How much decentralisation is too much?


Twitter's over, my dudes! And now everyone is on Mastodon! But Mastodon isn't a site, it is a federated network running an interoperable protocol! Yay for ActivityPub1!

Anyway, that means there isn't one Mastodon website. There are many. There is only one Twitter. There is only one Facebook. There is only one Instagram. If you want to interact with Twitter/FB/Insta then you have to do it on those websites, or via the official apps.

Mastodon is decentralised. I am on Mastodon.Social, and you are on Mastodon.me.uk. Those are different servers. But we can still see each others' messages.

All of those different servers have multiple users. Some of the big servers have hundreds of thousands of accounts, some of the smaller ones only a few dozen. We're all apart, even when we're together. This is the joy - and the sorrow - of decentralisation.

What's the optimal size of a server? Bigger ones might be slower, or they may benefit from efficiencies of scale. Smaller ones might be more nimble, but may not have the resources to keep the server going.

Let's take a look at PixelFed - a federated version of Flickr / Instagram. There are about 280 different PixelFed instances you could join. Here's a graph showing the number of users on the top 25 instances:

The top server has over 60,000 users, the next under 20,000, the rest tail off into double digits.

Pretty classic "long-tail" there. A dominant main server. A credible second place. A distant third. And then all the rest quickly descend under 100 users.

I want to be very clear - I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It is entirely possible to have a sustainable server which only has one user.

For example, the Raspberry Pi foundation has an instance at https://raspberrypi.social/. It only has a single account you can follow - @Raspberry_Pi@raspberrypi.social.

Is that the future?

What happens if everyone has their own instance? Would managing spam and blocklists on the Fediverse be as difficult as managing them for email?

Inside of you there are two extremes

Consider email. Almost everyone is on GMail, O365, or one of a limited number of big email providers. Even if you're a digital extremist and have your own domain name, you almost certainly don't run your own email server. It's just too complicated and no one wants a full-time unpaid job keeping up with the admin of configuring, patching, and defending their mail.

Similarly, I doubt anyone wants to spend much more than a couple of hours per year setting up and maintaining their federated social network app.

Those of us vain / paranoid enough to want to be @MyName@my-domain.xyz will almost certainly just rent computing power and space from one of the big Mastodon providers.

What about big businesses?

I love that idea. But businesses don't run servers any more. If you're a small business, you just outsource everything to Google or Microsoft. If you're a big business... the same!

It's easier and cheaper to pay dedicated professionals to run specialist appliances than it is to bring them in-house.

Predictions

Making predictions is a fool's game. So here are my predictions for the future of Federated Services:

  • Die-hard geeks like me will still run our family's Fediverse apps from a Raspberry Pi tucked in a cupboard.
  • Small sellers will offer Fediverse packages just the same way as they do one-click WordPress installs. But they'll mostly all be running on AWS anyway.
  • Twitter - or someone like them - will start offering "Fediverse-as-a-Service". You can be @Bob@Mastodon.Your_Domain.com - but it'll be Twitter under the hood. Just like GMail for domains.
  • People will have multiple instances they need to be on. Work and personal, for example. Just as some of us have a family email which is different from the friends one. But they'll all come through to a single app.
  • Facebook - or someone like them - will gradually add "enhancements" to their service which will cause it not to work other Federated systems. The first time this happens it will be excused as a mistake. But, just like how Google killed off XMPP, it will eventually become a silo. Not many people will notice, because the majority of their friends are all on the same instance.
  • Someone will invent a server which runs on your Android phone. It would revolutionise decentralisation and federation. But it chews up battery and Apple bans the iOS version for no good reason. So it never takes off except with a few people prepared to root their devices and carry an extra battery.
  • A nation-state will insist that every citizen and resident must have an account on the national Mastodon. Perhaps in order to listen to the thoughts of Dear Leader™. Perhaps for some sinister monitoring purpose. If you want to talk to your buddies in that region, your server may have to Federate with something running old, outdated, or hostile software.
  • Geeks like me will rage that this all could been avoided if everyone bought their own Raspberry Pi and learned half-a-dozen simple Linux commands.

