Jul 13, 2023
The first time I heard about Secure Scuttlebut, or SSB, I thought it was the coolest idea. Let people moving around from place to place be the transmission mechanism for a network. Facebook over sneakernet! I love protocols and this one triggered some sort of itch with the crossover of novel ideas along with a lack of dependance on (or vulnerability to) the internet. It felt very cyberpunk. So I installed patchwork and poked around to discover that they had implemented this idea of pubs to allow this person-to-person network to support the near instant online patterns of interaction that we’ve come to expect from Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/etc. Most of the people I could find on the network were other protocol (or anti-censorship) people who were rallying behind this new protocol.
When I learned about Mastodon and ActivityPub later, I wasn’t quite as taken. At that point I had developed a strong bias against publicly posting on the internet as a means for social interaction. But the network was (initially) very similar. People who were excited about it because they wanted Twitter, but they didn’t want it to be centrally controlled. This was the community focused on decentralization in their networks, similar to SSB.
For one more example, the first several years of Facebook were focused on local campus communities. In that world, it was about keeping up to date with friends who you also saw regularly. As Facebook strove for larger reach and opened up the platform beyond campus communities, it changed. The feed became more algorithmic and went through various iterations of showing more and more content that wasn’t produced by your friends. Today Facebook has gone almost full tiktok, all but abandoning the original mission of keeping you up-to-date with your friends.
One day, I came across https://runyourown.social/ , which made the point that running a small social network is as much or more about community-building as it is about the protocols and servers. So what happens to small communities when they get big?
The short answer is they die. Or at least the small community and the culture that existed there dies. The canonical example is the Eternal September of 1993 when Usenet become much more widely available. Before then, the internet was still small, and it had its own unique culture because it was limited to technical professionals and hobbyists. Every September, as new first-year university students came online, there was an adjustment period as the influx of new people adapted to the existing culture. In 1993 the flood was so big that the existing culture and community got overwhelmed.
Going back to SSB, you have two different things happening at once. One is a new technical protocol for communication and sharing. The other is a community that cares about this technology. The community happens to be using that technology but the community and the protocol are distinct. In this way, the protocol plays a bigger role as a rallying point for the community than the role it plays providing technical advantages for people in general to communicate. SSB was designed by an engineer who lived on a sailboat and only rarely came to port to connect to the internet. For people who have consistent access to the internet, SSB is a worse protocol. But lots of those people are still using it because it is the rallying point for their community.
Mastodon is similar, but a bit bigger. As Twitter has gone through the chaos of the past 12 months, Mastodon has shifted from just the community of decentralization-is-awesome, to the growing community of I want Twitter-but-not-Twitter, a place to do what I did on Twitter but with a less toxic atmosphere. The previous Mastodon community I’m sure mostly sees growth as a marker of success, but I’m not sure they’re ready for the breakdown which might be coming to their community. As Meta/Instagram Threads prepares to federate with ActivityPub, some people are really concerned. With Twitter’s size and social role, you get trolls, marketers, and state-actors who spend an inordinate amount of time and energy figuring out how to make their messages go viral–inserting themselves into your feed. All on top of Meta’s corporate interests, wherever they may lie. As Mastodon grows–and especially if Threads follows through federating with Mastodon–we’re going to see much more of the same things happening there.
Bluesky is in a similar position. They clearly have a goal of seeing their protocol (link) be adopted for a global, federated Twitter replacement. Bluesky is slightly different in that they are explicitly thinking about layers in the protocol to avoid the toxicity that everyone bemoans on Twitter. But they are also still small. By limiting growth (and delaying federation), Bluesky is able to build it’s own community culture which may not survive if it grows according to their ambitions.
So what do you do? How can you build a community that doesn’t die by getting bigger? I think there are two approaches that serve different needs. The first is to formalize the rallying point of the community. This is what made Reddit so successful. Each sub is explicitly focused on one topic, many of which are very niche. Those communities find Reddit easy to use, and care more about their community than the platform they use to connect. The other approach is to make these communities and discussions private. I think this is the best approach for the people you are already connected to off-platform–whatever the platform may be.
The value of public discourse is discovery and building new connections. Discovery also means sifting through the noise to find the nuggets you are interested in. The bigger the platform, the more noise. Private discourse is a much better tool for keeping up with the people you already care about. That’s why all of our day-to-day tools like phone calls, email, text messages, etc are all nominally private. Social media should work the same way.