The announced takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk has generated a lot of excitement and brought great popularity to the alternative platform Mastodon. This service is part of Fediverse, which in turn is a network of independent social networks. So is it now the time for non-commercial open source solutions, is the end of platform capitalism set in motion? Probably not, but it’s still worth taking a look at this development.
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a decentralized network that was developed in 2016 by German developer Eugen Rochko and is now operated by nonprofit Mastodon gGmbH. The service is based on free software and is funded by donations from Patreon. Mastodon itself advertises with the slogan “Social networks are in your hands again”: The underlying idea is that (meta)data should not belong to companies or businessmen to profit, but to the users of these networks.
Unlike other major social media services, there is no central juggernaut server, but many different instances that can be operated on their own servers and networked with each other. In addition to the large forum mastodon.social, there are providers such as bildung.social, digitalcourage.social and chaos.social in Germany, there is also a server for the German authorities and, since April 28, 2022, the EU-Voice portal . Regardless of which instance I set up my profile on, I can network with all other Mastodon profiles.
The Medienpädagogik Praxis-Blog is also represented at Mastodon, you are invited to follow us:
A detailed mastodon portrait by Michael Weis was already published on our blog in 2018. Help with setting up and using Mastodon is available, for example, in this short guide by Nele Hirsch.
What is Fedivers?
As already mentioned, Mastodon is part of the Fediverse, which is a larger network of different online services and networks that operate independently but are technically connected. The name means “federated universe” and clarifies the standardized cooperation in the collective. The project exists since 2008 and uses the communication protocol ActivityPub managed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) since 2018.
In addition to Mastodon, other Fediverse offerings include social network Friendica, video portal PeerTube and photo platform Pixelfed. This chart by Imke Senst and Mike Kuketz gives a good overview, and the Fediverse is also looked at in more detail in Kuketz’s blog. Gerhard Beck featured PeerTube in our blog in 2021, Eike Rösch already referenced Friendica & Co. in 2012.
Will this prevail now?
Let’s go back to the question posed at the beginning, whether the Fediverse will now make the breakthrough. This would actually be the logical further development of the social web, as it is a basic idea of the World Wide Web that all pages can be networked and emails can also be exchanged (regardless of provider) with all other mail servers. Unfortunately, Big Tech companies have taken this idea to absurdity and created many decentralized parallel offers that are not compatible, but for which we users have to create different accounts with different commercial services. It would be great if the majority of users turned their backs on online businesses and turned to alternative offers.
However, if we take a pragmatic look at the history of the social web, it is clear that free offers have not been able to prevail until now: the Diaspora platform, launched in 2010 as an alternative to Facebook, has led an obscure existence to date, much like Friendica (since 2010) and PeerTube (online since 2017) have so far failed to pass the critical bar. The situation is similar in the messaging market, where WhatsApp’s alternative, Signal, has gained traction but is not appealing to the general public.
Realistically, Elon Musk is unlikely to fail because of Mastodon, but rather because of himself, and in the eyes of the masses, Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of a (business-oriented) metaverse has arguably a better chance than the Fediverse. Moreover, Fediverse’s services could also have a hosting and moderation problem if millions of people were to quickly switch to it: as Richard Gutjahr aptly described on Übermedien, hateful comments and toxic discussions can be attributed users, not operators. .
What to do?
From the perspective of everyday work in the field of education and media literacy, we should question and critically discuss these developments. Where can it lead when the richest person in the world buys a communications service of global importance and wants to change it according to his (sometimes frighteningly naive) ideas? (Many good texts on this subject have been published recently, for example by Michael Seemann in the taz.)
Additionally, we should try to promote the use of alternative services, also or precisely because they may never establish themselves in the market. We should encourage children, young people and adults to discuss the pros and cons of a free Internet, the basic idea of the WWW and the logic of platform capitalism. We must promote non-commercial solutions, raise awareness of data protection and encourage responsible use of media. We can’t do much more, but it shouldn’t be less either.