toward a healthier federation

it's been a while since I've given a proper update on how I'm doing personally, but things have slowed down enough this week, to the point where I can properly reflect on recent happenings and my general bearing. after almost a year of unemployment, I am optimistic in finally landing a job—in retail, but the pay is good, and I'm not tasked to coerce computers to do anything by means of satanic rituals. this means that I finally know what to focus on, ever since I asked what I should be doing with my life; but don't worry, after I get comfortable earning a stable income, I can slowly start focusing more on the side projects I wanted to finish, and I don't have to feel pressured to turn it into a living. I want to enjoy my ambitions and not worry about risk/return for any of it. I should be able to fund, both the time and the money required for my goals, out of my own pocket, and not have to ask anyone else for help.

I've also decided to focus more on my own projects rather than other people's. so far, I have been in charge of hosting people's websites and communities; Hidden Answers is a notable example since I had to head adminship after the original owner left. I feel out of place in these situations, I have a warped sense of indebtitude, I believe I owe people to run services that I never personally wished to head. this is an unhealthy approach to running communities and only serves to negatively impact everyone involved. so, I am going to make efforts to transition control of those communities over to people more suited to run them, or I will even consider letting them go entirely.

this leads nicely into my main talking point: after lengthy consideration, I believe I am tired of certain communities in general.

case study: an anime website is a fediverse server with the stated goal of being free to use and open to discussion about any topic protected by law. starting in 2018, I have had a lot of fun discovering fedi, feeling like I found a great alternative to twitter—a microblogging platform where I was free to be myself, to say what I want, without fear of report brigades deciding my fate to be removed from the platform. I wanted to share this feeling with others, and besides, the domain was fairly expensive, so I figured I would give it its money's worth. I opened registration early on, to anyone who wished to join, regardless of their beliefs or even whether they respected me personally.

this was fine for a while. I was able to handle the occasional rift in the tide from certain new users who decided to exploit my generosity and patience for their own benefit. however, in 2021 my sentiment changed drastically after receiving a lot of new registrations from certain groups who were being chased off twitter and other platforms, and were looking for a place to settle.

the people who have been paying closer attention already know exactly what I am talking about. paedophiles (MAPs) were the main demographic attracted by the freedom on as well as my tolerance and indifference to their beliefs and attractions. and for a while it was relatively fine. the existing users on were fairly prepared for a new wave of users like this—vocal /pol/ users would have been the other option, but they seem to have fit in better with other communities on fedi—but at some point, the influx of new users and their adamancy to post untasteful (yet legal) content reached a tipping point, and had its own eternal september. older users grew tired of the constant disregard that paedophiles had for the external criticisms we were facing, by people who were concerned about their views, whether they would post illegal content, and their insistence to start shit with random others.

as an aside, this behaviour, this phenomenon, is in no way exclusive to paedophiles; there have been a lot of user influxes that fedi has faced, including kiwifarms, gab, and mass twitter storms; but the fact that these people were attracted to children, did undeniably serve as a catalyst for pissing people off. thankfully, I have only had to deal with one occurrence of child pornography on my server, but people were still really sensitive about how I handled this crowd of users, about how I dare show indifference to lending these guys a platform, and as such, my and my instance's reputation took a thorough hit. I believe that most of this external feedback is a result of cancel culture and mob mentality, where people refuse to understand certain taboos, and they will apply a guilt-by-association to anyone who does show any form of indecisiveness, indifference, or tolerance to such groups. however, that doesn't mean I think they're completely full of shit, especially hearing some of the same complaints from my older users—some of them my friends—about how they are enjoying less, now that these new people stormed in and claimed it as their own. I began to share that sentiment over time as well.

death to the community

first of all, I never intended to form any sort of community; I intended for it to be a platform, a carrier. in hindsight, evolved into a sort of community anyway, for a few reasons.

the instance utilises Pleroma as its ActivityPub software implementation, which models after the older GNU social with ideas such as microblogging, public timelines, and an overall feel of a twitter interface. public posts are divided into two timelines: one containing posts from users on that instance, and another which accounts for any public post that the server has ever come across. the instance-specific timeline has a tendency to promote a community; people use it to welcome new users to an instance, to find users that may have similar interests, and to develop a general image of what that instance consists of. I have been guilty of using the timeline as well, despite advocating for people to follow accounts they wish to keep up with, regardless of what instance they're on.

in addition, I neglected to consider that the rules alone would attract or deter people from my instance. that in itself is a signal, a tribal call to assimilate people with similar values, and as such it will attract people who are usually likeminded enough to be likely to form a more-specific community.

