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Strategies for the free fediverses

How to leverage the free fediverses' many advantages?

A chalkboard with the word Strategy.  On the left, a book, a pen, and some glasses.
Join the discussion in the fediverse!
"Free Fediverse is a resource for those working to save the fediverse network of online communities from absorption into surveillance capitalism."

freefediverse.org

Should the Fediverse welcome its new surveillance-capitalism overlords? Opinions differ! and Erin Kissane's outstanding Untangling Threads discuss the range of opinions in the the ecosystem of decentralized social networks known as the "fediverse" about whether or not to federate with Threads, a new social network from Meta (aka Facebook). Many people in today's fediverse want nothing to do with Threads or the hate groups, fascists, terms, and white supremacists it hosts. Others see it as an opportunity to communicate with friends and relatives – or follow politicians, activists, musicians, journalists, and others who are on Threads but not in the fediverse.

So the fediverse is evolving into different regions, including

  • "Meta's fediverses"1, federating with Meta to allow communications, potentially using services from Meta such as automated moderation or ad targeting, and potentially harvesting data on Meta's behalf.2
  • "free fediverses" that reject Meta – and surveillance capitalism more generally
There might be better choices for names. "A note on terminology", coming soon, will discuss why these are the ones I'm using for now

A lot of people are stressed out about this, but as I said back in June in There are many fediverses and in In chaos there is opportunity!, I see it as a good thing. Meta's arrival is already catalyzing some positive, badly-needed changes in the fediverse – changes that are especially helpful to the free fediverses, highlighting their strengths and making it easier to address their weaknesses.  

The free fediverses have a lot of advantages over Meta and Meta's fediverses, some of which will be very hard to counter, and clearly have enough critical mass that they'll be just fine. Threads is likely to succeed as well, unless they screw it up royally, and so will Meta's fediverses (at least until Meta decides it's not useful). It wouldn't surprise me if Threads gets to Mark Zuckerberg's goal of a billion users and Mastodon reaches Eugen Rochko's goal of 100,000,000 users.  Meta's got some advantages, including world-class engineering, the ability to leverage existing highly-scalable Instagram infrastructure, and virtually infinite resources. Also, Twitter is really horrible.

Still, a lot of people want to minimize their exposure to Meta. As long as the free fediverses can deliver a good experience, they'll get a lot of traction as well.

Here's a set of strategies for the free fediverses to provide a viable alternative to surveillance capitalism.  They build on the strengths of today's fediverse at its best – including natural advantages the free fediverses have that Threads and Meta's fediverses will having a very hard time countering – but also are hopefully candid about weaknesses that need to be addressed.

It's a long list, so I'll be spreading out over multiple posts (and updating this one as well, so it eventually has the complete discussion).  

Some of these strategies will also work well for Meta's fediverses – and in the Bluesky ecosystem as well

Of course, the free fediverses aren't the only ones who should be thinking strategically. Embrace, Extend, and Exploit and Jason Velazquez' Copy, Acquire, Kill, and Darnell Clayton's Facebook Fears The Fediverse. Here’s How Instagram Will Try To Conquer It (EEE!!!!) look at what Meta is up to.  At least so far, I haven't seen much about strategy for instances joining Meta's fediverses – or for app, infrastructure, and service businesses (including large corporarations like Wordpress, Flipboard, Fastly, Vivaldi, and Mozilla). While they'll all benefit from a likely influx of funding, wave of press attention, and help from Meta, they're all in a challenging position longer-term, especially since Meta is likely to screw them over as soon as it become expedient (just as they always do). So there huge opportunities, significant challenges, big unknowns, and a complex, fast-evolving landscape. A good time to think strategically!

Many of these strategies will also work well for instances – or alliances of instances – in Meta's fediverses. There are likely to be a lot of hate groups and hate speech on Threads, so instances that prioritize privacy and safety are likely to be a lot more attractive than Threads (or than instances that don't prioritize privacy and safety). Accessibility and the ability to move between instances are just as important for people and instances who want to communicate with Threads they are for people who don't. Today's Mastodon-centricity needs to change.  Others may not apply directly, but are still worth taking into account.

And variations on many these strategies are likely to apply in the Bluesky ecosystem as well, while others highlight strengths (they're not Meta, it's easier to move between instances), weaknesses (safety), and potential opportunities (could networked communities work on AT Proto?). In the short term, Bluesky's going to have some significant bumps as they open up registrations, but there's a huge opportunity so once again now's a good time to think strategically.

But this series is long enough as it is, so I'll be focusing primarily on the free fediverse's perspectives in this series.

The Meta logo, with a red circle and slash on top.  Say no to Meta!

Opposition to Meta and surveillance capitalism is an appealing position. Highlight it!

