[TL;DR: A long tail is needed for distributed technology to be sustainable I think, otherwise it’s just centralisation and single points of failure in a different form. A long tail means the bottom 80% take over 50% of a market, and the top 20% under 50%. Mastodon currently has over 85% of its participants in the top 20% of instances, and it’s worse than that as 77% of participants are in 0,7% of instances. Just 15% are in the bottom 80% of instances. There’s a power law distribution, but it’s not a long tail. What can Mastodon do to get there and to sustainability?]

On 6 October 2016 Mastodon was launched, and its originator Eugen Rochko looks back in a blogpost on the journey of the past two years.

I joined on 7 April 2017, 6 months after its launch, at the Mastodon.cloud instance. I posted some messages for a month, then fell quiet for half a year. A few messages last March, and then I started using it more frequently last month, in the run-up to figuring out how to run Mastodon for myself (which for now means a hosted solution, but still aiming for running it from the home router). It’s now part of my daily information diet, but no guarantee yet it will last, although being certain I have ‘my half’ of the conversation on a domain I own helps a lot towards maintaining worthwhile exchanges.

Eugen’s blogpost is rightfully proud of what has been accomplished. It’s not yet proof of the sustainability of federated solutions though as he suggests.

He shares a few interesting numbers about the usage of Mastodon. The median of the 3460 known instances is 8 users. In total there are 1.627.557 registered accounts. The largest instance has 415.941 members, while the top 3 together have 52% of users, meaning the number 2 and 3 average 215.194 accounts. The top 25 largest instances have 77% or 1.253.219 members, meaning that the numbers 4-25 average 18.495 users. As the median is 8 it means the smallest 1730 instances have at most 8*1730 = 13.840 users. It also means that the number 26 to number 1730 instances have at least 360.498 members, or an average of 211. This tells us there’s a Pareto power law distribution: the top 20% of instances hold at least 85% of users at the moment. That also means there is no long tail, just a stub that holds at most 15% of Mastodon users only. For a long tail to exist, the smallest 80% of instances should account for over 50% of users, or over three times more than the current number.

As the purpose of Mastodon is distribution, where federation allows everyone to connect regardless of their instances (sort of like e-mail), I think Mastodon can only be deemed sustainable if there is a true long tail. Meaning, that while the number of users goes up, the number of instances should go up at a faster rate. So that over 50% of all Mastodon users will be on the 80% smallest or even individual instances. In the current numbers we should be most interested in the 50% of instances that now have 8 or less users, and find out what drives those instances, so we may have many many more of them. We should also think about what a bigger-to-smaller-instances funnel for members can look like, not just leave it to chance. I think that the top 25 Mastodon instances, which is just 0.7% of the total, currently having 77% of all users is very problematic from a sustainability perspective. Because that level of concentration is completely at odds with the stated purpose of Mastodon: distribution.

Eugen Rochko in his anniversary posting points at a critical article from April 2017 in Mashable, implying that criticaster has been been proven wrong definitively. I disagree. While much of the ‘predictions’ in that article are indeed silly, it also contains a few hints as to where sustainability may be found. The criticaster doesn’t get federation (yet likely uses mail everyday), and complains about discovery (yet likely is relieved not all his personal e-mail addresses are to be found in Google). Yet if we can’t explain distribution and federation, and can’t or don’t communicatie how discovery works in such a setting then we won’t be able to make a long tail grow. For more people to adopt small or individual instance we need to bring the threshold for running your own instance way down, and then way down again. To the level of at most one click installing a script on any regular hosting service, and creating a first account.

Using open protocols, like ActivityPub which Mastodon supports, is key in getting more people out of walled gardens and silos, and on the open web. Tracking its adoption is a useful measure of success, but 2 years of existence is not a sign of sustainability at all. What Eugen Rochko has kicked off with Mastodon is valuable and very laudable, but we have barely started getting to where we need to be for it to stick.

