This is a transcript of a short rant I made in a video on Peertube.
This is capitalism. It is alienating. Every facet of life takes on the structure of the sale of a commodity. When you open your eyes today, in this social system, you are for sale. If you are to survive, you must do soul-crushing work. Every space, even your home, takes on the structure of a factory. We are surrounded by machines in our work and in our home that we are told will improve our lives. But most of them are just weapons to keep us controlled. This is not how we were meant to live. Luckily there is someone who is willing to support you. He is here to spread the message of love and peace. He wants the whole world to rise up and overthrow its hateful leaders. And unite under a common slogan: everyone should have what they need. He is the Hero of Labour. Workers of the World, Unite!
Hey everyone. My name is Blair. You might know me on the Fediverse as “dirtycommo”. If you don’t know me or where I am or where I’m from, I’ll explain now. :-) So we all use something called social media. And we normally use things like Facebook and Twitter – those sorts of things. And those are the mainstream sort of capitalist social media.
And it turns out that there’s this other kind of social media called the “Fediverse”, and it’s based on a software protocol called “ActivityPub”. And maybe I’ll sort through all these things and explain it to you later. I used to be on a social network called “Mastodon”. And Mastodon is an implementation of the software protocol called ActivityPub. And, it’s like a Twitter clone. There’s this guy called Gargron. And Gargron made this app called Mastodon he used this protocol called ActivityPub.
It (ActivityPub) was published by the internet standards organisation W3C. And it sparked or exploded this huge online community. People from Twitter have left to join Mastodon, and people from Tumblr, when Tumblr imploded after all the censorship stuff, moved over to Mastodon. I’ve spent a lot of time on Mastodon and it has been amazing. It has been really cool. I’ve moved into “Pleroma” now and I’ll get to that later.
Pleroma is not necessarily a competing implementation of ActivityPub, but it’s a different software for being on the Fediverse. And so the Fediverse is the “Federated Universe”. And it’s this online social space that started with GNU Social. I suppose the history I am telling you all about this is all mixed up. But GNU Social was an experiment from the Open Source community to create a Twitter clone and use Free Software tools instead of proprietary tools like Twitter. It kind of imploded and went really badly because of the way the protocol managed, and because of the way the software was developed; basically the political organisation of the developers didn’t work very well. And the software was very difficult adapt and extend.
I guess I’m glossing a lot over this, the history of GNU Social, but I don’t need to go into that. So coming out of GNU Social, and I think the protocol that GNU Social used was called OStatus, ActivityPub was created. And I like the story told by the lead developer of Pleroma, “Lain”, about how ActivityPub was developed. And it was almost a complete copy of OStatus, except using JSON data objects instead of XML. Basically all of the same problems that were attendant with OStatus and GNU Social are now being replicated again with ActivityPub. So hopefully this isn’t going over too many of your heads. This is really for a specialist audience. And so we have ActivityPub. We have this protocol that works in a certain way, and maybe I’ll make a video about how it works. But right now you don’t need to understand how it works.
So maybe go look up “Mastodon”, go look up “Pleroma”, go look up these social networks. Basically it works like this: if there is Facebook or Twitter, they are a centralised server. So somewhere in California there’s a big warehouse or big bank of servers which stores all the data in one place – conceptually at least. There is one algorithm that operates over all of the data you put into Facebook, with adverts, etc But the Fediverse works like this: the concept behind it was that there would be many servers. Many small servers hosting little islands of people on those servers and they would all be able to intercommunicate and connect with each other. All over the world.
And it wouldn’t be centralised. It would be “federated”. And it would be as horizontal as possible. For instance, I run a Fediverse server, a Fediverse “instance”. And so when you have these servers, ideally what would happen is the network would be nice and distributed, it would be a lot more free, it would be a lot more open, and it would be egalitarian about how these things work. And so I spent a lot of time on Mastodon and I was having a great time. All the people on Mastodon, when I was on Mastodon, as opposed to when I was on Pleroma.
So: I’ve never left the Fediverse, I’m still in it. When I was on Mastodon, it was amazing. I met communists, I met lots of anarchists, I met loads of awesome queer people. It was a really cool safe space. And all of a sudden I started seeing lots of vitriol being poured online towards people, towards the leading dev of Pleroma. All of these accusations were being made. There was a lot of struggling going on about how we block instances. It seems like a lot of Nazis have joined the Fediverse. A lot of Nazis are using both Pleroma and Mastodon. They’re manipulating their software so that /they/ can have a place to be on the internet using this software. This alarmed a lot of people. The knives basically came out. People started blaming each other. People started accusing lead devs of being Nazis, associating with Nazis, helping Nazis set up “Gab”.
Gab is a big Nazi instance. This started worrying me. I started looking a bit further, and talking to people. And I started learning a bit more about how ActivityPub actually works. So early on I found out about mastodon.social. It turns out that the person who invented Mastodon or first wrote Mastodon, governs the project of Mastodon, or is potentially the benevolent dictator of the development of Mastodon, Gargron, he is notionally the admin or controller, or the final arbiter of mastodon.social. Which is the biggest instance on the Fediverse. So it’s an enormous instance that hosts loads and loads of people. And that alarmed me a bit, that doesn’t seem like a very good way to run the Fediverse given its aims and principles.