The free fediverses' most important natural advantage over Meta is that they are not Meta.  Nobody trusts Meta, and for good reason.  Many feel even more strongly, thanks to Facebook and Instagram's history of helping genocides, coddling hate groups, making money by targeting teen girls with harmful content, manipulating people's emotions, data harvesting, and breaking the law. And it's not just Meta that people don't trust; after Twitter's transformation into a hellscape and machine for fascism, Reddit's attack on their moderators and third-party developers, Google's deterioration, Amazon's abuse of its workers, etc etc etc, people are looking for alternatives to surveillance capitalism in general.

So the free fediverses' positioning of "fuck Meta, and fuck surveillance capitalism" is likely to resonate with a lot of people.

Of course, even though nobody trusts Meta, most of us still want to communicate with some people on Threads.  Meta's fediverses' positioning of "we don't trust them and they're evil but working with them a little is the only way to communicate with people there and we'll do our best to limit the risks" is also likely to be attractive to many people.4  Having yet another account is a hassle (although with luck apps may emerge to make it less of a hassle over time), so some may stick with Meta's fediverses, or with Threads. And many people who make their home in the free fediverses (including me!) are likely to have other accounts for now – on Threads, or in Meta's fediverses – just as many do today on Facebook, Instagram, Xitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, and other surveillance capitalism social networks.

That's okay!  As Framasoft says about PeerTube's relationship to YouTube and Twitch, the free fediverses are an alternative to surveillance capitalism. A lot of people want as much as possible of their online life to be in an environment that minimizes their exposure to hate groups, racism, and transphobia – or don't want any of their data federated to Meta. That's the free fediverses' core audience.

A highway sign, in the shape of an arrow, with the word Consent.
"People on the Fediverse chose not to federate with gab or truthsocial. They and their admins chose to exercise their freedom of association to not federate with those networks."

– Esther Payne, in Consent and the fediverse

As Anil Dash has pointed out, consent is a key (often-unstated value) in the fediverse. The firestorm over the summer over an early opt-out version of Mastodon's new search functionality is a good example of how passionately people care; it was strong enough that Mastodon's BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) Eugen Rochko reconsidered his original support for the non-consensual implementation, which then evolved to an opt-in consensual approach.  

Meta, by contrast, has thrived by exploiting data gathered without consent. So this is a great opportunity for the free fediverses to highlight the contrast with Threads. Meta's horrible track record on privacy, and their unwillingness to act against harassment, hate speech, and hate groups, create other great opportunities for the free fediverses.

That said, the free fediverses will need to do some work to capitalize on this opportunity. Mastodon and today’s fediverse are unsafe by design and unsafe by default, there's very little privacy on most of today's fediverse, and the commitment to consent is intermittent. Mastodon's documentation, for example, describes consent-based allow-list federation as "contrary to Mastodon’s mission."5 Mastodon also approves follower requests by default without asking for consent. Hmm. Even if you're not an expert on online privacy and safety, which sounds better to your: "Nazis and terfs can't communicate with me unless I give my permission" or "Nazis and terfs can harass me and see my followers-only posts until I realize it's happening and say no"?

The good news is that many fediverse platforms support consent-based approaches to federation. PeerTube, for example, has an option for manual approval of federation requests. Akkoma, GoToSocial, and even Mastodon (despite its philosophical objections) all support "allow-list" federation.6 PixelFed recently added the ability to make federation with Threads opt-in for individual users.

There aren't yet a lot of good tools to make consent-based federation convenient scalable, but that's starting to change. Instance catalogs like The Bad Space and Fediseer, and emerging projects like the FIRES recommendation system. FSEP's design for  an"approve followers" tool, could also easily be adapted for approving federation requests. ActivityPub spec co-author Erin Shepherd's suggestion of "letters of introduction" could also work well at the federation level.  The "fedifams" and carcoles I'll discuss in an upcoming installment are also an intriguing path forward.  So while things might be a big awkward in the short term, this too shall pass.

Adding individual opt-in federation consent to existing software should be fairly straightforward. In fact, most fediverse platforms other than the mainline Mastodon code base already have the concept of local-only posts that don't federate – and the Glitch and Hometown Mastodon forks (variants) have had this functionality since 2017, it's just that Rochko has blocked this functionality from the main code base.  

And there are lots of other ways for the free fediverses to improve privacy and safety, some straightforward, others more complex. Changing the default to require approval for new followers is a one-line code change in Mastodon; adding functionality like FSEP sketches to provide more information to make a better decision about whether or not to approve is more work.  

On the privacy side, threat modeling Meta, the fediverse, and privacy (still a draft) goes into detail and includes a series of recommendations for developers and fediverse software projects for instance admins, fediverse developers and software projects, businesses, government agencies, civil society organizations, and funders. Improving privacy and safety in fediverse software is a concrete suggestion for a social threat modeling approach as the next step.

