Jerome Velociter has an interesting riff on how Diaspora, Mastodon and similar decentralised and federated tools are failing their true potential (ht Frank Meeuwsen).

He says that these decentralised federated applications are trying to mimic the existing platforms too much.

They are attempts at rebuilding decentralized Facebook and Twitter

This tendency has multiple faces
I very much recognise this tendency, for this specific example, as well as in general for digital disruption / transformation.

It is recognisable in discussions around ‘fake news’ and media literacy where the underlying assumption often is to build your own ‘perfect’ news or media platform for real this time.

It is visible within Mastodon in the missing long tail, and the persisting dominance of a few large instances. The absence of a long tail means Mastodon isn’t very decentralised, let alone distributed. In short, most Mastodon users are as much in silos as they were on Facebook or Twitter, just with a less generic group of people around them. It’s just that these new silos aren’t run by corporations, but by some individual. Which is actually worse from a responsibility and liability view point.

It is also visible in how there’s a discussion in the Mastodon community on whether the EU Copyright Directive means there’s a need for upload filters for Mastodon. This worry really only makes sense if you think of Mastodon as similar to Facebook or Twitter. But in terms of full distribution and federation, it makes no sense at all, and I feel Mastodon’s lay-out tricks people into thinking it is a platform.

This type of effect I recognise from other types of technology as well. E.g. what regularly happens in local exchange trading systems (LETS), i.e. alternative currency schemes. There too I’ve witnessed them faltering because the users kept making their alternative currency the same as national fiat currencies. Precisely the thing they said they were trying to get away from, but ending up throwing away all the different possibilities of agency and control they had for the taking.

Dump mimicry as design pattern
So I fully agree with Jerome when he says distributed and federated apps will need to come into their own by using other design patterns. Not by using the design patterns of current big platforms (who will all go the way of ecademy, orkut, ryze, jaiku, myspace, hyves and a plethora of other YASNs. If you don’t know what those were: that’s precisely the point).

In the case of Mastodon one such copied design pattern that can be done away with is the public facing pages and timelines. There are other patterns that can be used for discoverability for instance. Another likely pattern to throw out is the Tweetdeck style interface itself. Both will serve to make it look less like a platform and more like conversations.

Tools need to provide agency and reach
Tools are tools because they provide agency, they let us do things that would otherwise be harder or impossible. Tools are tools because they provide reach, as extensions of our physical presence, not just across space but also across time. For a very long time I have been convinced that tools need to be smaller than us, otherwise they’re not tools of real value. Smaller (see item 7 in my agency manifesto) than us means that the tool is under the full control of the group of users using it. In that sense e.g. Facebook groups are failed tools, because someone outside those groups controls the off-switch. The original promise of social software, when they were mostly blogs and wiki’s, and before they morphed into social media, was that it made publishing, interaction between writers and readers, and iterating on each other’s work ‘smaller’ than writers. Distributed conversations as well as emergent networks and communities were the empowering result of that novel agency.

Jerome also points to something else I think is important

In my opinion the first step is to build products that have value for the individual, and let the social aspects, the network effects, sublime this value. Value at the individual level can be many things. Let me organise my thoughts, let me curate “my” web, etc.

Although I don’t fully agree with the individual versus the network distinction. To me instead of just the individual you can put small coherent groups within a single context as well: the unit of agency in networked agency. So I’d rather talk about tools that are useful as a single instance (regardless of who is using it), and even more useful across instances.

Like blogs mentioned above and mentioned by Jerome too. This blog has value for me on its own, without any readers but me. It becomes more valuable as others react, but even more so when others write in their own space as response and distributed conversations emerge, with technology making it discoverable when others write about something posted here. Like the thermometer in my garden that tells me the temperature, but has additional value in a network of thermometers mapping my city’s microclimates. Or like 3D printers which can be put to use on their own, but can be used even better when designs are shared among printer owners, and used even better when multiple printer owners work together to create more complex artefacts (such as the network of people that print bespoke hand prostheses).

It is indeed needed to spend more energy designing tools that really take distribution and federation as a starting point. That are ‘smaller’ than us, so that user groups control their own tools and have freedom to tinker. This applies to not just online social tools, but to any software tool, and to connected products and the entire maker scene just as much.

6 reactions on “Tools Valuable On Their Own, More Valuable When Connected

  1. It was a beautiful morning, cycling along the canal in Utrecht, for the first IndieWebCamp. In the offices of about a dozen people found each other for a day of discussions, demo’s and other sessions on matters of independent web activities. As organisers Frank and I aimed to not just discuss the IndieWeb as such, but also how to tap into the more general growing awareness of what the silos mean for online discourse. To seek connection with other initiatives and movements of similar minded people.
    Frank’s opening keynote
    After Frank kicking off, and introducing the key concepts of IndieWeb, we did an introduction round of everyone there. Some familiar faces, from last year’s IndieWebCamp in Nürnberg, and from last night’s early bird dinner, but also new ones. Here’s a list with their (personal) websites.
    After intro’s we collectively created the schedule, the part of the program I facilitated.
    The program, transcribed here with links to notes and videos
    Halfway through the first session I attended, on the IndieWeb buidling blocks, an urgent family matter meant I had to leave, just as Frank and I were starting to prepare lunch.
    Later in the afternoon I remotely followed the etherpad notes and the live stream of a few sessions. Things that stood out for me:
    Federated Search
    Djoerd Hiemstra talked us through federated search. Search currently isn’t on the radar of indieweb efforts, but if indieweb is about taking back control, search cannot be a blind spot. Search being your gateway to the web, means there’s a huge potential for manipulation. Federated search is a way of trying to work around that. Interestingly the tool Djoerd and his team at Twente University developed doesn’t try to build a new but different database to get to a different search tool. This I take as a good sign, the novel shouldn’t mimic what it is trying to replace or defeat.
    This was an interesting discussion about how to discover new people, new sources, that are worthwile to follow. And how those tactics translate to indieweb tools. Frank rightly suggested a distinction between discovery, how to find others, and discoverability, how to be findable yourself. For me this session comes close to the topic I had suggested for the schedule, people centered navigation and personal information strategies. As I had to leave that session didn’t happen. I will need to go through the notes once more, to see what I can take from this.
    Sebastiaan took us all through the interplay of microsub servers (that fetch feeds), readers (which are normally connected to the feed fetcher, but not in the IndieWeb), and how webmention and micropub enable directly responding and sharing from your reader interface. This is the core bit I need to match more closely with my own information strategies. One element is that IndieWeb discussions assume sharing is always about online sharing. But I never only think of it that way. Processing information means putting it in a variety of channels, some might be online, but others might be e-mails to clients or peers. It may mean bookmarked on my blog, or added to a curated bookmark collection, or stored with a note in my notes collection.
    Day 2: building stuff
    The second day, tomorrow, is about taking little steps to build things. I will again follow the proceedings remotely as far a possible. But the notes of the sessions about reading, and discovery are good angles for me to start. I’d like to try to scope out my specs for reading, processing and writing/sharing in more detail. And hopefully do a small thing to run a reader locally to tinker.


  • Jerome Velociter ✱
  • Tanguy De Lestré

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