Originally published June 10; last updated June 20, with several new sections. See the Update history at the end for details. Thanks everybody for the great feedback on earlier versions!
Join the discussion on kbin, Lemmy, and infosec.exchange
- Don't tell people "it's easy"
- Improve the "getting-started experience"
- Keep scalability and sustainability in mind
- Prioritize accessibility
- Get ready for trolls, hate speech, harassment, spam, porn, and disinformation
- Invest in moderation tools
- Experiment to find what approaches are a good fit for the current state of the software
- Values matter
- This is a great opportunity – and it won't be the last great opportunity
- Ten days later ...
- A few more thoughts on moderation
Each section should hopefully mostly stand on its own, so feel free to pick and choose or read in whatever order you want!
April 2017: "So, April, huh. Twitter changed the reply system, which everybody told them they shouldn’t do, and then removed the iconic egg avatar for new users, and suddenly all of my work of telling people that one day Twitter would do something they didn’t like and they’d need a viable alternative paid off."
– Mastodon lead developer Eugen Rochko, April post-mortem on joinmastodon.org
June 2023: "For those who are unaware, lemmy and kbin to a lesser extent are in the early stages of a rapid growth in users, similar to the one Mastodon experienced in November last year. In a move similar to Twitter, Reddit has all but confirmed that 3rd party apps will be locked out with their new API pricing .... We live in interesting times on the fediverse."
– Ada, lemmy.blahaj.zone admin, on Calckey
Hey wait a second, I'm noticing a pattern here!
Once again, a boneheaded move by a big tech company has once again created a huge opportunity for the decentralized social networks of the "fediverse." In 2011 it was Facebook, in 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2022 it was Twitter.
This time it's Reddit, whe announced that they're shutting down apps written by third party developers that tens of millions of users and moderators rely on. Unsurprisingly, redditors don't much care for the idea; there's a firestorm of protest, including hundreds of communities (aka "subreddits") already "going dark" in protest and thousands more planning to join the Reddark on June 12. At an AMA (Ask My Anything) Friday, Reddit's CEO u/spez threw gasoline on the flames. Even if they walk back or delay some of the changes, they've lost so much goodwill and trust that a whole lot of fedup redditors are looking for alternatives.
The fediverse has always grown in waves, and it looks like the next one's in progress. The most obvious reddit alternatives in the fediverse are Kbin and Lemmy, both of which offer "link aggregation" functionality: people can post links, memes, videos from around the web, discuss them, and vote on the best posts and comments. They're both quite new, and still relatively small (last week Lemmy had thousands of active users, and Kbin's even smaller) – but they're open-source projects, so the code can improve quickly, and people or organizations can set up new instances on different websites as new homes for one or more subreddits. Even better, people on one instance can interact with people and communities on other instances – and people already in the fediverse using Mastodon, Friendica, and dozens of other software platforms can interact with Lemmy and Kbin.
How cool is that?
Of course, we're talking about early-stage software here, and today's reality has a lot of confusion, bugs, and limitations along with it's coolness. Kbin and Lemmy (and most other fediverse software) is nowhere near as polished as Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, and other social networks that people are used to. It doesn't yet have key safety and moderation funcationality, and may well need a lot of performance and scalability work support subreddits with millions of people yet. The compatibility with other tools still has a lot of quirks. The list goes on ...
It's very similar to the situation with Mastodon in 2016-2017 (when I was one of a million or so people attracted by the idea of a "Twitter without Nazis") and again in 2022 (when millions of people checked it out in response to the Twitter acquisition).
As Lessons (so far) from Mastodon and Mastodon: a partial history discuss, both of those waves led to major challenges for Mastodon. Keeping up with rapid growth and responding to all the bug reports and feature requests is hard even in the best of circumstances, and a decentralized network makes everything more challenging and (for most people) confusing. Many people found Mastodon unwelcoming – especially Black people, as Dr. Johnathan Flowers discusses in The Whiteness of Mastodon. The wave died out in a few months. The network grew, but it also and got whiter and less queer, and the hoped-for breakthrough didn't happen. The rapid queer-led community innovation of 2016-2017 tailed off. Since then, mainline Mastodon has moved slowly, while forks, apps, and other fediverse projects continue to innovate.
So it's worth looking at what we can learn from the Mastodon experience as the wave of redditors crashes in. Tactics worked well in the past might be useful again, and there may be opportunities to adapt and build on them. It's also valuable to look at what went wrong or didn't work out as well in the past, to see if there are ways to do better.
Here are some initial thoughts.
But first, some background
"The fediverse isn’t a single, gigantic social media platform like Facebook or Twitter. It’s an expanding ecosystem of interconnected social media sites and services...."
– The Fediverse Could Be Awesome (If We Don’t Screw It Up), Cindy Cohn and Rory Mir of EFF, November 2022
The fediverse has been around in various forms since 2008 or so; Mastodon, GNU social, and the early fediverse has a quick summary of the early days. It's grown in a series of waves, most recently the one late last year that followed Aprtheid Clyde and his buddies taking over Twitter. So far, each wave has crested in a month or two; some of the people who check it out decide they like it enough to hang around, although most don't.