A network diagram showing nodes connected by lines in multiple colors

Emphasize networked communities

L. Rhodes' Just Nodes and Networked Communities and heat-shield.space's  The Two Camps of Mastodon discuss different views of decentralization on the fediverse.  Here's how Rhodes describes the Networked Communities view:

"instances are valuable for the relations and interactions they facilitate locally AND for their ability to connect you to other parts of the network."  

By contrast, Evan Prodromou notes that "Big Fedi" advocates typically see the instance as "mostly a dumb pipe," as opposed to a community. Rochko's November 2022 comments that the "ideal system" is one where "it doesn’t matter which server you use" make it clear which camp he's in (as so does his opposition to functionality like local-only posts that help make stronger local communities). And it's a perspective that 's likely to be the norm in Meta's fediverses, because of the prevailing "bigger is better" worldview.

But "bigger is better" is a worldview that inherently favors gigantic surveillance capitalism companies, so it's not the right model for the free fediverses. The Networked Communities view aligns much better with the free fediverses' values – as does the "Social Archipelago" view Leonora Tindall sketches in The Fediverse is Already Dead (originally written February 2023)

"Speak instead about communities, and prioritize the strength of those communities. Speak about the way those communities interact, and don’t; the way they form strands and islands and gulfs."

And not only are these views a good match for the free fediverses' values, they're a good strategy.  People who want the flat view without local communities have plenty of other options; and at least in the short term the free fediverse's network is almost certain to be smaller than Threads' and Meta's fediverses'. So strategically it makes a lot more sense to differentiate and focus on providing a different kind of value.7

How to execute on this strategy? Tindall's got several good suggestions, including

  • Take inspiration from communities like Merveilles Town that define a unique and cohesive local culture.
  • Accept the Archipelago. Don’t try to connect to every server there is; some of them definitely contain content you and your users don’t want to see, and many of them probably don’t want your users interacting with theirs. Have a set of policies about who you federate with, and stick to them.
  • If you don’t see a space in the Archipelago that looks good to you, consider making one. There’s some great starting advice at RunYourOwn.Social.

Other strategies I discuss – especially consent-based federation and supporting concentric federations of instances – also align well with this strategy.

Don't forget cross-instance communities!

It's unfortunate that instances are currently the only community mechanism for Mastodon.  Fortunately, other fediverse software has the concept of cross-instance groups (and it's on the Mastodon roadmap as well) which are also a good basis for communities. Lemmy even calls these "communities" (although they currently only have public communities), and an emerging fediverse standard already allow some communications with Mastodon – and almost all Lemmy instances are blocking Threads. Mobilizon and Streams groups go farther, including private discussions

Outside the fediverse, subreddits, the broad adoption of Facebook Groups (and before that, MySpace groups), and the ongoing strength of forums highlights the potential. Forum software is starting integrate with the fediverse – Discourse has released an initial plugin, and nodebb recently got a grant from NLNet – so this is an intriguing area to build on going forward.

Concentric circles, each made up of multiple circles, in multiple bright colors

Support concentric federations of instances

"To lighten the load of potentially having to federate with small instances one-by-one, I propose a system called "caracoles": you essentially ask to join concentric federations of instances ... with smaller caracoles able to vote to federate with entire other caracoles."

– Kat Marchán, on toot.cat
"The fedifam would be a family or alliance of instances. Communities could align into fedifams based on whatever conditions of identity, philosophy or interest are relevant to them. Instances allied into fedifams could share resources and mutually support each other in many ways"

– ophiocephalic, on kolektiva.social

Some kind of federation between instances is a natural extension of the Networked Communities and Social Archipelago models.  The idea of alliances or groupings has been floating around the fediverse for a long time (I first heard it from toot.cat's original admins at the Federating with the Trouble presentation at Open Source Bridge in 2017) but unfortunately, the highest-profile federation of instances to date was largely seen as an attempt by instances that tolerate harassment to trick other instances into supporting them. Oh well.  Still, the underlying idea's a good one – and a natural match for a community-focused, anti-surveillance capitalism free fediverses.

As both Marchán and ophiocephaic highlight, caracoles or fedifams help deal with the scalability of consent-based federation.  For example, ophiocephalic suggests that

"Fedifams could form treaties of trust with each other, easing the introduction of new instances into the broader network. This would become especially important if, as some are suggesting, a complete block of Facebook and its collaborator instances requires a switch from blocklists to allow-lists."

An initial implementation of concentric federations could be build on top of today's fediverse platforms that have some support for consent-based federation – including Mastodon.

This approach has many other potential benefits as well. ophiocephalic notes that fedifams could also share a common charter of moderation principles, blocklists or allow-lists, resources (such as video and podcast hosting and an opt-in search engine), and hosting infrastructure.  Several of these ideas don't even require additional software support at the platform level. Going farther, in Threat modeling Meta, the fediverse, and privacy I note that fedifams and caracoles "could also be potential post visibility boundaries, providing more alternatives to fully public posts." This would require more changes to the underlying software, although Akkoma's "bubble" already has some of these characteristics.

