Updated: Jan 9, 2019
The winners of the digital revolution will be those who own the 'plumbing'
Eugen Rochko is softly spoken, German, and immaculately polite. “Thanks for interviewing me”, he said, as soon as he appeared on Skype. Eugen loved Twitter for many years, notching upwards of 90,000 posts under his nom de plume @Gargron. But he had done so with a growing disquiet.
In Eugen’s eyes he, along with the hundreds of millions of other Twitter users in almost every language and country, were all subjects of a single, central ruler. All the money that Twitter made, all the data it produced and its control of the huge network it formed all eventually settled in one large building on Market Street in San Francisco. A building, perhaps appropriately enough, that has just the smallest of passing architectural resemblances to a Soviet Ministry.
Eugen decided to experiment. He began to build a new social media network. It looked like Twitter, felt like Twitter, but was set up in a completely different way. He called it Mastodon. Eugen’s vision was both eerily similar and drastically different to those of the tech giants. Just like Twitter, Mastodon lets its users post short ‘micro-blogs’ that others can interact with. There is one list constantly filling up with new posts, and another list of notifications related to the user. Very similar, indeed hardly different at all from, Twitter.
The big difference was the unseen plumbing beneath. Eugen had designed it so that neither he nor anyone else would be in charge; no one would control of it. Mastodon was a protocol, not a commercial service. It has no central server, and Eugen hadn’t started a company to run it. Anyone can take Eugen’s protocol, set it up on their computer, and become a Mastodon server that other users could set up accounts with. Effectively, Eugen’s technology basically allowed anyone to become their own mini-Twitter.
After Mastodon went live, it did what hardly ever happens to new social networks: people actually started to use it. At first, it was mainly technical users, and then small communities began to migrate to it. “Queer people joined”, said Eugen, “and Furries. It comes in waves. We see a spike, then it falls down as users go back to the commercial platforms. But it never falls back as far.”
In 2017, Mastodon passed a million users but – as was Eugen’s vision – this was not an online nation governed from a single place, but a constellation of around 2,000 villages. Equestria.social ran Mastodon “for all pony fans”. Scifi.fyi was for the sci-fi community. Bookwitty.social was for discovering books. One server was dedicated to Catalan users, another for computer fairies: “as queer, friendly and furry as possible”. One Mastodon server sprung up for the G20; another, writing.exchange, was for poets, writers and bloggers. Mastodon. friendlydads.net celebrated “the friendliest dads on the net”. Socialists, anarchists, Marxists, ecologists, greens, vegans, anti-racists and social democrats all had dedicated spaces.
Each of these servers governs itself. Each has its own rules, its own way of choosing the people who enforce them, or indeed some have no rules or authority figures at all. You’re free to join almost all of the servers that exist, and if you don’t like any that are offered, you can start your own. Each server also decides how to pay for itself. It can generate revenue from advertising, by using its users’ data, or by a straight-up fee. Eugen’s own server, Mastodon.social, is funded mainly by donations.
They are islands apart, but not islands alone. The point of Mastodon is to connect each self-governing island to create something called the “fediverse”. People who are on one server can follow and talk to people on another. When people connect to people in the rest of the network, they bring in content sent from other servers to populate their timelines. Links of communication, in other words, but not of control.
To some, this has always been the dream of the internet – to create self-governing communities that people are free to join, leave, or set up an alternative to, as they wish. In fact, the early internet looked every much like it. People ran their own email servers, and hosted their own forums, blogs and chats. Power, in this network, was reasonably distributed to the edges.
Then came gmail. And social media platforms and search engines. Whether Lycos or Google, MySpace or Facebook, it didn’t really matter who emerged victorious from the struggles for online dominance that went on through the nineties and noughties. They were all part of a new generation of services that sat on top of the distributed web. All of them created networks whose pipes pointed inwards, to a central point.
Mastodon is part of a larger movement that has begun to challenge that centralisation. Much of the often febrile excitement around blockchain is that it provides the necessary technical infrastructure to deliver the services that tech giants provide, but without the centralisation of control that they demand. Decentralised data storage, computation, prediction markets, gambling are all beginning to emerge as nascent challengers to the status quo. To, ‘re-decentralise’ digital life, and return it back to what it was.
There are, of course, downsides to decentralisation. Communities without rulers can be more dangerous and difficult to control. A few years ago, a server appeared on Mastodon and started sharing child abuse images. One by one, each server had to individually block it, but they couldn’t stop it at source. And because they were linked, anyone running a Mastodon server might have found themselves inadvertently storing the illegal images. Take away a central authority, and you don’t only liberate people to do good things – you also liberate them to do bad things.
As I’ve argued in my new book, The Death of the Gods, who and what emerges from the digital revolution is all staked on software that none of us can see and most of us don’t pay any attention to: whether the pipes face inwards or outwards. The tech giants represent one vision. Sitting at the heart of these networks, platforms and apps, they control the layer of technology through which we interact with the world. Eugene and his colleagues represent another.
Vast fortunes, and the control of entire markets, all depend on these pipes, for along them flow data, money, control and ultimately power. Control over the rules of what should and shouldn’t enter the public space. Power over the narratives and ideas. Power over data, knowledge and information. And brute financial and political power. The true nature of the digital revolution – whether power is centralised in the hands of a few billionaire technologists, or distributed across users – will come down to the unfashionable, overlooked and deeply unsexy question of systems architecture.