If you're coming from Reddit, the decentralized structure of the fediverse – where people on different sites (also known as "instances") can interact with each other –is a big contrast. Reddit is a centralized network, so all the subreddits are hosted on reddit.com. The fediverse is decentralized, so it's a bit more complex:
- different communities (the equivalent of subreddits) are hosted on different instances. Instead of everything being on reddit.com, there's are different communities on feddit.de, beehaw.org, sopuli.xyz , kbin.social, lemmy.ml, and oodles of other sites.
- people can interact with communities and people on different instances. If somebody posts something on lemmy.ml, you can potentially upvote it no matter wheher your account is on lemmy.ml, kbin.social, a popular instance lke beehaw.org, or a tiny instance you're running for your self and maybe a few friends.
In return for this complexity, decentralized networks are also a lot more flexible. The company running a centralized network can suddenly change the rules and screw everybody over if they're facing financial pressure or they think it can help them go public. On a decentralized network, anybody can host their own instance, so (at least in theory) it's easy to move when someting like this happens. This flexibility is a key part of the reason why EFF thinks the fediverse could be awesome – and fed-up Redditors very likely to appreciate it too!
But decentralized networks are more complex. As L. Rhodes says in Here’s how it’s going to go down
Lemmy and Kbin are designed to do something very like what Reddit, Digg and other link-aggregating social sites do, but the fact of federating with the broader network makes certain complications impossible to avoid or ignore. And there are deliberate differences that have less to do with federation than with what the devs thing might work better. Some people adapt quickly, others don't. Some people just plain don't like it. In any case, there's a learning curve, and that's bound to be a source of friction.
Another way the fediverse is more complex is that different software often uses different names for similar things. For example:
"You can follow Lemmy “communities” in Kbin, and Kbin “magazines” in Lemmy, and I believe other Fediverse groups (like Frendica groups) also federate. You can also follow Lemmy or Kbin users or communities from your account on another Fediverse platform, like Mastodon, and can reply to, like and boost Lemmy/Kbin posts."
– On Reddit and Its Federated Alternatives, Jessica Smith on Jayeless
Still, despite the quirks, once you figure a few things out, both Kbin and Lemmy can give you a surprisingly good reddit-like experience, and some of the larger communities have over a thousand active users which isn't chopped liver. A quick summary:
- KBin goes beyond Reddit's functionality to also include a "microblog" tab. The first few questions in dannekrose's excellent Kbin FAQ gives a good idea of the functinality – and if you're checking out Kbin, you might want to keep it bookmarked.
- Lemmy is a more straightforward "federated reddit". Ruud's Lemmy.world starting guide is a good overview.
Both are tiny, but growing rapidly. Kbin launched earlier this year and at the there were only a handful Kbin sites and a few hundred active users. Lemmy's been around for a couple of years, and had around 75 sites and less than 1000 active users at the beginning of June (at least according to FediDB, although fediverse statistics are notoriously unreliable). As of today, both are noticeably larger: FediDB reports a bit over 5,000 active users on KBin, and a bit less than 10,000 on Lemmy.
It's worth highlighting that even though other fediverse software isn't as close a match for reddit's link aggregation functionality, it could be a good fit for reddit communities who care more about discussion than links – or could be adapted to add this functionality. So even though I'll focus mostly on Kbin and Lemmy here, a lot of this is potentially relevant to other software as well.
So if all goes well, many redditors looking for alternatives may decide to check things out and stay around. Good news for the fediverse!
1. Don't tell people "it's easy"
Don't tell people it's "easy" anytime. Anything is easy when you know how to do it. Learning new things is difficult and telling someone it's easy just makes people feel dumb and that they can't do it. Encourage folks to learn.
– ozoned on Beehaw.org, in a comment on the original version of this article.
Yeah really. For many people, very much including me, the Fediverse isn't easy. It gets easier over time as you figure things out and get used to the quirks, but I've been on Mastodon since 2017 and I still find it very complex – and sometimes confusing, too, like when I click on a link and it unexpectedly opens up in a window that's not logged in anywhere, or the way posts federate means I don't see all of a conversation. Also the terminology can be off-putting for newcomers.
Hopefully it will get easier over time but that hasn't happened yet with Mastodon. And yet, you constantly hear people talking about how easy it is – which implies that anybody who doesn't think it's easy must be stupid, incompetent, or doing something wrong.
This is not helpful. It's annoying and drives people away.
So don't say it.
As the examples in the footnotes highlight, Kbin and Lemmy have similar quirks. That's okay! I mean, it's not ideal, but it is what it is; the developers are doing what they can to improve things, guides are betting better quickly, hopefully it'll get easier over time – and it's not like you need an advanced degree in computer sicence to figure it out. But it's not easy! So please don't misset expectations and alienate people by telling them that it is!
