed down.
Oh yeah! I totally forgot about that.
Yeah, that was an interesting time. I was an evangelist and proponent for XMPP back then, trying to get all my friends to use it. So it could be something like that. I really don't understand — I mean, I kind of understand — what Twitter could gain by going the decentralization route. It is kind of speculation, but on one hand I think it's kind of like a red herring. Because so far I don't think there's any signs that it's coming to anything substantial. Project Blue Sky was announced, what, January 2019? Two years now.
All that Blue Sky has to show for it is an ecosystem document, which describes which decentralized social networks exist and what their perks are and like… Ok, good on them for creating the document. I am in the chatroom where Blue Sky people talk to each other. Which is the only thing Blue Sky has. It's just a chatroom. So, yeah, good document, but also like it doesn't convince me that it's going to go anywhere from here because if there was a will there would have been a way to do a lot more a lot sooner.
I mean, at the end of the day, if I wanted to get somewhere and get something done, the thing that I would not have done is invite 20 different project leads who each have their own technology that they want to push forward and have them talk with each other for two years. I don't see how that's going to resolve to anything. I mean, I'm not interested in abandoning Mastodon and ActivityPub and going with something else. And I'm sure other project leads who participate in Blue Sky feel the same. So I don't know what's going on there. One of my theoretical explanations is just that it is there for show.
The other potential reason is diffusion of responsibility because there is a lot of pressure on social media platforms nowadays like Twitter and Facebook around their moderation decisions. Around Section 230 in the US, platform protections. So suddenly they might be interested in, instead of being a monopoly, essentially, in giving up a little bit of that power. Those are my theories. I don't know how true they are, but so far I have not been convinced of anything else.
To pivot away from that slightly, I was trying to explain to a friend of mine who isn't very online what a decentralized social media landscape would look like. I was trying to explain that we might be at a moment where a central newsfeed, whether it's Facebook or Twitter, is going away because it's going out of fashion, but, also, because it's a logistical nightmare. So I was wondering how you would describe what decentralized social media platforms would actually look like.
Well, I'd start by saying the internet as we look at it today is decentralized. It has always been. We are kind of struggling with movements towards centralization in a lot of places because a service like CloudFlare which runs in front of, what, 20% of the traffic on the internet nowadays? It means that if CloudFlare goes down you lose a lot of websites at once. So there are definitely problems with a centralizing internet, but the technology behind the internet is decentralized so you don't have to look very far or imagine something very outlandish. You have been using the decentralized internet all along. The problem, I would guess, is that some services so far have been centralized.
What we're doing with Mastodon is what a lot people describe as, to some degree, a return to what the internet used to be when bulletin boards were popular. Back when Usenet was popular. Because Usenet, if I remember correctly, I wasn't actually using the internet at the time, I was too young. But if I remember what people told me correctly, Usenet was also federated in exactly the same manner as Mastodon is now. So the concepts have been here all along and we're kind of trying to return to it from the state of centralization and monopolization that we're currently experiencing.
With Mastodon, how would you describe where it's at in terms of its communities? It's unfortunate that one of the most popular versions of Mastodon is Gab's fork. Are there use cases for Mastodon that you still haven't seen yet that you've been waiting for?
Funny that you mention Gab because Gab is kind of a joke. I mean, I don't know if you've heard, but they have some really obvious vulnerabilities on their site that they've introduced after forking.
[Ed. note: “forking” is when take source code and make an independent project with it. Gab currently runs on a fork of Mastodon, which is unaffiliated with Mastodon.]
Yeah, they're awful and they're not even that popular to be honest.
Yeah, they had their million users before they switched to the Mastodon code. As soon as they switched, they claimed to be the biggest Mastodon node. Which I don't think is a fair statement at all, especially considering there's a difference between the number of registered accounts and the number of active users. One of the first moves that Gab did after forking our code was remove the trends section that we had which exposes the number of people talking in a trending hashtag. Which, on their site, showed a very small number, so they removed it.
But enough about Gab. The thing is, over four years, I have seen many different use cases. So I think I've seen them all. I'm not sure if there's anything left undone. The question is only about the depth or breadth of adoption. How wildly adopted can Mastodon get? I mean, I've seen Mastodon used for personal blogs or microblogs, I've seen them used for families, friends, for schools, for educational purposes, for universities, as a testing ground for academic research for social media. I have seen it used as a platform for journalists to publish on their own platform. I have seen it used host communities of common interests like art or music, to provide spaces for marginalized folks like the LGBT community. So I mean, what else can you do with social media? I think we've got everything covered.
What I'm trying to figure out is, after January 6th, it seems very clear to me that the way we use social media and the way it currently exists can't continue. So I'm trying to figure out where it's going or how it could change and part of me suspects that Mastodon is a shape that things could take. Do you see trends moving towards more private spaces, and away from the public space of the internet, which feels run down and broken?
I mean, I've kind of been having an “I told you so” moment for the past couple years. All of the problems with social media are the problems I've been analyzing since all the way back when I started Mastodon. Just the problems that arise from putting too many eggs in one basket, from having everything under one roof. And, yeah, I think part of the solution to the current problems is spreading things out and splitting things up. Having different communities or different jurisdictions handle their own without completely disconnecting themselves from a global network, or community, or whatever you want to call it. We are used to something like Twitter being an almost necessary service for global communications, but, so far, it has not been working as a utility really. Or if it has, it's an unfair monopoly. One commercial company that has interests which do not necessarily align with how we want to use the service. And the solution to that is, obviously, if it's supposed to be a utility, it should not be a commercial entity. It should be something that, well, works more like a pipe, I guess.
By putting the control over the Mastodon nodes into the hands of the people themselves and allowing them to build connections between each other I think it creates a more flexible and robust structure for the future because, well, communities can adopt to changes more flexibly than waiting for the CEO of some commercial company taking a stance on one way or another. If there is something that effects your local community then it’s in your hands to do something about it. Like introducing new moderation rules, or adding new filters, or whatever it is you need to do using Mastodon's moderation tools. If the United States introduces laws that ostracize sex workers there is no reason why people in Austria or Germany, where sex work is legal and not looked down upon, should be penalized for that. So with a social network that's spread throughout the world like this, it's just a lot more suitable.
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