The Different Flavors of the Fediverse

Oct. 15, 2023 [technology] [libre]

ActivityPub has slowly been siphoning user capital away from giant corpo walled gardens, much to my delight. And like with many other free and open endeavors, the fediverse tends to emulate existing commercial platforms rather than produce formats of their own origination. Simply federating some SNS format under a libre development approach is no gaurantee that it will be free of the problems which that thing it is seeking to replace. The underlying issues of conventional SNS formats get conveyed into the newly minted fediverse clones.

Small minds discuss people

Small minds discuss people

I had made an honest attempt to try the most widely recognized ActivityPub brainchild, Mastodon (and Pleroma and Akkoma). It succeeds as a way to dump thoughts too inconsequantial to deserve a fully fleshed out writeup. It also succeeds at keeping tabs on a loosely knit group of likeminded folks, while maintaining reachability to outsiders. But the twitter inspired microblogging format suffers at an achilles heel: People are the nucleus of all activity.

On it, you “follow” people. Discussions (threads?) are all visible only according to one’s relational adjacency to other people. It lays a foundation for cultivating ego and personality cults. Those with more “followers” carry more clout, and so they grow armies of flying monkeys ready to step in at the first sign of offense to those in their “follow” list. I could even see it happening in myself! Even I wasn’t immune to becoming a flying monkey.

All of this may be water is wet tier revelations to anyone who has previously used a microblogging SNS (…okay, Twitter). But it is all new to myself, having never seen twitter and only hearing about it from afar. I’d only really remained with Pleroma for a few key individuals but, once they disappeared, I found my motivation to engage in such a space entirely sapped away. Microblogging is dumb and even “fixing” it with libre federated software isn’t enough to cleanse it of the dumb. Although for those who can happily call it home base without having to use centralized big tech, I am glad. It just isn’t for me.

Average minds discuss events

Average minds discuss events

Another brainchild of efforts around ActivityPub is Lemmy, the answer to the cesspool known as Reddit. At first glance, federation would seem to fix many of the ailments that arise from a centralized link aggregator. It is possible for “communities” to create a more amicable home at another instance, or to share the same name as a formerly created community rather than the former squatting the name. The fractured nature of federation limits the reach that would-be “power mods” might otherwise have. But, as with twitter-likes, the reddit-likes also suffer problems inherent to the format.

Lemmy is plagued with the familiar redditor behavior. One-liner zinger replies. “This. So much this!”. Meme comment chains. An undying adherence to the progressive flavor of political tribalism. You can take a redditor out of reddit, but it seems you can never take the reddit out of a redditor.

The group reinforcement mechanisms also remain. An upvote/downvote system remain in place to push content and comments up or out according to the majority consensus of the group (though I will concede that some Lemmy instances seem to disable votes affecting visibility(?)). Then there is the format itself: Link aggregation. Almost every discussion only exists as it relates to a link, usually to some news article. As soon as the news cycle moves on, those ephemeral discussions go dead. Contrast this with proper forums, where individual threads often live for weeks, months, sometimes years, even decades.

The link aggregator eternally suffers from a two minutes hate syndrome. “Hey, guys, here’s this event that outrages me, doesn’t it outrage you also?”. Even though people often call reddit and other link aggregators “forums”, and Lemmy is supposedly “forum” software, I think it is insulting to actual forums to suggest the two are somehow alike. I once ditched reddit for Voat but Voat also fell prey to the same mechanisms, only becoming a conservative flavored groupthink training camp rather than a progressive flavored groupthink training camp.

Again, I’m glad for anyone who has found a safe refuge in Lemmy, distancing themselves from the centralized dinosaur called reddit. But it isn’t my cup of tea.

Great minds discuss ideas

Great minds discuss ideas

When people post only a hyperlink and thread title to conventional forums, such as those running phpBB or Simple Machines, I’ve often refered to it as reddit posting. It is because these confused users seem to have been conditioned by link aggregator “forums” to treat more fully fledged forums in the same lazy ways. Luckily, they are the exception. Most old school forums to this day remain spaces to solve problems, weigh in with ideas, to learn more about fellow forumites and to share actual, useful information of consequence. Everyone gets a fair shot. Posts aren’t hidden or deranked for being unpopular. A user’s fame or reputation alone isn’t enough to carry an unsubstantiated idea. The pace is slow moving and measured, encouraging thoughtful replies rather than haughty quips.

The problem, however, is that conventional forums have yet to be federated. There is yuforium which is far from being completed. There is LemmyBB, which is basically just a phpBB skin frontend for Lemmy, so not a real solution. And this exascerbates another existing problem with conventional forums: they tend to be hyperfocused around a particular subject matter. One of the only large, general-purpose forums I have seen being city-data, which originally was hyperfocused but outgrew it’s narrow discussion range on population size alone. Forums often delegate more open ended discussion to off-topic sub forums, but that gives them an air of afterthought. And with pretty sparse population, at that.

So if you’re anything like me, you’re left with only a handful of options:

Given the circumstances, I’ll probably continue with the first strategy. Although I’ll admit to toying with the notion of spinning up a personal Lemmy instance so at least I can berate normies. But that’s a lot of shit to clutter my systems with (Lemmy uses rust, ew) just to be a helpful nuisance to somebody else. I could try to contribute to yuforium, but I’m more of a systems automation type of guy. As it is, paraMatrix is basically me feeling around in the dark. The measured approach would just be to remain patient and tactful, navigating around as best we can with what little we have at the moment.