And while you're at it, also don't say "it's good that it's hard to sign up, it keeps the quality high." As well as being annoying, that's elitist. And besides, think about it for a second: if it were harder to sign up for Gab, would that make the quality higher? Of course not.
2. Improve the getting-started experience
Less than 20% of the accounts that have signed up on Mastodon in the last year are still active,. That's actually better than it sounds: in Twitter's or Google+'s early days, the number was less than 10%. Most people who check out a new social network don't stick around.
A good way to make it more likely that people will stay around is to focus on improving their initial experience. People are a lot more likely to stay around if things start off on a good note – and a lot less likely if they get frustrated or (as well'll discuss below) greeted with hate speech or racist abuse. So while you're never going to make everybody happy, putting work into improving the getting-started experience for new users can make a big difference.
A couple of specific tactics that could be useful here:
- Make sure "getting started" guides are easy to find for new and potential users. The simple three-screen "welcome modal" Shel Raphen designed for Mastodon in 2017 had a big impact, and the joinmastodon.org "hub" site has also been helpful, but those certainly aren't ot the only approach – templates for a well-written short pinned posts on communities and instances could also be very effective, and as long as reddit doesn't censor it people could share it there to help people who haven't yet moved get started. Lemmy already has joinlemmy.org (althogh like any website there's room for improvement) and I've seen drafts of a couple short getting-started guides, so things are on the right track (although I'm not sure about the Kbin world), but more time and energy directed here is likely to pay a lot of dividends.
- Make it easy for people to avoid instances where racism, anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-Muslim bigotry, and other forms of bigotry hate speech are tolerated. In response to Gab, Mastodon introduced the Mastodon Server Covenant requiring sites to commit to "active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia" in order to be listed.... which is a good first step, although needs to be expanded to other forms of bigotry targeting Muslims, disabled people, immigrants and other groups. But policies by theyselves aren't enough; good moderation is also needed: anti-Muslim content is visible on several prominent Lemmy sites, and there are concerns about moderation on the flagship lemmy.ml. As I said on lemmy.blahaj.zone,
"As we’ve seen on Mastodon, if a Black user goes to a site where racism is tolerated and quickly encounters racist sh*t, they leave and tell their friends; ditto for trans, queer, Muslim, etc. users having bad initial experiences. Once that happens a bunch of times the reputation becomes hard to shake."
- Give instance admins control over their "landing page" so they can give the right information to potential users. Just what information that is depends on the instance. For example, instances that so many communities that a list would be overwhelming might decide that it's best to show a list of top local posts. Instances that host a handful of communities might be better off having a list of communities be the landing page. Instances with a single community, designed as a home for an individual subreddit, might want to show the community on the main page – or a welcome post, telling people how to log in. Mastodon's often resistant to giving admins options like this, but "once size fits all" usually doesn't fit everybody equally well.
3. Keep scalability and sustainability in mind
Scaling is hard was probably the main lesson 😀
– Ryan Wild, admin of masodonapp.uk, on Mastodon
When a surge happens, everybody's overwhelmed. Instances allowing open registrations get so many signups that they have to add new hardware capacity, and often don't have the moderation resources to keep up. Instances that screen registrations for new users want to turn things around as quickly as possible, but have to deal with hundreds or thousands a day. Dev teams need to deal with performance issues, critical bug fixes, and urgently-needed improvements – while also supporting instance admins and developers, who on the one hand are helping to spread the load but on the other hand are one more demand on already-scarce time.
There isn't any magic answer here: scaling is hard, and even large commercial sites can have problems keeping up with intense surges. Still, one key lesson is the importance of spreading people out to multiple well-moderated instances to overloading the flagship and other big instances. In principle, by allowing people from one instance to interact with each other instances, the fediverse makes this easy.
In practice, it's more complicated. Asking people to choose an instance right off the bat, before they've had any experience with the platform or even know what the implications of choosing an instance are, can be a huge barrier. So it's tempting to try to simplify things by pointing everybody to a default instance but that doesn't scale: every significant surge to Mastodon has led to mastodon.social having to close down signups for a while.
So landing pages and guides that help people through the process of choosing an instance are crucial – and so are hosting services making it easy for non-techies to set up their own instances (Elestio has just introduced $10/month Lemmy hosting), good instructions for how people can set up their own instances, community support for when they run into problems, and best practies for admins to scale their instances.
More positively, since smaller fediverse instances tend to retain more active users, this is a great opportunity to shape the network; Marcel Costa's analysis shows that Masotodon decentralized significantly as a result of the November 2017 surge. That's good! But it was pretty exhausing for all concerned. As mas.to admin Rodti Macleary said in February's The Mastodon Bump Is Now a Slump, “I loved Mastodon for fun. For a little while, Mastodon became work. I came quite close to burnout at the end of last year.”
Which brings me to a few other key lessons for instance admins:
- build teams place to help with moderation, system administration, and support
- put a funding structure on place (via patreon, ko-fi, LiberaPay, or a sponsorship mechanism) to deal with ongoing costs.