Once you start to think about it, there are a lot of other potential benefits. For example, concentric federations could also be a useful framework for dealing with conflicts between instances, a long-standing challenge for the fediverse. And the "missing replies" problem (where quirks of ActivityPub's federation model means that people frequently don't see an entire conversation) seems like it's much more tractable at the fedifam/caracol level than globally.

What about federated cross-instance communities?

As discussed above, cross-instance communities are a useful complement to instanced-based communities, so it's also worth looking at how cross-instance communities fit into concentric federation. Reddit's multireddits (a combined feed from multiple reddits) are a small step in this direction on a centralized social network, and there have already been requests for similar Lemmy functionality ("supercommunities"). That said, it's still an open question how cross-instance communities fit into concentric federations, so this is more an interesting area to consider than a specific short-term recommendation.

If I can just get political here for a second ...

It's worth highlighting that both Marchán's and ophiocephalic's suggestions have explicitly political overtones. Marchán's highlights that name caracol "comes from the system of federations that make up the Zapatista MAREZ", and ophiocephalic similarly notes that "critical to the understanding and acceptance of this model is the horizontal distribution of power ... consistent with both the Zapatista and Rojava programs."

By contrast, companies like Meta, and surveillance capitalism in general, centralize power.  So an organization emphasizing a more horizontal distribution of power is a good match for the free fediverses' values – and aligns well with the positioning of opposing Meta and surveillance capitalism.

Brown cardboard moving boxes on the floor, with a person beneath them whose legs and are sticking out

Make it easier to move between (and create) instances

There's likely to be a lot of moving between instances as people and instances sort themselves out into the free fediverses and Meta's fediverses. Additional waves are likely as well: if and when Threads turns on federation for hate accounts, whenever Meta-related scandals and abuses get publicity, and perhaps as concentric federations of instances emerge in the free fediverses.

Unfortunately, moving accounts on the fediverse today isn't a particularly good experience.  To start with, unless you already know what instance you want to go it, it's not easy to choose one.  Fedi Garden, the Join the Fediverse wiki, and other sites have useful curated lists of instances, you can look up wither an instance federates with Meta on fedipact.veganism.social, and instance catalogs like The Bad Space and Fediseer have information about instances that are blocked or limited ... but even if you know about all those sites, it's a lot of work. (July 2023's How to choose the right Mastodon instance? has more on this.)

And once you've picked a new instance, Erin Kissane describes in Notes From a Mastodon Migration, it can be a messy and "hair-raising" process to move your account over. Mastodon's account migration documentation is very limited; Cutie City's Migrating Server guide and FediTips' Transferring your Mastodon account to another server are much more helpful, but relatively few people know about them.

To be fair, when it works, "account migration" in the fediverse today is a lot better than nothing. On Mastodon, for example, most of your followers will transfer automatically, and you can export and then re-import your follows, bookmarks, mutes and blocks. That's good! Software like Firefish and Catodon also allows post migration, which is even better. But Mastodon doesn't: none of your posts are moved. And no matter what software you're using, followers may disappear, and people who have "approve followers" turned on will need to re-approve your requests. Not only that, it doesn't always work. I've seen moves go very badly, with people losing most or all of their connections.

So now's a good time to for the free fediverses to make the experience better.9

Even without software improvements, good documentation and support for people who run into problems can help a lot.  A well-curated wiki or website with the kinds of links I've included here is a good first step. Onboarding sessions and "office hours" – as videoconferences, conference calls, or as discussions on a hashtag – could be a very helpful complement.  So could one or more hashtags, Lemmy communities, and KBin magazines to provide support – or a forum, once forum software like NodeBB integrates with the fediverse.

The newcomer experience doesn't have to stop when people set up an account. There's a lot of value in helping people find out about mysterious-but-useful settings, resources like FediTips, and suggestions for who to follow that go beyond the mostly-white mostly-male lists that are the norm in today's fediverse. The onboarding sessions, office hours, hashtags, communities, magazines, and forums from the previous paragraph could handle this as well. Versions of the Mastodon Migration account that have a broader scope (not just Mastodon) and are run by an intersectional teams and/or focus on specific marginalized perspectives10 could also be very useful.

And the software can be improved! It would be great if the underlying platforms do a better job at this. Mastodon CTO Renaud Chaput recently said it's on their roadmap, which is encouraging;3 that said, it doesn't currently appear in the in-progress, planned, or exploring sections of the public roadmap, so we'll see how long it takes. Fortunately, software improvements don't have to be part of the platform. Tokyo Outsider's Mastodon Content Mover, while currently still at an early stage, highlights the progress a single independent enthusiast can make.  