Perhaps that's pessimistic of me? I think the pendulum will swing a few more times at least.

There might be a dozen different phone networks in your country. Yes, they Federate with each other, but they all happen to be running close-to-identical networking gear made by Nokia or Huawei. Yes, you can put your SIM in any device, but chances are it is either Android or iOS.

We'll be stuck with the illusion of Federation.


  1. I’d just like to interject for a moment. What you're referring to as Mastodon, is in fact, ActivityPub/Mastodon, or as I’ve recently taken to calling it, ActivityPub plus Mastodon. Mastodon is not an service unto itself, but rather another free component of a fully functioning Fediverse made useful by the W3C core protocols and other vital components etc. etc. 

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22 thoughts on “How much decentralisation is too much?”

  1. said on hachyderm.io:

    @Edent when I read the point about running instances on mobile phones my mind went to #secureScuttlebutt, a peer-to-peer social media that has no servers and as far as I know isn’t compatible with activity pub.A few years ago I was looking into it and I found it really interesting albeit with a few aspects that made it not too practical. If we truly want to go fully decentralised (I’m not saying it’s a necessarily better) that approach makes more sense to me
    securescuttlebutt

    Reply | Reply to original comment on hachyderm.io
  2. said on mstdn.social:

    @Edent well I don't agree more. Now following users is a burden. We have invented SMTP again and if mastodon gets more attention there will be a whole industry around it. Like spam filters, phishing detectors. Signal messaging app is also an open sour project under the umbrella of a foundation. It survives with donations. I would prefer a single authority but a transparent foundation and great extensibility like add-ons, plug-ins and APIs.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on mstdn.social
    1. @erik@infrageeks.social says:

      Hmm - checking and yes it appears that I am also old and run my own mail server 🙂 And now my own mastodon server. Just waiting for the mid-tier geeks to jump on board with their own servers once Synology figures out how to build a plug-in and make the on-ramp easier.

      Reply
  3. said on fosstodon.org:

    @Edent I think the biggest problem why people want to host their own, is owning your data.There are few problems with the current implementation of Mastodon (not ActivityPub1):Data portability: Currently your content can't be moved (social graph can, but not content), so you risk losing everything if server owner decides to shut downModeration: A mod can decide they don't like you and again, your data is gonePrivacy: Well, the DMsThese can be solved with your prediction #2

    Reply | Reply to original comment on fosstodon.org
  4. said on fosstodon.org:

    @Edent but I have also been thinking about the superiority of ActivityPub over what we had before (FB, Twitter etc) with regards to businesses, and that superiority comes from self hosting.Imagine that as a business, * only your company can read DMs, * your account can't be suspended for whatever reason the network (or mods) decide. * The social media network (or server) won't shutdown* Company can have it's own employees on it (like work email)

    Reply | Reply to original comment on fosstodon.org
  5. said on social.screamingatmyscreen.com:

    @Edent I wonder how many of the single user instances were setup to allow people to own their identity including domain instead of using someone else’s again.With @takahe multi-domain support I’d be fine using a shared instance for example (or inviting more people to mine as long as they bring their domain and don’t use mine). We might see some single user instance consolidation in future.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on social.screamingatmyscreen.com
  6. said on mastodon.radio:

    @Edent I'd be willing to make a small bet on the current fediverse splitting into several in the future. There will be commercial instances and big accounts with big followings will migrate into those, which offer some extra against a small fee and will develop the same kind of operating methods the big ones have today and many people will be okay with it. Many other people though, will not be at all okay with it and will defederate those commercial instances, others want to "keep it small", 1/x

    Reply | Reply to original comment on mastodon.radio
  7. said on social.ahlroos.me:

    @hittitezombie @Edent Yes, totally agree, it ain't easy. Setting up and maintaining SPF, DMARK, DKIM etc.isn't for everyone for sure. But the major problem these days are the black/whitelisting of email servers done by the major players like Microsoft and Google. They essentially control the email space now. I don't know how many times I've gone through their whitelisting process just because I have a small email server. It is ridiculous, email has essentially become a monopoly now.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on social.ahlroos.me
  8. said on functional.cafe:

    @Edent @rachelcoldicutt I have a feeling that the current fediverse will split again. There will be those to whom reach matters more and those to whom community matters more.The reach side will be run for profit by a few (or one) big companies. There will be lots of abuse, but that's OK as they'll be selling advertising (with regrets, but it allows those who can't pay to be on the platform). The gab/parler people will love this as will the journalists.Then there will be the fedi that existed before we all piled in this November. They value being able to defederate and having a community they are happy to be a member of. There will be the usual rows (justified and not) between instances, but most will rub along with each other at sizes that can be moderated by the communities.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on functional.cafe
  9. said on mastodon.social:

    @Edent I'm not sure "if it's on AWS/BigCo cloud, decentralisation is an illusion" is a great argument.There's two types of decentralisation at issue:1. technical: it'd be nice if the internet didn't go down when us-east-1 does2. "sociopolitical": setting rules, policies etc. free of the control of companies like FB/TW.Running a RasPi in yer house gets more of both, but even if everyone was running instances in, say, AWS, you'd still have more of (2), even if there's not more of (1).

    Reply | Reply to original comment on mastodon.social
  10. said on mastodon.social:

    @Edent @tommorris I think there is also 'potential decentralisation'. Even if the Activity Pub landscape is dominated by a handful of players, those players will be constrained by the fact people can leave with very low friction. You can't take your followers with you if you leave but it's not that difficult to rebuild your following.OTOH, radical decentralisation likely breaks search, the significance of which is unclear.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on mastodon.social
  11. said on mastodon.neat.computer:

    @Edent it feels slightly misleading to me to graph Pixelfed servers in this way in a post that’s clearly mostly about Mastodon, mainly because Pixelfed is so much more difficult/annoying to run. Having run both a Mastodon server and a Pixelfed server it’s no surprise to me at all that big Pixelfed servers aren’t springing up. Graphing Mastodon instances like this would paint a totally different picture, which suggests to me that other AP projects mostly have technical issues to overcome rather than social issues with decentralization.

    Reply | Reply to original comment on mastodon.neat.computer
  12. said on mastodon.social:

    @Edent you forgot the hardware & software startup that will sell a pre-built Pi with Mastodon already setup. Buy your domain (at a slight premium) with them, and they ship you a Pi ready to run your instance once it's hooked up to your wireless network (and you change the password).Actually this is a neat idea. Can that be done?

    Reply | Reply to original comment on mastodon.social
    1. says:

      The installation isn't the hard part of that. It's the port forwarding, getting a public IP address, pointing a domain at your home/office IP, and email delivery. All are solveable, but they're the hardest part of your business idea IMHO.

      Reply
  13. Internet Person says:

    ISPs should be obliged to provide a static IP upon request. That's all the "decentralization" the internet needs. Anyone else's server, whether the protocol is "federated" or not is sub-optimal. Freedom is inherently tribal; normalized social obligations and pressure to abide such things is antithetical to freedom. The only place normalized thought matters is "the real world" that keeps meat bags alive. I have no obligation to join a religion or submit to social bubble rules on some server I can just avoid by using my own.

    I share with people via simple Go http based services in Docker containers. Computer science people who have nothing to do but think about these things all day are over-engineering the shit out of things to try and be the next cool new way to organize fleets of machines when no one asked them to.

    The lack of 24/7 protest for universal healthcare in the US is public acceptance no one should have to give a fuck their meat bag lives. I'm so sick of the real shit being ignored for "OOOH NO MY SPEECH" gibberish.

    Reply

What are your reckons?

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