- if things are starting to get overloaded, put the brakes on growth to keep from having to choose between burning out and giving people a bad experience. As long-time fediversian Michał "rysiek" Woźniak says
"Manage your spoons well.
The wave of sign-ups will come and go, but burn-out or some bad moderation decisions will affect a community for a long, long time.
It's better to slowly but reliably build a small, resilient, safe space than to try to go hockey-stick on sign-ups only to have people get burnt, abandon their accounts, and tell their friends about it."
[If you're not familiar with "spoon theory", it's a metaphor describing the amount of physical and/or mental energy that a person has available for daily activities and tasks, and how it can become limited. The term was originally coined by writer and blogger Christine Miserandino in 2003 as a way to express how it felt to have lupus and is now used widely in the disability community. What The ‘Spoon Theory’ Means for People Living With Chronic Illnesses, Disabilities is a good discussion.]
4. Prioritize accessibility
"One of our moderators, u/itsthejoker, has had multiple hour-long calls with various Reddit employees. However, as of the current time, our concerns have gone unheard, and Reddit remains firm."
– r/Blind moderators in Reddit’s Recently Announced API Changes, and the future of the /r/blind subreddit,
While reddit killing third-party apps is bad for users and moderators in general, it's even worse for blind users and moderators. Reddit's own software doesn't play well with screenreaders and other assistive technologies. As a result, third-party apps like Apollo, Reddit for Blind, and Luna for Reddit are crucial for blind users to be able to participate. Reddit now says they're going to continue to allow non-commercial accesibiity apps, although won't give a list of criteria and it's also demanding free labor from developers who want to help blind people so it is not by any means a good solution.
Reddit not prioritizing the needs of blind users is nothing new.
"We would also like to note that r/blind, u/rumster in particular, have continuously contacted Reddit over accessibility concerns, over the past 3 years, having received no substantive response."
– MostlyBlindGamer, in a reddit comment
So now's a great opportunity for KBin, Lemmy, and the fediverse to collectively show that they're not like reddit – and attract a bunch of people who are tired of being ignored. KBin and Lemmy both have some accessibility problems now (as does most Fediverse software), but most of these problems are fairly easy if developers decide to take the time. It hasn't been prioritized to date – but it's easy enough to change that.
The Accessibility section of Mastodon: a partial history has examples of successful community-driven development worth emulating, like Changeling’s Guide to Mastodon for Screen Reader Users and the highly-accessible Pinafore web client, created by Nolan Lawson. Lawson's What I’ve learned about accessibility in SPAs talks about Marco Zehe's "patient coaching" and comments on the Pinafore GitHub repo as a "treasure trove of knowledge," and illustrates how much help and support can be available when people sincerely reach out.
Then again Mastodon also provides example of what not to do here. The main dev team hasn't prioritized implementing alt text on images: it took over a year to implement originally, so it wasn't available during the April 2017 wave; configurable message lengths and underlined links, both valuable for accessibility, have been implemented for years in forks but aren't well supported in the mainline branch.2 Hopefully Lemmy and KBin will do better on this front – and Mastodon and other fediverse software will also take the opportunity to start improving their own platforms' accessibility.
5. Get ready for trolls, hate speech, harassment, spam, porn, and disinformation
Yeah, all of those exist already – and on reddit too – but the scale's likely to increase siginificantly.
Update, June 28: exploding-heads.com quickly became s a hotbed of trolling, hate speech, and harassment. Lemmy.world Admin Response to Defederation from Exploding Heads has some receipts.
KBin and Lemmy have more tools than Diaspora did back in the day (they're more comparable to Mastodon in very early 2017), but it's not clear how much they've focused on these issues yet – there's still a lot more that could be done here. For example:
- Provide individual users the ability to block instances. Mastodon's innovation of instance-level blocking – allowing instances or individual users can block everything from a site that's a source of harassment, trolling, or just unwanted content – allowed users and sites wanted to avoid interactions with channer, shitposting, and Nazi instances. Lemmy currently doesn't allow individual users to block instances (although admins can), and multiple people have already requested this functionality.
- Work out a process for community-curated instance block lists. If each new instance has to learn the hard way that there are some well-known bad actor sites out there, a lot of users and admins will have unnecessarily bad early experiences. But having the main dev team curate block lists (an approach Mastodon has wisely stayed away from) risks centralizing power even further. Community-led processes like the Oliphant.social block lists and The Bad Space are a good alternative – and may well be useful starting points. A couple of key points in the implementation: there need to be are good instructions for admins on how to adopt them and subscribe to updates; and new instances should be srongly encouraged to adopt at least a "Tier 0" blocklist of the literally hundreds of known bad actors that are already widely blocked.
- Be ready to respond when spammers and harassers start to take advantage of open registrations or communities that anybody can share to. As Brian Krebs' Interview With a Crypto Scam Investment Spammer highlights, the fediverse has gotten big enough that it's worth spamming, and sites with open registration make spammers lives very easy. Mastodon responded by introducing a captcha on signup, which puts in a speed bump for spammers at the cost of making things more difficult for people with vision or motor challenges. Turning off open registrations, at least temporarily, may be a better option.