Longer term, there's a lot more that can be done here – Account portability in the social web is a good overview of some of the potential directions, and Evan Prodromou's notes for a SWICG portability report are also useful. That said, people who want to move now can't wait for the long-term solution, so this is a good area to make progress on in the short term as well.

It should be easier to create, customize, and connect instances too!

The "networked communities" and "social archipelago" views of the fediverse are best served by having lots of smaller instances, with different norms, cultuers, and vibes. Having lots of smaller instances (including single-person instances) is also a great way to distribute power. Today, hosting providers make it easy for even people without technical skills to get an instance up and going, which is great; and most software platforms have instructions for how to self-host for people how have (or willing to learn) basic UNIX sysadmin skills. That's good! That said, there's a lot of room for improvement.

For one thing, the instructions often only cover the mechanics of getting the instance set up and leave out key aspects of actually getting to a usable system. For example:

  • Mastodon's default setup will accept all federation requests, and doesn't install any blocklists, so new instances are by default left open to harassment from nazis, transphobes, or anybody else.  And Mastodon's installation currently doesn't enable authorized fetch, which needs to be turned on to make blocking more effective.
  • Many Lemmy admins find Fediseer indispensible for helping to manage spam attacks, but good luck finding any mention of Fediseer on the Lemmy install page.
  • Wordpress' fediverse plugin lets you post, but not reply to other posts – you'll need to install another plugin for that.
  • Small instances often rely on relays to improve connections to the broader fediverse.  Which relays to use?

As with moving between instances, there's a lot of progress possible even without software improvements. A curated, easily-findable wiki or site with detailed writeups like How to Set Up ActivityPub for Self-Hosted WordPress Sites as well as video tutorials is a good first step. Many people prefer video tutorials, so tMany platforms' developers are already helpful to new admins (especially if you know the right chat rooms to join), but additional upport mechanisms like hashtags, Lemmy communities, office hours could also be useful.

That said, straightforward software improvements – changing the defaults, giving people an option of allow-list federation or uploading an initial blocklist – could be quite helpful. And hosting providers today typically only provide limited options as to which platforms can be installed and how to configure it. While this is certainly understandable, it's also another area where progress needs to be made.

Stylized human figures in multiple colors in a circle holding hands and looking up at the sky

Work together with people and instances in Meta's fediverses and on Bluesky whose goals and values align with the free fediverses

Indeed. Many of the Meta advocates I've talked to share the free fediverses' long-term goal of building a sustainable alternative to surveillance capitalism, and virtually all of them support federation with Threads despite the hate groups, racists, and fascists Threads hosts, not because of them.12  They just differ on tradeoffs of federating with Threads and think that the advantages of being able to communicate with people on Threads (including the targets of those hate groups, racists, and fascists) outweigh the downsides.  

So there are likely to be situations where some of the people and instances in Meta's fediverse wind up as situational allies to the free fediverses – and conversely. Alas, one big opportunity has already been missed: if the instance admins and influencers Meta initially approached had shown solidarity with the free fediverses, they could have had a lot of leverage. Oh well. But there are likely to be other opportunities – and not just related to Meta.

And the same is true for people on Bluesky. Concerns about their monetization plans and (racist) former Twitter CEO (and current anti-vax supporter) Jack Dorsey's involvement mean there's a lot to be skeptical about. But Bluesky's user base includes a lot of anti-racist, anti-surveillance capitalism, pro-LGBTQIA2S+ people who are there despite their skepticsm, and innovations like Rudy Fraser's BlackSky custom feed could be very useful in the free fediverses as well. So there are a lot of natural allies for the free fediverses – especially since some (although certainly not all) of the loudest voices in Meta's fediverses view Bluesky's (non-ActivityPub compatible) ATProto as a competitor that needs to be stomped out.

What to work together on?

Natural areas to start working together on include several of strategies I discuss here like consensual and concentric federation, making it easier to move between and create instances, and reducing the dependency on Mastodon and ActivityPub. While I've focused on the value of these to the free fediverses, they're all potentially very useful for instances in Meta's fediverses as well.  If and when Bluesky gets serious about decentralization there are similarly likely to be parallels and synergies.

