We've gone past "First they ignore you...", and moved onto the next logical step in the game of tech monopoly: "...Then they embrace, extend and extinguish you."
Well that didn't take long, did it?...
I recently pondered how many moons would pass before a Google-funded, Silicon Valley cartel member waded unashamedly into the Mastodon limelight. Well, we need wonder no longer. Roll cameras, focus stage left, and cue Mozilla - a Google-controlled surveillance capitalist which, like every other org in its circle, signals fake virtues on a relentless loop, but has one genuine interest, and one only: money. Its key provider of which is Google.
Google is not a mere donor to Mozilla. The Stumbling King of Websearch lobs such a phenomenal annual sum at the nonprofitalist-next-door that it wields power of life and death over Mozza's entire brand. And since Mozilla has enough to worry about without chucking a pile of cash and resources at a social media project with no current revenue stream, we can be pretty damn sure that earlier this week, when Mozilla pledged to open a Mastodon instance, it was carrying out the orders of the Fat Controller. AKA Google. Big Tech's invasion of the Fediverse has officially hit the timetable.
So claims Mozilla in the sickeningly false, hypocritical and mercilessly self-sanctifying style that has become a trademark of every Google puppet.
But let's remember that if this really were anything to do with ethics, Mozilla would have set up a Mastodon instance back in the 2010s, and drawn attention to the network when it needed promotion. That's the difference between an ethicist and a brand. Ethicists build the bandwagon and fuel its momentum. Brands leap onto the careering cart approximately ten seconds after it finds the high street.
If, as Mozilla claims in its announcement, it believes the Fediverse is "absolutely necessary", why greet it with total silence until the precise moment it confirms itself a threat to Silicon Valley's monopoly?
If you search Mozilla's Twitter account, you'll find the number of times they've mentioned either Mastodon or the Fediverse before announcing an instance on 20th December 2022, is in fact nil. This is not activism. This is not supporting a valid cause. This is brands being brands. More specifically, this is Mozilla kicking off a choreographed bid to grab Big Tech a stake in something it now morbidly fears. We've gone past "First they ignore you...", and moved onto the next logical step in the game of tech monopoly: "...Then they embrace, extend and extinguish you."
Like it or not, Big Tech is at least going to attempt a progressive capture of the Fediverse.
The big question now is whether the existing Mastodon network will federate (i.e. connect) with Mozilla. That, I strongly suspect, is why Mozilla has said it will "test" the project, rather than committing to it with more assertive language. If there were to be a backlash, and a large quota of the Fediverse refused to federate with Mozilla, it would not give Google what it's looking for - which is a universally-influential powerbase to control and influence the whole network.
Without federation, mozilla.social would simply be the political inverse of Gab - if that. But with federation, and progressively joined by other Big Tech puppets to steadily form a concerted, policy-defining union, it would be a network-wide influence. Add in a typical raft of Silicon Valley incentives, and you have the classic recipe for stranglehold. I assure you, that is the plan.
But the plan relies on Mozilla being accepted and treated as a friend. If it were widely perceived as hostile and isolated as a self-contained entity, we'd see a quick exit, as Google headed back to the drawing board to hone Plan B.
At present, however, it does look as though the existing Masto network will federate with Mozilla. True, there have been voices of concern in the Fediverse. But the tone is polite, and I haven't seen anyone really screaming about this move. And tellingly, the majority of replies to the concerns seek to temper them rather than run with them.
Of course, you never know how many sockpuppets the Surveillance Valley monoliths have prowling social media, and the Google lobby is renowned for sockpiling, so voices arguing for Mozilla may themselves be shills. But the greater problem is that Google chooses its high-profile co-opts very wisely. It characteristically behenches "nonprofits" with extremely high perceived value to the online community. That makes public allegiance to Google's mouthpieces near unshakeable, and allows Google to persuade the public by trusted proxy. And embracing, extending and extinguishing Mastodon as we know it will be very much about courting the public - not fringe admins.
The principle is much the same as mainstream advertising. For example, Pepsi is sugar-saturated, synthetic, carbonated sap which causes obesity and cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered good for anyone who drinks it. But Beyonce was packed with value, so Pepsi repeatedly paid her to endorse their message.
This is almost exactly what Google does. It pays entities with high value to endorse and espouse things that really don't benefit anyone or anything but its own obese bank account. The subtle difference is, no one tells the public that "digital rights" groups, the internet "commons", edu pontiffs such as Stanford Uni and nonprofitalists like Mozilla are paid to shill Google's message.