June 18: beehaw.org cited problems caused by open registration policy as one of its reasons for defederating from lemmy.world and sh.itjust.works
June 23: Good news: there are over 2.2 million Lemmy accounts! Bad news: over 90% of Lemmy accounts are now bots. Looking at FediDB's statistics, there are plenty of instances with tens of thousands of users and only one or two posts, so they haven't started actively spamming yet, but I'm sure it's only a metter of time.
June 28: A tale of a new Lemmy instance, a bot infestation, the fallout, and how we dealt with it discussess lemmy.ninja's experience
"[A]ssuming we were small and beneath notice, we opened our registration for a few days until we could figure out if the problems we were experiencing were configuration related or software bugs.
In that brief time, we were discovered by malicious actors and hundreds of new bot users were being created on the site. Of course we had no idea, since Lemmy provides no user management features. We couldn’t see them, and the bots didn’t participate in any of our local content."
Turning on a captcha and activate email validation prevented new bots from signing up. However, the captcha feature was eliminated in Lemmy 0.18.0. Captchas are problematic from an accessibility perspective, and attackers can work around them, so it's hard to know how much of a difference this'll make. We shall see.
- "NSFW" flags aren't enough. Porn is popular on reddit. Many fediverse instances don't want to host porn, because of concern about legal liability or other reasons. Not only that, different jurisdictions and cultures often see things diffferently in terms of what is and isn't legal or acceptable: in early 2017 Mastodon faced a dicey situation around sharing images that were completely legal in Japan but consider very risky by many Western sites,. Mastodon does have some tools like the "reject media" federation option and content warnings (CWs), althouth their far from sufficient and cause challenges of their own: CWs haven't been improved signiicantly since it was first introduced in 2017 and have led to constant battles about norms and racialized CW abuse. A far as I can tell, Lemmy and KBin currently only have an optional NSFW flag to put on posts – even farther from sufficient. beehaw.org, currently the third-largest site after the flagsnhip lemmy.ml and the tankie lemmygrad.ml, has a NSFW policy, and it wouldn't surprise me if they and other similar sites wind up developing a fork.
Update, June 20: Can LEMMY.BLAHAJ.ZONE defederate with LemmyNSFW? illustrates some of the problems. LemmyNSFW doesn't mark all its NSFW content as NSFW; and, since NSFW is the only option, it uses the same tag for all porn, including variants like rape porn that many find offensive and don't want to see. But filtering out all NSFW content isn't a good solution either, because some people use the tag for discussions of trans issues relating to bottom surgery.
Update, August 10: lemmy.blahaj.zone defederated from LemmyNSFW a couple of weeks ago. Here's lemmyNSFW's admin's perspective.
A few more thoughts on moderation, below, has some additional thoughts.
Update, June 23: Oh dear.
The front page of fedia.io is also all poop. I hate it when that happens.
Update, August 10: lemmy.world notes that there's an obstacle to closing open registrations: the message on the signup page telling people about joinlemmy.world, where they can find other instances, is only shown on lemmy.ml. Meanwhile, lemmy.world has been under a DDOS attack:
"So who is attacking us? One thing that is clear is that those responsible of these attacks know the ins and outs of Lemmy. They know which database requests are the most taxing and they are always quick to find another as soon as we close one off. That’s one of the only things we know for sure about our attackers. Being the biggest instance and having defederated with a couple of instances has made us a target."
Update, August 29: attackers spammed lemmy.world's lemmyshitpost community with CSAM (child sexual abuse material), which then got federated out to other instances. In response, lemmy.world turned off open registration, but it didn't help: attackers continued to post from other instances. So they wound up closing lemmyshitpost ... although it would be easy enough for attackers to switch to another community, so we'll see how effective that is.
It's a difficult situation for other instances as well as lemmy.world. "Purging" the federated posts didn't delete the images, there's no way to disable image caching, and limitations of the moderation tools mean that admins have to view unblurred images to decide what to delete. Disabling image uploads leads to some unexpected error messages. There isn't any equivalent of Mastodon's "reject-media" option. The list goes on....
lemm.ee's short-term mitigation plan includes disabling image uploads, deleting all images that have been downloaded from other sites, and applying a patch to prevent future downloads of images from other sites. db0 (lead developer of AI Horde) contributed a script that uses attempts to identify problematic images and delete them, although it has a lot of false positives (and it's not clear how this interacts with mandatory reporting requirements in the US).
6. Invest in moderation tools
"Reddit admins have had 8 years to build a stronger infrastructure to support moderators but have not. "
– Sarah Gilbert, AskHistorians and uncertainty surrounding the future of API access
As Gilbert's outstanding description of the situation discusses, Reddit's underinvested in moderation tools for years. Alas, ever since 2017 , so has Mastodon. And so has every other fediverse software platform I can think of.
Now's a great opportunity to change that.