Here are a few other areas where collaboration could be very useful:

  • A key principle of organizing is meeting people where they are. There's likely to be wide (although not universal) support in Meta's fediverses and Bluesky. for causes like LGBTQIA2S+ rights and privacy in Meta's fediverses as well as the free fediverses; and Meta's fediverses potentially gave access to the much larger audience on Threads as well.13  Activism against bad internet bills that harm LGBTQIA2S+ people – like KOSA, which Congress is likely to resume work on this year – and privacy activism in general are good areas for cooperation.  And democracy is widely (although again not universally) popular in the fediverses.  In the US, the upcoming 2024 election offers a great opportunity for non-partisan voting rights organizing and activism – and there are a lot of other vital elections around the world.
  • Moderation on decentralized networks is a shared challenge. Practices, policies, and tools that support intersectional moderation; tools like Block Party and Filter Buddy that let users protect themselves individually and collectively; and tools for moderators to share information and collectively respond when attacks are launched (by spammers or harassers) ... these are all valuable to instances no matter what region they're in – and potentially across social networks.  Sharing blocklists (of instances and individuals) and recommended allow-lists between the free fediverses and like-minded instances in Meta's fediverses are a straightforward first step.
  • Bringing concepts similar to Bluesky's custom feeds to the fediverses, and more generally focusing on human-focused and liberatory (as opposed to oppressive) uses of algorithms in decentralized social networks designed from the margins. There are amazing algorithmic justice and social network experts in the fediverses and in Bluesky so lots of potential synergies.
  • Meta's fediverses, Bluesky, and the free fediverses are all vulnerable to disinformation. As Kissane discusses in Meta in Myanmar, "adversaries will take advantage of decentralized social networks," and the fediverses are very tempting targets, so there's a shared interest in developing techniques to limit and counter disinformation. And Meta makes a lot of money by tolerating and amplifying disinformation, so the free fediverses (more insulated from Threads) are a natural base to organized anti-disinfo campaigns that also encompass Meta's fediverse and Threads – as well as other networks that connect to the fediverse.

To be clear, I'm not saying it always makes sense to work with people and instances in Meta's fediverses. In some cases, it's likely to turn out that Meta's captured them so effectively that this isn't a useful direction. Attempts to work with the SWICG standards body, may turn out to be a waste of time and energy as long as key members obsequiously defer to Meta.  And if instances in Meta's fediverse rely on Meta's racist (and privacy invasive) automated moderation tools to limit disinfo, cooperation on some areas related to be could be harder. Still, there are likely to be other situations where working together does make sense.

Consider "transitive defederation" from instances that federate with Meta

Two disconnected networks of multi-colored dots connected by lines.  The network on the right has a big Meta logo.

In Why block Meta?, FediPact creator Vanta Black highlights that one of the main reasons is to "protect the existing communities of marginalized people on the fediverse, many of whom rely on it to survive."  With today's software, transitive defederation – blocking any instance that directly or indirectly federates with Meta – provides even stronger protection. The fediverse has a long tradition of transitive defederation. Derek Caelin's Decentralized Networks vs The Trolls, for example, quotes mastodon.technology's admin Ash Furrow describing a transitive defederation of far-right social network Gab, as "a necessary step, since through them negative content might seep into the instance he maintains."

That said, Meta isn't Gab, so there's a lot less agreement on whether or not to federate with Meta than there was with Gab – and transitive defederation is always controversial.  Two things are true simultaneously:

  • Plenty of people and instances that are likely to wind up in the free fediverses have important relationships with people and instances in Meta's fediverses that they will want to keep.
  • Unless and until software evolves significantly – and there's a detailed threat model looking carefully at other potential avenues for indirect harassment – it's likely that many instances in the free fediverses are likely to choose to transitively defederate for safety reasons. And even if the software improves, many instances may still want to transitively defederate because they want to keep their fediverse as far away as possible from white supremacists and hate groups.  

So even in the free fediverses transitive defederation from Meta's fediverses isn't likely to be an all-or-nothing thing. Tradeoffs are different for different people and instances. Especially if the software improves, some instances in the free fediverses are likely to decide that the federation with well-moderated instances in Meta's fediverse outweigh the risks. Others want to be as far away as possible; transitive defederation is always going to be safer for them. In Untangling Threads, Kissane suggests that operating "from a server that federates only with servers that also refuse to federate with Threads" is one way to get "the nearest thing to reasonably sturdy protection for people on fedi who have good reason to worry about the risk surface Threads federation opens up." 14  

At the end of the day, each instance in the free fediverses will make the decision on their own.  So the key recommendation here is that instances should consider transitive defederation: discuss it, and decide what to do.

I've got some thoughts below on how to have the disucssion but first I want to emphasize that from a strategy perspective, partial transitive defederation is a very good thing for the free fediverses.

A few thoughts on strategy  

Since there's a range of opinions and tradeoffs, the most likely outcome is that we'll see multiple subregions of the free fediverses:

  • Some will transitively defederate
  • Others will continue to federate with some instances in Meta's fediverses.  

To me this is a strength of the fediverse: different people can get more of what they want. Of course, it's also kinda imperfect and messy and complex.  For one thing, many people on transitively defederated instances will have accounts on more-connected instances: subregions of the free fediverses that federate with some instances in Meta's fediverse, Meta's fediverses, Threads. Hopefully tools will improve to make it easier to deal with that, and we may well see other ways emerge for people in transitively-defederated instances to communicate with people in Meta's fediverses ... at least in the short term, though, it'll be a hassle. Still, however much transitive defederation there winds up being, I see it as overall as a positive thing.

