Sunday, November 20, 2022 - Silent Social Media Spring: The end of Centralization and the future of Federated everything
It's not often that spring starts in November, but Christmas came early this year with Elon Musk's ill-conceived acquisition of Twitter.com on October 27th. Incidentally there's nothing particularly special about that specific date, because the transition to a federated internet, and more broadly a "Federated Everything™" began a very long time ago. If you really wanted to trace the Social Media Spring back to its origin, you'd have to return all the way to the very roots of capitalism itself, because it's the inevitable collapse of the rapacious modern capitalistic system that will pave the way for our glorious federated future.
Social activity is the original oldest profession and it has been going on since the dawn of time. People need and want to communicate incessantly, but just like sex it was inevitable that any free, easy and genial human activity would become an easy target for the pathological members of society seeking to turn the joy of others into a generic fungible resource that can be extracted and hoarded in order to cause misery and grant arbitrary status. They found a way to game the system, and good for them, after all, if they were forced to participate in a society that didn't allow these little 'life hacks' they'd quickly go extinct.
Which brings us to the present. You see the "system" doesn't like being gamed, because at the end of the day the "system" is people, and people are smart and sensitive. Even when they're not smart they innately recognize on an instinctual level when they are being taken advantage of, exploited, used, and ultimately harmed. No matter how good or advanced the algorithm attempting to trick and lull them into complacency may be, the human brain will eventually start to connect the dots and realize on a subconscious level that something isn't right. And things aren't right my friends, we all know it.
Centralized social media in its current form is poison, it poisons society and it poisons our brains. That isn't the problem though, the problem is that this isn't an accident. As it turns out the intersection of the "social graph" and "profit" is pure poison. Bad social behaviors make money, bad mental health translates to vast fortunes for multinational corporations. These corporations know this and yet they continue, in fact they continue to refine and hone their weaponized algorithms to do maximum damage. Because they are incapable of empathy or compassion, and mandated to grow, but first and foremost because they are not people.
Social media was never meant for them, and therefore they do not belong. At its core social activity is merely the free and open exchange of information between people. This does not include, advertising, brands, celebrities, journalism, tracking, curating, ranking, analytics, monetization, or any of the other myriad of parasitic functions that have piggybacked on our social interactions. None of these additions are necessary, but it's the domain of motivation that I'd like us to look at more closely.
The simple rubric I use is this: is the motivation for a "feature" to facilitate the intrinsic value of social activity, or is it to arbitrarily increase activity, attract attention, or generate money?
Those are the three factors that are responsible for the vast majority of the toxicity found on centralized social media. Incidentally all social activity is inherently capable of triggering these three behaviors. The difference is that they are a consequence of the social activity, not the reason for it. The second critical element that we must consider is scale. All centralized social media has one thing in common: it is specifically designed to operate at the largest possible scale, and to grow indefinitely. Theoretically this allows for the greatest possible number of interactions within the network, but once again we must look at the motivation behind that.
Conventional social networks have no motivation to maximize their theoretical scale. The scale of a classical social interaction is typically small and involves a limited number of people. There is actually a simple formula to understand this phenomena: the ubiquity of information is inversely proportional to its social utility. The more generic a social action is the less value it has in a social network. This references information theory wherein networks act somewhat like brute-force computational engines, and unique meaningful combinations decrease as network power increases.
Unintuitively information uniqueness is inversely proportional to network size. Smaller networks create richer, more unique and nuanced information with a much higher personalized value. Which ultimately gets to the very heart of social activity: the genuine authentic purpose is never to make money, gain attention or incite activity, those are subversive social interactions. The purpose is to enjoy life. We socialize for the same reason we do many activities that involve more than one person, because we are social creatures who derive stimulation and pleasure from positive interactions with others.
Enter the federation. Fundamentally a federation is a loose knit group of individuals who still maintain their autonomy to some extent. I see this as a kind of macroscopic metaphor for an organic society. Wherein a person is a semi-autonomous individual, their digital counterpart is a node in a semi-individualized network that integrates with a larger more diverse federation on their behalf. This very closely mirrors a natural ecosystem, it's not geared to exploit or extract, it is geared to facilitate holistic well-being. The critical parallels are their persistence of autonomy and individuality, post translation from classical human to digital human.
When you join a centralized social network you loose the lion's share of both your autonomy and your individuality, in addition to becoming the "product" of the network. The giant "enjoy life" carrot on the stick is dangled in front of your face, and you gladly pull the cart wherever the network's algorithm tells you to go. In a federated network the "enjoy life" carrot rests in your own two hands, you decide where you go, and no one is leading you anywhere. Individuality is likewise a subtle but significant difference. On a centralized network everyone is a "user" subject to the same policies, controlled by the same formula.
On a federated network, Mastodon for example, each instance has its own set of rules, its own personality. Members voluntarily associate themselves with the clade that best represents their own sensibilities. Then these groups of like-minded "people" socialize openly on the fediverse. There's no algorithm determining who sees what, there's no artificial pressure to grow or make money, each individual person decides how they want to participate and on a larger level each instance decides what's internally permissible. For the attention seekers and agent provocateurs there's very little incentive or reward for bad behavior.
This entire mindset is an active and mindful response to the malaise of centralized social networks, and more broadly centralized thinking. In our modern society almost everything is centralized: government, energy, finance, food production, water treatment, waste management, the list goes on and on... But things are changing. We're at the beginning of a tectonic shift, and irreversible positive change that will literally rewrite every sector of society at every level. The collective unconscious has weighed in, society has determined that social media is broken, and now we're in the process of fixing it.
This is the first step in reformatting civilization. The human organism is stirring restlessly in its sleep like an even bigger sleeping giant, the long chaffing chains of late-stage capitalism are wearing thin, the oxidation of centuries of abuse and malfeasance, the corrosive rust of complacency has set the stage. Over the next few decades we will transition to a federated world, one where centralization takes up permanent residence where it belongs: backstage. None of the social maladies mentioned above are "going away", that's unrealistic. There will always be sociopaths and corporations, as long as there will be people.
But... They are going to be algorithmically demoted into irrelevance. Not by algorithms but by human beings, by individuals who are tired of being lured into one obvious grift after another. Society doesn't start out centralized, quite the opposite, it starts out decentralized. That's because centralization causes corruption and frailty, concentration eventually causes stagnation and collapse. It's not resilient and it's not robust, and most importantly it's not needed. There is nothing a centralized system can do that a decentralized system can't do better, faster and at a fraction of the cost.
And when those smaller distributed systems are linked loosely together into a federation, they become unstoppable.
Thank you for your time, and have a nice day.