I have also modeled based on my previous experience with twitter, as well as my time on imageboards such as 4chan. the name itself is a nod to a meme on 4chan, and that alone has caused people to register because they were in on the joke and felt comfortable there.

I made a mistake—not because I failed to discourage the formation of a community, but because I did not account for the fact that a community surrounding a platform is inherent in some form. going forward, I need to adjust my expectations in response to this. it's important to understand how platforms grow, how they must evolve, what their critical mass is before they begin to deteriorate.

truthfully, I did enjoy the community aspect of while it lasted. I made a few friends, even developed a few relationships, and met people I otherwise would not have, had I not created the instance as I had. but, I still treat this as an experiment rather than a final product I can be happy with. the software alone has been a result of many headaches, and in general I handled administration in a haphazard manner, enough to negatively impact how I myself and others have been able to enjoy the instance.

in general, some aspects of fedi and social networking tire me, so I don't know my future as far as that is involved. I do want to stay involved with fedi if I can find continued worth in it, because I have enjoyed it for a while; this year has just made it very difficult to see how useful and rewarding it can be, because of all the technical and social issues it currently has to face. hopefully these can be fixed, but they will take a lot of time, effort, and combined involvement. the internet, and especially social media, are still very new, and we still experience growing pains trying to adjust our interactions and expectations so that we can exist in harmony with everyone else out there. I have plenty of difficulties with this as well.

I'll focus on other platforms and technologies for a while and then hopefully come back to social media with a clearer mind, to decide whether I want to pursue it and give it another shot, but this time in another direction than I took with

an end to free, open registration

for a while, I have been approaching the conclusion that free services—open for anyone to register—are ultimately harmful both to users and to networks at large. the oft-repeated adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch, or simply put, freedom ain't free, hold true for a number of reasons.

free services rely on a form of sustinence to make up for the fact that users don't pay for the services. on the corporate scale, a service may choose to enact advertising; selling of PII or other sensitive data, metadata, and analytics; tiered subscriptions or paid features; or a combination of these. sites such as pastebin and imgur follow this pattern—while they started out truly free, eventually reality set in and they had to compromise on their initial promises in order to continue service. at a smaller scale, administrators (usually hobbyists) may ask for donations or quit entirely, once they can no longer support running a free-for-all service.

the issue is exacerbated by netizens who have been accustomed to free services and believe they are entitled to access. this promotes a leecher culture, as well as a growing schism between users and administrators, which results in an unhealthy dynamic akin to parents and their spoiled kids. such a dynamic cannot be well-sustained and commonly results in, yet again, admins compromising on their initial values, or burning out entirely, unwilling to continue hosting their services. users need to be reminded: you get what you pay for. for a free service, you are not owed anything in return, and you should not act like you are.

aside from these issues, free services do not scale for another major reason: it is more difficult for administrators to stem abuse from their platforms, since with a free service, there is relatively little cost for registering and almost no punishment for burning through accounts (or in the case of anonymous services, virtually no cost at all). this places an increasing burden on administrators to increase their moderation by means of additional human moderators; filtering solutions such as captcha, account approval, or automated moderation; a combination of these; or even shutting off from new registrations entirely.

and since the community aspect is virtually unavoidable, there is always a critical mass that, when exceeded, deteriorates the community profoundly and forces a service to drift entirely from its founding goals, caving to the new users' wishes. that is of course, unless the service decides to close off entirely, much like the consequences of the above issues.

