Online Social Spaces and Curation

There’s a tempest raging on Mastodon at the moment. A debate has been triggered by the prospect of the Bluesky social network federating with Mastodon’s ActivityPub network. This has triggered valid fears of Mastodon being overwhelmed by the unwashed (read as un-moderated) masses flooding in and destroying the amazing space that Mastodon has become since Elon Musk forced all rational people without a deeply vested commercial interest to abandon his platform (whatever it happens to be called this week)*. This is similar to discussions around Facebook linking into the network, except people are even more agitated this time, for reasons that aren’t obvious.

I’ve been online long enough to remember the way communities on USENET disintegrated when AOL allowed its users to get in. I understand the concerns.

A crux of the debate is opt-in vs. opt-out. Architecturally, ActivityPub is designed to be opt-out. A contingent of people using Mastodon are demanding (more on that later) that any link to Bluesky be opt-in.

I want to step back from the specifics and look at community and participation. Starting with how things work in meatspace. In the first scenario you’re in a pub you’ve never been to before. You and some friends are having a nice conversation when a couple of folks settle into a nearby table and start talking about something you find deeply offensive. Your options are to ignore them, complain to management, or leave. Since you’re new, you might not have any sway with management. It’s even possible that the offending table is full of regulars and this sort of expression is acceptable or even encouraged here. Odds are that you ignore them until you’ve finished your drink, move on, and never return. That’s opting out.

In the second scenario, you’re in a regular pub. The manager knows you, and you know that they and other patrons also find the new table’s conversation troubling. You feel comfortable complaining, and the offenders are given their bill. That’s moderation.

But what does opt-in look like? If you arrive at a new pub, bouncers stop you at the door and ask for your position on a variety of issues. If your position isn’t congruent with the views of management, you are denied entry, even if you undertake to not speak on any of the topics where you differ. Same thing on the other side. You invite a friend to your pub because you agree on many things, but because they didn’t make it past the bouncer they aren’t allowed in.

Opting in sounds great but in practice, all it does is limit dialogue and encourage echo chambers. It requires more effort but still is better and wiser to encourage open dialogue and to moderate the offenders out of the conversation, isolating and denying them a platform in the process.

Back to those demanding change. In ad-supported platforms, if the service is free, then the user is the product. In Mastodon, the service is funded by the people who either operate their own instance or those who donate to the costs of running an instance. The words are important here: give, donate, contribute. These are words that imply the transmission of value without contractual expectations in return. The ActivityPub protocol was developed by people who wanted to foster open communication while providing the tools required for moderation. Those people also gave their time and expertise to what Mastodon is now. They’re not employees and Mastodon users are not employers. It takes quite some gall to demand that ActivityPub morph to meet their needs, especially when what they’re asking for is philosophically orthogonal to the original design. If an opt-out connection to Bluesky is unacceptable, you are free to make your opinion known, but not to demand. If that’s not acceptable, then you can find another pub.

* To be clear, if you don’t have a commercial reason to be there and you still are, I’m explicitly calling you irrational. Your presence is what’s keeping the commercial interests (and advertisers) on the platform. Leave and that will change. Leaving is the first and necessary step in removing Musk, and having it fall into the hands of creditors, who will install new management and try to return it to viability.