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The (annotated) case for a "big fedi"

As Johnny Rotten once said, "Two sides to every story"

Is bigger always better?  The word "bigger" is all in caps and in a larger, heavier font than the other words
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"The “Big Fedi” position is a set of ideas that roughly cluster together. Not everyone who agrees with one or a few of these agrees with them all, but I think they tend to be related."

– Evan Prodromou, Big Fedi, Small Fedi, December 2023

In Two views of the fediverse, I talked about the tensions between the "bigger is better" view of the fediverse (who generally support federating Meta) and a view that focuses more on networked communities. Prodromou has decades of experience on decentralized social networks, and does an excellent job of presenting the "bigger is better" case, so I added a new section discussing it to Should the Fediverse welcome its new surveillance-capitalism overlords? Opinions differ!.  But since Prodromou's essay is getting a lot of traction, I figured I'd also use that section as the basis for a longer standalone post.

As he says near the end of the essay, Prodromou sees himself "mostly as a Big Fedi person." So it's especially worth reading, and thinking critically about, the list of ideas in the "Big Fedi" section of his essay. My first reaction was that geez, there's a lot he's leaving unsaid. Here's a few examples (with my annotations in italics) highlighting some of what Prodromou isn't explicit about)

  • Everyone on the planet should have an account on the fediverse (even Nazis, racists, transphobes, white supremacists, hate groups who target people of color, LGBTQIA2S+ people, and other marginalized communities). It will make the internet better and the world better (if Nazis et al are on the fediverse, as opposed to trying to keep them off).
  • The individual is central, and the account server is mostly a dumb pipe (as opposed to a community with norms and boundaries run by admins and moderators who have useful tools to protect people on the instance from harassment and hate speech)
  • Moderation can be automated (even though automated moderation doesn't work well on Facebook, Instagram, and Threads – and discriminates against people of color and LGBTQIA2S+ people)
  • People should make choices that help bring the fediverse to new people (even when marginalized people see these choices as putting them at risk)
  • There may be some harm (especially to people of color, LGBTQIA2S+ people, and other marginalized communities) that comes with growth (and growing faster will cause more harm); we can (potentially) fix it later (details tbd, just trust me).
  • It’s more important to bring good people to the fediverse than to keep (Nazis, facists, transphobes, white supremacists, hate groups who target people of color, LGBTQIA2S+ people and other marginalized communities) bad people off it. There may be some bad people, too, but we’ll (somehow come up with a way to) manage them (even though today's fediverse is unsafe by design and unsafe by default and most instances can't manage the bad people who are there today, so it's likely to get a lot worse rather than better as things get bigger)

A lot of the other ideas Prodromou's lists as "Big Fedi" beliefs are shared much more broadly. Pretty much everybody largely agrees that it should be possible to have open source  and ad-free instances; there should be a lot of different instances with different norms to choose from; that services like onboarding tools are useful; connections should be person-to-person; affinity groups should stretch beyond instance boundaries; there should be open-source implementations; and existing organizations should be able to run their own instances. No arguments there.

Still, there are likely to be difference in perspectives. Do the "different norms to choose from" include Nazism, fascism, anti-LGBTQIA2S+bigotry, and so on? What about existing organizations like Stormfront and Libs of TikTok might well run their own instances?

Of course, it's not possible to keep all bad people and organizations off the fediverse, and I certainly agree that better tools are needed to manage them.  But today's fediverse has kept bad people and organizations off. Gab tried to join and the vast majority of instances defederated them and the left. OANN tried to join an existing instance, and threats of defedartion convinced the admin to enforce their code of conduct and kick OANN off.  So even though there are plenty of bad actors who sneak through, it's still very different from the Big Fedi view Prodromou articulates, where Stormfront and Libs of TikTok should be on the fediverse (because everybody should have an account) and automated moderation tools will limit the harm they cause.

Two sides to every story

The rest of the essay's worth reading as well. Prodromou's a strong supporter of federating with Meta1, so as well as an interesting window into how he personally sees things, his essay's a useful view into how Meta's advocates (and Meta) (and a sympathetic tech press) are likely to portray Meta's embrace and extension of the fediverse – and the resistance.  

Since Prodromou's a Big Fedi kind of guy, it's not surprising that his "Small Fedi" section has some very misleading characterizations. Even the name is based on a deliberate distortion of a term Erin Kissane used to describe today's fediverse in Untangling Threads. One good example of a very misleading take is Prodromou's laughable claim that "Small Fedi" advocates mostly think "the fediverse works just about right right now, and shouldn’t change."  

Bollocks.

I've talked with dozens of people who don't buy into the "bigger is better" worldview, and almost none them think either of those two things. To the contrary, most people who don't buy into the "Big Fedi" view aren't thrilled with how the fediverse works right now, and think there's already too much racism and transphobia and other bigotry on the fediverse, and too many Nazis, fascists, and tranphobes. And they do want things to change: less racism and tranphobia; fewer Nazis, fascists, and terfs.

That said, Prodromou's correct that there's a genuine difference of opinion here. A bigger is better approach leads to more racism, transphobia, bigotry Nazis, fascists, transphobes, and hate groups in the fediverse – in general, and specifically in terms of federating with Threads (which as I write this is actively promoting transphobic content and even using it in their ads to encourage people to join Threads).  As Prodromou says, "Big Fedi" advocates see that as a tradeoff worth making. Others disagree.  But that doesn't mean they like things as they are today.

Still, it's certainly see why it's useful for Meta and their supporters would want to portray this attitude as resisting change.  And the same's true for many of the other mischaracterizations in Prodromou's view of "Small Fedi".

For more context ...

Prodromou's "big/small" framing isn't the only way to understand this difference of opinion.   L. Rhodes excellent thread on Just Nodes and Networked Communities, heat-space's The Two Camps of Mastodon, and my own Two views of the fediverse have some complementary perspectives.

And Prodromou's essay is also a good example of an interesting dynamic that I've been talking about for months now: people in the "bigger is better" camp seem to have a hard time acknowledging why some people see it differently.

For perspectives on whether to federate with Meta, Erin Kissane's Untangling Threads is outstanding.  Should the Fediverse welcome its new surveillance-capitalism overlords? Opinions differ! has many other perspectives as well, but if you only have time to read one, by all means read Erin's!

Notes

1 Prodromou's such a strong supporter of working with Meta that he recently described an email to the SWICG standards group suggesting that Meta was pursuing an Embrace, Extend, and Extinguish strategy as "not acceptable." A footnote in Should the Fediverse welcome its new surveillance-capitalism overlords? Opinions differ!  has details.

Update log

December 27, 2023: original version

December 28-30: various relatively-minor updates

February 16, 2024: add bullet on "there may be some harm ..."