in comparison, invite-only services do away with these problems in part or in full. there is a cost associated with joining the service, whether it is monetary or social. additionally, it is expensive to lose an account due to the registration requirement. this disincentivises abuse, allowing for easier moderation. this also increases an administrator's motivation: new users are almost guaranteed to be a net addition to the community, rather than a coin toss. monetary payment guarantees that the service can be more-easily sustained financially, and social proximity allows for a better chance for admins and users to mutually benefit.

invite-based services can take on a range of forms: it may be someone providing a service for a group of friends; it may require a fee or donation to join; it may be based off a preexisting community or shared interest; it may involve an invite tree such as those used by and private filesharing groups. all of these perform variably, but they share a common goal of vetting new users to prevent growth spurts and stem abuse.

f2f networking

closed services do not equate to centralisation; quite the opposite, since they coexist perfectly in federated networks. the network as a whole can take on a natural and efficient dynamic, where each peer can specialise in moderating their own group.

with open federation, there still exists a need to trust that a network's administrators have a common goal to ensure that federation remains healthy and beneficial to all involved. this incurs a cost requirement—a barrier to entry—for the creation of a new federated service, however, which of course deters new people from deciding to self-host. currently, for any service, the barrier usually involves needing an always-on server with a public IP address, which thankfully is fairly inexpensive and accessible, but still requires a time and monetary investment, research, and ability to compare and vet various hosting providers. also, this requirement presents another issue: centralisation of hosting providers themselves. ideally, hosting from home will be a more viable solution in the future for this reason.

most platforms will need a domain as well, which again can be found fairly cheaply, but individuals are prone to common traps due to the lack of public, well-curated knowledge required to select, purchase, and configure a domain. projects such as OpenNIC aim to lower the barrier of entry for registering a domain and even hosting public nameservers, with the caveat that such domains are only accessible to other OpenNIC users. this is going to be an unacceptable solution for most people who want their platform to be as accessible as possible.

additional barriers mostly depend on the type of service being hosted. for example, the hurdle to overcome for hosting a mailserver is steeper than for other services. this can partly be overcome by providing accessible documentation and tools for setting up new services.

open federation sees varying degrees of success. on the optimistic end, XMPP has done very well to remain a cohesive network with few interoperability issues. they have adapted quickly to modern security standards, requiring the use of verified server-to-server TLS connections (made easier with Let's Encrypt certification) and various protocol extensions. conversely, E-mail has issues with introducing new standards, and large mail providers are reluctant to push optional features as crucial for interoperability. that, coupled with the problem with how providers handle abuse in a myriad of ways, results in a confusing landscape that is difficult to navigate without extensive research into the subject. the fediverse suffers a similar fate, but the issue is not so much about technical differences, but social expectations. almost every fediverse administrator has their own goal with federation, which often directly conflicts with the desires of other administrators. this equally leads to a schismatic, unhealthy, and inaccessible network.

potentially, there is a unique approach to some of these issues: friend-to-friend networking. the option for f2f topology exists primarily in peer-to-peer filesharing such as Freenet and Retroshare, but anoNet happens to be the project I am most familiar with. anoNet is a friend-to-friend overlay network that utilises VPN technologies, and nodes peer with one another by exchanging information beforehand. access to the network is always possible if you know at least one friend who is willing to peer with you, which in theory raises the cost of abusing the network while at the same time preserving freedom and autonomy in the network as a whole. dn42 is a similar project—more mature but with a more-centralised governance, unlike anoNet's ad-hoc, entirely anarchist model. protocols such as cjdns and Yggdrasil have also emerged and have a similar peering model.

time will tell if the f2f model ultimately prevails, but I see it as a promising middle ground between centralisation and open federation. this issue is fundamentally a social one, and at some point people will have to agree on what best fits their needs, making necessary compromises along the way.