Then again, opinions differ. In Getting Tangled Up in Threads, for example, Sean Tilley of We Distribute notes that many people see these concerns as "hysteria" that could lead to a massive fragmentation of the Fediverse, "effectively doing Meta’s job for free."   It's a good observation, but the people who think that are wrong on both fronts. The concern isn't "hysteria" – and it's anti-LGBTQIA2S+ for cis people to describe it that way. And from a strategy perspective, to whatever extent transitive defederation happens, it's likely to help the free fediverses more than it helps Meta:

  • It sharpens the distinction between the free fediverses – instances prioritize safety over "openness" and reach – and most other social networks today
  • It puts the free fediverses on a path for being the best place for LGBTQIA2S+ people and others at risk from hate groups, vigilantes, and stalkers on Meta

A lot of the strongest langauge about (and fear of) transitive defederation come from people who a "bigger is better" view of the fediverse and generally dislike the idea of communities setting their own norms.  As Kissane observes, many people see an allow-list approach (consent-based federation, which is necessary for transitive defederation) as controversial and less "open." It's a good example of Christina Dunbar-Harris's point in Hacking Diversity that the "interpretations and norms of openness on which open source rests" often run counter to the goal of providing more safety.

It's true that a lot of people prefer what they see as "openness" to safety, and Meta's fediverses may well be a better option for them than the free fediverses. But there are lots of people who don't prefer that, and right now they don't have a lot of other options.

Have the discussion!

Just to reiterate, the recommendation here is to consider transitive defederation: discuss it, and decide what to do. And as you're having the discussion, pay a lot of attention to what voices you're hearing – and what voices and perspectives you aren't hearing.

Cis people, white people, guys, and people who work for or Meta or other big tech companies are likely to have different perspectives than trans, queer, and non-binary people, BIPOC and other people of color, women, and people who have (or have friends or relaties who have) been harmed by Meta or other big tech companies. Of course no commuity is monolithic ... opinions differ!

So it's critical to listen to diverse voices and taking those perspectives into account when a discussion needs to be made. It's hard to know just when that will be – a lot depends on how quickly Meta provides federation more broadly and what if any agreements they put in place once two-way federation starts – but in any case, now's a good time to start the discussion.

Where to discuss?  On the fediverse, of course! For global discussions, the hashtag #TransitiveDefederation is long but a decent starting point. Start up a community on Lemmy and magazine on Kbin, start having video discussions on PeerTube and schedule them as events on Mobilizon, and instances across the fediverse could get involved.

And it's also something instances should discuss amongst themselves.  Local-only posts are great for this if you're on an instance that runs Glitch, Hometown, Akkoma, Friendica, Misskey ... if your instance uses Mastodon, you're out of luck, now's a good time to ask your instance admin to shift to a fork that does support them and try to convince the main Mastodon software team to provide this functionality.

A lot of instances also have a non-fediverse discussion and decision/making platform: on Matrix, Discord. Loomio, Github discussions, whatever. Those are better in some ways for some kinds of discussions so if they work well for you instance then by all means keep using them – but they are also potentially exclusionary, so make sure to have a lot of discussion and allow participation in decision-making for people on the fediverse as well.

Now's a natural time for federations of instances to emerge and as that happens they will probably want a space where they can discuss among themselves.  A federated private group could be a good answer for that but alas this isn't something that exists on most fediverse platforms today.  Longer-term, this points for a way for the software to evolve (a new visibility level scoped to a federation of instances is another example) but in the short term options like a new instance that everybody gets another account on (sigh, I know) or a non-fediverse platform that everybody gets another account on will fill the gap.

Stay tuned for more!

The next installments in Strategies for the free fediverses will discuss working with people in Meta's fediverse and other social networks who share the free fediverses' value – and "transitive defederation": defederating instances that federate with Threads as well as threads.  Transitive defederation's a controversial topic and I'm not necessarily recommending it – but I am recommending considering it, so I expect . And there's a long way to go after that, so stay tuned!

To see new installments as they're published, follow @thenexusofprivacy@infosec.exchange or subscribe to the Nexus of Privacy newsletter.

Notes

1 The plural form ("Meta's fediverses" and "free fediverses") is because there are also likely to be splits and schisms within these regions. For example, most of the large Mastodon instances are eager to federate with Meta, and so are far-right instances like noagendasocial and spinster, but the long-existing schism between far-right instances and the rest of the fediverse isn't going away.

