In the noisy chaotic phase that Twitter Inc. is going through, I downloaded my data from them 2 weeks ago. Meanwhile in the Fediverse newcomers mention they appreciate how nice, pleasant and conversational things are.

It’s good to note that that is how Twitter started out too. In my network I felt I was late joining Twitter, this because I was using Jaiku (a similar, better I might add, service based in Europe). Sixteen years on that can be seen as early user. My user ID is number 59923, registered on Tuesday December 12th, 2006. Judging by the time, 10:36am, I registered during my regular 10:30 coffee break.

One minute later I posted my first message. It had ID 994313, so my Tweet was just within the first million messages on Twitter (the current rate seems to be over 800 million Tweets per day!). That first message mentioned the tool I was going to benchmark Twitter against: Jaiku.

What followed that first message was like how it was the past 4 years using Mastodon. A bunch of gentle conversations.

Back then everyone was nice, as you tend to be in public e.g. walking through a small village. Over time Twitter conversations tended towards “I need to win this exchange, even if I agree with my counterpart”. Argumentative. Performance above conversation. Performing in front of your own followers by enacting a conversation with someone else. The general tone of voice on Twitter (apart from the actual toxicity) is somewhat like the difference of posture you take in a metropolis versus a village. In a village you greet passersby, project an aura of approachability etc. In an urban environment you tend to pretend to not see others, are pro-active in claiming your physical space, alert that others don’t push you aside or further down the queue etc. Urban behaviour easily looks aggressive, and at the very least unnecessarily rude, in a village.

The past few weeks saw a massive influx of people from Twitter. Which is good. I also noticed that it felt a bit like city folk descending on some backwater. The general tone of voice, directness or terseness in phrasing, reflecting the character limit on Twitter, in contrast with the wider limits in Mastodon-village which allows both for more nuance and for, yes, politeness.
The contrast was felt both ways, as newcomers commented on how nice the conversations were, a breath of fresh air etc.

Quantitative changes, like a rising number of people using a specific communication channel, leads to qualitative changes. It did on Twitter. It will on Mastodon, despite the differences. In the fediverse some of that effect will be buffered by the tools individual users have on hand (blocking, blocking instances, moving instance or run your own, participate from your own website, e.g.). Meaning one can choose to ‘live’ in the middle of the metropolis, or on its outskirts where not many much frequent. But the effect will be there, also because there will be more tools built from other starting principles than the current tree of fediverse applications on top of the underlying ActivityPub protocol. Some will be counter those that underpin e.g. Mastodon, others will be aligned. But change it will.

It’s nice out here, but do regularly check the back of the package for the best-by date.

As the Internet is alive with the sounds of #twittermigration these past days, I returned to some earlier thoughts and ideas, w.r.t to both self-hosting fediverse instances, and mapping those on to the business network of my company.

The resulting question is, would a set-up like this work?

If our company would set-up their own fediverse instance (m.tgl.eu here, with accounts for our team). This gives all of our team a ‘verified’, because of the company url, presence as part of their current work. That doesn’t mean we can’t have other accounts (see @ton in the image). And others in our network would do the same (names of organisations for illustration purposes).
If we would run one instance together (samenhankelijk.nl here), that is a relay for all the instances of the organisations involved, and the instance for any individuals in our network (@w… here).
Then we would have a fediverse network of our company’s actual network, where it becomes easier to interact more frequently across the entire network, where discovery is possible because of the shared public timelines through the relay. It’s bounded by being a representation of an actual network, but open within that and based on the permissive boundaries the various organisations themselves have.

I’m not sure if this is how ActivityPub relays are meant to work or are useful, but that’s what I want to explore.
A few of those building blocks are easy to set-up, a company instance and the instance to function as relay. Others are harder, getting our own instance used (we have internal asynchronous interaction through our own rocket.chat instance), getting others in our network to take the same steps.

Notions that play a role in this

My company is part of a network of similar groups and initiatives. Internally we call them friends of our company. These are the people and organisations we invite to events and parties, that we like to hang out with, jam about ideas with, and when possible work together with. That can be because we worked together in the past and thought that was fun and worth repeating, or because we share or shared office space, have similar perspectives or visions, and having overlapping or complementing activities. It’s a network of individuals in larger organisations that we interact with individually, and companies, non-profits and NGO’s that are Zebra’s, like us.

