Are decentralized networks the answer to social media’s woes? A close look at Mastodon
During recent Twitter upheaval, some users have shifted to competitors like Mastodon. But does the platform's lack of moderation put marginalized groups at even more risk? Sangita Iyer of Tug Agency investigates.
The migration to Mastodon has begun, but is it safe? / Battenhall via Unsplash
While many move to Mastodon after Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, what is actually behind this decentralized social network? Let's find out if it's for everyone.
Mastodon is a part of the Fediverse, an ensemble of federated servers. If you’re scrolling through Twitter, you won't come across any TikTok videos. Why? Because the servers that manage Twitter are completely separate from the ones that manage TikTok. They’re centralized, meaning they’re controlled privately by organizations.
The Fediverse, though, has decentralized servers on which many communities can be built. Mastodon, residing inside the Fediverse, lets you create your own decentralized servers, called 'instances'.
A centralized network is an exhibition – you enter a particular room only to see art from a specific artist. You can't really explore or tweak the room; it's controlled by the law of the museum. A decentralized network is like an open art show where we can create our own art and also look at others’.
The Fediverse is expanding, but it's unclear how many new users are actually in it.
How inclusive are decentralized networks?
While using the Fediverse sounds fun and liberated, it's not all good news. There are stronger moderators on centralized networks, making sure any harmful, spam, or abusive content is immediately removed. On decentralized networks, you need to add moderators for your own spaces.
And since centralized networks are run by private companies, it is easy to hold them accountable. Though they won't necessarily follow through (cough, Twitter), there are laws in place.
The workings of the Fediverse, meanwhile, are still quite opaque. For example, there are many queer-friendly places on the Fediverse. Yet in 2019, Mastodon came to battle with Gab, an American alt-tech social networking service popular among racist users. Gab created its own server and soon the moderators were busy trying to deal with the problem.
Even Mastodon’s founder Eugen 'Gargron' Rochko admitted that he couldn’t actually 'evict' the Gab server. He told The Verge: “You have to understand it’s not actually possible to do anything platform-wide because it’s decentralized. I don’t have the control".
While this incident was three years ago, the question it raises – whether decentralized networks are the answer – remains. Doctor Jonathan Flowers recently told Tech Policy Press that marginalized sections of society will be left out by decentralized networks, because not everyone has the resources to create their own ‘instance’ on Mastodon.
Everything in moderation
While decentralized networks still might be a solution, there needs to be more education and empowerment on how to use them across all communities. People need to be provided with the tools to help them navigate the Fediverse, and we need to make sure no one is left behind.
One of the reasons why Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram work well is that there aren’t many steps required to access these platforms (the downside is that there are people like Elon Musk who may bombard you with tweets from his latest presentations).
But as we navigate the web, we need to improve our understanding of servers and create better channels for people to access.
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