Venture Funds Arrive in the Mastodon Space

How to think about the arrival of commercial offerings in the Fediverse

I recently had a Mastodon exchange with John Gruber of Daring Fireball (and Markdown) fame. Gruber had just written a short piece about Medium launching their own Mastodon server – with the fun, short domain name of The new server will be open to those with paid Medium accounts. He points out that Medium’s foray into Mastodon is doubly unique:

For one thing, amongst Medium’s co-founders are Ev Williams (who also served as Medium’s CEO for most of its existence) and Biz Stone — two people who were at Twitter at the beginning. Williams also served as one of Twitter’s numerous CEOs.

Second, Medium is a commercial company, having raised, according to CrunchBase, $163 million (so far). To my knowledge no company with such resources has started a public Mastodon instance to date.

Fighting Words

What Gruber said next, though, bothered me:

I am very uncomfortable with the fact that nearly all Mastodon servers are free-to-use volunteer efforts, funded by voluntary donations. That’s not sustainable. I suspect a lot of Mastodon servers that seem to be thriving today won’t be around in 5 years, taking all of their posts with them.

In fairness, he went on to express some of the same commercial/venture reservations I’ll talk about below:

I don’t feel great about the fact that Medium is venture-backed, either, but they do charge $5/month or $50/year for a membership. I like paying for the services I use. Twitter is free to use and look how that’s gone.

Well, everyone knows that recent converts are the most fervent. Although I first joined Mastodon in November 2018, I only recently became an active user, when in November I bailed out of the Musk-hole. (I’m pro-EV but so happy I didn’t buy a Musk-mobile.) I focused on the first sentences, not the later caveat, and my reaction was strong and immediate: HERESY! I’m not normally one to fire off a post complaining about something somebody said, but this time I did.

The Doctorow Enshittification Hypothesis

Besides being a recent Fediverse convert, of late I’ve been drinking the Cory Doctorow kool-aid. I’ve come around to his way of thinking about for-profit social media, with its seemingly inevitable progression from great free service, to critical mass must-have-this, to lock-in where the cost of switching gets so high that users stick around for years even though things are getting worse and worse. And that’s the “normal” progression; much worse can happen, such as an alt-right billionaire wingnut buying the platform and running it through the Earth’s crust all the way down to the seventh circle of hell.

Doctorow has written extensively on why the Fediverse, lacking commercial motivation to extract and enshittify, is a potentially-viable model for healthy social platforms. But guess what, that model depends on the support of the community to function. Those “free-to-use volunteer efforts, funded by voluntary donations” that Gruber describe are fundamental to the concept of the Fediverse, to its avoiding enshittification and commercial extraction.

The Dead Post Society

What about Gruber’s suspicion that “a lot of Mastodon servers that seem to be thriving today won’t be around in 5 years”? I responded that switching servers was easy on Mastodon; and it is. But (now I know) there’s more to the problem than that – there’s also the content. I had assumed that “moving accounts between Mastodon servers” meant “moving all my stuff,” posts included. Turns out that’s not the case. So even though one’s Mastodon account can smoothly transition and live on, posts can disappear. Gruber pointed out that:

I have 20 years of links at DF. Most of the older ones are dead, especially to blogs. You know which ones aren’t dead from 2002? Blogspot.

Yeah, he would feel that pain as much as anyone. Blogspot/Blogger is a commercial entity, and yes they have remained viable for … 20 years. Gruber’s right about this. My counter argument has some merit, though, I think:

The difference here is you’ve got a bunch of bright high-energy hackers ready to jump in and build what’s needed, unconstrained by a central for-profit entity in extraction mode. If server catastrophes do indeed become common, I have confidence that #fediverse solves it — auto migration tools, etc.

You probably followed the near shutdown of — I’m just peripherally aware of it but a- the community stepped in and worked a solution to keep it running b- the whole experience was 100X less disastrous than any number of brill billionaire moves over on the #birdsite — e.g., let’s shut down 3rd party apps and APIs with no warning.

Big commercial / venture funded players => #enshittification => #extraction — that’s the bigger risk IMHO.

Having had time to mull it over, I’m still of that opinion. Enabling useful, healthy, non-enshittified social interaction online is critical – the last decade (and the Musk administration’s actions at Twitter) should make that obvious. Dealing with server transitions and dead post-links is indeed a pain, and that problem hasn’t yet been solved in the Fediverse (although it’s being discussed). But it’s worth dealing with this inconvenience to have a real social platform that’s not trying to algorithm and extract us to death.

Note to the Fediverse community: wouldn’t it be fantastic to crack the nut of full server migration including posts, with link preservation? Yeah, I know, it’s hard, but still. Let’s show ’em.

So What About Commercial Offerings for Mastodon?

Back to the original subject. What I took issue with in Gruber’s DF post was not Medium getting into the Mastodon server business. I’m actually enthusiastic about it. The more the merrier. It’s an endorsement of the platform. And there’s a decent chance that will still be running 10 or 20 years from now. Some commercial platforms, like Blogspot/Blogger, have managed to have that kind of longevity.

I’m also fine with Cloudflare’s Wildebeest Mastodon server offering. I’ve seen some concern and criticism (and I’m not up on all the details), but generally my attitude is the same as with Medium – the more the merrier, it’s an endorsement of the platform. And likewise the Mammoth Mastodon app, which is venture funded.

What the Fediverse does need to do, however, is keep its (our!) eyes open for the well-funded monopolists trying to take over and lock people in. We need to ensure that those efforts fail spectacularly, that we maintain control of our own destiny. I phrased it this way:

I don’t think [Medium’s mastodon offering is] necessarily a bad thing, as long as the community always has “fuck-you servers” — an easy exit from the commercial offerings if the commercial players start playing the #extraction game.

P.S. Ironically, Gruber skewered Medium back in 2017 about an early form of enshittification, the dickbar. That would look great on a UX designer’s resume, no? “I invented the dickbar.”