In the short term, there could be a lot of leverage porting the moderation tools that have been developed for reddit – or finding ways to replicate their functionality in a federated environment. Moderator time is often the scarcest resource during a high-growth surge, and if moderators can't keep up with the load there will be more spam, disinformation, racism, harassment, and people having bad experiences. Tools can amplify their efforts, and potentially let people who don't have as much moderation experience help more effectively. And done right, these tools evolve to work on other fediverse software, where there's certainly room for improvement.
But why stop there?
In this study, I perform a collaborative ethnography with moderators of r/AskHistorians, a community that uses an alternative moderation model, highlighting the importance of accounting for power in moderation.
Drawing from Black feminist theory, I call this “intersectional moderation.”... To ensure the successful implementation of intersectional moderation, I argue that designers should support decision-making processes and policy makers should account for the impact of the sociotechnical systems in which moderators work.
– Towards Intersectional Moderation: An Alternative Model of
Moderation Built on Care and Power, Sarah Gilbert, J . ACM, Vol. 37, No. 4, Article 111. Publication date: August 2023.
New tools designed to center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes – designed from the beginning to prioritize accessibility, consent, safety, privacy and other community needs that current fediverse software doesn't handle well – could be truly transformational. Sure, easier said than done, but this is a good opportunity to make progress.
7. Experiment to find what approaches are a good fit for the current state of the software
Mastodon instances run the gamut from single-person instances, relatively-small communities, and big general purpose sites. Over time, techniques have been refined for the different approaches – Darius Kazemi's How to run a small social network site for your friends, for example, is an invaluable resource. But unsurprisingly, the software itself is a better match for some approaches than others; mainline Mastodon, for example, has consistently de-emphasized functionality that's very useful for smaller community-focused instances (in contrast to forks like Hometown and Glitch)
KBin and Lemmy are similarly flexible enough that that they're getting deployed in a lot of different ways. For example:
- startrek.website hosts three related communities: Star Trek for news and discussion (and a bit of slash fic), Risa for memes and shitposts, and Daystrom Institute for serious in-depth discussions with no memes or whinging.
- programming.dev and slrpnk.net are also interest-focused, but have dozens of communities
- feddit.it, feddit.nl, midwest.social, aussie.zone, and others have a geographical focus
- beehaw.org is a general-interest site with a lot of communities on differnet topics that's "aspiring to be(e) a safe, friendly and diverse place," with screened signups and active moderation
- lemmy.world and sh.itjust.works are also general-interest but have open registrations and less-active moderation
Some of these approaches are be a better match than others for where the software is today; most obviously, until the moderation tools and scaling improves, larger instances will be a lot more challenging. Of course, with enough creativity and effort, it's often possible to work around the software's limitations and get it to work in less-obvious ways, possibly by making tradeoffs (for example giving up on "good moderation" in the short term in order to keep registrations open).
With relatively-new and fast moving software, there's no substitute for experimentation – and sharing what does and doesn't work.
8. Values matter
Policies against racism, sexism, discrimination against gender and sexual minorities, and Nazis are extremely appealing positioning these days.
– Lessons (so far) from Mastodon, 2017
It's still true! Mastodon's April 2017 influx was catalyzed by Sarah Jeong's Mastodon is like Twitter without Nazis and the November 2022 wave was triggered by transphobic Apartheid Clyde's acquisition of Twitter. And when Gab switched to Mastodon’s code in 2019, Mastodon BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) Eugen Rochko stated his opposition to Gab’s philosophy, which he accurately described as using "he pretense of free speech absolutism as an excuse to platform racist and otherwise dehumanizing content" ... and virtually every Mastodon instance blocked Gab. This decisions remains widely popular; in a recent poll I did, over 90% of respondents thought that Gab should be blocked.
Of course, the policies aren't enough. As Dr. Johnathan Flowers discusses in The Whiteness of Mastodon, "Mastodon has a history of being inhospitable to marginalized users." Dogpiling, weaponized content warning discourse, and a fig leaf for mundane white supremacy discusses several examples of racism and white supremacy on Mastodon in 2017. As a result, Mastodon's got a problematic – although thoroughly deserved – reputation for anti-Blackness.
Lemmy also has a reputation.
I’ve been aware of Lemmy for a long time, but I’ve always been somewhat wary of it because it’s developed by tankies, and its flagship server (lemmy.ml) has a history of tolerating/encouraging tankie politics.... There’s just no way I could feel comfortable in a community that supports the right-wing nationalist Putin’s war on Ukraine, or outright denies the harsh repression meted out against Muslims in China. I’m far from the only one leery of Lemmy for this reason – the FediTips Mastodon account doesn’t recommend it , either.
– Jessica Smith, On Reddit and Its Federated Alternatives
You don't have to scroll too far down the list of sites on joinlemmy.org to find more than one hosting anti-Muslim content. That's not good. And posts from these sites show up on lemmy.ml, so there's anti-Muslim content on the flagship instance. That's also not good.
It's possible that it's a combination of understaffed or undertrained moderators and a few anti-Muslim instances, and once everybody improves their moderation and defederates the bad actors the problem will go away. Time will tell. And whether or not that happens, Lemmy's developers are reportedly tankies, which is a problem for a lot of people. It wouldn't surprise me at all if there's a fork.
