2022-11-09: The Great Twitter Migration of 2022
I did a lot of work to make a tagging system for my static blog generation scripts in hopes I'd post a bit more than just "I finished a game". I guess this is one of those posts.
Even if you're not a social media buff, you've probably heard about the Fun of Elon Musk buying Twitter and then immediately making some of the worst decisions known to man with it. This has sparked a rather massive exodus of Twitter users to other platforms. The ones I hear uttered most often in the manner of "Screw this, I'm going to..." are Cohost and the Fediverse (vis a vis Mastodon).
I've been on the Fediverse for about seven years now. I started on GNU Social for a couple months, then tried it again just before Mastodon arrived on the scene. I even wrote about Mastodon and the cultural changes it brought about back in 2017.
Since that post 5.5 years ago, I've moved off my friend's Mastodon instance and deployed Pleroma, then almost immediately after that massive concerns were raised regarding the motivations and trustworthiness of the developers so I created a personal fork. GNU Social merged support for ActivityPub only after every other solution dropped OStatus support and moved purely to AP. This move to AP represented the "I wish Mastodon would just protocol split" statement I made at the end of my 2017 post, and it's been a good call.
Most of "The Fediverse" though isn't about protocols and software, it's about people and cultural norms. There is a presumption of respect that exists on the Fediverse and people feel empowered to personally moderate anyone who does not adhere to that presumption. This respect manifests in shows of mindfulness in what you post, who it reaches, and how healthy and desired it is for those readers to be consuming it. The overarching broad stroke has been "Don't be Twitter" and as a guiding beacon in mindfulness of others, that has been immensely, scarily, consistently on-target.
It's worth noting here, however, that I speak really only about a subset of the Fediverse. Since the entire thing is a conglomerate of self-hosted servers and communities, anyone can just set up a Mastodon, or Pleroma, or GNU Social, or Misskey instance and be on the network. Typically the more egregious shows of disdain for the norms though result in other instance administrators blocking you from talking to their users. When one speaks of "The Fediverse" they can typically mean one of maybe half a dozen major shards of it that have formed through years of finding commonality in praxis in moderation. This is especially true if they're a user of one of the big instances, where these moderation decisions impact dozens of users.
The Social Impacts
So what happens when an established community of people following the mantra of "Don't be Twitter" is joined by a massive influx of new users who just came from Twitter? Well, a lot of cultural adjustment. Here's the thing though: which way the culture adjusts tends to rely on the size of the influx, who is entrenched, and how willing those who were here before are to guide and nudge the newbies. A lot of the folks I see speaking are extremely invested in Not Becoming Twitter, so they've been extremely vocal in teaching away the habits some of the newbies are bringing. That's good.
In past influxes, the Fediverse as a sort of communal identity drew lines on some types of people it didn't want, and were quite hostile to examples that showed up. There's stories of the time Wil Wheaton showed up on the Mastodon flagship instance and was more or less bullied off the Fediverse in a matter of weeks. He wrote a pretty scathing blog post about his experiences. In my niche, it's "No fash, no celebs, no brands, no cops". The Fediverse is, after all, about people and all of these things are ultimately anti-person.
We have all four coming in this influx. I just while writing this learned some major law enforcement political types are showing up now. I don't expect this link to still function more than 72 hours from now. Itch.io showed up too but as far as brands go this one tends to be given a slight passing nod.
Because I've seen half a dozen of these influxes, and because I'm aware of the defense mechanisms in place against the adoption of the Twitter culture (namely: people who have Been Here prescribing against behaviors that don't meet the criteria of mindfulness of others, and ultimately instance moderators having final say in federation decisions), I haven't been too worried. The big concern I suppose is that this influx has, uniquely, brought a massive injection of new users with Twitter-centric ideas of what "Social Media" is and should be to every public instance at the same time. That's a formula for a massive swing in what "the culture" is.
This is one of those cases where I feel it falls on individual instance moderators to be slightly inflexible. They've been here, they know what The Fediverse is, and it's on them to keep it that way if they so desire for their communities. Already people are speaking in terms of "the before" and "the now" regarding November 2022. Already, like every time Twitter's shot itself in the foot in the past, people are tossing "Eternal September" around. I think the Fediverse has the unique ability to do the opposite of what "The Internet" as a whole has done here. People compare this exodus to a bunch of people showing up at a house party; well this party has established bouncers and what will decide its future is how the community has a whole decides to use them.
The Technical Impacts
Along side the social problems, a massive increase in new users on the Fediverse presents technical ones. The most important issue on the field right now is all these users have showed up greenfield and picked an already established instance to set up on. Very, very few of them decided to self host or open new instances because they're simply not experienced in how the Fediverse works enough to do that; or they're not sure they want to do it yet.
I've heard reports of 800-1000% increases in daily active users on some of the more "catchy" domain named instances. These new users were verbose, increasing total Fediverse traffic as much or more as they followed people, felt out their new platform, and built networks.
Practically every Mastodon instance with public registration fell down. Some fell down more gracefully than others, some fell down entirely.
