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Lawfare’s episode on decentralized social media is worth a listen.

I stopped listening to the Lawfare podcast a few years ago, as I was finding Benjamin Wittes’ brand of know-it-all assertions pretty hard to take. What finally put me over the edge was his confidence that Bill Barr was a man of reason and principle who would do the right thing as Attorney General. We saw how that worked out.

That said, I do recommend their recent episode “Decentralized Social Media and the Great Twitter Exodus”:

Alan Rozenshtein does a pretty good job of laying out how federated systems like ActivityPub work, and the conversation about content moderation in the back half of the episode is really good.

Somewhere in the middle of the episode, though, fellow guest Kate Klonick takes issue with Rozenshtein’s claims that the ActivityPub protocol (and apps like Mastodon that run atop it) is architecturally incapable of being centralized. While this claim is technically true, I think she is right to call him out on this claim.

Since we all keep comparing Mastodon to email, that’s a good place to start. Yes, email is decentralized, and in theory, there is no one organization or company that runs email. Anyone can set up and run their own mail server and the underlying protocols will allow them to send and receive email the same as if they were using some big provider’s email service.

In reality, though, email is effectively centralized. There’s Gmail, there’s Outlook, and there is a small handful of minor league providers whose days are likely numbered. There are a vanishingly small number of weirdos who run their own servers, but one flick of the switch by Google and those boxes would be entirely cut off from being able to send and receive email with the majors.

If Mastodon continues to grow, I’d bet we will end up in a similar place, with the vast majority of users on two or three major providers. Holding such a large chunk of the user base will allow those providers to call the shots. It would be a better situation than Twitter being the only game in town, but it far from the radically decentralized techno-utopia we’re hearing talk of currently.

Mastodon