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.