As the mainstream internet becomes ever more dominated and controlled by a hand-full of centralized corporations, more and more open source and decentralized grass-roots projects are gaining popularity. Is Mastodon ready for Bitcoiners?

Decentralized vs. centralized

I don't agree with 99% of what he says, but the latest conspiracy to ban Alex Jones from major social media platforms is unacceptable. Yes, they all have the right to censor their respective platforms. Yes, it was a conspiracy—as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Spotify acted in concert, rather than as a result of individual policy violations. No, a handful of corporations should not have this amount of power.

This, and other similar, recent events, have pushed me, along with many others, to seek alternative social platforms where such authoritarian type censorship collusion is not possible. Enter the decentralization movement. Go here for a more thorough analysis of centralized vs. decentralized organization structures. TL;DR: Napster vs. BitTorrent; Corporate media vs. Pirate Bay; Twitter vs. Fediverse (Mastodon, in particular).

Mastodon: what is it?

A few days ago, I decided to answer this question for myself. You can follow my journey of discovery at bitcoinhackers.org/@landonmutch.

In brief, this is what I've learned about the platform so far:

  • Mastodon is open source software.
  • Mastodon is just one part of a larger Fediverse, which includes platforms such as Hubzilla, Pleroma, Funkwhale, PeerTube, Friendica, GNU Social, postActiv, MissKey, and Plume.
  • The Fediverse is comprised of many servers (called instances) running the above platforms which can communicate with one another other.
  • Mastodon alone has 6000+ instances currently online.
    • Each instance currently hosts anywhere from 1-200k+ users.
    • Some of the larger instances have temporarily stopped accepting new users, in order to deal with the current influx of new users.
  • Some familiar features:
    • Basically a twitter clone with a multi-panel, TweetDeck-esque UI.
      • Interaction set: tweet (toot), follow, like (favorite), retweet (boost), mute, block, and report.
    • Instances are similar to subreddits, in that they're sub-communities moderated by admins according to their own set of rules and culture.
  • Some unique features:

Culture

Mastodon has predominant userbases in Japan, US, and France. I won't get too detailed here, as I'm relatively new on the scene, but Wired.com just published a decent general overview of Mastodon culture.

"After years of feeling anxious and unhappy checking my tweets and keeping up my personal brand, it’s like I’ve moved to a new town where nobody knows me, but everyone is looking to make new friends." Wired.com.

Thus far, my experience of participating in the Mastodon community has been very enjoyable (and addictive):

  • Personal interactions generally feel much more genuine and honest than on Twitter (birdsite).
  • Strong representation from leftist, LGBT, artistic, sexually-explicit, nerd, cat-pics, and shitposting communities.
  • Federated structure of the network seems to promote very well finding and creating a nice little niche for yourself within the broader Fediverse.
  • Think: personally-curated subreddits in TweetDeck format—minus the advertising, marketing, spam, posturing, virtue signaling, and hate.

Censorship

So does Mastodon solve the problem of censorship? This depends on your perspective really. Ironically, Mastodon offers much more powerful ways for admins to censor content. The admins of individual instances have complete control over everything on their instance and the right to censor whatever they wish—similar to how subreddits are moderated. Well managed instances are thus much more capable of eliminating spammers, marketers, haters, etc. from gaining a foothold on their instances, which has a cascading effect on the greater Fediverse.

But, banned or otherwise censored users are free to join other instances or to spin up their own instances, with their own rules (though, this currently requires some technical ability).

At the next level up, each instance also has the power to block entire servers from their local feeds. For example, if a particular instance becomes a hotbed of hate or spam, each instance may choose for itself whether to block it from their feeds or not. So in many ways, it has better censorship tools than Twitter; yet Mastodon does not allow for any central authority to ban individuals from the entire network. Essentially the burden of censorship is shifted from the centralized top level of the network down to the lower level communities, in a similar fashion to Reddit moderation.

The above structure and moderation tools eliminate the possibility of Twitter's authoritarian-type censorship, while still providing strong censorship tools to admins to keep the greater Fediverse relatively free of spam, advertising, hate-speech, and the like.

Privacy

The general (sometimes alarming) lack of concern for privacy on the part of Mastodon users can often make it feel like you're nosing into conversations on the public feeds not meant for your eyes. But this is largely a result of user culture and not of the platform's built in privacy tools: which allow users granular control over their posts' visibility and distribution, e.g. public, unlisted, followers-only, or direct.

Google's, and other search engines', bots and spiders do crawl and index the public content of instances. But according to Eugen Rochko, Mastodon's creator, followers-only and direct message content is hidden to bots and spiders, and thus is part of the dark web.