Mastodon is not a light application. It comes packaged as a Docker container of some half a dozen or more services written in Ruby and Node. The Mastodon docs seem to go to a surprising amount of effort to not enumerate recommended specs for even a single user self-hosted instance. For larger deploys you can shard it out into a clustered environment but most deploys are the Docker container or a single-server monolith. The Fediverse as a whole was not prepared for an up to 10x growth overnight.
Two things happened: the increase in federation traffic clogged processing queues (aka: the well-known and well-maligned "sidekiq") and the increase in users quickly flooded storage allocations and hard disks as Mastodon caches media locally with no simple road to disabling this (and if they did, the traffic problem would have been even worse). Most instance administrators responded to this by scaling up their virtual compute resources and S3 storage allocations. Some did more radical things like rewrite chunks of Mastodon in golang. Phew.
For the most part we're past the massive bump of this. Scaling up instances and some of the new arrivals chilling out smoothed the road. On the positive side, I see a lot of the old established community stepping up to help financially support some of the instances hit hardest. Possibly not enough, and likely not persistently enough to be a permanent fix, but it gives a nice little twinge of "This is a community" that is great to feel every so often.
All in all I suppose the technical aspects, much like the social ones, will come down to "Will the community support the way of things?". One of the biggest dangers to the Fediverse as a whole in my opinion is the longevity of volunteer-run instances. I haven't seen any major ones shut down in the face of this yet, but time will tell.
I didn't hear much of Pleroma, GNU Social, or Misskey instances having these problems. I'm unsure if this is because the main destination for new users was "Mastodon" or if they're more robust. I suspect a bit of both.
The Identity of Fedi
Speaking of most users looking for Mastodon, that brings up yet another problem in the tug of war for the future of the Fediverse. The main actor in pushing people to jump ship from Twitter was the joinmastodon Twitter account. Mastodon, as an entity, has a history of trying to tie their brand to the wholesale identity of the Fediverse and this marketing blitz was no exception. You won't see any mention of Pleroma, or GNU Social, or Misskey, or Owncast, or Peertube, or Pixelfed there. They simply push Mastodon as a standalone federated Twitter replacement. The way Mastodon represents remote users doesn't so anything to correct this mistaken presumption either.
A "Twitter replacement" the Fediverse is not, and does not want to be. This is, as one can imagine, a source of strife from time to time when the biggest voice in marketing the idea tries to posture it all that way in a way that benefits their brand and only their brand.
A lot of people are distrustful of Mastodon and its core developer at this point for reasons like this.
The Other Elephant in the Room
It'd be unfair of me to talk about all of this with a twinge of optimism that the Fediverse community as a whole will "do the right thing" without mentioning that the Fediverse has its own slew of problems. Accusations of systemic racism, ableism, and in some circles homophobia and transphobia are common and not unfounded. Mastodon as a project is steered by one man with solitary veto power on anything he doesn't like, and this has been a barrier to standardization and accessibility many times. Alternatives have questionable histories and developmental directions (frex: Pleroma's accused history of being "a 4chan project"). There's a lot to unpack in the politics of the Fediverse.
On top of that, discussions of "meta" (the Fediverse term for internal politics, moderation, and discussion) get heated and 1,000 instance admins have 1,007 different opinions on how it should be done. Frequently this results in finding a middle ground of "When your posts federate somewhere, don't be a dick to those people and stomp on their expectations", but sometimes meta instead results in massive rifts in the Fediverse as instances block each other. As stated this has, by and large, resulted in a series of coherent shards of the Fediverse but sometimes the rifts segment communities and friend groups suddenly. It's all an evolving practice in collaborative moderation that has some glaring flaws.
New people, new voices, new ideas, and new thoughts may actually serve to address some of this. From the influx I expect at least one person to either fork Mastodon or start a new project. Not all of the culture of the Fediverse is good and should be defended or kept. In particular an entrenched culture of "White Tech" needs to be challenged. Unfortunately I don't expect an influx of new users from Twitter of all places to be the spearhead of a move to tackle that.
But I can dream it'd start some discussions that sorely need to be had. Especially as people who haven't gotten used to this start pointing out the problems that we have grown slightly desensitized to.
This has happened before, but not to this degree. I imagine some 75% of the people who came to check out the Fediverse will go back to Twitter or belly up to Cohost, Facebook, or something else. The people that stay will make small incremental changes to both the story and the identity of this community. Whether those changes are positive or not comes down to how the existing community and its moderators decide to go forward. We're throwing the party and we're the bouncers. It's up to us to decide what remains acceptable and important in our identity as we invite new guests.
While evaluating that we should, and I'd even say must, also be willing to discard parts of that identity that don't work, are not mindful, are harmful and exclusionary. Will this actually happen? I don't think so. I think a lot of us think we're "Good enough" and have ceased our introspection. That's the safe thing to do. That's comfortable. Unfortunately in moments like these, when communities change and grow and evolve, comfortable is what leads to an awkward silence that lets the more active, excited voices take control.
Community identities change when set upon by arrivals that, by the nature of already being in motion, have inertia.