The federation as a service


This is a re-format of the posts I made yesterday discussing the future of Mastodon, and other federated services, as mainstream social media networks. I think it makes more sense as a short blog entry than a series of toots with their 500 character limit.

@gargron@mastodon.social, the creator of Mastodon, was reflecting earlier this week on his dreams of seeing federated services gain wider adoption. @cambridgeport90@qoto.org, while loving the vision, questioned its place in reality. In a world of instant gratification and advertising, how can this vision be accomplished, and what could be the impetuous to drive companies to change their mindsets and promotion practices in order not to have to rely on centralized networks?

I can see the concern that @cambridgeport90@qoto.org has. Due to the strength of incumbents, the likelihood for the critical adoption of a federated service, as a traditional social media outlet, is slim. However, once the federated system becomes stable and has been proven to scale, the true strengths of open federated systems will emerge. The realization of these strengths will result in a shift from today’s centralized system, to a system where each company and individual has far more autonomy concerning their own social media. The result may be different enough from today’s social media to garner its own name. Social media platforms, as we know them today, do not have to be the future of the human interfacable internet.

In an alternate universe, the bird site could have coopted this future. The bird site was expected to be the heartbeat of the internet. It could have been the pipeline through which all information flowed. Companies could have built on top of this information flow, or integrated the flow into their own services. Advertising and deviating from open standards killed that future. The bird site will now never be more than a just another social media platform.

Open systems, such as Mastodon et al, do not face the same set of constraints as the bird site, or for that matter any other centralized platforms today. Without advertising restrictions, open federated systems have no incentive to hive off portions of their API. This allows for representations of the information flowing through the systems to be adjusted to suit various needs. It also allows for the competition of those services that represent the data, ultimately leading to the evolution of a better end user product / experience.

What might be even more impactful than this natural competition of representation, is that these open systems can interop with other services easily, see PeerTube on Mastodon. This ease of integration is how a federated network may become integral to the fabric of the internet, in a way the bird site never could be. If the federated services are built as a set of standards for information exchange that is open and available for everyone1, companies may begin to either build on top of it or integrate it into their own proprietary systems.2 While some of this may be possible with traditional social media platforms (see embedded tweets and company facebook pages), this integration is still in its infancy, and will remain stunted due to the profit incentives of today’s social media platforms. To add insult to injury, these platforms can also act unilaterally without fear of repercussions.

To answer the question posed by @cambridgeport90@qoto.org, the impetuous for a profit seeking company to utilize a federated network will not be for it’s user base, but because their node on the network can be customized to meet the needs of their business and be relied on in a way that today’s platforms cannot. This is possible because the federated network is based on a series of open standards that simplify interoperability, and due to the inherent nature of open federated systems. A single bad actor cannot bring the process to a complete halt, if the rest of the federation fails the company’s self hosted instance will still function, and the company will have complete control over their own systems.3 This kind of longevity and stability cannot be offered by a platform that’s revenue base is incentivised by advertising profits and extracting data from its users, and that has no accountability to the individuals or businesses who utilize it.4

Today, as an individual influencer, trying to get people to use Mastodon may be a loosing battle, but as a utility, federated services outstrip their garden walled opponents. This future is so far out of the scope of what is possible with current platforms, that it is hard for companies to comprehend. However, once federated systems reach critical adoption, integration will be far more than we could even imagine today, and individuals and companies will not be made and destroyed at the whim of a centralized platform.


  1. One caveat of this that I see to this openness is that while no one will be selling off access to info to Cambridge Analytica, it will be because this info is already out there in the wild. [return]
  2. With regards to Disqus at least, mastodon and federation make it completely obsolete. The only reason it still exists is Mindshare, and unlike FB and the bird site that Mindshare is not “to big to fail”. [return]
  3. If one company doesn’t love likes everyone else does not have to suffer based on that companies unilateral decision. [return]
  4. These profit seeking companies will certainly include adverts with their services. However, unlike today, these adverts will be only at user endpoints, not integral to the backbone of the information flow. [return]