On the contrary. The shill collective uses both a sophisticated public interest veneer, and a regular boo-hiss pantomime of deliberately impotent Big Tech badmouthing, to conceal its allegiance. So 99.9% of people don't believe Google's shills are shilling for Google, and those who do believe it are routinely labelled insane - not without the help of the cartel's own astroturfers, it should be stressed.
We can expect to see changes. If things go to plan, big changes. Mozilla reveals in its introductory blog post, that the org is...
"[E]ager to join the [Fediverse] community in growing, experimenting, and learning how we can together solve the technical, experience, and trustworthiness challenges inherent in hyper-scale social systems."
Aww, don't ya just love the insertion of that friendly little "together"? Just to reassure the reader that Mozilla is not gonna bulldoze in with a megaphone telling everyone how to run, monetise and moderate the network, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation did on its blog last month. But pull out that single word, and the statement gives a much clearer indication of Mozilla's brief. Which very much IS to bulldoze in with a megaphone telling everyone how to run, monetise and moderate the network. And don't worry, Google has already done all the learning. The above statement heralds change. An onslaught of classic Silicon Valley interference, infused, as it always is, with incentives for those who currently make the most important decisons.
If you want to see the Fediverse head much more definitively toward centralised control, with moderation standards set by the world's most powerful corporations, Big Tech's arrival may suit you. You'll inevitably have to put up with more data-mining and the introduction of advertising as time goes on, but ease of use, discovery and signup will likely improve.
To an extent, centralised moderation standards are already a characteristic of Mastodon. Despite its claims of decentralisation, Mastodon uses centralised blocklists, and there's considerable hysteria over certain types of user or instance - to the point where they don't even have to break a rule in order to get blacklisted.
Since the Twitter exodus began I've seen individuals banned from servers for the most pedantic of reasons. In one case, for supposed "misinformation" they posted not on Mastodon, but on Twitter. And which clearly had no potential to cause harm, and which did not, from what I could see, even appear to be inaccurate. Reading between the lines, it looked like that particular user was on a Mastodon blocklist before he even joined an instance, and was merely removed at the first and most tenuous opportunity.
A moderation standard set by Big Tech could help quell some of the more hysterical decisions. But on the negative side, it's likely that the consequences for servers that refuse to comply would be worse.
Whereas at present, a server with maverick but level-headed rules may only be blocked by a minority of instances, with network-wide moderation standards in force it could face much more universal isolation. In my view that would be deeply unfair, but I could see it happening under a regime of standardised moderation guidelines dictated by Big Tech. And we know from what the EFF published last month, that Big Tech definitely does want to dictate its Santa Clara moderation principles to Mastodon.
Mozilla shakes hands. Next comes stanford.social, then digitalrights.social, then libraryofbloodyalexandria.social, and before you know it Google will have embedded its entire brainwashing shop at the epicentre of the what could have been its nemesis.
There's also a strong chance, in a federated environment, that imposed moderation standards could backfire in various ways. Could, for example, make the Fediverse more tribal, and unite extremists with areas of the centre-ground, giving more power and reach to hate speech. If there's only one set of approved rules, anyone who disagrees with them tends to get shoved into the "other" bucket. That gives sceptics who don't accept the fact-checkers' version of events the same identity as screaming nazis. And we've seen how throwing sceptical moderates in with raving nazis plays out elsewhere. It creates more nazis.
Like it or not, Big Tech is at least going to attempt a progressive capture of the Fediverse. And if that goes to plan, we'll see choice eroded, as Mastodon becomes another Silicon Valley-controlled machine, with the same commercially-biased values as every other piece of popular tech.
So what other options are there?
Well, Nostr is the latest social fad for adventurous Masto-sceptics. But could it resist the irrepressible stalkers and censors who now have their sights set on the Fediverse?
The expressed point of Nostr is to take social networking out of the hands of people with hyperactive ban sticks and the mentality of traffic wardens. To port the ownership of each account over to each individual user. Where Mastodon and the Fediverse is largely just a load of centrally-controlled communities hooked together, Nostr completely sidesteps the need for instances or admins, by using a vaguely Tor-like relay system, accessed via user-side clients.
Your Nostr 'account' is entirely portable, and at its root comprises only two constant strings of characters: one private key (basically your password), and one public key (basically your username). These can be generated instantly with the click of a button when you visit one of the numerous web clients. You then use the private key to log in, and give the public key to people you want to find you. That's it. From there, it feels like using other social media platforms, except it's much slower and heavier at present.
Because there's no single host for your account, you don't have to go to any specific place to log in, and no one can suspend your account. You can access Nostr from any client - either a dedicated website or a local app on your device.
