Who of you would want to try out Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter or Facebook? Would it help if I offer you a place to try it out? On my own instance, or rather a small group instance? Would you want to find a small group instance near you / around an interest you have? Do you have questions I can help with? See Sandro Hawke’s suggestion to do a once a month push for why I am asking, and this blogpost for why I think driving adoption from the edge matters.
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.
Even though quite a number of companies regard social media as dangerous, I think companies have in fact a lot going for them as a suitable environment for social software.
Because social software tools all work from the same principles:
1 they thrive on large volumes of data and information (Flickr and delicious e.g. only come into their own when the volume involved is big enough)
2 they thrive when existing social networks adopt the same tool (your fraternity in Facebook, Wikipedians doing wiki maintenance, your blog roll)
Social software works well given these conditions because these tools are the internet’s response to the enormous volume of information the internet helped create. Social software is the answer to the internet by the internet.
The quantitative change in information availability (going from scarcity to abundance) leads to qualitative changes in our information strategies. Social filtering is one of those changed information strategies. Social software caters to social filtering.
Companies are excellent environments for social filtering.
Because they sit on large volumes of data and information, going largely unused.
Because organisations are a group of people with shared goals and tasks.
In short, companies are their own objects of sociality as well as their own user group.
An information manager of a large internationally operating Dutch company told me the other day that they had given a number of their professionals access to their business intelligence data. Because they were gathering so much data nobody really looked at for lack of good questions to ask of the dataset. The professionals put the data to good use, because they could formulate the right questions. They were adding social structures and context to the data. Basically adding social software design principles to a large volume of data.
The information manager was surprised by this, saying something like “and I have these BI specialists who never came up with this kind of use for the data”.
I wasn’t surprised. Throwing social relationships at large volumes of data works. We see it in our feed-readers, presence streams, yasn’s, wiki’s, and tag-clouds every day.