More positively, though, defederation from bigoted sites is one of the fediverse's good features, and forks can have a very positive effect. And with Twitter's transformation into an openly right-wing, racist, anti-LGBTQ+ pro-authoritarian, disinfo media network, whatever segment of the fediverse offers an alternative is going to continue to be very appealing!
This is a great opportunity – and it won't be the last great opportunity
There's a lot more that can be said ... but this is long enough already, so I'll leave the rest to discussions in the fediverse and perhaps future posts. But since I spent so much of this post focusing on past screwups and likely problems, I'm going to wrap up on a positive note.
This is quite likely to be the biggest wave to the fediverse yet. It'll be interesting to see how things go, especially during the June 12 Reddit blackout, but if even a small fraction of the people who want to check things out wind up staying around, the network could grow significantly. Not only that, the surge of interest is likely to be a shot in the arm for other fediverse software as well as KBin and Lemmy.
"For many of us, the details of the API changes are not the most important point anymore. This decision, and the subsequent interaction with users by admins to justify it, have eroded much of the confidence and trust in the management of reddit that they have been working so hard to regain."
– BuckRowdy, Reddit held a call today with some developers regarding the API changes
And no matter what happens, this is far from the last opportunity. Reddit may well make enough concessions in the short term to keep people around for a while ... but the writing's on the wall, so as soon as alternatives fediverse are good enough for enough people, we'll start to see significant movement, and the Reddark will turn into a Rexxit.
People try out the Fediverse, only to drift back to the corporate platform. Then six months later, a year, two years, something new comes up. The platform finds a new way to alienate users, and some subset of them will go hunting through their email to figure out which Fediverse server their forgotten account is on, and what login name they used. (Trust me: keep that info somewhere you can find it.)
– L. Rhodes in Here’s how it’s going to go down on Beehaw.org
Meanwhile Twitter's doubling down on the "toxic hellscape" strategy, with Apartheid Clyde now talking about disalbing blocking. What could possibly go wrong? If he does that, there's going to be another major exodus; even if he doesn't, anybody who doesn't want to spend their time in a racist, transphobic, hard-right-wing, disinfo-filled environment will continue to look for alternatives.. And while Facebook/Instagram/Meta's new ActivityPub-compatible Twitter competitor will bring surveillance capitalism and an embrace-extend-dominate mindset to the fediverse, it could potentailly also bring connections with Oprah, the Dalai Lama, and 2 billion Instagram users. So that's a huge opportunity as well.
As Ada says, it's interesting times in the fediverse.
Ten days later ...
Tens of thousands of people have signed up for KBin and Lemmy accounts since I first published this post, hundreds of new instances have been created, and "the threadiverse" is suddenly a hot topic of conversation. As expected, many of the newcomers initially found the experience somewhat confusing, especially the federation aspects... but most got the gist of it fairly quickly, and there are plenty of vibrant discussions on multiple topics. As Asif Youssuff's Unofficial Subreddit Migration List and the sub.rehab list illustrate, more and more subreddits are exploring alternatives.
Of course, it hasn't all gone smoothly. The moderation functionality of KBin or Lemmy is waaaaaaay weaker than Reddit – and for that matter, weaker than Mastodon's functionality today. So with limited tools, it's been a real challenge to keep trolling, spam, and porn under control. In that and many other ways, the software's not yet ready for prime time.
But the opportunity's not going away. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman is tripling down, and generally throwing gasoline on the fire. Thousands of moderators are keeping their subreddis private despite the company's following through on their threats to remove volunteer moderators (who Huffman described as "landed gentry")3. Other subreddits are opening up but continuing the protest in creative ways. As Yousuff points out, Reddit's reactions are a clear sign that the protests are working. It's going to be very hard for Reddit to recover trust after the "brutal blackout", so even if they somehow cobble together enough moderators to keep going and people reluctantly stay there for a while, everybody will keep looking for alternatives. In fact, just as I was sharing this update post to kbin, I saw that r/blind has set up their own Lemmy instance.
And just as with similar waves to the fediverse in the past, there's also a surge of developers getting involved – contributing bug fixes and new functionality, userscripts to customize the experience, and starting to work on apps. As KBin developer Ernest says,
We have challenging times ahead. We need to cover critical functions in the code, develop better moderation tools, focus on performance, and create user-friendly documentation. By doing so, it will be much easier. And I intentionally use the word "we" because what is happening on Codeberg is absolute madness.
– KBin developer Ernest, in response to fedia.io admin Jerry Bell
Yeah really. As I write this, there are over 40 active "pull requests" (code contributions) in KBin's source code repository on Codeberg; Lemmy has almost 20 pull requests on Github. And I'm sure both code bases will improve significantly. Mastodon's influx in 2016-2017 led to a period of rapid community innovation and similar things are happening in the threadiverse (the suddenly-hot subset of the fediverse including KBin, Lemmy, and other federated threaded-discussion software). That's good!