But, whenever you're storing un-encrypted personal information in the cloud, you're handing over complete control of that information to its owners and operators. Then it's ultimately up to them to determine the level of privacy and security of your data, which is largely out of your control.

what if i told you the cloud is just someone elses computer

Understandably, this raises alarm bells for many:

Security

Mastodon does allow for two-factor authentication and provides a few guidelines for securing servers in their documentation. A comprehensive audit of Mastodon back-end security is well beyond the scope of this article.

But, there are a few overarching concepts that factor in to the overall security of the network. On one hand, the many decentralized server structure provides a softer, larger attack surface than the centralized server model, as each instance is ultimately responsible for hardening its own server. Thus, there will be many instances which are more susceptible to attacks. On the other hand, owing to their relatively small user-bases, the rewards (and thus the incentives) for hacking individual instances are much less than for large, centralized servers. Hence, medium levels of security (lower than industry standard) may be adequate to deter attacks in the majority of smaller instances.

In short: participate at your own peril. Similar to Bitcoin, there is no controlling entity to go crying to if you become the target of malicious data-mining, doxing, hacks, ransoms, etc. over the network. At least during this stage of development, best practice is to assume every Mastodon instance is pwned.

"There are 2200 people in my ultra compromised, centralized, privacy-less, shared hosting mastodon instance...people are so tired of having to censor themselves that they are willing to come to my centralized version of Twitter...I'm still extremely not convinced that this system is good or could do any good; however, I cannot find any alternative...It's good enough for now...to help us know how to move...and keep the conversation going. Remember, you are compromised on my system." — Rodolfo Novak

But just because there are inherent weaknesses of centralized instances does not necessarily mean all centralization should be removed from the network either. Centralized structures also have their strengths: generally they are much more agile, adaptable, and efficient than their decentralized counterparts. For example, the centralization of Mastodon instances allows for much more efficient filtering of public feeds. It quickly becomes an overwhelming task for every user to individually filter out unwanted content from the Fediverse for themselves. But the ability for instance admins to block other instances from their public feeds allows for efficient, timely curation of the greater Fediverse.

Mastodon vs. Twitter

So are Mastodon's privacy and security worse than Twitter's? Probably: for most users who are not taking appropriate counter-measures. Certainly there are still shortcomings of the Mastodon project.

But, increased privacy and security measures are available (for those with a little technical ability) which can offer potentially greater privacy and security than other centrally controlled social networks. For example, a savvy Mastodon user can run a custom hardened instance on their own server that may ephemerally delete content histories after predefined period of time (though currently other instances may still log this history).

Bitcoin

At this time, all things considered, Mastodon probably still offers an inferior platform for the majority of Bitcoiners, compared against Twitter. But, this is where I can see great potential for the Bitcoin community to help develop and champion Mastodon as a great open source social media platform. One of the things I love about the Bitcoin community is that if there's a need for new software, we're not afraid to build it. In light of recent events, such as Microsoft's acquisition of GitHub, I think more and more Bitcoiners are realizing the need for more decentralized, social platforms for communication and collaboration.

Recently, Rodolfo Novak, CEO and co-founder of Coinkite, spun up his own Mastodon instance: bitcoinhackers.org, which 2300+ Bitcoiners have already flocked to. Clearly there is widespread interest in the Bitcoin community for more decentralized alternatives to mainstream social media platforms.

Considering the many apparently aligned principles of Bitcoin and Mastodon, if particular privacy and security improvements to the software are made—such as end-to-end encryption and strong authentication—Mastodon and Bitcoin may be a match made in heaven. There would likely be tremendous benefit to the Bitcoin community for such a partnership. Once appropriately hardened, Mastodon has the potential to solve many of Bitcoiners' current communication and collaboration dilemmas while greatly expanding Bitcoin's global influence.

In particular, if the Lightning Network is incorporated into Mastodon, I believe it will have serious potential to become Bitcoin's first real killer app. Imagine the possibilities that emerge once we have a hardened, globally federated social media platform with built in sound money micro-transactions and encryption-based authentication between its users!

If anyone else is interested in building in some of Bitcoin's most valued principles directly (or indirectly, via bots) into Mastodon, please reach out to me about collaborating on such a project: @landonmutch@bitcoinhackers.org.

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@landonmutch — traveling, trailer-dwelling, software developer, writer, geologist, autodidact, traditional hacker, subversive, Bitcoin maximalist, contributor to Lightning Network protocol.

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