And so then I found out about how Gargron runs Mastodon. Of the people who use the protocol ActivityPub, 80% of them use Mastodon. So 80% of them use one particular software implementation of the protocol. Of the people who use Mastodon, a very significant minority of people use mastodon.social. You can see how it’s kind of like a state within a state. The way I explained it to one friend was: you’ve got the Fediverse, and inside the Fediverse you have the Party, which is Mastodon, and inside Mastodon you have the Central Committee or the Politburo, which is mastodon.social. Maybe this is an unfair way of looking at it.
So then you have a lot of vitriol being spewed from Mastodon users to Pleroma users because supposedly the Pleroma devs have created a way which prevents Mastodon users from blocking Nazis. And so it gets really complex and messy. It turns out there’s this big division in the Fediverse between people who use Mastodon and use Pleroma. And once I found out about this division, maybe I cooled on ActivityPub or I got really despondent with it. But it has been really interesting for me for me to uncover a lot of this stuff. It has been really interesting for me to learn about the creation of this protocol, about the people who first started this software, and the explosion of the network. This is where we are now. We’ve got Mastodon, who owns or controls most of the network, and then we have Pleroma. It has been really interesting for me to uncover a lot of this stuff. This is the “deep dive” into the Fediverse.
So it turns out that a lot of the stuff that people have been saying about Pleroma supposedly coddling up to Nazis or associating with Nazis or circumventing the blocks of Mastodon isn’t really true. So maybe I’ll unpack that a bit. Mastodon created some metaphors in ActivityPub or on the Fediverse weren’t actually specified by the ActivityPub standard. So when you go onto Mastodon you can make a public post, you can make a followers-only post, you can make an unlisted post and you can have direct messages. So none of these metaphors were actually in the ActivityPub standard and so there’s actually no rules about how these are supposed to be implemented or how they’re supposed to work. The way they have been implemented in Mastodon poor and unsafe. And so very early on in Mastodon’s release or when Mastodon was first marketed or advertised or spread around the internet, it was kind of like “Mastodon is a place that is safe for leftists, safe for queer people. You can go on there and there won’t be Nazis and you will have a better experience than say on Twitter or Facebook”. And a lot of these promises were not “hot air”, but they didn’t really make good on these promises.
The way political organisation of instances on Mastodon works – I personally don’t agree with it, and it’s not very safe. The way Mastodon works is that you have an instance, and then you might have a mod team, you might have an admin on the instance, someone who is the last say. You have your own kind of political community on your instance. What you can do on Mastodon is you can block whole other instances and that’s not what happens on Pleroma. Pleroma is – there’s no actual controls or collective legislation on a Pleroma instance, you’re a user, and you can do whatever you want, right? And the admin has supposedly – or at least they claim – more power to organise or control their instance than say, on Mastodon. And so this conflict in political ideology in how Fediverse instances are run leads to a lot of friction and a lot of name-calling and a lot of gossip. And it’s really complex to untangle. I started hearing at one point that there was a secret switch inside Pleroma instances’ code which would allow you to circumvent a block on Mastodon. So what you could do was get on a Pleroma instance, and be a Nazi or be some sort of pervert or whatever, or a rape apologist and start seeing and interacting with other people on Mastodon, even though the maximum amount of precautions that someone on Mastodon could take had been taken. But that’s actually not true. If you’re worried about Nazis and being seen on Mastodon, it is not safe yet. That particular implementation of ActivityPub – the way instance blocking works is, in my opinion – and I am happy to be corrected on this – is sloppy. The way the metaphors of ‘unlisted’, ‘followers only’ posts, and public posts – that’s been implemented really badly.
That’s actually not safe. You can interact with people you’ve attempted to block and exclude because those metaphors Mastodon is using have not been implemented properly. So where to from here. So I’ve attempted to explain to you what the Fediverse is, how the Fediverse uses ActivityPub, what Pleroma is. Pleroma controls notionally the other 20% of the Fediverse. At least in the Twitter clone space. And I’m not going to go into the other kinds of softwares that you can use with ActivityPub like the YouTube clone, and the WordPress clones.
So it has been really interesting to untangle a lot of this stuff. I don’t think there’s a secret way of penetrating Mastodon instances inside Pleroma. I don’t think there’s necessarily much credit or point in accusing the lead developers of Pleroma of being Nazi sympathisers and helping set up Nazi instances. How does that actually bear on how this software works? So if it is true that Mastodon has issues with blocking out Nazis and excluding people you don’t want to see, that’s a problem with Mastodon. Those issues with Mastodon have to go the Mastodon developer team, and you have to start engaging in dialogue or understanding how this software works. Even on a very cursory basis. In order to make sure you are safe, if you think there is a point in using ActivityPub and Mastodon.
If you like Mastodon, if you really enjoy the experience you have on it, and you want it to be safer, then I think you actually have to start getting involved in the political process of how the Fediverse works.
Maybe this is a call to action for me. I’ve very upset with what I’ve seen in the interchange politically in how this software on ActivityPub is developed and I’m really jaded now actually. Maybe I am going to spend one or two months continuing to Pleroma and Mastodon, but I’m probably not going to try get into development anytime soon, like I really wanted to. It’s all open source, I was going to start fixing bugs, I was going to start learning more about how Pleroma’s software worked in Elixir. That’s another thing that I could go into: the different kinds of software paradigms in development environments that both Mastodon and Pleroma use.
That’s all I want to say, really. Thank you so much for watching. If you found this video useful I’d love to hear your feedback. I’ll put my Fediverse presence in the YouTube description / PeerTube description. Get in contact with me. I’d love to talk to you, I’d love to find out more. I can answer your questions if you have any questions. If you want to find out more, I’d love to talk to you about your questions :-)
Thanks so much :-)