Looking at the dynamics of the last week, the lessons I highlighted here all remain very relevant. As I said in that post, though, there's a lot more that can be said. So I added a new section above on Experiment to find what approaches are a good fit for the current state of the software, and am including a few more thoughts on moderation below.
A few more thoughts on moderation
These complement the discussion in Get ready for trolls, hate speech, harassment, spam, porn, and disinformation, and perhaps I'll merge them into that section later. But that section's already quite long, and the format here is somewhat different, I'm putting it here for now 😎
Recruit moderation teams, and put policies and processes in place
There's an entire section above talking about investing in moderation tools, starting with providing currently-lacking basics, and then over time breaking new ground. But tools by themselves don't solve anything. Moderation is done by people in line with the policies set by instances and specific communities (or magazines). Once the load starts to get heavy, moderation teams also need to put processes in place to make sure that reports from users get responded to, bad actors get warned and then if necessary banned, appeals can be made when needed, and so on.
On Reddit, volunteer subreddit moderators perform the bulk of the moderation – Sarah Gilbert's Towards Intersectional Moderation describes one large, tightly-moderated subreddit. When moderators go absent, don't enforce sitewide policies against harassment or hate speech, or are themselves the source of the problems, with Reddit employees known as "admins" step in. The same two-level approach is likely to apply in the fediverse, although right now many magazines and communities are essentially unmoderated.
The good news is that there are a lot of people in the fediverse who have moderation experience – including some who have helped define policies and processes in subreddits, forums, Facebook groups, chat rooms, or other similar spaces. Anybody running an instance, or a large community or magazine, should be reaching out and looking for help right now. And policies, processes, and practices initially developed for one community can be refined into templates that are potentially more broadly useful.
Defederation can be a useful tool
People who are new to the fediverse often see it as an inherently bad thing when one instances blocks or defederates from another. After all, part of the vision of the fediverse is to have information flowing freely; instance blocking and defederation interfere with that. And when beehaw.org defederated from lemmy.world and sh.itjust.works, it was certainly a hassle for users who have accounts on one of those instances wanted to participate in communities on the other one.
But defederation's also an incredibly valuable tool for limiting the impact of trolls and bigots hosted on loosely-moderated sites. Most Mastodon sites defederate from hundreds of instances, and some have much longer lists. And that's okay!
An important point is that defederation doesn't have to be permanent. When mastodon.social got hit with a wave of spammers that infected the whole fediere, some instances temporarily defederated to limit the annoyance to their users (and load on their admins and moderators) until the problem got under control. As beehaw admins said in their annoncement:
this is also not a permanent judgement (or a moral one on the part of either community’s owner, i should add–we just have differing interests here and that’s fine). in the future as tools develop, cultures settle, attitudes and interest change, and the wave of newcomers settles down, we’ll reassess whether we feel capable of refederating with these communities.
sh.itjust.work's admin TheDude adds
After this happened, the beehaw admins and I had a good chat about their decision. While our stances on registration policies might diverge, we realized that our ultimate goals are aligned: we both strive to foster communities that thrive in an atmosphere of safety and respect, where users can passionately engage in discussions and feel a sense of belonging.
Although the probability of an immediate reversal are slim given the current circumstances, I believe we have managed to identify common ground. It’s evident that, even in separation, we can unite to contribute positively to the broader fediverse community.
1 For example:
- Sometimes people on different instances can't interact because of software incompatibilities because one instance has blocked the other or turned on "authorized fetch".
- Some Lemmy instances have downvotes, others don't.
- Last week an upvote on Kbin boosted the post, this week it's treated as a like (as it is in Lemmy); that's an improvement, but also a change that adds to everybody's cognitive load.
- Threads like PSA: How to link users & communities so it doesn’t break for other instances and how do I link to my community in comments? illustrate how confusing trying to refer to people and discussions on multiple instances can be (a huge problem on Mastodon as well).
The list goes on ...
2 Configurable message lengths are valuable for accessibility because assistive technology does better with one long message than multiple short ones, and were I believe first implemented by glitch-soc; underlined lines help people with color vision problems distinguish between links and were first implemented by toot.cafe.
3 I'd love to hear what r/AskHistorians has to say about Steve's description of developers as "landed gentry" but, like many of the 8000+ subreddits that "went dark" in a two-day blackout on June 12-13, they're continuing their protest.
Ongoing: fixing typos, improving wording, and adding new links
July / August: updates about ongoing moderation and defederation issues.
June 28: link to an excerpt from lemmy.ninja's excellent post on dealing with bots.
June 22: info about Lemmy's millions of bot signups. Who could have predicted?
June 11: updates in response to early feedback, including quotes from L. Rhodes and ozoned, links to more threads and resources.
June 10: published and shared to infosec.exchange and lemmy.ml. I tried to share it to KBin as well but it didn't work – I think maybe because of some of the DDOS protections on kbin.social. I also tried to send it a friendica group as well but had a typo in the group name, oops.
June 9: draft shared to calckey.social,