2 reactions on “Mastodon Turned Two, Sustainability Not Yet In Sight

  1. From the recent posting on Mastodon and it currently lacking a long tail, I want to highlight a specific notion, and that’s why I am posting it here separately. This is the notion that tool usage having a long tail is a measure of distribution, and as such a proxy for networked agency. [A long tail is defined as the bottom 80% of certain things making up over 50% of a ‘market’. The 80% least sold books in the world make up more than 50% of total book sales. The 80% smallest Mastodon instances on the other hand account for less than 15% of all Mastodon users, so it’s not a long tail].
    To me being able to deploy and control your own tools (both technology and methods), as a small group of connected individuals, is a source of agency, of empowerment. I call this Networked Agency, as opposed to individual agency. Networked also means that running your own tool is useful in itself, and even more useful when connected to other instances of the same tool. It is useful for me to have this blog even if I am its only reader, but my blog is even more useful to me because it creates conversations with other bloggers, it creates relationships. That ‘more useful when connected’ is why distributed technology is important. It allows you to do your own thing while being connected to the wider world, but you’re not dependent on that wider world to be able to do your own thing.
    Whether a technology or method supports a distributed mode, in other words is an important feature to look for when deciding to use it or not. Another aspect is the threshold to adoption of such a tool. If it is too high, it is unlikely that people will use it, and the actual distribution will be very low, even if in theory the tools support it. Looking at the distribution of usage of a tool is then a good measure of success of a tool. Are more people using it individually or in small groups, or are more people using it in a centralised way? That is what a long tail describes: at least 50% of usage takes place in the 80% of smallest occurrences.
    In June I spoke at State of the Net in Trieste, where I talked about Networked Agency. One of the issues raised there in response was about scale, as in “what you propose will never scale”. I interpreted that as a ‘centralist’ remark, and not a ‘distributed’ view, as it implied somebody specific would do the scaling. In response I wrote about the ‘invisible hand of networks‘:

    “Every node in a network is a scaler, by doing something because it is of value to themselves in the moment, changes them, and by extension adding themselves to the growing number of nodes doing it. Some nodes may take a stronger interest in spreading something, convincing others to adopt something, but that’s about it. You might say the source of scaling is the invisible hand of networks.”

    In part it is a pun on the ‘invisible hand of markets’, but it is also a bit of hand waving, as I don’t actually had precise notions of how that would need to work at the time of writing. Thinking about the long tail that is missing in Mastodon, and thus Mastodon not yet building the distributed social networking experience that Mastodon is intended for, allows me to make the ‘invisible hand of networks’ a bit more visible I think.
    If we want to see distributed tools get more traction, that really should not come from a central entity doing the scaling. It will create counter-productive effects. Most of the Mastodon promotion comes from the first few moderators that as a consequence now run large de-facto centralised services, where 77% of all participants are housed on 0,7% (25 of over 3400) of servers. In networks smartness needs to be at the edges goes the adagium, and that means that promoting adoption needs to come from those edges, not the core, to extend the edges, to expand the frontier. In the case of Mastodon that means the outreach needs to come from the smallest instances towards their immediate environment.
    Long tail forming as an adoption pattern is a good way then to see if broad distribution is being achieved.
    Likely elements in promoting from the edge, that form the ‘invisible hand of networks’ doing the scaling are I suspect:

    Show and tell, how one instance of tool has value to you, how connected instances have more value
    Being able to explain core concepts (distribution, federation, agency) in contextually meaningful ways
    Being able to explain how you can discover others using the same tool, that you might want to connect to
    Lower thresholds of adoption (technically, financially, socially, intellectually)
    Reach out to groups and people close to you (geographically, socially, intellectually), that you think would derive value from adoption. Your contextual knowledge is key to adoption.
    Help those you reach out to set up their own tools, or if that is still too hard, ‘take them in’ and allow them the use of your own tools (so they at least can experience if it has value to them, building motivation to do it themselves)
    Document and share all you do. In Bruce Sterling’s words: it’s not experimenting if you’re not publishing about it.
    An adoption-inducing setting: Frank Meeuwsen explaining his steps in leaving online silos like Facebook, Twitter, and doing more on the open web. In our living room, during my wife’s birthday party.

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