If you don't yet use Nostr and you want to test it for yourself, go to astral.ninja, which is a logically designed Nostr web client. Let the page load (could take a while), and then click the GENERATE KEYS button to make an account. Then just click the green Proceed button to log in. If you care about keeping that account, save your private and public keys for future use. If you don't want the account after you've tested it, just close the page and forget it. No admin is gonna come chasing after you with emails. There is no admin. No one has your email address. All that remains online is two strings of random characters.
It all sounds pretty radical and utopian. But it's riddled with problems - the first of which is security. Any web client into which you enter your private key, can steal it and use it to access your account. There are solutions in the works, and at present most people seem to treat their Nostr account(s) as relative disposables. Another issue is the sluggishness, which should be remedied - at least to an extent - as the technology is refined.
But the bigger problems will not so easily be solved...
Whatever Nostr does, protecting your privacy is not part of it. Loading my account in the Astral web client I counted forty-odd essential page embeds, including Google, Twitter, Fastly, Edgecast, Cloudflare, Gravatar, Cloudinary... You name it. This is the problem with true decentralisation. By nature you have to open your browser pretty much indiscriminately to the whole world, and Big Tech has spent the past 25 years learning to exploit that.
What makes Nostr worse than Mastodon in this respect is the need for total account portability, which means "serverless" storage. For example, media files on Mastodon are uploaded to whichever server you signed up to. So when your followers load that media, its source is a Mastodon instance. But with Nostr there are no "instances", so there's no native place to store, say, your profile pic. You're therefore having to make your own arrangements for the image's storage, and merely hotlinking it via a URL. Jack Dorsey's profile pic on Nostr is simply a hotlink of his Twitter avatar. Other people will use other Big Tech hosts.
I think we all know this is gonna be a default win for Big Tech
You've got one person's avi on Twitter, another on Gravatar, someone else's on Google... So when you load a timeline you get an absolute deluge of Big Tech embeds recording and undoubtedly logging your activity. It's multi-origin page construction taken to extremes. And it's not easy to see how Nostr can solve this gigantic privacy compromise without scrapping or heavily watering down its flagship concept of account portability. It looks like Big Tech has a ready-made bed on Nostr. But the network is at least immune to censorship, right?
It's highly debatable. Your account is not, in itself, stored on a central "instance". But the data within it is distributed across multiple "relays", and also backed up locally on your device using a service worker mechanism. This should ensure your account info is sufficiently duplicated to avoid being lost. But if you start pissing people off, the relays can begin banning you. Then you not only face a battle to be seen - you also face a battle to keep your account itself safe from loss.
Nostr is one of those concepts that looks incredibly impressive until you start using it and really thinking about the potential pitfalls in depth. And if it took off the way Mastodon has since October, we could expect various Google stooges to exhibit exactly the same sudden surge of "ethical support" that Mozilla has just pledged for the Fediverse, and start setting up supercharged relays.
I honestly don't think it's possible to build an online connectivity tool that the Surveillance Valley monopolists would not invade, buy or co-opt in the event that it grew big enough to threaten their monopolies. I even applied this rule to the Gemini protocol. The monopolists are predators. And preds, I'm afraid, are gonna pred.
There are still quiet corners in the Fediverse. Small sub-communities which have not yet been trampled by the attention tug-of-war. In fact, remarkably in some ways, the diaspora* software (another Fediverse component) seems to be dying a death as servers close down and the userbase diminishes. Pixelfed is still pretty quiet, and has scope for some interesting image-based projects.
Pleroma is, in my view, better software than Mastodon, but it's really hard to find a substantial server that isn't widely blocked for offensive content. It would have been nice if, rather than jumping the obvious Mastodon bandwagon, a tech company like Vivaldi or Mozilla had set about rescuing Pleroma from the far right. They could still have federated with Mastodon, and Pleroma can even use the familiar Mastodon front end if you don't like its own interface. But brands have no interest in anything but exploiting attention-spikes for profit, so they were always gonna chuck themselves at the Fediverse component with all the attention.
I would love to be able to report, once Mozilla sets up its instance, that the meaningful quota of Mastodon has refused to federate with it. Then it really would be game on, with the capture of the Fediverse proving itself a serious challenge for the Silicon Valley monopolists.
But I think we all know this is gonna be a default win for Big Tech. Mozilla shakes hands. Next comes stanford.social, then digitalrights.social, then libraryofbloodyalexandria.social, and before you know it Google will have embedded its entire brainwashing shop at the epicentre of the what could have been its nemesis.