Postel's law

be conservative in what you send and generous in what you receive. originally a principle used in the design of TCP, this equally applies to social networks in general. how well it applies has been up to debate, however.

for technical protocols, the robustness principle has the benefit of tolerating implementation variations that arise from tolerances or omissions in the original protocol specification. unfortunately, this presents the risk of such deviations to be cemented into the de facto specification, thus limiting future implementations' freedom to deprecate such tolerances and create a stricter conformance to the protocol. this also makes way for buggier code overall, since there are more edge cases to consider.

from a social standpoint—more specifically, from the standpoint of federation—this implies that individual peers are expected to play nice with the rest of a network, while at the same time tolerating issues that arise from remote peers. this results in additional overhead for administrators who wish to curate their node, as they not only have to moderate their own users' activity, but also any activity from the rest of the network, since not all admins will see eye-to-eye on what is allowed.

generally, though, I believe a baseline for conduct goes hand-in-hand with Postel's law; namely, nodes and their users should follow an opt-in principle for interaction. most people have a sense of what spam entails, and they do their best to address the issue appropriately, but there is still significant nuance regarding what exactly passes for spam. in my eyes, any form of unsolicited interaction with other users is spammy and should be discouraged. this is a highly situational rule of thumb, a subjective one, but it is an unavoidable social issue that cannot be resolved by technical means alone.

other than that, I adhere to a live and let live approach, where users on other nodes may be doing things I don't agree with, but I retain the freedom not to hear from them, and others retain their ability to interact with them at their own risk.

administrators are not cops

commonly, I see administrators who excuse the content they delete as being on the safe side of the law. while I understand this sentiment, and while it is entirely valid to have this concern, it is not the way things should be. many countries enact safe-harbour and neutral-carrier laws in order to absolve responsibility that online platforms have for their users' content, and ideally, administrators only need to comply with law enforcement requests for information or data removal.

instead of desiring to push back against the pressure to do law enforcement's job, administrators unfortunately seem complacent to self-censor, thus setting a precedent toward actually being responsible for user-generated content. while laws generally allow administrators to take a best-effort approach toward curating their content, I know that U.S. law does not require this and there has been at least one motion to modify or repeal Section 230, which would require platforms to take a completely hands-off approach (which was common practice in the early days of the Internet) unless they want to be held responsible for user content.

administrators often worry about proxied content for similar reasons, which is an important concern for federated platforms, since the majority of content will originate from remote servers and be cached locally. it is not anyone's responsibility to ensure that a huge network is clean of all illegal content, and nobody should worry about such proxied content landing on their servers. it should be dealt with at the source, punishing the user who actually posted that content.

my issue with all this, is that it places more pressure on services and organisations that do not have the luxury to afford a legal team to deal with uploaded content. ideally, law enforcement exists so that the general public doesn't have to enforce the law. in addition, it is better to properly handle a situation by reporting it to law enforcement, rather than destroying evidence by deleting content or banning users immediately.

people don't want to be arrested due to the actions of others, and nor do I. that much I understand. but I believe we should be working toward a way to handle this issue better, rather than censoring ourselves because we are deathly afraid of the consequences of self-hosting. this is a huge barrier for many people who want to set up a platform, since it quickly sets in that, yes, this is the Internet, and people love to abuse it.

one goal I hope to achieve, is to provide administrators with affordable legal counsel in a similar manner to how the EFF handles privacy- and Internet freedom-related cases pro bono. hopefully this will be a way to ease people's concerns about their self-hosted platforms, encouraging hobbyists to dive right in and have fun online, rather than being worried and taxed by unnecessary responsibilities.


collectively, we have a lot of work before we can reach an ideal of self-hosting, making it more accessible to newcomers and a more sustainable model on the Internet. I have had enough experience with my responsibilities and projects, and enough time to mull this over, that I am more confident in my direction going forward. I will be more focused on my own passions, and less focused on providing services that I never strongly believed in. I do not want to accomodate for people who give me little in return; I wish to pave my own road and let others follow me if they share my ambition. and I think everyone should take care to do this, so we can begin forming a healthier ecosystem—one that is driven by the community, for the community, and not controlled by corporations with ulterior interests that disalign with their userbases.

while I extensively talk about federated networks, and my personal focus is on federation, I also keep an eye on peer-to-peer developments (and have a strong interest in some of them, such as BitTorrent), but p2p is much harder to get right, and I believe that we won't approach a pure-p2p solution for a long while. federation is a step in the right direction, with the tools we have, and it has been a longstanding cornerstone on the Internet, proving its effectiveness and relative ease to implement.