I think that technology should be smaller than us, in order to provide agency to us. With smaller I mean that the deployment and daily use of a tool must fall within the control and capabilities of the user or user group. Specifically the off-switch should be in control of the user group itself. That way a user group can use a tool under their control to address issues that group has by themselves in their own context. This is what I call networked agency. Different groups can strengthen their tools and work, by networking with other groups, yet tools stay useful on their own and get more useful when connected.

I also think that human networks of connections are similar to the structure of peer-to-peer internet structures. A network of many smaller nodes and areas where those connections are denser, individual nodes that are more intensively connected to others and form a local center. I’m convinced our digital tools work better if they deliberately mimic that human network structure, so that the digital affordances those tools provide flow naturally into the human network connections we all have. That’s what I call human digital networks, and distributed digital transformation.
Openness is a necessity in the networked age. But it also needs a limit. That limit is tied to our personal limits, the way we need to feel ‘at home’ in the context in which we exchange ideas. With the new influx of many new people on Mastodon I noticed how my timeline is feeling more alienating than before when it was more like hanging out in my favourite watering hole in town. That will settle, I’m sure, yet in social platforms that treat the entire globe as the same public square you are continuously exposed to the algorithmically amplified onslaught of all of it all the time. Which does not reflect human network reality anymore. Bounded openness matches that reality better.

All this maps on to the fediverse I think: if each company or group in our network has their own instance, that allows internal interaction and public interaction in parallel, and if that public interaction is always visible locally in all other instance in the network, then more direct and deeper ties between the people in the network may grow. Such interaction would create more ideas, more initiatives and help spot more opportunities to do things together I think (or equally quickly expose we’re not as nicely aligned or matched as we thought).

Favorited From the Archives: Ton’s Thoughts on Work Life Boundaries, Barriers and Attractors by Nancy White

A wonderful surprise to see a post in my feed reader discussing a posting I wrote 14 years ago. Nancy White is going through her old draft blogposts and dug this one up that has been in her drafts folder for all that time. The posting she refers to, Work Life Boundaries Barriers and Attractors, talks about things that help me create and stay in flow or obstruct my flow as a nomadic worker. Nancy draws a parallel with the past two years where those questions have become relevant for a wide new group of people. Indeed, I’ve revisited such questions myself during the pandemic.

The timing of her post is also a wonderful coincidence. Nancy and I have known eachother for a long time, despite her being on the US west coast and me in the Netherlands. We blogged about similar themes at a time that meant you’d automatically end up in conversation, and first met f2f in 2004. Since then we visited each others homes, had dinner with eachothers family and friends, and shared an increasing number of connections to other people. The wonderful coincidence here is that right as I found Nancy’s blogpost in my feedreader I had just ended a 1 hour conversation with Bev Trayner and Etienne Wenger, both close long time connections of Nancy. I talked to them about possible participation for my team in a training they regularly give, the format of which itself evolved from E’s and my very first birthday unconference that Bev attended. My 2008 blogpost that Nancy refers to discusses part of the outcomes of that unconference, as one of the sessions had been about the topic of organising one’s work effectively as a knowledge nomad.

I think that’s a wonderful way of things going full circle. Which all that time has been the title of Nancy’s blog.

Full Circle, connections for a changing world, online and off…

Nancy White

After three years it was a regular Koningsdag (king’s day) again. The royal family was visiting Maastricht and so were we as we’re spending a few days in the hills of Limburg. We joined the crowd at the corner of Het Bat and Graanmarkt where Y sitting on my shoulders got to see the royal family just like three years ago when they visited our hometown. She probably thinks it normal now for King’s Day to see the king himself, instead of a coincidence. We had a fine relaxed day, mostly away from the crowds but still enjoying the city. Coffee, strolling in the sun and through the beautiful city, extended lunch, more strolling, crossing the river, and then the bus back to the village we’re staying in.

Nancy writes about the importance of endings, a rich source for reflection and of insights. And suggests it as something we should be more literate in, more deliberate in as a practice.

Yes, endings, acknowledging them, shaping them, is important.
When the BlogWalk series already had practically ended, with the last session being 18 months or so in the past, it was only when I posted about formally ending it, that it was truly done. It allowed those who participated to share stories about what it had meant to them, to say thanks, and it was a release for the organisers as well.

