Being Social

August 27, 2018

Some years ago, I deactivated and deleted my Facebook account. But, sometime in 2014, I signed up again and started using it. It was a different time on Facebook back then. My ultramookie account on Twitter has been active since December 2007, but I made it a private account sometime in 2015. I opened up two public Twitter accounts shortly afterwards, one to tweet about movies and TV; the other to interact with companies. I also had two Instagram accounts, a private one for sharing pictures with family and a public one for sharing random pictures.

Sometime early this year, I stopped visiting Facebook. I got tired of all the politics -- a non-stop barrage of news and political debate (I wouldn't go as far as to describe it as "discourse"). Twitter literally turned into a dumpster fire with political fury and echo chamber deafness. And then there are corporations and celebrities promoting their latest [album, TV show, movie, product, politics]. Not much social about Twitter, it's just a bullhorn at this point.

Then Facebook got rocked (or continues to be rocked) by privacy controversies -- Cambridge Analytica being the big one and Onavo Protect being the latest. Twitter keeps turning a blind eye to the toxic environment that is being created on its platform. All of this so that both companies can chase eyeballs for ads; and the daily and monthly active user counts in order to satisfy their shareholders.

We all knew signing up that we were the product, the data they collected on us and the advertisements they served to us were how we paid our dues for using their services for "free". And it is true, in order to provide the service, these companies not only have to develop and maintain the product, but they also have to stand up and maintain the infrastructure for serving the product.

But, is that really true? The cost of developing and maintaining the software can be spread out as an Open Source project. Instead of a single company incurring the cost for the infrastructure, what if the cost of that infrastructure was spread over hundreds or thousands of single instances running the software which connect with each other? The cost of the individual instances would be taken care of by the instance owners or a coop of users on that instance.

I wanted to stop being the product for Facebook and Twitter, but I still wanted to be social and share. I looked around for software to do this and ran into GNU Social and Mastodon. Mastodon instances (individual installs of the software) join a larger network of servers that speak OStatus, a protocol that allows for federating microblogging. What that means is that it allows all software that supports OStatus to talk with each other and share users microblogging activity. This federated network is called the Fediverse.

There's no real need to setup and run a Mastodon server (aka "instance") to join the network and start interacting. There are many different instances that are like communities that one can join and instantly start participating. If you want a place for general social networking, try mastodon.social. instances.social can help if you're looking for something more specific. Being on one instance doesn't mean that you can't follow people from other instances, if you find someone interesting on a different instance, you can follow them instantly and their updates will show up in your feed on your instance.

After joining mastodon.social to poke around and experiment, I decided that I could (for the most part) use Mastodon to keep sharing. Sure, I would have to convince my friends to join or at least let them know where I was sharing.

From what I found after leaving Facebook again (the account is alive, but I don't visit), is that those that I want to keep in touch with, I keep in touch with. Whether it is via good old email or via a messaging app (iOS Messages, Signal, Slack, etc) or via a phone call or in person (who would have thunk of socializing in person?). Do they need to know what I had for lunch or what movie I was watching at a specific moment all the time? Not really.

The social aspect, I found is just a way for me to share with the world, to be able to express myself and to interact with people -- even strangers would share the same interests as me. It is also a way for me to keep a searchable social profile on the internet. I know I will always have a footprint on the internet because of how active I am, so I want to be the curator of what is presented about me -- what it boils down to is brand-building for myself.

I sat down (on and off) for two days and setup my own Mastodon instance. It is trblmkr.net. It is an instance that is closed to registration, but if you're a friend and want access, just get in touch, I will send you an invite. Do I really need my own instance? Probably not, but I like to tinker and make things work. The work of getting the instance going and ongoing maintenance is a hobby thing, it's fun. Find me here on my instance.

Over the weekend, I closed my two public Twitter accounts and my public Instagram account. I'll keep my ultramookie Twitter account just because I might need it to get in touch with companies from time to time. My Facebook account will remain for now, but I won't be using it. As for my main Instagram account, I still use it because of the format of the network -- it's all pictures and it makes for quick consumption. Facebook got lucky when they bought Instagram.

Will this be the demise of Facebook and Twitter? Not even close. They will remain in place because of the network effect and because Mastodon's distributed network is a bit more difficult for the masses to grok. But, early adopters are probably already fleeing the services and soon there will be more. At the time of this writing, there are over 2,600 Mastodon instances (ie. servers) and almost 1.5 million Mastodon users who have posted more than 150 million status. Not quite the size and scale of Facebook (2.23 billion users) or Twitter (336 million users), but still early for Mastodon which launched in 2016.

My mom, of all people, has stopped visiting Facebook because she doesn't find it interesting anymore and when any dotcom starts losing the attention of moms, they have to realize that they've peaked.


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