Mastodon and the Indie Web: rediscovering ownership in social data

Elon Musk recently purchased Twitter for $44bn. I suppose if you’re made of cash, you can probably find a few reasons that make this a worthwhile buy. You’ve got the reputation laundering (Musk has contextualised his purchase as a move for “freedom”; we’ll see what that actually means) , the power of having control over a social network that has profoundly shaped the way we communicate online, the intellectual property, and the social data of over 200 million users.

Twitter is a treasure trove for data-hungry billionaires, so this takeover shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. The internet has become a playground for billionaires and corporations over the years; their presence and influence are now as much a fabric of the internet as HTTP.

The original premise of the internet being a collaborative space for sharing information may persist - we all certainly share far more now than we perhaps would have even 15 years ago - but it’s been tainted by the knowledge that powerful tech companies are using the data we share to further their own financial objectives.

We’ve gained so much out of the internet that we have come to accept these more nefarious aspects as part and parcel of participating in online spaces. Convenience has come at a price to our security and data. But despite the hectoring presence of big tech and powerful billionaires, there are principles and ideals that are trying to stand strong in an ever-growing digital space hounded by profit motive and corporate capitalism.

Mastodon - federated social networking

Mastodon recently got a lot of press upon the news of Musk’s takeover; understandable as this is a platform that takes a lot of cues from microblogging services such as Twitter; you might have “toots” instead of “tweets”, 500 characters instead of 280, but the underlying premise is still the same. The difference, however, is that Mastodon is free and open-source software (FOSS) that allows anyone to self-host their own social network.

You have individual instances of Mastodon that run on different servers, with different owners, moderators and codes of conduct. There are quite a number of them , too, ranging from general-purpose servers all the way through to special interest groups. When you join one of these communities, you’ll get access to a feed of all the users within that instance.

The strength of Mastodon, however, is in its interoperability. Even though you sign up to a specific instance, users on one instance can communicate with others on another because Mastodon is built on the ActivityPub protocol. Essentially, this means you get three feeds: “toots” from people you follow, “toots” from people within your Mastodon instance, and finally “toots” from all federated instances (this broader universe is known as the Fediverse).

The end result is a series of decentralised, interoperable social networks. No individual owns entire swathes of user data, nor are online communities beholden to the whims of shareholders and the profit motive.

There is still ownership via those who run the communities and servers, of course, but the scale is much smaller. The people within a Mastodon instance have much more power in this context. Mastodon gives you the ability to migrate your account from one instance to another, and bring your data and followers with you. You’re not tightly coupled to any specific platform or space; you have freedom in ways a centralised, megalithic social network could never give you.

Owning your data - the Indie Web Movement

While a core principle of the Fediverse is to remove the link between user, our data, and profit-focused organisations, the Indie Web movement advances this a step further and encourages people to take ownership of their social data on their own domain. Indie Web entirely severs the link between corporations and individuals.

The Indie Web isn’t a tool itself, but a set of principles to guide how we may curate a digital presence in an online space we own ourselves. It values open source software, tech agnosticism and fundamental web standards such as h-entry and Micropub. By embracing these ideas, the Indie Web principles encourage us not to become tightly coupled to any proprietary technologies.

These tools allow people to share things on their own domain and syndicate it to various social networking platforms and feeds, if they wish to. However, there is a higher barrier to entry as it requires some proficiency in web development - although there are tools being built to aid people who aren’t comfortable with coding.

Looking to the future

What both the Indie Web movement and Mastodon show is that there is another way of social networking that focuses on people rather than social data commodification.

However, this paradigm is inherently more technical with a higher barrier to entry; discoverability requires more manual work as there aren’t any algorithms suggesting “things you may be interested in” based on our data - as we would expect; and the overall “reach” is still miniscule in comparison to the hundreds of millions you can find on Twitter right now.

But with Musk’s Twitter buyout reiterating just how much our social data and online identity is at the whims of billionaires, the Fediverse and Indie Web principles feel all the more significant. Imperfect as the modern internet may be, we can dream that something better will become the norm; an online space that’s focused on people, where websites don’t track you or crunch your social data to feed its algorithms. It’s important that we continue to build and grow these alternative systems, lowering the barrier to entry so more people can feel comfortable participating within them.