In our short e-book about unconferencing your birthday party (in itself a gift we sent to the participants of the most recent event it described, a year afterwards) we made a point to write about a proper ending. We had been at many events where the end was just when people left, but also at those where the end was a celebration of what we did together. We wrote "So often we were at a conference where the organizers didn’t know how to create a proper end to it. Either they’re too shy to take credit for what they’ve pulled off or they assume that most people left already and the end of the program is the last speaker to be on stage. Closure is important. It doesn’t have to be long, it doesn’t have to be a closing keynote, but it should serve as a focal point for everyone to end the day and give them an opportunity to thank you and each other as a group, not just as individuals. We gathered everyone after the last session and made some closing remarks, the most important of which was ‘thank you!’. […] Obviously this was the time to open up a few bottles as well."

In an Open Space style setting as a moderator I find releasing the space at the end for me usually involves strong emotions, coming down to earth from creating and surfing the group’s collective energy and shared attention, from weaving the tapestry of the experience together. When E and I helped P create such a space in 2019 I wrote afterwards "When Peter thanked Elmine and they embraced, that was the moment I felt myself release the space I had opened up on Day 1 when I helped the group" settle into the event and "set the schedule. Where the soap bubble we blew collapsed again, no longer able to hold the surface tension. I felt a wave of emotions wash through me, which I recognise from our own events as well. The realisation of the beauty of the collective experience you created, the connections made, the vulnerability allowed, the fun had, the playfulness. We wound down from that rush chatting over drinks in the moon lit back yard."

Endings such as those Nancy describes and the examples I mention, need their own space. It’s not a side effect of stopping doing something, but an act in itself that deserves consideration. As Nancy suggests, a practice.

I notice a strong and persistent reluctance with Dutch civil servants to use the word citizen. Apparantly because the Dutch word ‘burger’ carries overtones of ‘kleinburgerlijk’, petty bourgeois, of bourgeoisie, and of the general disdain university students voice for ‘burgers’ (with ‘burger’ being bandied about as an insult amongst them, which gained national usage through the 1990’s Jiskefet satirical tv program). Many civil servants said to me they think the word citizen is ‘old fashioned’.

I find this not only an oddity, but also detrimental to public governance and potentially dangerous.
Not using the word citizen obscures how in the relationship to government citizens have basic human rights, specific constitutional rights, and some duties. A citizen has autonomy and a certain power vis-a-vis the government.
Not using the word citizen, easily obscures that power and those rights to civil servants.

I hear civil servants talk about

  • ‘customers’, usually in the context of providing public service
  • ‘clients’, often in the context of the social domain, reminiscent of how therapists talk
  • ‘inhabitants’, usually a hand-wavy acknowledgement that other people are involved, but in an abstracted, passive or even statistical way,
  • ‘users’, usually carried over from an IT related context
  • or worst case ‘residents’ as if you’re institutionalised.

In all these cases it creates either a distance to people or implies power assymmetries. It makes it easier to dehumanise people. The consequence is the creation of policies about people, but not with those people, because people are never perceived to be on equal footing. Policy gets done over people’s heads, done to them. Participatory processes are then easily reduced to a ritual, a checkbox to mark, something that is a pain and a drag without which your policy process would be so much more efficient. Clients, users and inhabitants are never equal to those who determine policies, whereas citizens would have to be met eye to eye. Acknowledging people as citizens would require curiosity about their needs, motives and actual experiences when developing policy.

Every civil servant I’ve worked with cares about good governance and public service, and individually they wouldn’t treat people as passive objects on which their policies operate, but collectively in their work context they do abstract people out of the equation. And their own choice of words contributes to that, makes it more likely to happen, I think.

In conversations with our public sector clients I always talk about citizens with emphasis. I often also introduce myself as citizen (not as consultant e.g.).

In our projects we always emphasize the need for civil servants to go outside, to check their data and documents against the reality outside, and as often as possible create conversations with real people, with citizens.

With the drive towards ‘data driven’ work, this is ever more essential. Data must be presumed to always describe only a sliver of reality, and to always do so badly on top of that. There is always a check against reality necessary when you want to start relying on data in policy decisions. Visit the places and the people represented in the data, do you recognise them? Do you have a sufficiently nuanced, detailed and rich view on an issue before making a decision? Do people’s stories validate the data, is their meaning incorporated?
Acknowledging people as citizens is also essential to being able to see and use government data publication as a policy instrument, meant to provide agency to people in the context of societal issues and as equal partners in addressing these issues.

Hight time for the public sector to use the word citizen routinely and meaningfully again.