2 If you're thinking "wow, I can't picture any fediverse instances wanting ads, let alone harvesting data on Meta's behalf to target ads", think again. Fediverse software platforms like Misskey lave long supported ads, and so do platforms and apps like Wordpress, Discourse, and Flipboard that are just starting to integrate. Fediverse influencers like Evan Prodromou see ads as inevitable, and it's just a hop skip and a jump from having ads to wanting to target ads and for people who want to target ads efficiently, who better to work with than Meta, with their reams and reams of data on most people whether or not they've got a Threads account? Of course, many people in today's fediverse see the ad-free nature as a big plus, but many people don't mind ads, and many of the instances in Meta's fediverses will want to take advantage of the business opportunity.

3 I'm using LGBTQIA2S+ as a shorthand for lesbian, gay, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, bi, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, agender, two-sprit, and others who are not straight, cis, and heteronormative. Julia Serrano's trans, gender, sexuality, and activism glossary has definitions for most of terms, and discusses the tensions between ever-growing and always incomplete acronyms and more abstract terms like "gender and sexual minorities". OACAS Library Guides' Two-spirit identities page goes into more detail on this often-overlooked intersectional aspect of non-cis identity.

4Meta's fediverses are collectively betting that a lot of people want a Meta-adjacent option, with some communication with people on Threads in return for some but not all of their data federated to Meta's surveillance capitalism system, and (hopefully) good-enough moderation that the hate groups, racism, and transphobia aren't as bad as Threads. And they may well be right! But even if they are, that complements the free fediverses.

5 As Erin Kissane points out in Untangling Threads, many people see an allow-list approach is controversial as less "open" – a good example of Christina Dunbar-Harris's point in Hacking Diversity that the "interpretations and norms of openness on which open source rests" often run counter to the goal of providing more safety. When Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri announced Threads' plans to make federation opt-in (consent-based) for individual users, Rochko immediately criticized the decision to provide more privacy and safety to Threads users. How sad is it that (at least in this case) Instagram's CEO appears to understand consent better than the CEO of Mastodon gGmbH? But Mastodon's warning that allow-list approach is "contrary to Mastodon’s mission of decentralization" – which is clearly nonsense (it's just as decentralized whether or not a federation request is accepted by default) – is consistent with Rochko's "bigger is better" worldview, and he's far from the only fediverse influencer who feels that way.

6 Although Mastodon's implementation is very hacky, and largely separate from its standard blocklist-based federation implementation. Oh well. So, some refactoring is required, but it's clearly doable.

7 Meta's fediverses probably also won't be able to compete with Threads on this. Threads plan to make federation opt-in is the right thing to do from a privacy and safety perspective, but also means that people in Meta's fediverses won't be able to communiate with most of the people on Threads. And Meta has the option of adding communication between Threads and the billions of people on other networks like Instagram (which already shares the same infrastructure), Facebook, and WhatsApp. Longer-term, it seems to me that this is likely to be a huge challenge for Meta's fediverses, but fediverse influencers supporting federating with Meta have various arguments why it doesn't matter.

9 If Meta's fediverses want to have any chance of competing with Threads longer term, now's also a good time for them to make the experience better, but who knows whether that'll happen.

10 and unlike the current Mastodon Migration account, avoids posts that reinforce Mastodon's reputation as a hostile place for people of color.

11 As I've noted in the past, since Mastodon's software is controlled by Mastodon gGmbH (which also runs by far the largest instance, and one that new arrivals are now signed up for by default) there's been very little incentive to invest in making it easier for people to leave. Hopefully, though, Chaput's statement signals a change in attitude!

12 Although some of the hate purveyors on today's fediverse very much do like the idea of federating with Meta -- one well-known anti-trans bigot was so upset is so upset that Threads has blocked his instance that he implemented block-evasion software -- and presumably the hate groups there are part of the attraction for them.

13 Of course, Meta has a long track record of hostilitiy to activism, so we'll see how much access Meta actually gives for activists in Meta's fediverse to reach people on Threads. Clay Shirky and I got into a debate about this after his closing keynotes at the 2008 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, and while I was right in the short term – activism on Facebook played an important role in Obama's success in 2008 – his prediction that Facebook would find ways to shut down activism also proved correct. Still, if Meta follows through on their current plans, Meta's fediverses will probably have some access at least for a while if they work with cooperative accounts on Threads.

14 Why just blocking Meta’s Threads won’t be enough to protect your privacy once they join the fediverse and the (much longer) Threat modeling Meta, the fediverse, and privacy (DRAFT) come to similar conclusions about the value of transitive defederation with current software – and the latter has suggestions about how to improve it.

Image credits

Strategy by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images via Picpedia.org

Say no to Meta originally from Meta Platforms Inc. Logo, via Wikipedia

Consent by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images, via Picpedia.org

Networked Communities originally from Internet Map 1024, via Wikipedia

Concentric circles by Vectorportal.com,  CC BY

Person in Black Leather Boots Lying on Brown Cardboard Boxes by cottonbro studio via Pexels

people working together by Isbg Six, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, via flickr